There’s an exciting, quirky story from the earliest days of colonial New York that goes like this: In the 1670s, New York and New Jersey were arguing over control of Staten Island, which lay in the waters separating the two colonies. The Duke of York offered to settle the argument with an unusual proposition: Any “small island” in the Hudson River or New York Harbor would be considered part of New York — and “small” meant that a boat could circumnavigate it in less than a day. This would seem to grant the sizable land mass of Staten Island to New Jersey — except that the crafty duke hired British sea captain Christopher Billopp, who used his nautical skills to race around the island in 23 hours. And that’s why Staten Island — nestled on three sides along the New Jersey mainland, and seemingly a “natural” part of the Garden State — is today part of New York.
The only problem with this story is that the events it describes almost certainly never happened. There’s no record of anyone telling it until 1873, more than 200 years after the boat race supposedly took place. What’s more, the story describes the boat race as settling the dispute — and yet in reality, New Jersey was still fighting for the right to control Staten Island all the way into the 1830s.
The real story of how Staten Island came to be part of New York — a perennial question for a borough that often seems like it wants to go its own way, and another four boroughs that might be inclined to let it — is more complicated. It involves an exiled prince, 100,000 beads of wampum, and a nineteenth-century out-of–Supreme Court settlement that gave rise to a twist ending in 1998.
The story begins with the Dutch, during a halcyon period before trans-Hudson rivalries. Most of us know that the Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize Manhattan, but on paper (parchment?) the Dutch claimed a huge swath of territory, stretching from the Connecticut River to the Delaware, and thus including all of present-day New Jersey. Most of the Native Americans living there were likely unaware that the Dutch had claimed their land; what European settlement existed was for the most part clustered along the Hudson River and New York Bay. The whole region, including small settlements on Staten Island (named in honor of the Staten-Generaal, the Dutch parliament) and in present-day Jersey City, was run as a single unit from New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan.
But in 1664, an English fleet sailed into New York Harbor and seized the colony without a fight. King Charles II granted it to his brother James, the Duke of York, who renamed it after himself. But the duke, who never visited his new realm, almost immediately turned around and granted much of it to two friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. Only a few years previously, England had returned to a monarchial government after a decade under the control of Oliver Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth; during the interregnum, Carteret had sheltered the royal brothers on Jersey, off the coast of France, and they owed both him and Berkeley a debt of gratitude, as well as a debt of actual money. To repay him, James assigned them the land between the Hudson and Delaware as a separate colony, which was named after Carteret’s home. This is how the two sides of the Hudson came under separate jurisdictions.
The charter granted to Carteret and Berkeley described the new colony’s shape in a manner typical for the period: vaguely and full of errors arising from wild misunderstandings of actual geography. Disputes arose in every direction, but the section that’s relevant for our purposes describes the border in the area around New York City:
James Duke of York…doth grant…all that tract of land adjacent to New England, and lying and being to the westward of Long Island, and Manhitas Island and bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river…
If you look at a map of New York Harbor, though, you can see why this description is inadequate. Upper and Lower New York Bay aren’t really part of the “main sea” (the Atlantic), but they aren’t part of the Hudson either. And while Staten Island would clearly be to the west of a line extended straight down from the mouth of the Hudson, you can also see why, if you’re looking at the map through the eyes of a seventeenth-century colonist, it makes sense to group it in with the rest of the New York archipelago. In the days before extensive road and bridge networks, when boats were the main form of transportation, bodies of water united the land masses around them rather than dividing them. That’s why Maryland and Virginia, settled around the same time, have land on both sides of Chesapeake Bay. Staten Island formed one half of the natural entryway into New York Harbor and the Hudson.
And so the leaders of New York did the natural thing: They bought it.
In 1670, five years before the boat race that never happened, Francis Lovelace, the governor of New York Colony, negotiated a treaty with the members of the native Munsee people who had been uneasily sharing Staten Island with a few Europeans since the days of the Dutch. Much has been written about the mutual misunderstanding and coercion that often marked these sorts of transactions, but it seems that the Munsees got a better deal than some, leaving with 400 fathoms of wampum along with guns, lead, powder, hoes, and knives.
In 1683, New York organized its first county governments, and Richmond, covering Staten Island, was one of them. New Jersey organized its first counties in the same year, and Staten Island was conspicuously not included. County governments were ways for colonies to stake out claims on disputed territory; one of the other original New York counties was Dukes, which included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, now in Massachusetts. So this seemed to settle the Staten Island question, right?
Not so fast. It would take another 150 years, but New Jersey would finally have its day in court.
By the early nineteenth century, New York and New Jersey had settled the Line War — the dispute over their land border near the Poconos — but their maritime boundary in the New York City area was still hotly contested. The colonial charters were considered the ultimate authority, and New York took the maximalist interpretation of “bounded on the east part by the main sea, and part by Hudson’s river”: It claimed that the eastern edge of New Jersey was, at the high-tide point, where the water met the shore. By this logic, even the docks or wharves New Jersey built on its own shore were New York’s — and New York routinely sent tax collectors and other government officials to enforce its supposed rights.
New Jersey, to fight back, now made a sweeping claim of its own: It said that the line ought to run down the middle of the Hudson and then follow the channel out to sea, which would give it control not only of its own shore but of Staten Island as well, which by 1830 had 7,000 inhabitants and had never been controlled by the New Jersey government.
In 1832, New Jersey finally took New York to court over the dispute — specifically, to the Supreme Court. But it wasn’t clear that the court had the jurisdiction to hear the case; New York definitely didn’t think so, and at first refused even to send lawyers to argue its side. The case also arose during a delicate moment in U.S. politics. South Carolina was threatening to refuse to enforce a newly passed federal tariff, and the Jackson administration didn’t want another headache involving states’ rights. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had just ruled against Georgia in its dispute with the Cherokee Nation, and Georgia was similarly refusing to go along with the decision. Chief Justice Marshall may have worried that if New York ignored a ruling against it as well, the court’s prestige would be irreparably harmed, so he postponed the case until the next year.
That gave Martin Van Buren, newly elected U.S. vice president and one of New York’s biggest power brokers, time to swoop in and arrange a compromise. New Jersey would get the line it wanted down the middle of the Hudson, and the right to build and control piers and docks on its shore. But the line would jog around Staten Island, leaving Richmond County as part of New York State and, once consolidation went through in 1898, New York City.
One wonders how serious New Jersey was about its claim in the first place; perhaps it was just a chip it could bargain away to get the shore rights that were its overriding goal. But whatever the case, that’s how Staten Island definitively became part of New York: no boat race involved, just a treaty with Native Americans and a little vice-presidential arm-twisting.
There’s one odd footnote: Van Buren’s line down the Hudson left two uninhabited islets that had long been administered by New York — Ellis Island and Bedloe’s Island — on the New Jersey side of the maritime border. New Jersey was, again, mostly concerned about its commercial docks, so it agreed to let those islands remain New York land surrounded by New Jersey water. Bedloe’s Island became the base of a giant statue gifted to us by France and was renamed Liberty Island; Ellis Island, meanwhile, became the port of entry for millions of immigrants, and in order to accommodate them all, was expanded tenfold by landfill. New Jersey sued, claiming that the newly constructed parts of the island belonged to it, and in 1998 the Supreme Court agreed — which is what makes figuring out sales taxes on Ellis Island unduly complicated to this day.