Our History: Jamaica known for early steps in democracy

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The first recorded act of the...

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Soon after its 17th century founding, the town of Jamaica — which derived its name from the Indian word for “beaver” — took the initial steps toward establishing a rather liberal and democratic government for its time.

The first recorded act of the people of the new town was to hold a meeting to “vote and choose” Daniel Denton to write and “enroll all Acts and Orders of such like concernment of ye Town for ye ensewing yeare and are to give him five shillings for sayd employment.”

Following this came the election of magistrates, overseers, and a constable who met as the Board of Town Officers empowered “to act and order all matters of concernment to the town, to settle that which comes up between Man and Man; except disposition of land, passing upon new inhabitants, and making the rates [levying the taxes].”

These three exceptions were to be the prerogative of the entire town and could be acted upon only by the entire town “assembled in meeting.”

Several other acts of the fledgling town are interesting, notably an early act cautioning citizens to do nothing that would in any way be prejudicial to their neighbors. That these early settlers recognized that sober Indian neighbors made for a quiet and peaceful town is indicated by an early ordinance which was passed prohibiting any person within the township from giving or selling directly to any Indian within or without the town any “licker” whatsoever “either much or little, more or less, upon the forfeiture of fifty Gilders for every offence.” At the end of the year 1660, the town also called for an audit of accounts in order to pay for the cost of its government. These tough-fibered settlers from Hempstead were beginning a new settlement with a determination to hold onto their heritage of English liberties and English ways.

In the beginning, with relatively few settlers and a large tract of land at their disposal, the town fathers took care to avoid land grant troubles and the possibility of the acquisition of too much land by one individual. Jamaica’s town elders, therefore, divided the township into lots of three acres. As time went by, in keeping with their democratic tradition, land was subject to changes by the Town Council and all sales and transfers had to be approved by that body. Several other Long Island communities were to adopt this plan in later years.

Jamaica grew rapidly, and more and more land was cleared for farming. Soon the town engaged its own minister and built him a house. He was paid “23 pounds in Beaver pay,’ which probably meant he was given Beaver pelts which were a valuable medium of exchange and desirable for trade.

By 1662 the new settlement boasted the services of a tanner, a blacksmith, a miller, and an innkeeper. One Abraham Smith was hired and paid 30 pence a year for “beating the drum” — the method used for assembling the townsmen for a meeting, and those who did not heed the call were fined.

An honor system was established for all inhabitants to submit inventories of their property for assessment of taxes. Punishment for failure to do so honestly, was forfeiture of all items not reported.

As the town grew, Benjamin Coe and a Mr. Foster established a mill farther afield. It was situated near Foster River (Hook Creek) which at that time was called “Spring Field,” the second oldest settlement of the Jamaica town area.

From its very early beginnings Jamaica began to grow as a commercial center. The first tannery started by John Ouldfield in 1663 foreshadowed “Manufactur­ies” of every description which were to follow over the years.

The first school was established in 1676 and a second, a “female academy” under the leadership of Goody Davis, was founded in 1685. Every church in the community eventually sponsored some kind of educational facility. The first formal school was Union Hall Academy founded in 1792.

Fishing was always an important industry and possibilities provided by the nearby Bay were appreciated from earliest times. Much later in 1863 permission was granted to D.H. Waters to plant oysters in Jamaica Bay. At one time in the beginning of the 19th century a law was enacted prohibiting non-residents from fishing in the Bay.

With rich and productive land, farming was always an important economic resource and continued to flourish with later truck farms and market gardens serving the Brooklyn and Manhattan markets well into the 20th century.

The growth of Jamaica until the latter 19th century is reflected in census figures:

1845 population: 3,883

1850 population: 4,247

1880 population: 10,000

The County of Queens owes much to the early history of Jamaica, since its farms, fisheries, and factories aided not only central Queens but fostered the commercial development of a wide area. Its democratic form of local government and its land policies from colonial times provided good example for many nearby towns and villages on Long Island.

Not often noted is the fact that as far back as 1702 Jamaica served as the headquarters of the New York Colony. It was then that the scourge of a plague, now identified as yellow fever, devastated New York, and the English governor, Lord Cornbury, a cousin of Queen Anne, moved his headquarters and that of the General Assembly to Jamaica.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is an historian, freelance writer, and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee.



Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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