The Draft Riots: Staten Island

Staten Island traditional oral history recalls the events of the initial response to the riots as a single noble defense, but in actuality had two outcomes. The main telling goes that citizens in Port Richmond, which was a ‘hop, skip, and jump’ away from Manhattan, pointed a cannon towards the bridge at Bodine’s Creek to combat any mobs that may have come their way, and prevent destruction on the island. Standing guard day and night, the cannon was not fired in those four days. However, there is more to the story. On the North shore, a free black community known as the McKeon Street neighborhood was near both the Staten Island Ferry and the Quarantine Station. The Tompkinsville Quarantine hospital on Staten Island was the stop of ‘Coffin ships’ from Ireland in the New York Harbor.[1] Irish immigrants who were sickly with Yellow fever, typhus, and other deadly diseases were kept here, and their families settled near the hospital to await their recovery, some lived on the Island permanently. Many who settled in this area near the hospital vied with the free black community for jobs, even after the hospital was burned down in 1858. At the opposite end on the South shore, Sandy Ground was a well-known free black community established in 1828 on Staten Island. Oystering was the predominant means of income on the south shore, this community included.  Sandy Ground also functioned as a significant stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping north, and is the “oldest continuously settled free black community in the United States” [2]. Despite the free black communities, abolition of slavery, and prominent abolitionist presence on the Island, some of the residents of Richmond County had a presence of anti-black sentiment. According to The Staten Island Historian, “…many Islander abhorred abolitionism, or ‘Black Republicanism’, not only because of the extremism often shown, but because the feared the competition of freed Negroes with whites in the labor market”[3]

Mobs assembled in Staten Island and started by destroying an African American woman’s shop, after witnessing rioters on the Manhattan shore attacking and killing an old ‘apple woman’ who was of African descent. Luckily, the shopkeeper and her two children were unharmed. Mrs. Louis Hoyt, whose husband was a Wall Street broker, sheltered about a dozen African Americans from the mobs, tending to them herself, as she did not trust her servants. [4]Martin Gay was the son of Sydney Howard Gay, a prominent abolitionist and editor for both the Tribune and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. A boy of 6 years old at the time of the riots, he recalls the fear that enveloped his family and the urgency to flee from the mob that was drawing near to them. While his Father was expecting to be “roasted alive if the rioters succeeded in firing the [Tribune] building” where he was stuck, the urgency and fear was equally felt at home. On the second night of the riots,  while Mrs. Gay waited up, “ …the servants begged to be allowed to bring their bedding downstairs and sleep on the floor, as they were afraid they would not be able to escape from the third story if the house were set on fire.”

They moved to a neighbor’s house, that of ‘Mr. Ward’, but the servants were still in a state of fear, one thinking part of the mob to be hiding under the trees, ready to attack.  He also recalls how the next evening, the urgency and concern for safety escalated “…the mob [was] gathering and in [an] uglier mood….at the foot of our street, and we could hear the steady tramp of many feet on the plank walk.” He recalls that though his mother was a woman of peace, she had little faith in the ‘savage’ mob that they would not harm her and her family, and was prepared to use weapons against them. The outcome was bloodless for the Gay and Ward families, as “… John Gannon [who kept a] saloon at the foot of [the] street where the mob gathered, told the rioters that our houses were guarded by soldiers and that we were prepared for them,” and the mob dispersed from there[5].

Staten Island rioters burned down the Vanderbilt’s Landing  railroad depot, destroyed ‘negro’ homes and businesses,  and looted the Lyceum (where many prominent abolitionists spoke) of whatever weapons were there. The mob attempted to hang a black prisoner in Richmond County. No military force was implemented in Richmond county. Many African Americans from here and from other parts of the island hid in the thick forests of the island until the riots simmered down, and many escaped to New Jersey when angry mobs began to form on Staten Island. When those who lost property and belongings tried to file a claim for settlement, their compensation was delayed until 1865, while white owners had settlements quickly solved. The riots officially ended on Staten Island with $1,710.96 paid to ‘White people’, $9,314.69 paid to ‘Negroes’, over $8,000 fees for courts and lawyers totaling over $19,000 in damages. It is worth noting that William Wilson, an African American whose grocery store was destroyed in the riots, claimed $2,500 in damages and received $2,967.73 from the court[6]. As Manhattan returned to its standard state of being, so did Staten Island.

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  • The Draft Riots: Staten Island

    Staten Island traditional oral history recalls the events of the initial response to the riots as a single noble defense, but in actuality had two outcomes. The main telling goes that citizens in Port Richmond, which was a ‘hop, skip, and jump’ away from Manhattan, pointed a cannon towards the bridge at Bodine’s Creek to ...

[1] Paige, Debbie-Anne “A Slow burn; The Incendiary Politics of Race and Violence in Antislavery Conflict and the Effects on the Civil War Draft Riots in Richmond County, New York 1855-1865” unpublished thesis available at the Staten Island Museum

[2] “About”

[3] “The Staten Island Historian: The Draft Riots of 1863 on Staten Island”, William Reekstin, April-June 1969, available at the Staten Island Museum

[4] Hine, Charles Gilbert. Davis, William T. “Legends, Stories, and Folklore of Old Staten Island”. The Staten Island Historical Society, 1925.

[5] “Legends, Stories, and Folklore of Staten Island”, p69-79

[6] “The Staten Island Historian”, June-April 1969

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