The Dutch had a problem. Nearly 20 years after they arrived on Manhattan Island, the settlement of New Netherlands in 1644 didn’t extend eastward very much beyond where Brooklyn is today. The Dutch couldn’t find enough immigrants to inhabit the vast Long Island territory they claimed.
So, the Dutch made a deal with the English. “The Dutch wanted settlers, and they were not afraid of the religion of the English,’’ said Myron Luke, 92, the former Hempstead town historian. “They would have looked askance at the religious practices of other settlers such as the Quakers, but they welcomed the English.’’
Although they had driven out a group of Englishmen who built a house at Great Neck in 1640, the Dutch decided to give the English a try. That momentous decision led in 1644 to the founding of Hempstead, the first European settlement in present-day Nassau County.
In 1643, a small English settlement in Stamford, Conn., sent Robert Fordham and John Carman to Long Island to negotiate a land deal with the Indians. They hoped Long Island would provide a safe haven from Connecticut’s increasingly belligerent Indian tribes.
“They must have looked across the Sound and saw the beautiful greenery of Long Island, and that was enough. It drew them like a touchstone,’’ Luke said.
Fordham and Carman probably liked what they saw. They returned to Stamford with a deed signed by the Indians, granting them hundreds of thousands of acres, including half of a huge meadow known as the Hempstead Plains and all the land south to the ocean. After obtaining a patent from the Dutch, the Hempstead founders extended those claims to the necks of the north shore.
They built a fort and meetinghouse on the southern edge of the Hempstead Plains in the heart of today’s Hempstead Village. Some historians believe the meetinghouse was located just east of where St. George’s Episcopal Church stands today at 319 Front St. The 60,000-acre Hempstead Plains was used as common pastureland for the settlers’ cattle and sheep.
Even though Fordham and Carman didn’t record their first glimpse of Long Island, Daniel Denton, the son of the minister who crossed the Sound with Hempstead’s first settlers, did several years later in his 1670 treatise, “A Brief Description of New York.’’ Denton described a virtual Eden, rich with fish, game and other bounty:
The Island is most of it of a very good soyle, and very natural for all sorts of English Grain; which they sowe and have very good increase of, besides all other Fruits and Herbs common in England, as also Tobacco, Hemp, Flax, Pumpkins, Melons, &c. . . Yea, in May you shall see Woods and Fields so curiously bedecke with Roses, and an innumerable multitude of delightful Flowers not only pleasing to the eye, but smell, that you may behold Nature contending with Art, and striving to equal, if not excel many Gardens in England.
The Dutch agreed to grant the English a patent for Hempstead on several conditions. The English would have to attract at least 100 families to Hempstead by 1649, and answer ultimately to Dutch laws and customs.
The directors of the Dutch West India Co. wrote to Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherlands’ director general: “We have not found any very great objections to allow them for the present to come in reasonable numbers, but the appointment of Magistrates must absolutely be left to our directors.’’
Despite these restrictions, Hempstead settlers had a considerable amount of freedom. In the New England tradition, they held annual town meetings where local laws were enacted. And, unlike other Dutch towns, they tried their own criminal cases and appointed their own sheriff.
What historians know about the early days in Hempstead has been pieced together or inferred from later records. The earliest town record, consisting of original documents from its first decade, is often referred to as the “mouse-eaten book’’ and has been missing for some years.
Those records may have shed light on the naming of the town, a fact that remains in dispute even today. Some argue that Hempstead derived from Hemel-Hempstead, a small town north of London from which the English settlers may have hailed. Others are equally sure that the Dutch named Hempstead, spelled Haamstede, for a place on the island of Schouwen off the Netherlands coast.
The tale of Thomas Rushmore, as retold by his descendent Robert P. Rushmore of Garden City in “Thomas Rushmore: A Long Island Pioneer,’’ published in 1994, illustrates the situation of one Englishman who came to Dutch Long Island:
Still a young man, Thomas Rushmore was a servant or apprentice to a lawyer in Hartford, Conn. After a few minor brushes with the law, he left New England for Hempstead, arriving about a dozen years after its birth.
Rushmore was after land and status, and it didn’t take him long to acquire both. He bought a home lot for 10 pounds and, a year later, was elected as one of five Hempstead townsmen. He later served as town clerk and assistant to the town attorney.
Upon his death in 1683, Rushmore owned more than 300 acres across the town, including choice holdings in woodlands south of the Hempstead Plains, along the north shore in Great Neck and Manhasset and in what is today Westbury and Herricks. Among dozens of miscellaneous items listed in the appraisal of Rushmore’s estate are two feather beds, four brass kettles, nine pewter platters, a silver dram cup, two washing tubs, a colt, a mare, an old linen wheel, a saw mill, a grist mill and two rights of commonage in the Town of Hempstead.
Like many of its English founders, Rushmore came to Hempstead and soon became a rich man.