A Writer's Journey

November 6, 2012

The Conference House

So, two weeks ago I talked about the Conference House and its ghosts. But I realized I’ve never actually talked about the history of the Conference House. I guess it was part of the fear all writers have about having an idea poached. But talking about the history can’t hurt.

The Conference House was built between 1676 and 1680 by Captain Christopher Billopp. He was given 932 acres of land on Staten Island by the king as a thank you for his role in the Anglo-Dutch wars, securing New York for Britain once again. Billopp built a two story stone manor house, making it the oldest one in the City of New York as it predates the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx by at least 50 years. The Billopp family—his wife, two daughters and for a time, his brother Joseph—lived there and became a prominent Staten Island family. Due to Billopp’s political career and connections to Royal Governor Edmund Andros, he extended his property from 932 acres to over 1600 acres. He named his land Bentley Manor after one of his ships.*

From what we understand, Billopp spent little time in the house due to his naval and political careers. He was eventually court martialed for fighting and received a dishonorable discharge. Billopp’s anger was well-known. Remember the haunted hometown post? How I mentioned we believe the house is haunted by a servant girl who was either pushed down the stairs or fell down them? One version of the legend says she was running from her lustful master, Captain Billopp, who was in a rage because she refused his advances.

When Captain Billopp died, his estate was willed to his grandson, Thomas Farmer. Thomas was only a child at the time and so his mother managed Bentley Manor until he came of age. At that time, he took the Billopp name and became a gentleman farmer. He also took on political roles on Staten Island. Bentley Manor became known as a center of hospitality.

Upon Thomas Farmer Billopp’s death, his son Christopher inherited Bentley Manor. It was he who owned the house as the American Revolution began. When I gave tours at the house and had a large group, I would take a poll. By a show of hands, I would ask who thought Staten Islanders were patriots and who thought we were loyalists. Most hands always went up for patriots but a few people figured they vote for the loyalists. And those few people were always surprised when I said they were right.

Yes, most Staten Islanders remained loyal to England. Chief among them was Billopp and his friends. Under their leadership, Staten Island refused to send any representatives to the colonial government set up by the patriots. However, the patriot government passed laws the islanders refused to obey. They turned into smugglers in order to get British goods, bringing sanctions from both the governments of Elizabeth, N.J. and New  York. In return, Billopp and the other leaders decided to elect representatives. Their presence did little to alleviate the anti-British rules and Staten Island found itself oppressed by the Whigs (what the Patriots actually called themselves).

Relief only came when the British navy and other troops moved from Boston to New York. Many made camp on Staten Island, where they were welcomed warmly. It is said the people lined along the shores to cheer the arriving naval ships. Lord Admiral Richard Howe, brother of William Howe who led the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill, made his headquarters on Staten Island in Billopp’s house. For his part, Billopp was one of many Staten Island men who became part of the British army.

Howe was sent with another mission: to try and make peace with the colonists. Once settled in Staten Island, he tried to do this. He tried to reach out to Washington, but encountered difficulty. Eventually, Howe sent an envoy to Philadelphia to entreat Congress for a meeting. They agreed and elected three representatives—John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Edward Routledge of South Carolina. Franklin was a friend of Howe’s and let him choose the venue for their meeting. Howe chose Billopp’s house.

The representatives from Congress stayed in the Proprietary House over in Perth Amboy, NJ. On the morning of September 11, 1776, a rowboat crossed the Raritan Bay to pick the three up. A British soldier hopped out to act as a hostage during the negotiations to ensure the representatives would be returned safely. Franklin trusted Howe and took the soldier back with them to Staten Island. Here is how John Adams described the scene that awaited them on the island’s shore:

We walked up to the house between lines of guards of grenadiers, looking as fierce as ten Furies, and making all the grimaces, and gestures, and motions of their muskets, with bayonets fixed, which, I supposed military etiquette requires, but which we neither understood nor regarded.

Howe led the three into the house and they settled into one of the parlors. Adams continued in his diary, describing the house:

The house had been the habitation of military guards, and was as dirty as a stable; but his lordship had prepared a large handsome room, by spreading a carpet of moss and green sprigs, from bushes and shrubs in the neighborhood, till he had made it not only wholesome, but romantically elegant; and he entertained us with good claret, good bread, cold ham, tongues and mutton.

The room where it is believed the Staten Island Peace Conference took place.

The four met in the house for three hours. Unfortunately, it went nowhere as neither side was given the ability to compromise. Howe was told to get the colonies to swear allegiance to the crown while the representatives were told to get England to acknowledge the Declaration of Independence. So the Staten Island Peace Conference came to an end and the war continued for the next seven years.

British soldiers remained on the island for years though a majority moved out in 1777. As the provincial governments grew more powerful, Billopp started to sell his property to prevent it from being seized. The house and surrounding property was sold to Samuel Ward, who gave it to his son as a wedding present. Billopp and his family fled to Canada with the other Loyalists.

The Ward Family owned the land and house for the next century. Maps went from detailing “Bentley Manor” to “Ward’s Point.” After the Ward family moved out, the house fell into disrepair. In the 1920s, the Staten Island Historical Society decided to save the house. They evicted the rat poison factory squatting in the house and restored the house to its former glory. Forming the Conference House Association to care for the house, it opened as a museum.

In the 1960’s, the United States recognized the Conference House on the National Historic Site Registry.

The house still operates as a museum. Check out the website for more information.

Billopp built his house right along the Raritan Bay. I am happy to report it survived Hurricane Sandy. Unfortunately, the town surrounding it—Tottenville—didn’t fare as well. If you want to help Staten Island directly, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is a local organization I trust who is accepting donations.

*Staten Island legend says that Billopp sailed the Bentley against a New Jersey captain around the island. The island was supposedly in dispute between the two colonies. Billopp is said to have sailed the Bentley around the island faster and therefore, the island belonged to New York. Scholars though do not believe such a controversy ever existed and so the race is just a legend.

**The quotes from John Adams’ diary came from “The Conference House Revisited: A History of the Billopp Manor House” by Field Horne. Another good book to read is Philip Pappas’ “That Ever Loyal Island.”

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2 Comments »

  1. Wonderful post. I had no idea Statton Islanders were English sympathers.

    Comment by ellaquinnauthor — November 7, 2012 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

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    Comment by http://statenislandclowns.net — January 28, 2013 @ 7:06 pm | Reply


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