A SNAPSHOT OF ASTORIA, QUEENS HISTORY
The people and events that sculpted the present...
by James Powers
In the upper left hand northwest corner of what is today the borough of Queens is the famous neighborhood known as Astoria. From the pre-Columbian beginnings as part of the Lenape tribe’s territory to its post-European settlement era- first as the farmland of William Hallett in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands and then later as part of the original Queens County in the British colony of New York- through the American Revolution and Queens’ incorporation into the “great city” of New York- Astoria has a unique story to tell.
Let’s start with its name. The area does not derive its name from the landscape as its neighbors do- Sunnyside is named after a 19th Century farm and Woodside derives from the forest that used to stand there. It was originally the land of the Lenape Native Americans (erroneously called “Delaware Indians” by the later English settlers), a corner of their broad territory called the Lenapehoking- which encompassed all of New Jersey, all of New York City, five New York counties, and parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut. In the 1630’s the Dutch landed and founded their New Netherlands colony.
The colony was home to English people as well, one of them being William Hallett. Hallett and his wife Elizabeth Fones settled in what is now Astoria after fleeing a scandal in the English colony of Connecticut. Hallett was Fones’ third husband- she lost the first to drowning- and he was a business associate of her second husband Robert Feake (who had gone mad and abandoned her). There was no official divorce between her and Feake before she married Hallett and the social arbiters of Puritanical New England were dead set against them. The nearby Dutch settlement had more liberal mores and the couple bought farmland which would later become known as Hallett’s Cove. They later moved to Flushing after their farm was burned by the Lenape, and Hallett became a government official. Elizabeth’s Neck in Greenwich, Connecticut is named after Fones, incidentally.
The Dutch and the English would wrestle over control of the New Netherlands colony, with two wars resulting (the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars). England took over Fort Amsterdam (modern day lower Manhattan) in 1664, the Dutch retook it, but the English eventually conquered the entire colony in 1674 and renamed it Yorkshire. The Hallett’s old homestead and it’s surrounds were incorporated into the original Queens County in November 1683, comprising modern day Nassau County and the borough of Queens.
Before the Dutch leave the scene, a quick word about Hell Gate- the section of the East River to Astoria’s north. The evil-sounding name is actually an Anglicization of the Dutch term for the area- “Hellegat” - meaning “clear opening.” It was first explored (and likely named) by Dutch sea captain Adriaen Block- who Block Island is named after.
It was full of large rocks which formed dangerous navigational hazards (it took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 70 years to clear them all, starting in 1856) as well as treacherous currents so local English sailors and captains took to calling it “the Hell Gate.” The largest major hazard, Flood Rock, was blown up by the Corps of Engineers in October 1880 with 300,000 pounds of explosives. The blast was felt as far away as Princeton, NJ.
What would become known as Astoria was originally part of the old Newtown Township (now modern day Elmhurst) - a nod to the Dutch again, “Nieuwe Stad” meant “New Town”- and through a convoluted series of secessions, amalgamations, and the passage of time the name of Hallett’s Cove changed and it became part of the then-independent Long Island City. In 1839 a wealthy merchant named Stephen Halsey began building a village in Hallett’s Cove, geared for upper crust New Yorkers. It was named “Astoria” for the fantastically rich businessman John Jacob Astor, in an attempt to get him to invest in the venture. Astor, the first multi-millionaire in American history and one of the richest men in that history, lived across the East River in Manhattan. He invested a small sum and the Village of Astoria was born.
As a side note- this section of Queens is not the only thing named for John Jacob Astor. There are towns in Oregon, Illinois, and South Dakota that bear the name. The US Navy has had multiple ships carry the name (based on Astor’s expedition that founded the Oregon town). The soccer team in Germany that represents Astor’s home town is known as FC Astoria Walldorf. One of the lions in front of the New York Public Library was long known as Leo Astor.
In 1870 the village merged with other surrounding villages to form Long Island City. For 28 years the city remained independent, with New York City to its west and the city of Brooklyn to its south, until January 1st, 1898. On that date the “Greater City Of New York” was born with the merger of the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, part of Queens County, and Brooklyn.