Part #6 of 12
Their Island, Homes, Cemetery and Early Genealogy in Queens County, NY by permission of its author, an 11th generation Abraham Rijcken vanLent descendant, Edgar Alan Nutt.
In the two hundred and a half or so years in which members of the Riker family were both plentiful and prominent in the Newtown area they lived in or established many homes, the location of most of which are no longer known.
Various of these are referred to in James Riker’s The Annals, and a few are indicated on nineteenth century maps, whether as specific locations shown by small black dots or as the outlined property or estate on which the home somewhere existed.
Some of these are mentioned below, in passing, in the genealogical chapter.
Two particular homes, however, have long been associated with the family; one existed until early last century and as an historic building has been well- documented; and the other remains as possibly the oldest private home in New York City, and is remembered as related to the family by its proximity to the family cemetery.
Records and facts regarding these two homes, and of two other significant Riker homes about which all too little is known, follow.
In a Dutch patent dated February 26, 1654, immigrant Abraham Rycken received a grant of land that turned out to be in the Poor Bowery or Poor Farm, in Dutch “de Armen Bouwerie,” described by [James] Riker as “an extensive farm then in progress, in the occupation and tenure of the deacons and officers of the Dutch Church at New Amsterdam; and by them kept under cultivation for the benefit of the poor.”
Representatives of the Dutch Church on June 3, 1655, complained that part of their Poor Bowery had been given to Abraham Rycken; they were not interested in disturbing him since they considered him (surprisingly) to be “a poor man who has no more than he can earn with his hands;” but he had closed off a public road that they wanted to have reopened.
His grant however was good, and, although he was in court many times in matters pertaining to property, it was this farm in the Poor Bowery that remained in the family for most of the time over the course of almost three centuries and that was the site of the family homestead.
While no early reference or description exists as to any buildings that Abraham put up, there should be no doubt that he in fact did erect a house and farm buildings of some sort.
According to an April 24, 1935, report of the Historic American Buildings Survey, “much still remain(ed) of the original structure” in the later Riker Homestead Mansion, and “It (was) built in the old Dutch style, long and narrow. It was, no doubt, originally one story with a pitch or gambrel roof.”
As will appear later the mansion in its hey day bore no resemblance to that early Dutch farmhouse which perhaps resembled the Lent-Rapelye farm house, the second of the homes to be considered, below.
Abraham and his wife brought six children with them when they moved to their new farmstead in Newtown, and subsequent to the move they added two or possibly three more.
When he died in 1688 all of his surviving children had reached their majority; in his March 9, 1688, will he named and bequeathed specified sums to Ryck, Jacob, Mary, John, Aletta, and Hendrick; and he left the residue of his estate to his son Abraham and named him his executor.
This disposition of his estate both broke with the customary practice of primogeniture under which Ryck as the eldest would have been the heir and it appeared to demonstrate favoritism toward Abraham who was the next to the youngest of the sons.
The reason for this may seem to have been in part the fact that Ryck and Hendrick both adopted the Lent surname in place of that of Rycken in one of its forms, but that surname change was not used by them for as much as several decades later; and the actual reason probably lay in the fact that Abraham was the only son remaining on the farm.
The younger Abraham was enterprising and successful such that in 1688 he was able to buy a third of the Tuder Patent which extended westerly from the paternal farm toward the Hellgate area of the East River, but the really notable mark of his prosperity was the house, a veritable mansion, which he erected in about 1700 either de novo or more likely as an addition to and an improvement upon his father’s house. This building, however, was not quite identical with the subject of the above referenced HABS report, the historic building which it documented in full in 1935.
Abraham [the son] lived a long life, from December 26, 1655, to August 20, 1746, and toward the end of his ninety-plus years he was completely blind. A legend concerning his final day has been repeated or referred to many times.
It seems that he was sitting under a pear tree near the house and was musing over never having seen some of his grandchildren. His eye sight suddenly returned, his wish was fulfilled, and upon returning to the pear tree he died.
Almost thirteen years earlier, however, perhaps when his eye sight had deteriorated to the point that he was no longer able to manage his properties, he sold four properties including the homestead farm and mansion to his sons Abraham and Andrew for three hundred pounds.
The dating of the indenture includes “in the seventh year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord George by the Grace of God of Great Brittain France and Ireland King Defender of ye Faith,” and his residence is specified as on “Nassaw Island in the Colony of Newyork.” The properties conveyed thereby in fee simple were:
Less than a year later, and well before [their father] Abraham’s death, the two sons came to an agreement as to the division of the tracts that they had bought from their father.
In a covenant dated May 11, 1739, [son/brother] Abraham “quit claim unto Andrew Rycken... all such estate right interest.., whatsoever which ye said Abraham Rycken had.., to that one equal half of those lands & meadows which Abraham Rycken senr... did... transfer.., unto the said Abraham & Andrew Rycken.”
Specifics of the agreed division are then stated as follows:
The latter item and its provision imply that Andrew executed a similar document in which he ceded to Abraham his claim to various parts of the total properties, but no such document has been located. It may be assumed, however, that there was such and that the consequence of the two documents was that Andrew had the homestead farm and mansion, the small wood land, and the easterly half of the island and that Abraham had all else.
What subsequently occurred with regard to Abraham’s share, other than with regard to Riker’s Island as discussed in its relevant chapter, is the subject of the discussion below of the third home. Consideration of the vicissitudes of the mansion with its farm continues with regard to Andrew and the heirs and assigns, but first there is the matter of Andrew’s enlarging the homestead farm in two purchases.
On April 5, 1740, he paid £42.6s to Moore Woodward for fourteen acres and 150 rods of meadow land, and on May 8, 1746, he paid £13.4s to Lambert and Joseph Woodward for five and three-quarters acres of meadow land.
The 1739 document indicated a Woodward of unspecified given name as an abutter, and on this basis it is likely that the foregoing two parcels abutted the homestead farm. Possibly Moore Woodward was the 1739 abutter and that the other two Woodwards were his sons or heirs.
If the reference to rods is taken to be square rods, then 150 rods is .93 75 of an acre making the land acquired in the two purchases to be 20.6875 acres.
Such an exactness is quite improbable, but, together with the fifty-two or “about forty-nine” acres and the two and a half woodland acres, it made the farm to be about seventy-three or seventy-four acres in total.
In about 1750 a fire ruined part of the house, however the “mansion was immediately erected on the same site, which contained considerable of the original building.” Another source claimed that at about that time, and no doubt following the fire, “an extra story was added, and a front and rear porch with rows of Corinthian pillars.” The resulting mansion was the third house or at least the third version of the original house with the second and third versions incorporating the previous elements; but the available pictures, drawings, and descriptions are all of the third version.
The resulting mansion had eighteen rooms including space for three on the top floor that were unfinished, there were eight bedrooms, and there were many closets and hallways and spaces of unspecified purposes that in effect were additional rooms. Three chimneys served the house but perhaps strangely only — two of the bedrooms had fireplaces. Notable features included three stairways between the first and second floors; a large wine closet off of the dining room; a second floor bathroom equipped only with a bathtub, pump, and tank; a laundry, and a sewing room.
The main rooms on the first and second floors had cornices of varying U designs, more elaborate, as also in the case of the woodwork, on the former than the latter. In addition to the two bedroom fireplaces there were six others: each of the four main first floor rooms was equipped with one, the laundry had one, and the kitchen had a massive one fitted out with a built-in cast iron stove consisting of a fire box for burning coal, an oven on either side, the stove top, and up one side two — chambers that may have been warming ovens.
The fireplace mantles varied according to the importance of the rooms with the parlor mantle the most elaborate _ and featuring in its quasi-tympanum relief a reclining Apollo with harp. In 1934 the Historic American Buildings Survey made a complete architectural record of the mansion, both interior and exterior, resulting in many dozens of sketches of various aspects of the building and of its details plus eleven measured architectural drawings ~ and several photographs. The following drawings, somewhat reduced in size, sample the collection and show the mansion’s scale and importance.
Andrew died either on April 11, 1762, or on February 12, 1763, having made his will dated August 17, 1761. It is notable that his name appears in three versions in the will: Andris Rycker, Andreas Rycken, and Andrew Rycken. He provided handsomely for his wife even if she were to remarry. . . . but “if any of my servants misbehave I hereby give her the power to sell the same and have the use of the money during her widowhood.”
Apparently the mansion and the farm, together with the personal needs and comfort of a family member, could only be met and maintained by the institution and practice of slavery. In contrast to his attitude toward his servants, Andrew treated his four children equally and considerately, at least with regard to money: each would receive or had received £100, and the residue of the personalty was to be divided equally among the four following their mother’s death (which would not be until September 26, 1775).
He ordered that his real estate was to be sold following his youngest son Samuel’s coming of age (he was born on April 8, 1743), preferably among the three sons to the highest bidder of them.
Samuel and his older brother Abraham formed a consortium and made the winning bid of £1760 for the homestead farm and mansion. In accord with their father’s will siblings John Berrien and Ruth on May 16, 1765, conveyed and released the farm to the winning brothers. Almost four years later on January 27, 1769, the consortium was dissolved with Abraham, together with his wife Margaret, selling his share to Samuel for £900. Samuel thus became the sole owner of the mansion and farm, and over time he enlarged the farm.
In a deed dated April 30, 1793, for 10 shillings Richard Lawrence and his wife Mary quitclaimed to Samuel a swamp and other property of unspecified acreage.
Richard Lawrence was Samuel’s wife Anna’s only sibling.
In a deed dated March 28, 1811, Samuel paid $75 for two and a half acres of meadow land.
The seller was Daniel and his wife Deborah; Daniel was the grandson of Abraham, and the small parcel appears to have been part of tracts remaining to Abraham as a result of the 1739 covenant or covenants discussed above.
Probably it abutted the homestead farm.
The 1793 deed appears to have caused a title problem because on October 16, 1821, two deeds were made, one reversing the other.
In one Samuel and Anna his wife for one dollar deeded the swamp to their son John L. Riker, and in the second John L Riker and his wife Maria for one dollar deeded the swamp back to Samuel.
Samuel died on May 19, 1823 and left a very large estate plus a very long will dated October 16, 1821, the same date as the two concurrent deeds next above.
Among many provisions the will made John. L. the inheritor of the homestead farm and mansion.
The widow Anna and the other children on June 11, 1823, quitclaimed their interest in the property to John L., and Samuel’s estate was finally settled on June 7, 1826. John L. thereby became the owner of the farm and mansion and occupied the latter until his death in 1861.
John L. Riker was survived by his second wife, Lavinia Smith, who died on December 15, 1875. Possibly she remained in the mansion during the fourteen years of her widowhood, and if so she probably was the last Riker occupant.
A newspaper article from about 1934 or 1935 reported that it was then more than sixty years since the last Riker lived there.
Possible the mansion was rented out after Lavinia’s departure, but by the late 1880s a tenant farmer, together at least with his sister in later years, lived in “the most ancient wing of the ancient house.”
As late as 1930s they were still in the house with him, Cy Mitchell, no longer doing much farming of the 120 acre property and instead taking care of the nearby family cemetery.
In September, 1931, there was another caretaker of the cemetery, this one living in the nearby Lent-Rapelye house, suggesting that the Mitchells had gone from the mansion.
It was at about this time that the property was put up for sale by the still existent John L Riker Estate.
A July 12, 1934, article reported that a federal agency, the Historic American Buildings Survey, was at work and would include the Riker Mansion.
The survey was completed and reported on April 24, 1935, as HABS No. 4-29 (as per above) consisting of eleven detailed architectural drawings of the exterior and interior, many sketches of details, plus three photographs of which two are of the exterior and the third the massive kitchen range built into the fireplace.
The 1930s were the decade of the building of the Triborough Bridge and the LaGuardia Airport, the former completed in 1936 and the latter in 1939.
Both had an impact on the Riker property.
The bridge opened up easy access to the Newtown area of Long Island with resulting pressure on available land.
This no doubt would have taken the Riker land if it were not for the airport.
During the construction phase there were opposing plans for the mansion: it was either to be torn down or, as favored by the company’s president, William F. Carey, it was to be turned into a clubhouse.
What to do with the mansion was resolved, however, by a fire that occurred on March 25, 1939.
An Astoria policeman spotted smoke and turned in an alarm, most of the Astoria fire equipment responded, but the fire was beyond control after 2000 feet of hose were laid from the nearest fireplug.
Nothing was saved from the building, and after the fire a single chimney and the cellar were all that remained.
The site now lies beneath the surface of LaGuardia Airport with nothing to suggest that the homestead farm and the Riker Mansion ever existed.
Rikers Island's role in NY correction history warrants our providing material on its "pre-Correction" background that is so bound up with Rikers family history. Bishop Nutt's book serves as an excellent vehicle for doing that. His approach is not exclusively or narrowly genealogical. More than simply tracing lineage, he places his family history in wider chronological and geographic contexts through which his exhaustive research tracked it, thus reflecting much other history -- of the island, county, city and country.
Strictly genealogical citations, notes, and codes in the printed book have been reduced or dropped in these excerpts. This presentation includes a book print copy information page.
NYCHS retains and reserves all rights to images of photos it took during the June 5, 2005 homestead tour and the September 1998 Samuel Perry Center dedication and their captions as well as captions of inserted images not taken from the printed book.