William Hallett – Englishman, from Dorsetshire via Greenwich, Connecticut, is the first known inhabitant of today’s Astoria. Before 1638 a grant for 160 acres of land on today’s Hallett’s Point peninsula was granted to a Dutch West India Company man named Jacques Benfyn who sat on Director-General van Twiller’s council. It is likely that van Twiller wanted to reward Benfyn for his loyalty and service – the granting of these “out plantations” on the coast of Long Island was standard practice. But Native American raids on Long Island in 1643 destroyed Benfyn’s plantation. Van Twiller’s heavy-handed mismanagement of the 1643-44 Indian Outbreak contributed to his recall to Amsterdam and the appointment of Peter Stuyvesant in 1647.
In 1652 William Hallett petitioned Stuyvesant for the Bentyn plantation and his petition is granted in December. “Peter Stuyvesant doth declare that on the day of the date hereunder written, he hath granted and allowed unto William Hallett a plot of ground at Hell Gate upon Long Island called Jarck’s farm beginning at a great rock that lays in the meadow (or rather valley), goes upward southeast to the end of a very small cripple bush two hundred and ten rods; from thence north east two hundred and thirty rods in breadth; on the west side two hundred and thirty rods; on the north side it goes up to a running water two hundred and ten rods, containing in the whole eighty morgans and three hundred rods, upon condition… This done the first of December 1652 in New Amsterdam in New Netherland. P. Stuyvesant.”
According to Vincent Seyfried, this area roughly corresponds to the area from the East River to 29th Street. “The north boundary was a brook running just south of 25th Avenue and emptying into Pot Cove, while the southern boundary was Sunswick Creek.” The land was distinguished by a 57 foot hill at 26th Avenue and 12th Street, as well as “trackless forest or swampy meadow.” The Annals of Newtown said that the “out-plantations received a valuable accession to their population in the person of William Hallett.”
Like Benfyn before him, Hallett was unable to enjoy his new possession for long. September 1655 brought more Indian raids, and by spring, Stuyvesant was ordering outer plantation colonists to give up their settlements and move to the security of villages. William Hallett duly moved to Flushing. In 1655 Hallett was listed as a sheriff of that town. But Hallett was soon deposed as sheriff and imprisoned by Stuyvesant because he had allowed the Rhode Island dissenter William Wickenden to preach in his house. George Skal, writing in 1908, attributed Styvesant’s disfavor to the growing tensions between the English and the Dutch. “Hallett was a bitter enemy of Stuyvesant, as indeed all the English on Long Island were, and he warmly advocated the claims of Connecticut to the island…” James Riker, in 1852, put it more politely, ““Mr. Hallett no longer held himself amenable to the government of New Netherland…” But if Hallett was banished from New Netherland, it wasn’t for long. In 1665 he served as a juror in a witchcraft trial in Flushing.
In 1664 the English captured New Amsterdam, ending Dutch rule. All Dutch land grants had to be re-registered with the English for a fee. Hallett was quick to present his case to the new governor Richard Nicolls, but the governor was said to be skeptical of the size of Hallett’s possession since “so much of the aforesaid Indian deed or purchase, as had not before been disposed of to others by ground brief or patent.”
To prove his legal purchase, on August 1st, Hallett presented “Shawestocot and Erramohar, Indians residing at Shawscopshee upon Staten Island,” before the governor himself. These men were there to confirm Hallett had indeed purchased land from them and paid with “fifty-eight fathom of wampum, seven coats, one blanket, and four kettles.” On April 8, 1668, William Hallett was finally confirmed in his Astoria plantation, called “Hell Gate Neck Tract” by the English.
From 1664-1667 William Hallett rebuilt and consolidated his farm, buying up adjacent land. James Riker reports that in 1667 Hallett entered suit against Capt. Thomas Lawrence for ownership of Berrien’s Island. Captain Lawrence had apparently obtained a patent for the island, which Hallett had previously claimed. In the event, Hallett lost his claim. (Berrien’s Island was connected to the mainland in the 19th century and today is the site of the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant.)
By 1678 Hallett had 48 of his 160 acres under cultivation as farmland; he owned 4 oxen, 7 horses, 23 cows and 34 sheep. By this point, William Hallett Sr. also had two grown sons, William Jr., and Samuel. The family lived at the base of the Hallett’s Cove peninsula, near today’s Welling Street. Welling Street originally connected the gardens of William Sr.’s house with those of William Jr. – the odd sharp angle in the short street was due to the lane’s original path around William Sr.’s gardens and barn.
In 1679 William Sr. deeded 280 acres south of today’s Welling St. and Astoria Blvd to William Jr. Everything he owned north of that line, William Sr. kept for himself and younger son Samuel. William Sr. lived until at least 1706 (when he would have been in his 90s) because his name shows up on legal documents from that year deeding additional tracts of land to his son Samuel. After this point he disappears from history.
But the story of the Halletts was not quite over and about to take a more gruesome turn…
William Hallett Jr. himself had a son, known as William Hallett III, born in 1670. Like his father before him, William Hallett Jr. gifted William III with his own expansive tract of land for his young family. William III’s homestead was apparently in a hollow west of the intersection of 31st Ave. and Newtown Rd. near 44th St. “Near neighbors there were few or none, but his domestic hearth was enlivened by the presence of five children and a fond wife, who was expected soon to add another to their store of conjugal comforts “wrote Riker.
On January 24, 1708, William Hallett III, his wife Sarah, and their five young children were murdered in their beds in what would become the first recorded capital crime in Queens County. The perpetrators were two of the Hallett family’s slaves – a husband and wife. The couple was allegedly provoked by being “restrained from going abroad on the Sabbath.” The killers were quickly caught and were executed in front of a crowd “on the plains east of that village” on February 2nd (only 1 week after the crime). The male was hung “in gibbets”, while the female was burned at the stake.
Victorian era writers would outdo themselves with melodramatic accounts of both the murder and the execution. To read their gruesome accounts click here: