From the Pell Treaty to Oysters…

Aug 8, 2023 | City Island History

In 1654 this treaty (left) was signed by Thomas Pell and the Native American Lenape people covering the purchase of 50,000 acres of land, which included City Island, much of Westchester County, and what is now the east Bronx.

In 1750 Thomas Pell, grandson of the original owner, apparently had a farm on City Island, then called Minefer’s Island (also called Minneford and Great Mulberry Island). In 1761 Benjamin Palmer, Thomas Pell’s son-in-law, purchased the island, changed its name to New City Island, and gathered a syndicate of investors to develop it as a rival port to New York Harbor.

In October 1776, after George Washington lost Brooklyn and Manhattan to the British, he headed north to White Plains. In an effort to stop him, the British Navy landed soldiers near City Island, beginning the Battle of Pell’s Point. A small group of patriots, led by Col. John Glover, managed to keep the British from coming far inland, and the British withdrew, but not after causing much damage to City Island. Because of the damage caused by the British troops, the Palmers sold off sections of City Island in 1785. Benjamin Palmer complained about the British in a letter to George Washington that was never answered, but the British retaliated by kidnapping him and taking him to Manhattan, where he remained.

The early owners of property on City Island included George Washington Horton (the south end); the farmers Daniel and William Scofield; Orrin Fordham, who launched the oyster business; and Peter Cooper, who wanted to open a tannery but could not get his goods to market and sold the land to the Leviness family.  George Washington Horton purchased 42 acres at the south end of City Island and built his house there in 1820. The building is part of the present-day restaurant (recently closed) known as the Lobster Box.

Peter Cooper’s brother, Dr. Edward C. Cooper, tried on at least two occasions to extract salt from saltwater using solar energy, but his business failed for lack of funds, probably because he could not get his goods to market with no bridge to the mainland.

In the 1830s, Orrin Fordham developed a system of planting oysters and creating oyster reefs around City Island. The popularity of oysters created a huge market, and oystering became the primary industry on the Island.

Oystermen of City Island, circa 1905

The town of Pelham, which then included City Island, was established in 1788. This map, dated 1868, shows City Island before there was a bridge to the mainland. In 1895 the Island was annexed by the City of New York and in 1898 was incorporated as part of the Bronx.

Source: City Island Nautical Museum, “From Mulberries to Minesweepers: A History of City Island.”





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