The oldest house in Queens and one of the oldest in all of New York belonged to my eight-times-great grandfather, John Bowne.
John Bowne was born in 1627 in England. He moved to Boston with his father and sister in 1648. Eight years later, he married Hannah Feake, a granddaughter of John Winthrop’s sister. John and Hannah became followers of the Quaker religion, which was not accepted in New England at the time, so they relocated to Flushing, Long Island where other Quakers had gathered.
He built the house in Flushing in 1661 (it was expanded in 1669 and 1681 to meet the needs of his ever-growing family). In 1662, Bowne was arrested by the governor of New Netherland–this was before New York came under British rule–for hosting a Quaker meeting in his home. He refused to pay the fine, so the governor had him shipped off to Holland to stand trial before the Dutch West Indies Company.
By appealing to the Flushing patent of 1645 that guaranteed religious liberty, Bowne was able to win freedom for himself and the other Quakers of the area. He returned to Flushing in 1663. The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, was ordered to extend religious freedom not only to Quakers, but to all residents of Flushing.
New Netherland would soon become New York; the Dutch would be replaced by the British. But the religious freedom that John Bowne stood up for would remain in place. When the Dutch ceded New Netherland to England in 1664, Article VIII of the provisional Articles of Transfer stated that the residents of New Netherland “shall keep and enjoy the liberty of their consciences in religion” under British rule. New York’s policy of religious liberty became a model for other colonies and ultimately for the framers of the American Constitution.
A few years later, in 1672, John Bowne and other Quakers from Flushing sent a letter to the governor of New York to explain their conscientious refusal to contribute toward the repair of the fort of New York. This was one of the earliest examples of war tax resistance by American Quakers.
John’s wife Hannah had first become acquainted with Quakerism in the year they were married. At that time, the Quakers were meeting in the woods nearby. Both she and John were impressed by the beauty and simplicity of their worship. Hannah later became a minister among the Quakers and traveled in England, Ireland and Holland teaching and speaking about the faith. John joined Hannah on one of her journeys in 1676 and was with her when she died in London in 1677.
After burying Hannah in London, John returned to Flushing. He married two more times and had a total of sixteen children.
When John Bowne died, the minutes of the Quaker meeting recorded his death: “John Bowne dyed 20 day of the 10 month, in the year 1695 and was buried ye 23 day of same being about sixty-eight yeares of age. he did Frely expose himself his house and his estate to ye service of truth And had a constant meeting in his house near About forty yeares…Hee allso suffered very much for ye truth’s sake.”