John Bowne (1627-1695)
Bowne House takes its name from John Bowne, who emigrated from England in 1649 with his father Thomas and sister Dorothy. Their reasons for leaving England are uncertain. Some family members remained behind, and they continued to retain property in their hometown, Matlock. John made many trips back to England, perhaps to see to business interests there.
After a short time in the Boston area, the family relocated to Vlissingen (later Flushing), a settlement then part of New Netherland, but which had many English residents. It is possible that John saw better opportunity there than in Boston. By the mid-1650’s, John had acquired land from the Matinecock Indians in the area. It was there that he met Hannah Feake, who became his first wife and the mother of eight of his children, Hannah was the daughter of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake, a niece of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts and cousin of Governor Robert Winthrop of Connecticut.
By 1661, John and Hannah had built the house we now know as Bowne House. The family was expanding, and more space was needed. Bowne House began as a single room (now called the Hall or dining room), but by 1669 a large addition (now used as a parlor) was added to the western, street facing side. Later additions followed as the family grew in size and became more prosperous.
John Bowne is best known for his courageous stand for liberty of conscience. This unique principle had been guaranteed in the 1645 Charter of the Town of Flushing, granted by the Dutch West India Company. It was the language of this Charter that John Bowne utilized in 1662-1664, when he challenged the edict of Governor Peter Stuyvesant which forbade the practice of religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church.
Bowne’s non-violent protest against Stuyvesant’s edict was the first to succeed. The 1657 Flushing Remonstrance , a document signed by 30 local Flushing residents, was ignored by Stuyvesant, who punished a few of the signers, but his ban on religious diversity remained in effect. It was John Bowne who forced the issue by allowing Quakers to gather in his home for worship. John’s wife Hannah had joined the Society of Friends (as they were known) and became a minister. Bowne converted at some point, but his status at the time of these meetings is unknown.
Punishment was swift. Stuyvesant sent his Schout (sheriff) Waldron to arrest Bowne and take him to jail in New Amsterdam (Manhattan). Bowne remained there for several months. When it became clear that Bowne would not recant, repent, or pay the fine demanded, Stuyvesant had him deported. Bowne made his way to England, and then to Holland, where, citing the language of the Charter which guaranteed “ Liberty of Conscience”, he testified at his trial before the Dutch West India Company. The Company agreed and ordered Stuyvesant to permit freedom of religion in the colony.
This freedom evolved over 100 years later into the guarantees in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Also guaranteed there are the rights of assembly and freedom of speech- all principles advanced by John Bowne in 1662 when he welcomed Quakers into his home.
Bowne returned home in 1664. He continued to farm, acquired extensive land holdings in Queens and in Pennsylvania, and had a successful business selling books and engaging in other commercial ventures. After Hannah’s death, he remarried two twice and had a total of sixteen children of whom eight survived. He helped to acquire the land for the Flushing Quaker Meeting House and burial ground on Northern Boulevard. The Meeting House still stands and is one of the oldest Meetings in America. The site is a National Historic Landmark.
John Bowne died in 1695 and was buried in the Meeting Burial Ground.
Robert Bowne (1744-1818)
Robert Bowne founded Bowne & Co., financial printers, now the country’s oldest public company. In addition, he was a founding director, in 1785, of the Bank of New York and in 1787 of the Mutual Assurance Co., the city’s first fire insurance company. He was also a founder of the New York Hospital and the American Chamber of Commerce. Like many Quakers, he was opposed to slavery and was active in the anti-slavery movement. In 1784, he joined with Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Eddy and George Clinton (who was married to Robert’s cousin Hannah Bowne Franklin) to form the Manumission Society of New York. In 1805, he, along with others, formed The Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York.
A man of vision, Robert Bowne was intrigued by the possibilities of improved commerce with newly settled land to the west and in 1791 helped organize an inland navigation company, paving the way for the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825, during the administration of Governor DeWitt Clinton.
Walter Bowne (1770-1846)
Walter Bowne was mayor of New York from 1829-1833, at a time when the population of the City was about 200,000. Before serving as mayor, he had been a member of the New York State legislature and was, in 1792, a founder of the Union Engine Co. number 18 at John and Pearl Streets, known by its nickname the “Shad Belly.” A man of vision, he was also a supporter of the Erie Canal project and, in addition, foresaw the need for the city to establish a reservoir system in order to secure adequate supplies of water necessary for future growth. Three other mayors have Bowne family connections: John Lawrence (served 1673), Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence (served 1834-1837), and Robert Van Wyck (served 1898-1901).
Robert Bowne Minturn (1805-1866)
Robert Bowne Minturn was a founder of the shipping line Grinnell, Minturn & Co., notable for its ownership of the famous clipper ship “Flying Cloud,” which captured the record as the fastest ship sailing the 16,000 mile route from New York to San Francisco in 1851. That record remained unbroken for 23 years.
Robert Bowne Minturn and his wife donated land for the establishment of Central Park, and, like his Quaker forebears he was opposed to slavery. In fact, he was the first president of the Union League Club, formed when the Union Club membership was divided over support for President Lincoln and the Civil War.
Robert Bowne Minturn Reproduced from Of Men and Dreams, by Edmund A. Stanley (Bowne of New York City, Inc., 1975) with permission of Bowne & Co., Inc.
Many Bowne women were involved in civic and educational efforts. Hannah Bowne, wife of John, was a preacher of the Quaker religion. Maria Bowne and her husband Walter Franklin (their daughters were Maria Franklin Clinton, Hannah Franklin Clinton, and Sarah Franklin Norton) made their home on Cherry Street available to George Washington for his use as the first presidential mansion, when the capitol was located in New York City.
Later, (1784-1839), a niece of Robert and wife of the Quaker minister Samuel Parsons, was an ardent abolitionist and a funder of a school for indigent young women.
The school was known as the Flushing Institute for Young Women and its goal was to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as needle work, with the hope that they would be able to become self-supporting.
Like many of her relatives, Mary Bowne Parsons was an active abolitionist. Correspondence recently discovered in the family archives and in other Parsons’ papers show a direct involvement by her children Robert and William in facilitating the movement of enslaved persons to freedom while they resided at the House. The obituary of another son Samuel Bowne Parsons, Sr. , who ran the famous Parsons nursery on land near the House with his brother Robert, noted “ his boast that he assisted more slaves to freedom than any other man in Queens County”.
These courageous actions and documents link the Bowne House, the Bownes and the Parsons to the “Underground Railroad”, a network of sympathetic contacts and protected sites where enslaved people could be assisted in their flight to freedom. Flushing in general also sponsored many safe houses and was a conduit for African-Americans passing north to Connecticut, Canada, and freedom.