John Bowne (1627-1695)
We do not know what caused John Bowne with his father, Thomas, and sister, Dorothy, to leave Lime Tree Farm in Matlock, Derbyshire, England to travel to Boston in 1649. After a few years, John left Boston for New York, and by 1661 had built his home in Flushing on land purchased from the Matincock Indians for eight strings of wampum (about $14). He married Hannah Feake, the niece of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts and cousin of Governor Robert Winthrop of Connecticut. John and Hannah had 8 children. After Hannah’s death in 1677, he married again twice and had 6 more children with his second wife and 2 with his third wife.
John Bowne is best known for his courageous defense of religious freedom. Flushing was then part of the colony of New Netherland, and its town charter, granted by the Dutch West India Comapny in 1645 guaranteed “liberty of conscience.” When Governor Peter Stuyvesant prohibited the practice of religions other than the Dutch Refored Church, town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance to Stuyvesant, challenging his edict, which was aimed chiefly at Quakers. In 1662, John Bowne openly defied the ban and allowed Quakers to hold services in his home. Bowne was arrested and imprisoned, and when he refused to pay a fine or plead guilty, Stuyvesant banished him to Holland, where he argued his case successfully before the Dutch West India Company. Stuyvesant was ordered to permit dissenting faiths to worship freely. John Bowne returned home victorious in 1664, and the principle of religious freedom was established in the New York Colony. His actions and those of his fellow residents of Flushing established principles that evolved into the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
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 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.