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History of Nassau County


In 1670, Daniel Denton reported to England that the inhabitants of Long Island "are blessed with Peace and Plenty, blessed in their Country, blessed in their fields."

The Dutch controlled Manhattan, then known as New Amsterdam, in 1640, when a small group of New England British arrived hoping to relocate near Oyster Bay. Dutch authorities soon forced the Englishmen eastward where they eventually established the town of Southampton.

Three years later, on December 13, 1643, another band of adventurous New Englanders crossed the Long Island Sound from the Connecticut towns of Weathersfield and Stamford. The colonists landed at Manhasset Bay, traversed the thick North Shore woodlands, and established the town of Hempstead near clear streams and ponds.

The 50 original families planned carefully and purchased, from Sound to sea, a large tract of land from the sachems (leaders) of the Massapequa, Merioke and Rockaway Indians who inhabited the region. The small number of Indians in Nassau declined rapidly through disease brought by the settlers. Today many Native American place names are a reminder of Long Island's original residents.

The settlers also received a Dutch patent permitting the incorporation of a town government that still provides local services on Long Island today. In 1664, the British ousted the Dutch from New Amsterdam and established New York colony. The small hamlet of Hempstead hosted the first colonial convention of 1665. There, leaders adopted the "Duke's Laws" which established basic government for the new colony.

In 1683, Long Island was divided into three counties: Kings, Suffolk, and Queens. Queens County included western Long Island, as well as the present day towns of Hempstead and Oyster Bay. The towns grew slowly as a quiet agricultural area through the early 1700's, although its plains provided ideal sites for colonial horse racing tracks.

On January 1st, 1898, all the western towns in Queens County became part of New York City. The eastern towns--Hempstead, North Hempstead, and Oyster Bay--were excluded from Greater New York but remained part of Queens County.

On January 22nd of that year, a citizens' meeting in Allen's Hotel in Mineola set the stage for the secession of the three towns by proposing the creation of a new Nassau County. The name was proposed since it reflects the region's earliest Dutch and English colonial heritage, and was used for Long Island as the "Isle of Nassau" honoring William III (1650-1702), who was King of England, Stadholder (governor) of the Netherlands, member of the House of Nassau, and great-grandson of the Prince of Orange. After a bitter battle in Albany, the law creating the new county was signed by Governor Frank S. Black on April 27th, to take effect on January 1st of 1899.

County residents elected the officials of the new county and chose the location of the county seat within one mile of the railroad station Mineola. Today, it is still an easy walk from the Mineola railroad station to county buildings actually located in adjacent Garden City.

The courthouse referendum indicates the important role the railroad played in local growth. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, tracks ran along the center, and the north and south shores of the Island. By the turn of the century, the Long Island Rail Road had become the dominant means of transportation to New York city. In 1911, the railroad completed direct rail service to Pennsylvania Station in the heart of Manhattan. The population of Nassau's small villages along the railroad lines swelled with commuters, leaping from 55,448 in 1900 to 303,053 in 1930.

Towns located along the tracks--Port Washington, Rockville Centre, Freeport among them--experienced rapid growth as the population expanded with commuters and local businesses to support them. Trains and steamboats also brought tourists to the picturesque seaside. Waterfront communities such as Sea Cliff, founded as a Methodist camp meeting ground, blossomed. The wooded North Shore attracted prominent New Yorkers to establish vacation homes.

In the early 1900's, up to the Depression of the early 1930's, North Shore farmlands became the site of luxurious country estates for wealthy New Yorkers. The Long Island "Gold Coast" across the entire north shore of Nassau has left a legacy of elegance, open space, and spectacular architecture still evident today.

Even before the Civil War, noted editor William C. Bryant established his country estate, Cedarmere, in Roslyn. In 1899, telegraph company magnate Clarence Mackay erected his 650-acre Harborhill complex, also in Roslyn. In 1885, Theodore Roosevelt built Sagamore Hill at Oyster Bay. Roosevelt reveled in Nassau County life, writing, "There could be no healthier place to bring children up." Hundreds of thousands of other Nassau residents have agreed for the better part of a century.

The economic impact of the estate construction and real estate development of south shore railroad villages began to create a unique suburban county, its growth straining the old rural government system in the 1930's. County voters approved a new modernized charter, to take effect on January 1, 1938, the first of its type in New York, to establish a County Executive directing departments to administer county government with a Board of Supervisors remaining as a purely legislative body.

As commuter villages grew, the drone of engines from above shattered the peace and quiet of the Hempstead Plains. Early aviators soared overhead, testing their craft above this tremendous, flat, open prairie. Spectators thronged to two nationally significant airstrips: Roosevelt Field, a center of civilian aviation, and nearby Mitchel Field, a major army air base.

The aviation industry mushroomed in Nassau County during World War II. America's most famous warplanes, vital to victory, were manufactured at the Grumman and Republic factories. There production continued as a major part of the county's economic base during the post war years, climaxed during the 1960's when the technicians at Grumman built the Lunar Module which successfully landed on the moon in July 1969.

When the guns of World War II fell silent, the boys came home and another wave of settlers transformed Nassau County. An advertisement in Newsday on May 7th, 1947, offered 2,000 homes for $60 a month in a new development built on the open Hempstead plains. By the end of the month, more than 6,500 veterans had filed applications for the new housing units of Levittown.

A giant population wave changed Nassau County, almost overnight from a rural farming community to the nation's largest suburb. So frenetic was the growth during the 1950's that the number of people moving into the county in a single year often surpassed the entire population of 55,448 in 1900. The population doubled in ten years from 1950 to 1960, increasing from 672,000 to 1,300,700, reaching a peak of 1,428,838 in 1970. Major redevelopment of the east/west parkway systems created just before World War II were supplemented by the creation of additional north/south parkways and the Long Island Expressway.

In the subsequent decades of the 1980's and '90's, population growth ceased but the county's economic base and business/educational/recreational infrastructure changed dramatically as every aspect matured within the changes affecting all of America. Manufacturing, particularly the aviation industry, declined while retail and service employment boomed. A dramatic increase in office construction with some buildings exceeding over 1,000,000 square feet, changed the Nassau horizon and established it as a major place of white collar employment. Nassau County family income is in the top ten percent of the nation with the number one retail sales per household.

While these dramatic economic changes occurred, other institutional development flourished. Local government responded to contemporary problems and the county Board of Supervisors was changed to a more widely representative County Legislature in 1996. The county's educational system of independent local school districts is acclaimed as among the best in the nation and is enhanced by strong local colleges and universities. An increasing ethnic diversity of its population in the 1990's has enriched the county's cultural and religious life.