Did you know… William Floyd?

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Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

William Floyd

William Floyd( December 17, 1734 – August 4, 1821) came from early settlers of north-central Long Island, New York. His ancestor Richard came from Wales in 1654 and founded Setauket, New York on Long Island Sound, near Smithtown Bay. The Floyd family built a prosperous farm of over four thousand acres on Long Island. Despite relative wealth and comfort, William did not receive the education customary for one of his station, owing to his father’s untimely death in 1755 at only forty-nine years of age.

William was then twenty-one and had long been working on the farm. He assumed full responsibility for his family, as the eldest son. The property was highly productive, with grains, forage, vegetables; and well stocked with cattle and fruit trees. Fronting on the Atlantic Ocean, Floyd also had a shipping dock used for trade, and access to fishing, oysters, and a variety of seafood. His accounts tell us that he dealt widely with carpenters, brick masons, farriers, butchers, and a variety of tradespeople. William’s true passion was farming, but he found time for some other pleasant pursuits, marrying Hannah Jones on August 23, 1760. Little is known of Hannah, except an account that remarks her to have been “a capable, well-brought-up girl”.

In his person, William Floyd was of a middle stature. He possessed a natural dignity, which seldom failed to impress those into whose company he was thrown. He appeared to enjoy the pleasures of private life, yet in his manners he was less familiar, and in his disposition less affable, than most men. Few men, however, were more respected. He was eminently a practical man. The projects to which he gave his sanction, or which he attempted, were those which judgment could approve. When his purposes were once formed, he seldom found reason to alter them. His firmness and resolution were not often equaled. “

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 261-282. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)

The British Navigation acts created hardship for colonial farmers, narrowing their markets, mandating shipment on British ships, and imposing tariffs on imports, especially molasses. William believed in free trade, and he rallied other farmers to the cause. When the colony formed a militia, he joined and rose to the rank of major general. His eloquent speech and business connections inspired his peers to nominate him for the First Continental Congress in 1774. He served on numerous committees and remained a strong voice for independence, where New York as a whole had but tepid support for an independent America. William was the fourth signer of the Declaration during the Second Continental Congress on August 2, 1776.

Soon after the signing, Washington retreated from Boston to New York, and the British prepared to attack the city. The attack concentrated on Manhattan and its environs, but General William Howe dispatched ten thousand men further up toward Long Island. Though initially repulsed, the British were soon in possession of the entire island. William and his family were forced to flee by boat to Connecticut. The British occupied his farm, burned many of the buildings, and used his manor house as a stable for their horses. He lost virtually everything. Hannah had an especially hard time of it – the anxieties and hardships to which she had been subjected had undermined her health. The couple had three children at this point, and the fear and strain of managing them under the stress of war caused her to be ill. She died in 1781. For seven years, the family had no home and were dependent on the kindness of relatives and business associates in Connecticut.

Have any of our friends got off the Island with their families, or what must they submit to? Despotism or destruction, I fear, is their fate.

William Floyd, letter

After the war ended in 1783, William sought a new place for his family.

Peekaboo, William Floyd House

In 1784, he purchased an uninhabited tract of land upon the Mohawk River. To the clearing and subduing of this tract, he devoted the leisure of several successive summers. Under his skilful management, and persevering labors, a considerable portion of the tract was converted into a well cultivated farm; and hither, in 1803, he removed his residence. Although, at this time, he was advanced in life, his bodily strength and activity were much greater than often pertain to men of fewer years. He enjoyed unusual health, until a year or two before his death. The faculties of his mind continued unimpaired to the last. 

Colonial Hall

As he established a new home, he started a new marriage to Joanna Strong in 1784 and had two more children. In 1789, he was elected to the United States Congress, serving one term. He ran for lieutenant governor but was defeated. William served as an elector in the Electoral College for New York in two presidential elections, and then a term as a state senator, before retiring to his farm. He died in Westernville, N.Y., on August 4, 1821, aged eighty-seven years.

William was the classic self-made man and had little use for God, the Bible, or religion, making him unusual among the founding fathers. He is quoted as saying, “ The Bible has done more harm than any other book in the world.” He was a slave owner – the census records him owning six slaves. The house he built on the Mohawk, Peekaboo, still stands and is a national historic landmark.

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