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Queens Chronicle

Religious freedom makes Bowne special

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Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2010 12:00 am

There are no paintings or drawings of Flushing founding father John Bowne, but he remains an unforgettable presence throughout the community.

Bowne, a merchant and farmer, is most remembered for standing up to tyrannical Dutch Gov. Peter Stuyvesant, who refused to let Quakers meet in what was then New Amsterdam. Bowne thus became the first person to address religious freedom in the New World.

Born in England, he came to Boston in 1648, eventually married and moved to Flushing in 1661, where he bought land from the Matinecock Indians for eight strings of wampum, about $14. The farmer built his house at 37-01 Bowne St., which still stands.

His wife, Hannah, was a Quaker and Bowne converted, allowing members to meet at their home, in defiance of Stuyvesant’s edict.

The Flushing man was arrested in 1662 but refused to pay the fine imposed for his disobedience or leave the Dutch province. He was jailed, deported and eventually made his way to the Netherlands, where he brought his case to the Dutch West India Co. and won.

Bowne was gone two years. He faced hardships, as did his wife, who was left to run the farm herself. But he returned bearing documents for Stuyvesant ordering him to allow people of all faiths to worship freely.

Bowne left extensive writings in his diary and wrote after he returned to New Amsterdam on Jan. 30, 1664: “and the same day I came to my own house, being the first house I ventured into in the country, where I found my family in good health. Praises to the Lord forever!”

The Flushing farmer’s house is one of the oldest surviving structures in New York City and the oldest in Queens. Part of its uniqueness lies in the fact that nine generations of Bownes occupied the house, keeping the furniture, clothing and artifacts intact.

It was purchased by the Bowne House Historical Society in 1947 and was open on a regular basis for tours until 2000. Some renovations followed its closure but the group eventually ran out of money.

Last year, the historical society donated the house to the city Parks Department as part of the Historic House Trust. The move enables the society to continue to run the historic house and be responsible for its content, but the HHT owns it.

An estimated $5 million upgrade expected to begin soon will include restoration work on the house and creation of a visitors center and offices in the former garage. The project is supposed to take two years.

In his later years, Bowne served in the provincial assembly of New York, and he is listed in the “Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy” as an active member and treasurer in 1691.

The Quakers continued to meet at Bowne’s house for 30 years. In 1692, he sold the group land near his home for a meeting house that remains in use today on Northern Boulevard.

Bowne died in 1695, at the age of 68. He outlived two wives, was married three times and had 16 children, although five died at a young age. His descendants included Robert Bowne, the founder of a financial printing company that still exists; Walter Bowne, a mayor and the namesake for Bowne Park; and Samuel Parsons Jr., a landscape architect and city Parks Department superintendent.

Aside from his eponymous house, which will be open to the public when restoration is complete, is the street where he lived. Bowne Street runs from Northern Boulevard to Rose Avenue in Flushing.

PS 20 at 142-30 Barclay Ave. bears his name as does John Bowne High School at 63-25 Main St. Its specialty is agriculture.

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