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John Seaman: Founding Father

A look at the history of Levittown.

The ancient Roman adage, Si monumentum requiris circumspice - also the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren in London's St. Paul's - applies well to William J. Levitt. What, I wonder, will be his impact in 2312? That seems odd but consider the impact of Capt. John Seaman some three hundred-eighteen years after his death.

John Seaman, born in Essex, was one of nearly 900 English immigrants to arrive in Massachusetts on the Winthrop Fleet in 1630; part of the Great Puriatan Migration in which some 20,000 people settled in New England and on Long Island in the quarter century after Plymouth Rock. 

Amongst those who arrived in the New World with him was John Strickland, an original settler of Charlestown, Mass., who relocated in Hempstead; Robert Williams whose 1648 land purchase included present-day Hicksville, Syosset, and Woodbury; and Capt. John Underhill a soldier in the 1636 Pequot War which pitted the Wampanoags and their English allies against the Peqots and Narragansetts. 
 
Underhill eventually became the first settler of Locust Valley. All four men seemed to have been acquainted with one another by the time they joined the Rev. Robert Fordham, his son-in-law John Carman, and some forty other proprietors of the Hempstead Purchase of 1643 wherein vast tracks of land in the current Town of Hempstead were obtained from the Massapequan Indians.

In 1648, Stickland was given four hundred acres of land by Peter Stuyvesant. This included what's now the southern portion of the Island Trees School District in Levittown, but in 1666 he either sold or gifted it to Seaman whose first wife, Elizabeth, was his daughter. By that time, Seaman already owned hundreds of acres of land from the 1664 Jerusalem Purchase whose boundaries would include include southeastern Levittown and most of Seaford and Wantagh. 

Capt. Seaman is thus the Founding Father of the latter two communities and although his farmhouse, Cherrywood, was located near where its namesake shopping center is situated on Wantagh Avenue, his farm extended into what's now Levittown and he is, by consequence, our first European settler. In addition to the eight sons who'd carry the Seaman name on into the early 20th Century in our area, he also had six daughters.

Although a farmer, he was also a professional surveyor and in 1679, sometime after his conversion, he held Quaker meetings in his home. It is this latter activity that was most significant because all throughout the period of government by the Dutch West India Company (1609-64), what's now Nassau and Queens became the second largest concentration of Quakers in the New World; religious minorities enjoying tolerance uncommon by 17th Century standards. By the time the Duke of York seized control of the colony, the Quakers were well established. His endeavor to crack-down on religious and political liberties led to considerable political turmoil which lasted until his overthrow in 1688 by William, the Prince of Nassau-Orange.

Seaman's status as an important landowner, membership in a cadre of prominent colonists bound by their Quaker faith and common economic interests, and his rapport and friendship with local Indian sachems kept him politically active and influential by the time of John Townsend of Oyster Bay and Thomas Powell of Bethpage oversaw his will in 1695.     

From this one man the Seaman clan grew considerably in our area and it has been estimated that by 1873 half the people living in the Jerusalem/Island Trees area (now southern Levittown and northern Wantagh) were his descendants. By this time, too, the three decades of German immigration into our area via the LIRR at Hicksville (1837), Wantagh/Jerusalem (1867), and Island Trees (1873) were beginning to radically alter the ethno-cultural dynamic of the area; five thousand new immigrants alone arriving in 1870. It was the great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of these newcomers who'd work the potato farms upon which Levittown was built.     

 The legacy of the original 1664 Jerusalem Purchase accerted itself in the early 1930's in a lawsuit between Capt. Seaman's descendants and New York State; the latter imposing eminent domain in establishing the course of the Wantagh State Parkway. The treaty with the Massapequan whereby Seaman and his descendants would forevermore claim dominion was no match for Robert Moses.     

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org.

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