Who was William Floyd

A portrait of William Floyd

William Floyd was the first delegate from New York that signed the Declaration of Independence. The first son of Nicoll and Tabitha Floyd, he was born on the south shore of Long Island on December 17, 1734. His father purchased the Mastic Beach property in 1724 and built the Old Mastic house to serve as the family's home. At the age of 20, William inherited the estate after the passing of his parents, four months apart, in 1755.

"The Floyds were a prominent family and William quickly developed a successful career in politics at national, state, and local levels while maintaining the family plantation. Labor-intensive agricultural crops as well as cattle, sheep, hogs, and fowl all required tending. Floyd relied on both free and enslaved labor on the farm and domestic help in the manor house. The Federal Census of 1790 records that the William Floyd household held 14 people as slaves, and five free people of color. Over the next 20 years, the Floyds owned fewer people of African descent and employed more, keeping the number of people of color roughly the same on the estate. Many others lived in the vicinity of the estate and found work with the Floyds. Native Americans from the Unkechaug tribe were settled on the nearby Poospatuck Indian Reservation as early as 1700. Unkechaug peoples married with free and enslaved African Americans, and their descendants remain in the area. (Source: Mapping the African American Past - Columbia University)

The early education of young Floyd, by no means corresponded to the wealth and ability of his father. His studies were limited to a few of the useful branches of knowledge, and these were left unfinished, in consequence of the death of that gentleman. The native powers of Floyd were, however, respectable, and his house being the resort of an extensive circle of connections and acquaintance, which included many intelligent and distinguished families, his mind, by the intercourse which he thus enjoyed with those who were enlightened and improved, became stored with rich and varied knowledge. His wealth enabled him to practice a generous hospitality, and few enjoyed the society of friends with more pleasure.

At an early period in the controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, the feelings of Mr. Floyd were strongly enlisted in the cause of the latter. These sentiments on his part excited a reciprocal confidence on the part of the people, and led to his appointment as a delegate from New York to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia on the fifth of September, 1774. In the measures adopted by that body, so justly eulogized by the advocates of freedom, from that day to the present, Mr. Floyd most heartily concurred.

In the following year, he was again elected a delegate to congress, and continued a member of that body until after the Declaration of American Independence. On that occasion, he assisted in dissolving the political bonds which had united the colonies to the British government. Into other measures of congress, Mr. Floyd entered with zeal. He served on numerous important committees, and by his fidelity rendered essential service to the patriotic cause.

It was the lot of not a few, while thus devoted to the public good, to experience the destructive effects of the war upon their property, or the serious inconveniences arising from it in relation to their families. In both these respects, Mr. Floyd suffered. While at Philadelphia, attending upon congress, the American troops evacuated Long Island, which was taken possession of by the British army. On this latter event, the family of Mr. Floyd were obliged to flee for safety to Connecticut. His house was occupied by a company of horsemen, which made it the place of their rendezvous during the remainder of the war. Thus, for nearly seven years, Mr. Floyd and his family were refugees from their habitation, nor did he, during this long period, derive any benefit from his landed estate.

In the year 1777, General Floyd was appointed a senator of the state of New York, under the new constitution. In this body, he assisted to organize the government, and to accommodate the code of laws to the changes which had recently been put into effect in the political condition of the state.

In October, 1778, he was again elected to represent the state of New York in the Continental Congress. From this time, until the expiration of the first congress, under the federal constitution, General Floyd was either a member of the national assembly, or a member of the senate of New York. In this latter body, he maintained a distinguished rank, and was often called to preside over its deliberations, when the lieutenant governor left the chair.

In 1784, he purchased an uninhabited tract of land upon the Mohawk River in upstate New York. To the clearing and subduing of this tract, he devoted the leisure of several successive summers. Under his skillful 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. A little previous to his death, he appeared to be affected with a general debility, which continuing to increase, the lamp of life was at length extinguished. This event occurred on the 4th of August, 1821, and when he had attained to the age of 87.

In his person, General Floyd was of a middle stature. He possessed a natural dignity, which seldom failed to impress those into whose company he kept. 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.

In his political character, he was uniform and independent. He manifested great candor and sincerity toward those from whom he happened to differ; and such was his well known integrity, that his motives were rarely, if ever, impeached. He seldom took part in the public discussion of a subject, nor was he dependent upon others for the opinions which he adopted. By the end of his life, General Floyd was honored with offices of trust and responsibility for more than 50 years.

Floyd Family
The William Floyd Estate had been inhabited by members of the family for about 250 years, with the exception of seven, during the American Revolution when the British took over the homestead. Quoting Lynda Day, Brooklyn College Professor of Africana Studies, making the observation that the slaves appear to be an “extended family. And, indeed, William Floyd must have trusted his slaves enough that he gave them guns during the Revolutionary War for them to fight to preserve his property and to preserve their home against the British.” The family escaped to Middletown, CT, in 1776, and when they returned the estate had been plundered. Their family documents had been burned but other historic records have been preserved stating that slavery was first brought to America by the English at their settlement of Jamestown. The first slave documented in the Town of Brookhaven was in December 1672, Richard Floyd, William Floyd’s great-grandfather, purchased a man named Antony. Over the years the family’s attitude changed about slavery, and in 1862, John Gelston Floyd, Jr., the great-grandson of William Floyd, enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He saw his second cousin and commanding officer, Captain Franklin B. Crosby, getting killed in action. (Source: Oyster Bay Enterprise-Pilot - "Slave Graves in Black and White" photographic exhibit by Xiomáro).

Click here to read about John Gelston Floyd Jr. during the Civil War (Source: National Park Service) and click here to read an article about John Gelston Floyd Jr. exhibit at the William Floyd Estate (Source: Long Island Advance).