The Race to Win Staten Island

Back in the long, long ago, New York and New Jersey fought over the islands betwixt them. Were they New York or were they New Jersey? To determine what was whose, New York proposed a race! All islands that could be encircled in less than 24 hours would belong to New York. Those not, to New Jersey. Staten Island was the big prize — then described as “the most commodiousest and richest land”. New Jersey wanted it and given the island is huge and back-in-the-day boats were slow,… …New Jersey thought the island impossible to encircle in under a day, and so it would be hers. But young New York, determined to expand her empire state, thought she had the man for the job. Captain Christopher Billopp. The clever captain, lashed empty barrels to his ship, to help catch the wind and make haste,… …and ‘twas this that made the difference, winning the race against time, … …and encircling the most commodiousest island of Staten for New York in just over twenty three hours. This delightful deed earned Billopp historical immortality in books and articles and on Wikipedia … … and the embiggened New York gifted the captain an estate, on Staten Island of course, … … that still stands today, a historical museum and park for the local Staten Island Yorkers that, … … were it not for Billopp, would find themselves Jerseyites instead. What a cute story! So *perfect* for the video about New York and New Jersey’s border disputes I’m working on. But wait, was the 24 hour race around *each island individually* or *all islands at once*? This wording isn’t clear. Might as well ask the museum about the route. I’ve always found that hometown historians happily honor hometown heroes. Well, no reason to just sit around, let’s follow the footnote trail. New York Times, 1913. [microfilm fed to microfilm reader / mouse clicking] Ok, Billopp gets inspired to put the barrels on his ship. There’s great suspense as people await their resident state fate… … and Billopp took “a little over twenty three hours” to complete his journey. That’s less than helpful and it’s a newspaper: no sources are listed, just the journalist’s name. But she did write a book six years later containing much the same story. (though the onlookers go from suspense to *throbbing suspense*) And, unlike a newspaper, there is a Bibliography (yay!) but it’s not broken down by chapter (boo!). I really don’t want to go through this. Please tell me the museum wrote back. Hmmmm Wait a minute: More than two hundred years ago? The article says almost three hundred years ago. That’s nearly a hundred years apart. When did this race even happen? Almost three hundred years ago from 1913 would be 1620-ish. But New Jersey only became New Jersey in 1664 via a royal charter. Which… does that thing even mention Billopp? Why do so many organizations put up these tiny, unreadable gif versions of their *founding documents*? Then there’s no mention of Billopp, or even Staten Island, so the race had to happen *after* the charter. Which means it’s no more than 249 years before this article. That’s the *oldest* a source could be. What’s the *youngest* reliable source that might mention the race? Well, the Supreme Court dealt with New York and New Jersey island ownership in the 90s. Does that mention Billopp? [popcorn crunching loudly over Supreme Court recording] (Grey)
Uhhooohhh [Supreme Court recording continues] (Grey)
Ohhhh, New Jersey you’re getting rekt….it’s only just begun. [popcorn crunching loudly over Supreme Court recording] (Grey)
Hahahahaha, he got you New York! [popcorn noises over Supreme Court recording] [popcorn container set down on table]
thunk (Grey)
What was I doing?? Oh right… Nothing about Billopp here, but they do mention another 1880s Supreme Court situation. But that also makes no mention of Billopp. Meanwhile the museum *still* hasn’t gotten back and I’m getting suspicious they’re avoiding me. But there is a history section on the site, saying the house was built about 1680, … … and Christoper Billopp was a filthy royal loyal … …. and his home the site of a failed peace talk … … between the righteous revolutionaries and the conquerous crown. A traitor for the video! Sweet. Wait, that’s a hundred years apart again… Oh, damn it! There’s two of them! Captain Christoper Billopp (two l’s, two p’s) and Colonel Christoper Billop (two l’s, one p) The later the great grandson of the former. Both living on Billopp Manor, Staten Island. This has caused much confusion…. But Billopp the Captain died in 1726, so the race had to happen between 1664 and then. Ok, I give up. Let’s dive into this. NOTHING IS CONSISTENT! Look, look: on Wikipedia and in the New York Times, the race took a little over 23 hours. But The Staten Islander, 1911, says the race took exactly 23 hours and 37 minutes. Where did that come from?? And the ship. Sometimes she’s an Atlantic-crossing vessel with cannons. And sometimes she’s Billopp’s personal plucky boat. Or the manor. In the earliest versions of the story, Billopp already lived on the manor. But in later versions, it was a prize for his victory. Or the barrels. *The barrels*!! In A History of Thomas and Anne Billopp Farmar and Some of their Descendants (1907), … … there’s this paragraph about the exact location where Billopp billowed the barrels. But that detail is nowhere else ever mentioned. Just here. But in the earlier Morris’s Memorial History of Staten Island (1898) … “It is said that he covered the deck of his vessels with empty barrels, thus gaining considerable sailing power.” The “it” in “it is said”… (a weaselly phrase if there ever was one) … is J. J. Clute, who wrote The Annals of Staten Island twenty years earlier, … … telling the tale with no barrels a’tall. And Clute starts his ‘history’ book saying he spoke to a bunch of old-timers … … right before they died and got stories out of them, … … to add to The Forest of All Knowledge, that otherwise would have been lost. Which is a polite way of saying: “This is oral history.” Which is a polite way of saying: “This is hearsay.” Which means: “This is a hear story.” Which means: “This isn’t history.” And so it is revealed. The tale of the race is cute and perfect because it’s a Lady Godiva story. (told long after it supposedly happened) And survived the centuries by being clever and cute. And evolving to be clever-er and cuter-er as it passed along. It’s Ye Old Meme. [Grey sighing] So much time wasted… chasing ghosts. Time to fix the record and time to let this go. [tapping fingers on desk] But… whose ghost? Tall tales take tellers. Who told this story for the first time? Reaching across the centuries to steal hours from my life, for the lulz? OK. I’ve picked up a trial that predates J.J. Clute. There’s a New York Evening Post article from 1873… (with the race, without the barrels, and where Billopp already owned the land, by the way) … that lists the prime culprit: Reverend Disosway. The ‘local chronicler’ who told the story. I’m pinning him as the old-timer Clute spoke to for his book that got the story going. There’s references to Disosway writing articles for The Richmond County Gazette … … about this race that never happened. And Staten Island’s Historical Archives have digitized *hundreds* of volumes. But having gone through *them all*, there’s no articles by Disosway. But there are some missing volumes. Now, look. I don’t want to get all conspiratorial here… About a History Museum that never wrote back. Or a Staten Island Historical Archive that just so happens to be missing the couple parts I’m looking for. But I’m in… so deep now. I’ve tracked down the only place on earth with surviving physical copies… … of the Richmond County Gazette. The New York Public Library. Who just so happens to also list the vital volumes as missing. But are they really?! Perhaps, somewhere in their archive of old and rare books are the missing editions. But alas, I live thousands of miles away. The trail ran cold, but I have the culprit’s name. Disosway (1798 to 1868) is the first tall tale teller. But the first written records are lost to history. Time to let it go. [airplane whirring] [airplane cabin noises] [airport music / people talking in the background] [traffic noises] I couldn’t let it go. I came to the New York Public Library to see for myself that Disosway’s first story… … about Billopp in the Richmond County Gazette really is missing. [loud foot steps on the marble stairs] Ohhhhh… This is it. The last place with answers. The Rare Book Room. [Grey knocking on door] (Grey, whispering loudly)
It’s really over now. I tried to talk the librarians into letting me into their rare books crypt. And, to my great surprise, they said… “No.” (librarian)
Shhhh!! (Grey, to librarian)
Sorry. (Grey, whispering more quietly)
But I did get to talk to someone who might just be the world’s expert on the The Gazette… … and confirmed to me (quite firmly) that the lost volumes really are lost. So…this is it. The end of the footnote trail. There’s nowhere left to go. [ferry horn blows] [unintelligible voice speaking over boat speaker] While I’m here, might as well go to the Billopp Museum, … … and talk to the historians who never got back to me. (chuckling)
Ignore my emails? I might just show up! You’ve got to be kidding me. They closed it! I came all this way and they closed it?!?! [Grey chuckling turns into crazed laughter] Well… at least I know the building is real. Though when and why it was built isn’t exactly nailed down. And… as far and I can know… Captain and Colonel Christopher Billops were real people, … … connected to the founding and freedom of the country. And these hooks on reality probably helped Disosway’s tale survive over the centuries. From his mouth to Clute’s ear and book, onward to others. And eventually the New York Times, to be sourced in the Wikipedia, … … to be found (I wish it had never happened) by me. But here, on the southern tip of Staten Island, … … alone and locked out of Billopp’s house, it’s really the end of the story. Nothing else waits on this island for me, but ghosts and graves. Oh!! Where is it?? [loud thunder crashes over rain sounds] I know you’re here somewhere! [rumbling thunder and rain sounds] [softer rain sounds] Ahh, hahaha. Oh, it’s amazing! [soft thunder dying out]

100 thoughts on “The Race to Win Staten Island”

  1. Your a legend for your dedication to something most wouldn’t really care that much about. It felt like a draft of a plot point in national treasure. Really enjoyed this.

  2. In the next chapter of "The Race to Win Staten Island", CGP Grey finds himself chasing his last lead in Massachusetts. After a long and treacherous drive through a nighttime thunderstorm, Grey spots a weathered sign at the end of a deserted highway, he stops and with his hands pulls away the thick moss that obscures the sign's text, "City of Arkham". After scouring the remote town's barren cobblestone streets, illuminated only by traces of dim moonlight peaking through ominously towering storm clouds, Grey discovers the entrance to the Arkham Cemetery. Grey walks in the rain and fog for what seems like far too much time, he finds the crypt of the Billopp family and ventures inside after breaking the rusty, ancient padlock securing its iron gate. Inside he finds a sarcophagus buried under centuries of dust and detritus, the name on its plaque is mysteriously scratched out. In unfathomably-growing frustration, Grey proceeds to pry it open with a crowbar. Inside, he finds only a human femur bone and a ragged scroll of parchment tucked secretively in the corner. Carefully unrolling the fragile scroll, pieces of its crumbling in his fingers, Grey nervously reads only two words written in extremely-faded ink, "Basement" and "Miskatonic". The next scene begins in an eerie subterranean vault of the Miskatonic University Library, its somehow still-candlelit stone corridors are drenched in shadows and Grey is shaken by the faint echoes of chirping bats and the clitter-clatter of untold numbers of rodents. Row upon row of rotten, warped wooden shelves stretch seemingly infinitely into the cavernous darkness in every direction, each containing countless volumes of decaying tomes of unknown, best-forgotten knowledge. Only in Chapter Three will we find out if Grey finds any more answers to the growing number of insanity-provoking questions revealed so far in his journey.

  3. lmao omg love the effort and dedication your put into this video after you said that it its over the first time I believed it was over. but then you came back and since every time after you said well trails dead… I was like but wait!!! and then when it finally did end.. I was sad

  4. I was going to offer assistance for your research since I reside in NYC, but you just had to marvel me and actually make the trip to the states.
    Apologies for the disappointment.

  5. Barrels may help when sailing with the with, but in other wind tacks, they may impede progress. Considering he had to sail around Staten Island, which would mean sailing into the wind for a portion of the trip, the barrels would be unlikely to help.

  6. Thank you so much for this video!! I’m from Staten Island and whenever I tell people about it I jokingly mention the boat race story and have never been able to give an answer about whether it’s truthful or not! Always wanted to put in some effort to research it but you saved me from losing my mind as you did.

  7. I love this! So informative and you always infuse comedy into your informational videos, but I love how off the rails this search: true chaotic goodness.

  8. Conspiracy Warning: Maybe the reason for the original accounts of the story being forever lost is because they were destroyed, maybe the race was won by illegitimate means. Could this be proven, and if it was illegitimate what would that mean for Staten Island?

  9. What are the chances I watch a visit a video about NYC the night after I get back from NYC?

    Wait I can solve this with math. Oh it's about 1.4% Still pretty rare.

  10. Emailing the SI (or any) historical society is chancy. A registered letter would be better. Calling would be better. With Skype, it wouldn't be particularly expensive. Also, if you're coming trans Atlantic, writing, calling and making sure they're going to be open and/or specifically arranging an appointment to meet with a staff member knowledgeable on the subject you're researching. Something they taught us in regards to local history research in my classes for my history degree. Local historians will generally be ecstatic to help you, an will bend over backwards. But for many of them, it's not their profession, and you have to work around their real jobs.

  11. Haha, as someone who likes to dive deep in certain facts, I understand your frustration with inconsistent stories and facts from various sources! I truly admire your tenacity and steadfastness in finding the answer! Don't think I'd ever go to those lengths! I admire (and appreciate) all the past research you have done to create your videos even more now.

  12. 5:29 That's ridiculous to say that oral stories are not history. What does history mean then? We take someone's written account of a battle and call it history, and we'll take a captains log of a sailing to the New World and call it history. What's the difference? Somebody wrote it down as a first person account?? Someone writing it themselves or having you transcribe it are the same thing. I know in this particular instance you're talking about people talking about long-ago things, but my point is more general in nature because it bugs me that I see this all the time. Today a story is just a story, but if we find a story written down 400 years ago we call it "historical fact".

  13. @1:09 : I don't understand why it would be a 24-hour race around all islands at once. If that was the interpretation of the race, then the race doesn't distinguish any island in particular and as a consequence, one race (around all islands) would determine whether all the islands, collectively, belonged to New York or New Jersey. Wasn't the race originally proposed with the intention of dividing the islands between the two states and determining which island belonged to whom (therefore, the race should be around each island separately)?

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