Sandy Ground: A Brief Look Back

Sandy Ground: A Brief Look Back

From 1985 to 1993 I worked as a naturalist at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve in Charleston. Not only was the park a nature lover’s oasis, it was a location where history was obvious at every turn of the trail. Farming, clay mining, recreation in the form of horse-back riding, rodeos, target shooting, nature studies, and more were relative subjects to the history of both Charleston and neighboring Rossville.

One nearby location that bordered the Park property was Sandy Ground. This community spoke to my “small town” childhood in Bulls Head before the invasion of mother/daughter houses in the mid-1960’s.

Sandy Ground of the 1980’s was truly a look back in time. Farms, a nineteenth century church and cemetery, oystermen cottages, and even the remnants of the Joseph Bishop blacksmith shop were still visible. Quaintly named streets included Clay Pit Road, Crabtree Avenue and Harris Lane. The latter street was actually named after a prominent family of the community. The area went by several names during its more than one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year existence including Harrisville, Little Africa, Africa, and Bogardus Corners.

Fragaria sp. Strawberry late 1700s nypl cropped

Fragaria sp., late 1700’s. New York Public Library.

Initially settled by free African-Americans who established a farming community in 1828, the Sandy Ground soil was “poor.” It was sandy and dry in some locations, and bogged down with clay in other locations. A difficult terrain to grow crops, the residents persevered and soon determined which produce would best succeed. Hence blueberry, peanut, yam, asparagus, and strawberry plantings prospered. (I should note that the best strawberries I have ever tasted came from this region. Luscious sweet goodness with juices that left one’s hand with a reddish stain, these strawberries were a hearty-red throughout, unlike the waxy-white dead specimens offered in supermarkets today.)

Detail Coltons Map of SI 1889 Ross to PB nypl

Detail of Colton’s Staten Island Map, 1889, showing Rossville south to the Raritan Bay.

Oystermen from Snow Hill, Maryland arrived in Sandy Ground during the late 1840s. They too were free African-Americans. Unfortunately, they lived in a slave state that was enacting laws to restrict both their lives and their freedom. Proximity to the Raritan Bay and its oyster beds made Sandy Ground the chosen site of their new home. While the Raritan Bay was not too far, it was still a lengthy three-mile march to reach their skiffs at Princes Bay each morning. (Of course that walk had to be repeated each evening to get home.) The Bishop, Henman, Landin, Purnell, Robbins, and Stevens families were all from Snowhill, Maryland.

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A Rossville house consumed by fire on April 20, 1963. Courtesy of the Staten Island Advance.

Pollution killed the oyster-beds, thus destroying the livelihood of many Sandy Ground residents. A 1930’s fire along with the horrific fire of April 20, 1963 (“Black Saturday”), further devastated the community and its members. Finally, with land prices soaring in southern Staten Island during the 1990’s, many of the residents sold their valuable properties to developers who replicated the devastating building activities of central Staten Island during the 1960’s.

One individual who lived in Sandy Ground was William “Pop” Pedro. Mr. Pedro was known throughout Staten Island. When he passed in 1988, at the age of 106, he was missed for many reasons including his historical memory for the events and people that comprised this unique community. Roots author Alex Haley even visited Sandy Ground to meet with Mr. Pedro. Not nearly as famous as Mr. Haley, my father was the Prudential insurance representative of the Pedro family.

Researchers have verified that individuals using the Underground Railroad passed through Staten Island. It is further believed that the original Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Sandy Ground was a meeting location for those escaping slavery.

Today, the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the Rossville AME Zion Church and Cemetery, two landmarked oystermen cottages, and a scattering of residents are still found in the community. The Historical Society is located at 1538 Woodrow Road. More can be gleaned about the community at the museum and at: sandygroundhistoricalsociety.org

Sandy Ground Memories by L Mosely Book CoverThe wonderful book “Sandy Ground Memories” by Lois Mosley was published several years ago. It contains ample information on the community and can be purchased at the Gift Shop of Historic Richmond Town. For further information visit: historicrichmondtown.org

For details on the 1963 fire that afflicted Sandy Ground see “Black Saturday’ Scorched Staten Island 50 Years Ago” at silive.com

Sincere thanks to Barb Hemedinger and Gina Sacco for their assistance with this blog. Copyright 2016 by Patricia M. Salmon

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