Jamaica is one of Queens’ three oldest neighborhoods, along with Newtown and Flushing, and it’s no surprise that those three neighborhoods have the lion’s share of colonial-era buildings and locations. In 1655, Dutch settlers purchased acreage from the Canarsee Indians in the general neighborhood of the now-vanished Beaver Pond and set up a small community they named Rustdorp (“peaceful village”). By 1664 the Dutch had surrendered their holdings in New Netherland to the British, who renamed Rustdorp as Jamaica, an English transliteration of “Jameco,” the Indian tribe that lived near what is now called Jamaica Bay. Jamaica originally included all lands south of the present Grand Central Parkway (which explains why Jamaica is so far away from Jamaica Bay).
The Rufus King Mansion, more properly, King Manor, stands on Jamaica Avenue and 153rd Street. It was originally built in 1730 along the main route to Brooklyn Ferry at the foot of today’s Fulton Street. In 1805, Rufus King (1755-1827), who was born in what is now Maine but was then part of Massachusetts, bought and expanded the property to its present appearance. A bona fide Founding Father, he was a youthful representative at the Continental Congress from 1784-1786, a US Senator from New York in 1789, a Minister (Ambassador) to Great Britain from 1796-1803 (where he impressed the still-hostile Brits after the close of the Revolutionary War), a US Senator again from 1813 to 1825, and ran unsuccessfully for President as a Federalist against James Monroe in 1816.
King, an ardent opponent of slavery, argued: “I have yet to learn that one man can make a slave of another and if one man cannot do so, no number of individuals have any better right to do it.”
After Rufus King’s death in 1827, his son, John A. King, a congressman and NY State Governor, occupied the property, and it stayed in the family until the death of Rufus King’s granddaughter Cornelia in 1898. The Manor subsequently passed into City ownership in 1898, but it wasn’t until 1992 that it became a full-fledged museum.
Presently, King Manor features historically active period room settings, including some objects owned by the King family, and public events and concerts are held periodically. Archeological digs on the grounds have revealed much about life in Jamaica in the early 1800s. New interactive exhibits and maps tell the story of Jamaica Village and its people in the early 1800s. Call (718) 206-0545 or write to King Manor Association, 90-04 161st Street, Suite 704 Jamaica, NY 11432 for hours.
Neighboring the mansion on Jamaica Avenue is Grace Church. This high-steepled church on Jamaica Avenue off Parsons Boulevard dates to 1862, replacing an earlier edifice dating to 1822 that burned the year before. The parish itself goes back to 1702 and the surrounding churchyard to 1734.
Rufus King and his descendants were enthusiastic parishioners. John King contributed a marble baptismal font to the old church in 1847 and an organ to the new one in 1862; later, the family provided an Oxford Bible, four prayer books and a bishop’s chair. Rufus King and his wife Mary are buried in the Grace churchyard.
Oddly, an old painted ad for Castro Convertibles faces the churchyard and is invisible from anywhere else. The “first to conquer living space” seems to want to conquer space in the other world, as well.