Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, December 02, 2005

John Hunter of Hunter's Island in Pelham, New York

During the 19th century, when wealthy New Yorkers built some of the nation's most spectacular mansions along the shore of the Long Island Sound in the Town of Pelham, the mansion of one wealthy New Yorker stood out among all others. It was the home of John Hunter on Hunter's Island in Long Island Sound. The mansion since has been razed and the "island" is now attached to the mainland due to landfill used to create Orchard Beach Park. In its heyday, however, the mansion contained the nation's finest private collection of old master art and was even the locale for a visit from U.S. President Martin Van Buren. See Historic Pelham Blog Posting, November 3, 2005: President Martin Van Buren's Visit to Pelham in July 1839. Today's Historic Pelham Blog Posting will provide biographical information about John Hunter.

John Hunter was born in 1778. He was a privileged and well-educated young man who graduated from Columbia College. His father, Robert Hunter, was a wealthy merchant engaged in the “auctioneering and commission business” in New York City in the late 18th century.
As a young man, John joined his father’s firm. On April 28, 1799, John married one of the nation’s wealthiest heiresses, Elizabeth Desbrosses. Her estates reportedly included nearly two and a half million acres of land including real estate in Delaware, Sullivan and Green Counties as well as “many pieces of New York City real estate”.

Robert Hunter seems to have turned over his auctioneering and commission business to his son at about the time of John’s marriage to Elizabeth Desbrosses. Barely a week after the marriage – and shortly before Robert Hunter’s death – an advertisement appeared on May 8, 1799 announcing that Robert’ Hunter’s firm had been renamed “John Hunter & Co.”

For a short time, John and Elizabeth lived in New York City in a home located at No. 5 State Street that John purchased on April 1, 1801. Some time between 1804 and 1812, John Hunter purchased an island known as Appleby’s Island and two tiny nearby islands know as the Twin Islands located off the shore of the Manor of Pelham.

Though many have searched, no one has yet located a deed of sale reflecting the purchase. There seem to have been problems with Hunter’s title to the islands since he reportedly filed a lawsuit to clear his title to the land. Appleby’s Island soon became known as “Hunter’s Island”.
Hunter’s Island rose to a peak at its center. There, John Hunter built a large English Georgian mansion of stone. It commanded views of Long Island Sound to the east and the hills and woodlands of the Town of Pelham to the west.

The central portion of the structure was a two-story square with a basement. It had one-story balanced wings on either side. The mansion had quoined stone corners, stone window sills and stone keystones above the windows. The front and rear façades included large Palladian windows and a verandah overlooked the formal terraced gardens cascading to the edge of Long Island Sound. According to one source, “[t]he style of the Mansion was so similar to the style of the old City Hall of New York City, that the two structures might well have been the work of the same architect.”

The New York Herald reported in 1839 that Hunter based the mansion and the surrounding estate on the grand estate of the Duke of Buckingham and its adjacent Stowe Landscape Gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, England. Hunter built a stone causeway and a bridge from the island to the mainland. Not long after the causeway and bridge were built, however, Elizabeth Desbrosses Hunter was badly injured when thrown from her carriage on the causeway. She lived in the mansion as an invalid until she died in 1831.

For more than forty years John Hunter lived the life of a country squire in his magnificent mansion. He died on September 12, 1852 on Hunter’s Island.

Please Visit the Historic Pelham Web Site
Located at
Please Click Here for Index to All Blog Postings.


Post a Comment

<< Home