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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Francis Lewis: A Revolutionary Life

Happy Independence Day!

You may not realize what a close connection Staatsburgh and the Mills family have to the events we commemorate by recognizing Independence Day as a national holiday.  Ruth and Ogden were born about eighty years after the momentous event, but there is a family connection!  Mrs. Mills' great-great grandfather was a member of the Continental Congress and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  We know that Ruth took considerable pride in her ancestors because several historic documents relating to Francis Lewis and other illustrious fore-bearers were displayed in the house.

Francis Lewis (1713-1802)

Biographical Information

Born in 1713 to a Reverend in Llandaff, Wales, Francis Lewis was orphaned at a young age and began his education in Scotland and at Westminster School in England.  In 1734, at age 21, he immigrated to New York and began to work as a businessman.  He founded businesses in New York and Philadelphia that became very successful after receiving lucrative contracts to provide provisions to the British Army stationed in America.  With these businesses he traveled extensively throughout Europe and even went as far as Russia and the coast of Africa.  Various stories have circulated about his travels including shipwrecks in Ireland and the rescue of three young kidnapped children on the African coast, but life's excitement did not slow after these excursions..

The marriage certificate of Francis Lewis and Elizabeth Annesley dated June 15, 1745

In 1745 he married Elizabeth Annesley, the younger sister of his business partner.  One of the documents at Staatsburgh is their marriage certificate.  They had seven children, but only three survived infancy.  One of the two sons, Morgan Lewis (Ruth's great-grandfather), would serve during the Revolutionary War and later become Governor of New York State.

Political Life 

Lewis worked in service of his newly adopted land and served as a volunteer aide to General Hugh Mercer during the French and Indian War.  In 1756, while Mercer was stationed in Oswego, NY, Lewis was captured by the French and taken to France as a prisoner of war.  When the war ended, he was released and returned to New York, and was given 5,000 acres of land for his service.  He settled with his family in Whitestone, NY, but continued to do business in New York City.

This document, displayed at Staatsburgh, is a receipt for $748 from the Continental Congress to the State of NY; signed by Francis Lewis and dated November 6, 1776.

As tensions began to grow between the colonists and the homeland, the issue of taxation without representation inspired Lewis to move his loyalty from the Crown to the growing Revolutionary movement.  He joined the Sons of Liberty and his participation in the movement grew.  He personally helped to finance the purchase of weapons and supplies for the Continental Army. He also became a member of the Committee of Sixty, a group that was formed to protest the closure of Boston's port.  In 1775 he was elected to the Continental Congress and remained a member until 1779.  On July 4, 1776, he was one of 56 men to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Mrs. Lewis, Prisoner of War

Lewis' devotion to the revolutionary cause came at a high personal cost. During the autumn of 1776, the British army destroyed his Whitestone estate, and took his wife prisoner.  She was imprisoned in a damp, unheated and filthy prison, which was devastating to her health.  She remained a prisoner, reportedly without a bed or change of clothes, for many months because the Continental Army had no women of similar status in captivity for whom George Washington could orchestrate an exchange. Neither Mrs. Lewis' health nor the couple's fortune ever recovered from the attack.  After her release, she was not able to recover her health and died two years later at age 64.

During his final years, Lewis was a vestryman at Trinity Church in Manhattan and when he died on December 31, 1802 in New York City, he was buried in the church's cemetery.


Although he wasn't as well remembered as many of the founding fathers, Francis Lewis was included in the play turned movie '1776.' Today Francis Lewis Park in Whitestone, Queens is adjacent to the spot where his home stood before it was destroyed by the British.

Whitestone, NY - The home of Francis Lewis until it was destroyed by the British in 1777.

In addition, Francis Lewis High School, a public school in Queens, and P.S. 79 "The Francis Lewis School" were named after him, but the most well known thing bearing his name is Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens, which stretches nearly the whole length of the borough. Many visitors come to Staatsburgh familiar with Francis Lewis Boulevard, but not the road's namesake.  When they take the tour, they are finally able to make the connection between the road and the man.

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