STATEN ISLAND — Staten Island might have the nickname the Forgotten Borough, but it was anything but during the Revolutionary War.
The 102-square-mile borough was a key location that both armies hoped to secure in order to control access to the Hudson River. It was mostly taken over by British troops starting in 1776 — including the forces that fought in the Battle of Brooklyn, which is marking its 239th anniversary this week.
"All of New York is like a funnel that leads into the Hudson River, and who controls the Hudson River controls a lot of the land to the north," said Felicity Bell, director of education and programs at Historic Richmond Town. "Staten Island is like the cork in the bottle. They wanted to be sure to control that square on the chess board."
From June 28, 1776 to July 5, 1776, a total of 130 British ships sailed to Staten Island and occupied the coastline of the mainly loyalist borough.
By mid-August about 32,000 troops camped all around the island, mainly occupying what is now New Dorp and Old Town, Bell said.
"We were a staging ground for the troops coming, and we were the last part of the U.S. that troops left at the end of the war," she said.
Bell said she couldn't determine the exact spot where 10,000 British troops led by General William Howe set sail from Staten Island to fight the American army in Brooklyn Heights. But John Meth, 75, a tour guide at the Conference House Park, said they likely left near where thousands of commuters leave for work every day — the St. George Ferry Terminal.
Others put the location closer to where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge now stands.
Meth said the crushing defeat of the Revolutionaries in Brooklyn led them to send a three-person delegation — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Ruthledge — to Staten Island for a peace conference with the British on Sept. 11, 1776.
They chose another staging ground for British troops in the borough, Col. Christopher Billop's home at the far end of Tottenville, which still stands today and can be visited for tours.
"The expectations were pretty low," Meth said about the failed conference. "The Americans didn't want to make peace. If the peace conference would've succeeded it would've changed American history forever. The war would've ended right there. We all would be British citizens."
Eventually when the war did end, the British left many places in the borough in a state of ruin, Bell said.
"The British Army cut down our woods, burned down our fences, ate our livestock and forced us to hide their livestock in nearby New Jersey," she said. "Our role was involuntary host and hostesses."
The museum even has a letter in its archives written by the widow Ann Perine to the British government asking for help because its troops destroyed her farm and took some items.
While Bell said they have no record of the outcome of the letter, she guessed the British didn't help Perine.
Aside from leaving some historic farms in shambles, the Revolutionary War might have also left something supernatural behind in Staten Island.
Legend has it that Col. Billop killed his housekeeper, who had ratted him out to American soldiers who then kidnapped him. As the story goes, their ghosts still haunt the house today, Meth said.
"For generations, people have been coming claiming they see the ghost of Col. Billop and the servant girl," said Meth, who has never seen the spirits himself.
They might not be alone in the house, as the son of a former caretaker woke up one night to see a British soldier with a hole in his head in his room, Meth said.
Events commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn continue in New York City through Aug. 30.