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At the end of the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a reporter says, “when the legend become fact, print the legend.” While that might make great theater, it is an issue for historians. How do you separate legend from fact? Can they be separated? Most historians look for empirical evidence but this kind of “proof” is not always available. Even this type of “evidence” is not always accurate leaving historians to depend a good deal on circumstantial or the preponderance evidence to draw their conclusions.
Staten Island, like any other region, has its own share of legends and folklore. Some are easy to dismiss others are not. One of the most enduring stories surrounds how Staten Island became part of New York instead of New Jersey.
Mayors and even scholars have repeated the story of a boat race with Staten Island going to the winner. Even the venerable New York Times published stories on March 8, 1903 and again on September 18, 1921 recounting the tail of how a British Captain named Billopp saved Staten Island for New York. While a great story is it true? Leng and Davis had this to say about the legend, “We have found no contemporary record to prove the statement; nor, on the other hand, any other sufficient explanation of the favors so bountifully bestowed upon him.” OK, there is no “empirical evidence” so let us take a look at what evidence there is.