The derivation of the name is unclear. Some speculate that it was named after the English seaport of Gravesend, Kent. An alternative explanation suggests that it was named by Willem Kieft for the Dutch settlement of "'s- Gravesande", which means "Count's Beach" or "Count's Sand". There is also a town in the Netherlands called 's-Gravenzande.
Gravesend was one of the original towns in the Dutch colony of New Netherland and became one of the six original towns of Kings County in colonial New York. It was the only English chartered town in what became Kings County and was designated the "Shire Town" when the English assumed control, as it was the only one where records could be kept in English. Courts were removed to Flatbush in 1685. The former name survives, and is now associated with a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Gravesend is notable for being founded by a woman, Lady Deborah Moody; a land patent was granted to the English settlers by Governor Willem Kieft, December 19, 1645. A prominent early settler was Anthony Janszoon van Salee.
Gravesend Town encompassed 7,000 acres (28 km²) in southern Kings County, including the entire island of Coney Island, which was originally the town's common lands on the Atlantic Ocean, divided up, as was the town itself, into 41 parcels for the original patentees. When the town was first laid out, almost half were salt marsh wetlands and sandhill dunes along the shore of Gravesend Bay.As of 2007, Gravesend had a population of 181,651.