Title: Brooklyniana; A Series of Local Articles, Past and Present
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: June 3, 1861
Publication information: Daily Standard 3 June 1861: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00253
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
A Series of Local Articles, Past and Present.1
A New York Journal, a few days ago, made the remark in the course of one of its articles, that the whole spirit of a floating and changing population like ours, is antagonistic to the recording and preserving of what traditions we have of the American Past. This is probably too true. Few think of the events and persons departed from the stage, now in the midst of the turmoil and excitement of the great play of life and business going on around us. Especially is this the case in the huge cities of our Atlantic seaboard, like Brooklyn and New York, filled with a comparatively fresh population, not descendants of the old residenters, and without hereditary interest in the locations and their surroundings. Of course, such traditionary interest is not to be expected in the Great Far West, either, at present. The settlers there have to construct the foundations of their own and society's edifice, with due firmness and security, long before they can have leisure for such retrospections.
Still there will come a time, here in Brooklyn, and all over America, when nothing will be of more interest than authentic reminiscences of the past. Much of it will be made up of subordinate "memoirs," and of personal chronicles and gossip—but we think every portion of it will always meet a welcome from the large mass of American readers.
The foundation of the personnel of the settlement of Brooklyn, as is well known, comes from the Holland Dutch. In some respects, this side of the river has more claims to be considered the representative first settlement of the Dutch in the New World, than the location of our neighbors over westward of the East River. For the Island of Manhattan, when pitched upon by the first voyageurs from Amsterdam, was selected mainly as their outpost or place for a trading station, a store and fort—and not for residences. Their residence, even from the beginning, was here. Manhattan Island, sterile and sandy, on a foundation of rock, was not an inviting looking spot, but bleak, sterile, and rough. So the first employees of the great Amsterdam Trading Association, (the Dutch West India Company,) made their settlement here on the aboriginal Island of Paumanok, (or Paumanake, as it is also sometimes spelt in the old Indian deeds.) Here, on the west end of this said Paumanok Island, they found a beautifully, rich country, sufficiently diversified with slopes and hills, well wooded, yet with open grounds enough—to their eyes, indeed, (used to the flats and dykes, and treeless tameness of their native Belgic dominions,) a superb paradise of a country. And here they settled.2
We do not design to undertake, at present, the sketch of the early settlement of Brooklyn, by the Dutch, although we purpose doing so in another of our papers,—or in some other form;—for it is every way worthy of being preserved, for the use of future Brooklynites.
The official records of Brooklyn are to be traced back, in an unbroken line, as far back as 1671—although we believe the existence of the township, as an organization, dates a number of years before that period. At that date, authority was wielded under the umbrage of a charter granted by the States General of Holland, to the Amsterdam Trading Company, (the Dutch West India Company), who deputed both civil and ecclesiastical power as to them seemed fit—yet always, with candor be it said, for the advantage and improvement of the common people, and not for the selfish interests of a few. In this respect they made a marked contrast with the action of the powers afterward, under the English royal charters, whose action seemed always to be wielded with reference to the glory and profit of some minion of the court—and whatever franchises the people secured, they only got by turbulent complaints, sullen anger, or hard fighting.
Under the Dutch charter, a town organization was early effected, the principal officer being simply a "town clarke." In 1671, this position was held by Herr Narcissus de Sille—who continued in place for several years afterwards. The subordinate trustees were, during the same period, two other worthy men, immigrants also from Holland, named Frederick Lubertse and Peter Pernideau.
In 1675, the direction of their primitive municipal affairs, by the settlers, was confided to Michael Hainelle, who seems to have given great satisfaction, for he was continued in office down to 1690—being only re-chosen every year.3
During this period, however, the English held the governorship of the province, having taken it in 1664. It is true, in the war of 1672, commenced by the English Charles 2d against the Dutch, the latter had, for a short time, resumed possession of their own colony, taking it under a fleet of ships from Holland—but the English soon re-took it again—or rather it was returned to them in 1674. Sir Edmund Andros was then sent over from England as governor.4
Still, the settlement of Brooklyn, and Manhattan Island, to all intents and purposes, was essentially Dutch, not only in its social and religious, but in its political customs and institutions. Be it remembered too, that the Dutch were ahead of all other races in their regard for moral and intellectual development. At the very earliest, schools and churches were established.
In this connection, as there has been, among Brooklyn and New York antiquaries, something of a dispute as to when the first Hollandic clergyman was sent over, we may mention a discovery, made by our Minister to the Hague, Henry C. Murphy,5 which sets this question at rest. It is proved that almost contemporary with the settlement of Brooklyn and New York, (1623–30,) the thoughtful providers in the mother country, under the grant from the States General, thought it incumbent on them to send out a "Dominie," almost in the first party of emigrants. The discovery we allude to is of an original letter, in the old Amsterdam archives, of which Mr. Murphy sends a translation, which we have seen. It proves, as we say, that there was an accredited minister sent out, at the very commencement. The name of this minister was Johannes Michaelius, and this letter is written, "at Manhatas, in Nieu-Netherland," in the year 1628. It describes his coming out to this same Brooklyn of ours, his experiences on his voyage, and the appearance and condition of the county and people here and in what is now New York city. The letter is a very great curiosity, and undoubtedly authentic. It is addressed to Dominie Adrianus Smoutries, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church at Amsterdam. It was found among the papers of the late Jacobus Korning, Clerk of the Fourth Judicial District of Amsterdam, and comes to light through the researches of Mr. Nijenpias, an explorer of Dutch records. We think our readers will join us in the assumption that this letter, with the mould of over two hundred and thirty years upon it, and relating exclusively to the settlement of these parts by one of the most interesting races of the earth, is a relic of profound sanctity to all Brooklynites, and that we ought to have it verbatim.
The schoolmaster was also provided for, from the beginning. A school was required to be kept up in the settlement, and provision made for the support of the teacher. We have data of such old Dutch schools, here in Brooklyn, and at Flatbush, very far back. The original Dutch, it ought to be known, were among the most learned nations of Europe. The universities of Holland were among the best. Libraries were well stocked—and the invention of printing was really discovered there.
As an evidence of the sturdy spirit of those ancient days, existing in Brooklyn, we find the following old record, relating to 1696. At this time the English Governor, Schuyler, was not very popular among the people; and there was a war (simply a king's quarrel,) carried on between the English authorities, and the French in Canada. The following is the record:
A small treason in Brooklyn, by some Dutch citizens, in 1696.
September 14—about 8 o'clock in the evening, John Rapale, Isaac Remsen, Joras Yannester, Joras Dainelse Rapale, Jacob Ryerson, Alert Aersen, Tunis Buys-Garret Cowenhoven, Gabriel Sprong, Urian Andries, John Williams Bennett, Jacob Bennett, and John Meserole, jr., met armed, at the Court House of Kings, where they destroyed and defaced the Kings' arms, which were hanging up there.
So that you see there was rebellion in the blood of the settlers here, almost from the beginning.
In architecture we used to have a few notable specimens of early Dutch building, existing in the City of Brooklyn, but we believe all are now removed. There is, however, one exception. Have our readers never heard or seen, "the old iron 9's"? This is the slang name, among the boys of Brooklyn, for probably the oldest house on Long Island, yet standing in Gowanus. It is in part stone and part brick, and was built in 1699 by NICHOLAS VECHTE, and is known as the Cortelyou House.6 It was the headquarters of the Commander-in-chief previous to the battle of Long Island.7 The body of the house is of stone; the gable ends, above the caves, of brick imported from Holland; and the date is in iron figures upon one gable end, in the mason work.
1. The "Brooklyniana" series, published anonymously, consists of twenty-five historical articles. The composition history of the pieces remains unclear. Luke Mancuso believes that Whitman began writing these histories of Brooklyn after the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 and contends that the articles were Whitman's attempt at forging a restorative nostalgia for the people of Brooklyn during a time of crisis. See Mancuso, "Civil War," in A Companion to Walt Whitman, ed. Donald D. Kummings (Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons, 2009), 293–294. More recently, however, Ted Genoways has questioned the argument about "nostalgia," holding that "there is ample evidence to suggest that the overwhelming majority of the material in 'Brooklyniana' was recycled from a book of Brooklyn history that Whitman was planning and drafting in the early 1850s," while editing the Brooklyn Freeman. See Genoways, Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America's Poet during the Lost Years of 1860–1862 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 108. [back]
2. Paumanok, meaning "land of tribute," was the aboriginal Lenape name for Long Island. Whitman often used this name for Long Island, and he also used the pseudonym "Paumanok" for some of his early work. For more on Whitman's associations with Paumanok, see Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman's Native Representations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 85–87. [back]
3. Michael Hainelle served as town clerk of Brooklyn from sometime around 1667 until the 1690s. He was partially responsible for the expansion of Brooklyn into swamplands on the East River. [back]
4. Sir Edmund Andros later became governor of the short-lived Dominion of New England, a union of several English colonies, established in 1686 by King James II. Andros was deposed as a result of the 1689 Boston Revolt. [back]
5. Henry Cruse Murphy, in addition to his tenure as a statesman, was also an author and translator, served as Brooklyn mayor and congressman, co-founded the Brooklyn Eagle in 1841, and helped develop Coney Island. [back]
6. The house that came to be known as the Cortelyou House was built in 1699 by the Vechte family, Dutch immigrants to New York. Jacques Cortelyou did not take possession of it until 1790. In the 1870s the historic house became a temporary clubhouse for the upstart Brooklyn Dodgers. [back]
7. The "commander-in-chief" to whom Whitman refers is George Washington, who used the Cortelyou house as his headquarters before the Battle of Long Island in 1776. During the battle, however, British troops under the command of General Howe occupied the house. [back]