Title: Brooklyniana; A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: June 5, 1861
Publication information: Daily Standard 5 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.00254
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present1
It is well known that the original stock of the settlement of King's County was from Holland. We do not think, however, it is generally appreciated how superior in physical, moral, and mental qualities, that original stock certainly was. Nor have our readers, probably, (at least many of them,) any definite and fixed dates in their minds of the settlement and growth of what is now our great city. To fill these deficiencies we will devote this paper to those dates, and to some reminiscences handed down of the early stock.
The year 1609 was the era of the discovery of Brooklyn, and of Manhattan Island, by Hendrick Hudson, who was prosecuting a voyage of discovery, having for its main purpose the long-desired object of a direct western passage from Europe to the Indias. Hudson entered here and discovered the North River, Long Island, and what is now New York island.2 His representations induced his employers, the Dutch, to take steps for the immediate occupation of the new region.
In 1613 there were four houses on Manhattan island, occupied by Europeans—these were down towards where the Battery now is. By the succeeding year the new comers had ascended to what is now Albany, and built a strong edifice, called a "Block-house," (Fort Nassau,) for purposes of security and trade.
In 1614 the government of the Hague specifically claimed the whole territory between Canada and Virginia as theirs, under the name of the New Netherlands. This was the first determined official recognition.
In 1821 the States General gave a Charter or act of incorporation to a powerful company under the name of the Dutch West India Company who among other franchises were invested with full powers to govern the above-mentioned province. This was the commencement of [the existence of Brooklyn as a political community.] 3
The first serious attempts at planting a settlement here were in 1618. At that time the West India Company above named, sent out a vessel from the Hague filled with emigrants to the Netherlands. These emigrants consisted mostly of Walloons, as they were called. Others followed—a vessel being despatched every four or five months. In 1623, there were over two hundred European settlers in the colony, including those on Manhattan Island, and on this side of the river also—for all those who determined to settle here for good, for agricultural purposes, preferred Long Island to Manhattan, for obvious reasons.
Indeed there was no comparison between the two which was not obviously to the advantage of Long Island. It was fertile, beautiful, well-watered, and had plenty of timber; while Manhattan was rocks, bare, bleak, and without anything to recommend it except its situation for commercial purposes, which is without rival in the world. The consequence was as just intimated, that the best and permanent portions of the emigrants immediately fixed on this Island, and settled in the neighborhood of what is now our "Wallabout."4
In this Wallabout, (Waalboght,) region, in 1625, was born the first child of European parentage, Sarah Rapelje. This fact is confirmed, inasmuch as some thirty years afterwards when Sarah had grown up to woman's estate, and had married, and then lost her husband, being left a widow with several children, she petitioned the municipal authorities for a grant of land, and it was given her, on the ground that she was the first born of the colony.
We will also relate in this connection a tradition which we have heard from Gen. Jeremiah Johnson, in reference to this Sarah Rapelje. We forget now the source the General relied on for the legend.
When Sarah's father, George Jansen De Rapelje, was settled on his farm in the Wallabout, Peter Minnet was Dutch Governor in New Amsterdam, and lived on Manhattan Island.5 It happened one day that this Governor, with several companions, crossed over to Long Island on a hunting excursion, and after a good tramp they found themselves extremely hungry in the neighborhood of Rapelje's house. This they entered in search of food and drink; but found no body at all in the house, the wife with the rest being engaged at work out in the field. But Minuet and his friend discovered a savory dish of "Indian dumplings"—the only thing apparently the larder contained—to which they helped themselves, and, constrained by their voracious appetites made a clean dish of the whole fare. But just as they were concluding their repast, Frau Rapelje, with her little girl (Sarah) in her arms, returned from the field, to get ready the meal for husband and child. To her dismay and indignation she found the only eatables the house had contained just devoured by the Governor and his friends; and, in her anger, and without the least respect for authority, she unloosed her woman's tongue, and gave them such a blast as only an enraged woman can. She particularly complained that when she had come home to feed her hungry child, she found everything eaten up by great overgrown thieves and robbers! To pacify her, and make it all right, the Governor, in the emergency, promised her that, if she would say no more about it, he would pledge his gubernatorial word, that, in lieu of the dish of dumplings, he would, when the next ship came in, make the Frau a present of a good milch cow—which in due time, he did according to his promise.
Romantic stories were told in early times about these same Rapljes. For George Jansen's two brothers came over here and settled also. One of the stories was that they were Moors by birth, and of prodigious strength. As to birth, they were really the sons of French exiles, who had settled in the Low Countries, as often happened in those times. The reputed stature and strength of George Jansen's brother Antony were probably not without foundation. For according to Gen. Jeremiah Johnson, the grandson of this Antony, who lived in Gravesend, was six feet and four inches high; and on one occasion, to give a sample of his bodily powers, he carried ten bushels of wheat from his barn to the house, and up the chamber stairs. Gen. Johnson said that, in his youth, he had visited and seen this grandson, whose name was William Jansen. Gen. J. inquired of him of the truth of this story of carrying the ten bushels of wheat, and how he did it. William told his young visitor "I took one bag on each shoulder, one in each hand, and one in my teeth"; and then opening the chamber door, he showed Gen. J. the stairs he had ascended, and the floor where he had deposited the wheat. This William lived to be 80 years of age, and died so late as 1805.
As another evidence that great bodily strength is hereditary in the line, Gen. Johnson mentioned that in the last war, another descendant of this same Antony Jansen, by the name of Rulef Vanbrunt, in New Utrecht, caught two men stealing on his premises and on his confronting them, they attempted to attack him, but he gript one of the robbers in one hand, and one in the other, and thus bounced their heads to and to together, till, when he unloosed them, they were glad enough to run away as fast as their legs could carry them.
These Jansens all seem to have been a long-lived stock,—and also to have had the faculty of adding largely to the population. The mother of the just-mentioned Rulef Vanbrunt was a granddaughter of Antony Jansen, and was living a few years ago at New Utrecht, in the 95th year of her age—but has doubtless since deceased.
The families of Johnsons, Rapelyeas, Vanbrunts, etc., now so numerous in Brooklyn, and Kings County, are descended from this stock. The name of George Jansen's descendants soon changed to be written Rapelye, or Rapelyea. His brother Antony's descendants wrote their names Jansen, which has now for a long time been written Johnson.
Gen. Jeremiah Johnson was a lineal descendant in the fifth generation from Anthony6 It is a good stock, all round, and Kings County has no reason to be ashamed of it.
We shall continue the resume of these incidents and dates, in another number.
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. "New York island" is more commonly known as Manhattan. [back]
3. The text in brackets has been supplied from Walt Whitman, The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Emory Holloway, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921), 2:228. [back]
4. "Wallabout" is a mutation of the Dutch "Waalboght," which means "Walloons bay" in honor of the Walloons, French-speaking immigrants from Belgium. [back]
5. It was Peter Minnet (alternately Minuit) who, on May 6, 1626, purchased Manhattan from the Lenape Indians for the equivalent of $24. Whitman refers to this event in his "Brooklyniana; A Series of Local Articles, Past and Present" (December 28, 1861). [back]
6. Jeremiah Johnson was selected as town supervisor of Brooklyn in 1800. He held the position for forty years. He was also, at various times, the mayor of Brooklyn, a representative to the Legislature and the Assembly, and a County Court Judge. [back]