Bringing New Netherland back to Breuckelen: Exploring Brooklyn’s Dutch Roots

By Andrea C. Mosterman

Why is it important to study New York’s Dutch past? That is the question a New Netherland Institute (NNI) conference in Brooklyn will address on June 1st and 2nd. I talked with Dennis Maika, senior historian and education director of the New Netherland Institute, about New York’s Dutch history and the Brooklyn event.

Although New York transferred to English control in the late seventeenth century, Dutch-American ways of life persisted throughout the region. Many Dutch-American descendants continued to speak the Dutch language, worship in Dutch Reformed churches, eat Dutch-originated foods, and celebrate Dutch holidays well into the early nineteenth century. Their cultural heritage is evident today in family and street names, words like cookie and boss, and the architecture of some eighteenth-century homes that still stand. But the Dutch colonial period had even more long-lasting, albeit less tangible, influences.

Departing from the more traditional, Anglo-focused narrative of American history, a growing number of scholars have been researching America’s Dutch past in recent decades, many of them with support from the NNI and transcriptions and translations by Charles Gehring and Janny Venema of the New Netherland Research Project. Such scholarship has been able to bring light to the importance of the Dutch colonial period, because, as Dennis Maika points out, this era provided the region’s “historic foundation.” New York “grew out of the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age,” and acknowledging this foundation helps to understand how New York has become what it is now, he explains, especially when considering civic culture, religious tolerance, and free market trade. Russell Shorto, the Brooklyn event’s keynote speaker, has expanded on some of this scholarship in his well-known book The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (2005) when he argues that Dutch tolerance and free market trade helped shape not just New York culture but American culture in general.

Certainly, although not often acknowledged, the Dutch colonial period left its mark on American culture, but it is especially evident in communities that had a Dutch-American majority like Kings County. Eighteenth-century Kings County — today the borough of Brooklyn — included the towns of Brooklyn (Breuckelen), Bushwick (Boswijck), Flatbush (Vlacke Bos or Midwout), Flatlands (Nieuw Amersfoort), Gravesend, and New Utrecht. Dutch colonists settled in the area that originally belonged to Canarsee Indians not long after founding New Amsterdam in 1625. The first-known land deed for this part of Long Island was from June 16, 1636, when Andries Hudden and Wolphert Gerritsz obtained land there.[1] Soon other colonists moved into the area, and within just a few decades several Dutch farming communities in Long Island had grown large enough to establish their own courts.[2] The people of these towns also formed Dutch Reformed Church congregations, though their populations were often too small to afford a minister’s salary.[3] Gravesend was the only town in Kings County that was founded by English colonists who had obtained a land patent from the Dutch West India Company, much like the English towns of Maspeth/ Middleburg (Newtown), Vlissingen (Flushing), and Rustdorp (Jamaica) in what would become Queens.

After the colony came under English control, Kings County remained a stronghold of Dutch-American culture. Whereas Dutch descendants in Manhattan often married into English families, Kings County men and women of Dutch descent tended to intermarry with other Dutch descendants in Kings County or northern New Jersey, where some Kings County families settled over the course of the eighteenth century. By keeping their communities relatively homogenous, they were able to sustain their Dutch-American ways of life throughout much of the eighteenth century.[4] Consequently, Kings County families continued to speak the Dutch language and the Dutch Reformed Church remained the predominant denomination.

Today, the persistence of Dutch culture in Brooklyn is most easily noticeable in its neighborhood and street names, Middagh Street for example was named after the prominent Dutch-American Middagh family, and in the eighteenth-century buildings that have been preserved, such as the Hendrick I. Lott and Wyckoff homes. In fact, the Brooklyn conference will be held at the Old Stone House, one of the oldest Dutch-American homes that still stands in Brooklyn today. In 1699, Hendrick Claessen Vechte, a carpenter, wheelwright, and farmer of Dutch descent, built the home in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. His family continued to own the house until they sold it to Jacques Cortelyou in 1790. These Dutch-American families and their enslaved laborers — Vechte and his descendants as well as the Cortelyou family were all slaveholding families — lived at the Old Stone house. Today, the home is located in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area where it serves as an important historic site that helps educate the public on Brooklyn’s role in American history. As such, Maika points out, it proves to be the perfect location for a discussion of the long-lasting impact of the region’s Dutch roots.

The Brooklyn conference is one of many conferences organized by the New Netherland Institute, a non-profit organization based in Albany that focuses on the study of North America’s Dutch history through research support and public education. In fact, it has organized yearly conferences since 1979. In recent years, the NNI has held such events at various locations with Dutch roots — including Rochester, NY; Hartford, CT; and New Castle, DE. The Brooklyn conference will similarly connect North America’s Dutch history to local history with the intent to make this history accessible to a wider audience. Dennis Maika explains that the conference is intended to help people “think about and imagine Brooklyn’s Dutch roots.” The event starts on Friday evening with a dinner and key-note address by Russell Shorto. On Saturday morning, speakers will cover the larger region’s Dutch origins as a way to put “Dutch Breuckelen” into historical context, while afternoon sessions will explore different perspectives of Dutch Brooklyn through historical research, historical art, and archeological and anthropological investigation. Finally, a panel of public historians, including Kamau Ware of the Black Gotham Experience, Melissa Branfman of the Wyckoff House Museum, John Krawchuk of The Historic House Trust of New York City, and Steven Jaffee of the Museum of the City of New York, will discuss their efforts to educate the wider public on the area’s Dutch origins.

The event, co-sponsored by The Gotham Center, has been made possible with support from the Dutch Consulate and the New York State Archives. Follow this link for registration and the full event schedule.

Andrea Mosterman is an Assistant Professor in Atlantic History at the University of New Orleans, and currently finishing a manuscript contracted with Cornell University Press, entitled Sharing Spaces: The Entangled Lives of Dutch and African Americans in Early New York.

Notes

[1] Indian Deed to Andries Hudde and Wolphert Gerritsz for land on Long Island, June 16, 1636, Land Papers, GG, 14, New York State Archives; Stephen M. Ostrander, A history of the city of Brooklyn and Kings County(Brooklyn: Published by Subscription, 1894) 1: 54.

[2] Jaap Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 32-33.

[3] Russell L. Gasero, Historical Directory of the Reformed Church in America 1628-2000 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Publishing Co., 2001), 499-501; Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland, 154-55.

[4] William McLaughlin, “Dutch Rural New York: Community, Economy and Family in Colonial Flatbush” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1981), 99; Also see, Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt, The Social History of Flatbush, and Manners and Customs of the Dutch Settlers in Kings County (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881). The strong Dutch cultural influences are evident throughout the family papers located in the Brooklyn Historical Society library.