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Historic Greenpoint - By William L. Felter

Historic Greenpoint - By William L. Felter, 1915

EVERYBODY is interested in the beginning of things. We look at the majestic oak towering to the sky, Its wide-spreading branches the home of the feathered songsters of the air, its grateful shade a boon to the weary traveler, and in imagination we go back to the tiny acorn from which the giant oak developed. The first words of the Bible are: "In the beginning." Rome, the city of the seven hills, traced its origin to the fabled Romulus and Remus suckled by a wolf. Berne, the capital of Switzerland, is said to have obtained its name from its reputed founder the Duke of Zaehringen, who determined to name the city he planned to build for the first animal he met and killed. Tradition asserts that he killed a bear. At all events the bear is to-day the national emblem of the land of mountains and lakes. So Green Point many years ago had its humble beginnings, although it can claim no Romulus nor Remus. It is our purpose to discover these beginnings and bring the story of growth and development down to the present day.


Green Point is a peninsula. On the north and east Newtown Creek marks off its boundaries. On the south Bushwick Creek separates it in part from Williamsburg, and the East River is its western boundary. This geographical situation almost entirely isolated, gave it a peculiar opportunity for separate development and it is therefore not to be wondered at that the early settlers of Green Point were men of independence of character, self-dependent, and possessing those native traits that make for vigorous manhood.


To the early settlers, however, these bodies of water were known by other names. Newtown creek was spoken of sometimes as Maspeth kill. In the early days, there were high banks stretching from the mouth of this creek as far as the present Manhattan Avenue Bridge. Following the line of this creek inland we would have found in early times a salt marsh extending to a point south of the present Blissville bridge. Here the banks rose in height and continued so as far as Penny bridge. This salt marsh was known as the "Back Meadows." They formed a large irregular triangle with the apex at about the present intersection of Driggs avenue and Humboldt Street. Near this point was the head of a water course called Wyckoff's creek, running northerly near to the line of Green Point avenue and then easterly to Maspeth kill, its mouth being somewhat south of where stands the Blissville bridge. On the north side of Green Point Avenue these salt meadows were drained by Whale creek, which in its course followed the general line of Humboldt Street. This creek as well as Wyckoff's creek had many small tributaries and devious courses.


Bushwick creek was in the early days known as Norman's Kill. This creek, too, drained salt meadows. At high water the tide covered the meadows, forming a beautiful miniature bay, but the retreating waters revealed an expanse of green sedge and brown mud flats. Through these wandered the two deep channels of the Kill as well as numerous little meandering tributaries.


A traveler in those times gazing at Green Point from a boat on the East River would have noticed many high sandy headlands, remnants of the early glacial period, similar to those still remaining along the north shore of Long Island. Near where the foot of Freeman Street now lies, a point of land jutted abruptly beyond the shoreline into the river for a considerable distance. This point, covered with river ooze and green grass, naturally attracted the gaze of the sailors on passing vessels, who gave to this verdant projection the name of Green Point.


Originally Green Point meant only this projecting piece of land, but later the name was applied to the entire peninsula from Newtown creek to Bushwick creek with the enclosed meadows. It was not until 1854, when this section of the city with the rest of the town of Bushwick and then the young city of Williamsburgh were united with the older city of Brooklyn, that the elastic name of Green Point was again stretched to cover the whole of the present seventeenth ward.


It would appear from what precedes that the neck of high ground lying east of the Back Meadows and north of Meeker avenue, known for many years as Wyckoff farm and later as Kingsland farm, was not considered in the early days as a part of Green Point. This section now, however, forms a very important portion of the community with its pleasant homes, its large industrial establishments and beautiful but improperly named Winthrop park.


Reference has been made to the peninsular form of Green Point, almost surrounded by river, creeks, and marshes. Its only upland connection with Williamsburgh was measured by the length of Driggs avenue from Leonard Street to Humboldt Street. Along the present line of Driggs avenue ran an ancient highway, the west end of which was at a public landing place on Bushwick creek, near the corner of Guernsey street and Driggs avenue. This was called the Wood Point Landing. This road east led along the line of Driggs avenue to Humboldt Street and from that point followed a winding course to Bushwick village. This road along Green Point's extreme southern border remained the sole public highway until 1838. There was, however, a farm lane with gates at each farm line, which the traveler was obliged to open and close at each passage, giving communication to the Green Point farms from this Wood Point road which took its name from the landing. This farm lane started from the back end of the most northerly farms (Freeman street west of Manhattan avenue), ran across the hilly portions of the farms to about Green Point avenue and Oakland street, and then along the edge of the Back Meadows to its junction with the Wood Point road at Humboldt street.
Let us in imagination follow a traveler of the early days as he goes from Green Point to New York, an event for the traveler at once wearying and arduous. He would follow the farm lane and the Wood Point road to Bushwick village. From that point his journey took him to Bushwick Cross Roads (Bushwick and Flushing avenues), then along the south side of the Wallabout swamp to Flushing and Nostrand avenues, from thence he took his way over the hills by a crooked road to Bedford Corners (Bedford avenue and Fulton street). There he would come upon the road from Jamaica to the Brooklyn ferry. This road followed the lines of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues and Fulton Street to the river shore. Every foot of the trip was made in deep sand or loose cobbles. It was a long, wearisome ride on those washed-out and stony roads, over many miles in the springless wagons of that day.


The earliest authentic record in the history of Green Point dates from the purchase of the land from the Indians by the Dutch West India Company in 1638. The ancient town records of Bushwick reveal the founding of the Township of Bushwick by Governor Stuyvesant in 1660, four years before New Amsterdam passed under the control of the English and became New York. It will be recalled that he was the last of the Dutch governors of New Amsterdam, he of the wooden leg and peppery temper. It appears that the governor received a petition reciting the fact that "Fourteen Frenchmen with a Dutchman Pieter Janse Wit, their interpreter, have arrived here." Acting favorably upon this petition the Dutch governor founded the Township of Bushwick. The establishment of this township marks the beginning of social and political life for this section. The interpreter, Pieter Janse Wit, located his farm upon the neck of high ground, lying north of Meeker Avenue between the Back Meadows and Maspeth kill, and this tract later became one of the most desirable portions of Green Point. It is evident that Pieter Janse Wit had qualities of leadership and was a man of parts, for he became the first magistrate of the town and for many years headed the list of names in the records. In 1720 this land was purchased by Peter Lott, and twenty-nine years later was sold by his son of the same name to Abraham Polhemus of the Brooklyn family of that name. In 1799 it was conveyed to Peter Wyckoff of Bushwick, and in 1847 the larger portion was bought by David and Ambrose G. Kingsland, who held it until it was laid out into lots and sold for building purposes in the eighties.

It is in the memory of persons still living that this transformation took place, of a truck farm to its present crowded homes and streets. It was only a few years after the purchase from the Indians that a number of so-called Norman families, who were really Scandinavians, settled here. One of these families, headed by Dirck Volckertsen, better known as "Dirck the Norman," came into possession of the whole of Green Point. He was one of a small group of adventurous Scandinavians who early came to New Amsterdam and engaged successfully in the business enterprises of that period. Those were the days of smuggling, of rum drinking, of hardy sailors free in the use of their dirks, of gambling, of risk and adventure. The court records in the case of Jan de Pree vs. Dirck the Norman, bring to light an amusing and instructive page of the life of that day. Dirck must have thrived on litigation, for his name often appears as complainant or defendant on the court minutes.


The patent granting the ownership of Green Point to Dirck the Norman was dated April 3, 1645. He built the first house presumably the following year. It rested upon a knoll, about where Calyer street is laid out, and from one to two hundred feet west of the present line of Franklin street, only a few feet from the exact location where more than two hundred years later the Green Point Savings Bank began its successful career. The site of the home was evidently chosen with care. The lawn sloped gently in front to Norman's kill on the south, and gradually to the East River on the west. The house was of stone, one and a half stories in height, with dormer windows, built in quaint Dutch style with old Dutch doors, studded with glass eyes, and brass knockers. Eventually, the farm, orchard, and meadows became among the best of those of early days. It was Dirck the Norman who gave the name to Norman's kill, a name that disappeared as applied to a body of water but reappeared in the name of Norman avenue.


By trade Dirck the Norman was a ship carpenter, an occupation that for many years kept busy many men in Green Point. Originally Green Point was an agricultural community, but two centuries after the time of Dirck, ship building became its chief industry. Many of the old boys still living recall with pleasant memories the many launchings of vessels from the shore of Green Point into the East River. For half a century this industry held sway to be deposed later by other industrial activities. Dirck, however, did not follow his trade but devoted himself to agriculture with marked success. At his death his sons inherited these lands and sold them in 1718. The family then scattered, some going to Brooklyn, others to New Jersey, but wherever they went they became men of affairs and influence.


The only house still remaining as a relic of the first settlers in Green Point may be found at Meeker Avenue adjoining Newtown creek. Some modern touches have been added to it during the almost two and one-half centuries it has stood, but it is still a good example of one type of the Dutch farmhouse of the time of Pieter Praa. It was built by Joost Durie (George Duryea), a Huguenot who came from Holland to America and settled in New Utrecht. Later, about 1681, he removed to the disputed land between Bushwick and Newtown and erected this house. Here the Duryea family lived for over a century. The house then passed into the hands of Josiah Blackwell, for whom Blackwell's Island is named, and finally became the possession of William Bleser, in whose estate it still remains. When this house was built the Dutch living outside the stockade were obliged to fortify their homes, because the Indians were decidedly hostile as a result of the crimes against them by William Keith, the Dutch Governor. Beneath the porch in the wall may be seen two gun holes to be used in defending the house against Indian attacks.
An investigation of the early records brings to light a shrewd and wealthy business woman, Christina Cappoens. She was a prominent figure in New Amsterdam, and at the time of her death lived on what is now known as Stone street in New York City. Although she was never possessed of a home of her own in Green Point, she was in many respects a very important link in the development of this community, as will shortly appear. The name as given above was her maiden name, and like all women of that time she was known by her maiden name together with the added title of "wife (or widow) of Jacob Hay," and later "wife (or widow) of David Jochensen." She seems to have been very successful in her marriages.


In 1653 Jacob Hay purchased from Dirck the Norman the Northern part of Green Point, the line of division running from the river at the north end of Franklin street, to the northeast corner of St. Anthony's church and thence east to the meadows at Oakland street. The land so purchased was inherited in 1693 by the only child of Christina Cappoens, Maria Hay, who had in 1684 married for her second husband Pieter Praa, the third and greatest personality in the settlement of Green Point. Captain Pieter Praa was a man of great prominence in the history of the Town of Bushwick. He easily ranks as the greatest man from its earliest days to the time of its merger with the City of Brooklyn two centuries later. Captain Praa was of Huguenot extraction and was born in Leyden, Holland, 1655. His parents were from Dieppe in France on the English Channel. Like other Huguenots they were expelled from their native land owing to religious persecution. It was during their temporary stay in Holland, a refuge to the oppressed of all nations, that Pieter was born. When he was five years old his parents emigrated to the new world and settled first in Newtown and then in Bushwick near the intersection of Flushing Avenue and Broadway.


After his marriage to Maria Hay, Captain Praa and his wife lived in a stone house on their Green Point farm, which was located on the meadow's edge at Freeman Street just east of Oakland Street. This house was destroyed by fire in 1832. His history is another evidence of the loss to France that came as a result of the expulsion of the Huguenots. Pieter Praa was not only captain of militia but was magistrate as well. He was influential in both local and provincial politics. He was a magnificent horseman and a genuine sportsman. He was easily the leader in public affairs of the community. He added largely to his original land possessions and purchased from the sons of Dirck the Norman all their remaining Green Point land. In 1687 he bought from Anneke Jan Bogardus of New Amsterdam, a tract of about 130 acres of land at the mouth of Maspeth kill. This tract, known as Dominie's Hoek, later as Hunter's Point and Long Island City, consisted of two or three low hillocks rising out of a sea of encompassing marshes valuable for their salt hay for cattle. In addition to the above Captain Praa owned some 40,000 acres of land in New Jersey. Captain Praa's death occurred in 1740, He left no son to perpetuate his name, but he had numerous progeny through his four daughters, many of whom have played prominent parts in business and politics in Green Point and in larger spheres of action. These four daughters were Elizabeth, who married Jan Meserole; Maria, who married Wynant Van Zandt; Christina, who married David Provoost; Annetti, who married William Bennett. At the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) there were but five families on Green Point, all of them lineal descendants of Pieter Praa. The heads of these families were as follows:


1. Abraham Meserole (son of Jan Meserole) and grandson of Pieter Praa, who lived on the banks of the East River, between what are now India and Java streets. Later the house in which he lived was occupied by Neziah Bliss, whose wife was a granddaughter of the above named Abraham Meserole. This house was demolished about 1875. It was at this period that nearly all the old relics gave place to the necessities of modern industrial developments.
2. Jacob Meserole (another son of Jan Meserole), who resided in the southerly part of Green Point, near Bushwick creek meadows (between the present Manhattan avenue and Lorimer street 'near Norman avenue) not far from the residence, still standing, of his grandson, the late Adrian Meserole. His farm included the entire southerly portion of Green Point.
3. Jacob Bennett (son of William Bennett, whose wife Annetti was a daughter of Pieter Praa), who dwelt in a house in the northerly portion of Green Point, near the present Clay street, midway between Franklin street and Manhattan avenue. His farm was later known as the "Griffin Farm" and for many years was owned by the trustees of Union College.
4. Jonathan Provoost (son of David Provoost, whose wife Christina was a daughter of Pieter Praa), who lived on the east side of Green Point in a stone house on the edge of the meadows, formerly the residence of Pieter Praa. Later this house was occupied by the late James W. Valentine, whose wife was a great-granddaughter of the above named Jonathan Provoost. The old Provoost burying ground near the northeast corner of India and Oakland streets was removed about 1875 and no trace of it remains.
5. Jacobus Calyer (whose wife Janitie was a daughter of Jan Meserole and granddaughter of Pieter Praa), who occupied the house referred to and described in previous pages, near the mouth of Bushwick creek and built by Dirck the Norman.


These five families at the time of the Revolutionary War constituting the entire population of Green Point, must have lived quiet lives, cultivating the fertile fields which had descended to them from their ancestors. Each farmer had his own large boat which he used in carrying his surplus farm products to the New York market. This does not mean that the East River was crossed in a straight line. It was necessary to drop down the river at least as far as the present Brooklyn bridge, for New York in those days did not extend north of the City Hall.


The homes of that period were all after the Dutch style, one and a half stories in height, the lower portion of stone, and the upper usually of wood, with dormer windows and wide overhang. A broad hall running through the middle of the main floor was lighted in the day time either by the bull's eye glass insets in the upper part of each door, resembling little port holes, or by opening the upper portion of the door. Knockers of brass or iron hung on the outside of the door to announce the arrival of a caller, and a great flat stone helped the guest to step over the sill. It is easy to believe that stone step, sill, door, and knocker were kept in immaculate condition by these Dutch descendants, who prized personal and household cleanliness and almost elevated them to the position of sacred rites. It requires no stretch of the imagination to know that these Green Pointers had a rich and varied larder. Their orchards gave a profusion of luscious fruits. The fields yielded in abundance all the then known vegetables and cereals, and the adjoining creeks teemed with pan fish and blue crabs, a condition that existed until the advent of the oil refining factories. Their refuse drained into the creeks killed all fish life.


In these early days the houses were heated by great wide open fire places in the living room. This was the place where the food was prepared and eaten and where the family in the evening gathered about the fire place, warmed themselves at the great log fire, and discussed family, social, and political affairs. The casual caller was entertained at this hospitable fire place. Wood was the only fuel and every farm had its wood lot. For the fire a huge back log was rolled into place, then smaller logs about six feet in length would be piled in front and on top of the back log. A roaring fire could easily be kept going to make the entire house comfortably warm except in bitter winter weather. Each house had its outdoor oven in which the busy housewife could easily bake a dozen loaves of bread or as many pies at a time.


The vigorous outdoor life was conducive to healthy appetites, but these Dutch families were all good providers. Large families were also the rule. This sparsely settled section gave small opportunity for social life. The farms were large and widely separated and the church and store a great distance away. The gallants who sued for the favor of the several daughters of Pieter Praa and Maria Hay must have been rowed up and across the East River by their slaves in order to do their courting. All these daughters married merchants or professional men from across the river. Prior to 1824 nearly all Dutch families were slave holders. Pieter Praa was the owner of quite a number and in his will he provided that each slave should choose among which of the children he desired to serve. To his body servant, Jack, was given by terms of the will an island, a part of which is now Long Island City and which was known for more than a century later as "Jack's Island." Although not a large island it was sufficiently large for his maintenance.

The Dutch enjoyed a reputation of treating their slaves with consideration. Although the act of 1824 freed all slaves in New York State, these black servants continued to regard themselves as members of the household to which they had formerly belonged. Many of these slaves had been brought up to a trade and there was work in abundance for all. It is a matter of general history that during the greater part of the Revolutionary War this portion of Long Island was in the possession of the British, and loyalty, real or assumed, to the King of England seemed the only path of safety for the Green Point families to follow. It appears, however, that Abraham Meserole's son, John, cared less about safety than did his neighbors, for he came under suspicion as a rebel and was at one time taken prisoner and confined in a New York jail. Tradition reports that all the families suffered severely from the depredations of the British soldiers and their camp followers.

After the close of the Revolutionary War and for more than a third of the succeeding century, Green Point maintained its seclusiveness. The dwellers upon the well ordered farms had little intercourse with the outside world. Row boats or sail boats would, when necessary, convey them across the river. On Sundays, on horseback or in wagons, they might be seen taking their way across the neck to the Bushwick church. Its well established character as a secluded nook, geographically remote and not easily accessible, remained until about 1840. In fact the history of the place up to this date is largely the family chronicles of the Meseroles, Calyers, Provoosts and Bennetts, the married names of the daughters of Pieter Praa, Green Point's most distinguished early citizen. We have traced thus far the first two centuries of the history of Green Point, an agricultural period, from 1638, when the Dutch West India Company purchased from the Indians the tract of land that later became the Town of Bushwick (all of Brooklyn lying north of Broadway and Division avenue), to 1838. It was the opening of the first public highway in 1838 that made possible the development of Green Point into a small town. This highway ran across the land along the line of the present Franklin Street, with bridges over Newtown and Bushwick creeks, and became a part of the turnpike running from Williamsburgh to Astoria. Green Point thus lost its position of splendid isolation and became connected on either side with the greater world beyond its borders. During these two centuries there was no church, no school, no store. The early families resorted for religious, educational, and political affairs to Bushwick village (Metropolitan and Bushwick avenues), which was the municipal center of the Town of Bushwick, of which Green Point was politically a part.


The time had now come when the land that had been turned by a plow was to be used as sites for homes and factories. The high sandy bluffs facing" the river were gradually to be leveled. The rolling country behind the bluffs, which had been brought up to a high state of cultivation by skilled farmers, was to be intersected by streets. The fine orchards and scattered fruit trees along the fences between the fields were to be obliterated and linger in the memory only as the name of the southeasterly part of Green Point. The era of the industrial development had dawned.


Reference has been made in a previous paragraph to the ship-building industry as one of the most potent factors in the development of Green Point. While ship building began in the colonies in 1607, the new industry appeared here about 1840. The place was well adapted for this new departure, for the beaches on the East River front were of fine white sand. The expanding world commerce following the overthrow of the Napoleonic power and the expansion of American commerce created a demand for strong, swift, and easily handled ocean carriers. This demand was met in the creation of the historic American clipper ship, long reputed the best and fastest in the world. Although some yards launched as many as three ships at a time, it was impossible to create a sufficient supply. The Yankee crew on board these beautiful vessels with graceful lines did much to gain for these ships an enviable reputation. As every man on board from the captain to the cabin boy was a shareholder, it was easy to develop and maintain a fine esprit du corps.


The appearance of the East River beaches must have been extremely interesting, not to say fascinating. On the ways were vessels in various stages of completion in charge of great gangs of shipwrights. Mammoth piles of lumber lay about waiting for use; white oak, hackmatack and locust for ribs, yellow pine for keelsons and ceiling timbers, white pine for floors, and live oak for aprons. Through the air was wafted the odor of damp pine chips, of pitch and of oakum, while the ceaseless clatter of mallets and busy saws gave evidence of strenuous industry. The workers came in large numbers, attracted by the permanent character of the work, bringing their families and taking up their residence here. The farm stage soon passed into the village stage of development, then into town, until on January I, 1855, Green Point was consolidated with Bushwick and the young city of Williamsburgh with the older city of Brooklyn. At that time there were in the Seventeenth ward about 15,000 of population, but this figure was increased to about 30,000 in 1875, when shipbuilding had passed its zenith of growth.


The hard labor exacted of these makers of ships is worth noting. The daily grind was fatiguing and exhausting in the extreme. Originally the day's work consisted of fifteen hours at the rate of $1.25 per day. Later through labor organizations a ten-hour day was secured and the wages were increased by gradual steps until $2.00 per day was the rate. Many of the men went from the yards to their homes only to eat and, exhausted by their day's labor, to retire. The long, hard day, the exposure to the burning heat in summer and the biting cold in winter, drained the vitality of the workers and left scant opportunity for leisure or wholesome recreation. The equipment of the yards was primitive. The sawing was done by hand, one laborer being in the pit with face covered by a veil to protect him from the sawdust, and one above working with a two-man saw. There were no cranes, cables, or power helps such as are seen in the modern yard, only manpower to raise the heaviest timbers by hand. The following apprentice's indenture throws a flood of light upon the working conditions of that day. John Englis later became one of the great ship builders of Green Point.


THIS INDENTURE WITNESSETH, That John Englis, now aged sixteen years, nine months and twenty-four days, by and with the consent of George Bell, his step-father, hath put himself, and by these Presents doth voluntarily and of his own free will and accord put himself, apprentice to Stephen Smith, of the City of New York, ship carpenter, to learn the art, trade and mystery of a ship carpenter, and after the manner of an apprentice to serve from the day of the date herefor,