Flatlands: the birthplace of Kings County

My first week, I researched Fulton Ferry, the area where Brooklyn was born. I didn’t realize at the time that another town had the honor of being the first established in the present-day borough.

Nieuw Amersfoort was founded on June 16, 1636 – ten years before Breuckelen - as a result of the first European land-purchase on Long Island. It was named in honor of Amersfoort, Netherlands, home of Wolfert Gerritsen, one of the settlers. Once you got inland from the marshy area and “hay of inferior quality” around Jamaica Bay, you reached rich, productive soil on level ground.

The first plantation was known as Achtervelt – “beyond the great flats”, on a site known to the native Lenape as Keschaechquereren. Even into the 20th century the area was mainly agricultural. In fact, here’s a 1952 article about a guy who promised eggs “Laid While U Wait” on Flatlands Avenue.

“Mrs. Delmar’s cow” on Kings Highway, early 1900s. Photograph by Daniel Berry Austin. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

The town had a history of independence. When the British captured New Netherland in 1664, the only thing that really changed here was the name: while the usurpers, apparently eager to get to the point, rechristened it Flatlands, local residents continued to speak Dutch – for another two hundred years. It was also the last town to be annexed by Brooklyn, in 1896, meaning it held out 41 years longer than Williamsburg and Bushwick.

Flatlands was originally much larger than it is today. It began to break into pieces as soon as it was folded in to Brooklyn. Floyd Bennett Field was once part of Flatlands as well; it used to be called Barren Island. The pirate Charles Gibbs used it as a hiding-place for his treasure.

These neighborhoods, along with Floyd Bennett Field (the gray area), approximate the former Town of Flatlands.

Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis camped with his troops at Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue on August 26, 1776, before marching north to fight the Battle of Brooklyn. (As one resident later recalled, “The Red Coats were so thick in Flatlands you could walk on their heads.” I couldn’t find any information as to whether anyone tried.) The Americans, in a preventative measure, had burned much of the farmland to deny the invaders easy rations.

The British used the level ground for their war-time entertainment, creating a horse-racing track in 1780 called Ascot Heath, likely named after the famous Ascot Racecourse in England. Here’s an amusing announcement from May 30, 1781, as cited in Stiles’s A History of Brooklyn:

Flatlands was a bastion of slavery, which makes sense, given its agricultural bent. When the state outlawed the practice in 1827, blacks made up 20% of the population. Granted, that population was not big – in 1835, Flatlands was the smallest town in Kings County, with only 684 residents. Compare that with 24,500 in the City of Brooklyn, a number that was rapidly growing.

The 1835 census, as laid out in Bailey (1840). Note there were 231 Paupers in Kings County at the time.

Flatlands became connected to the rest of the borough in the 1870s, with the extension of Flatbush Avenue and the inauguration of horsecar service along it from Kings Highway north. The IRT (today’s 2/5 lines) reached Brooklyn College in 1920, and many buses criss-cross the neighborhood. In spite of this (or, perhaps, because of this), the area is very dependent on cars. The neighborhood is mostly Jewish, Italian, and Irish, with some people from the Caribbean. Orthodox Jews have also begun coming over from Midwood.

I plan to check out several older buildings on my visit. The property of Joost Van Nuyse, once 85 acres in size, still has a house dating from 1744. (Its eponym drowned in his well in 1792.) The small wing of the Baxter House on East 48th Street dates from 1747. And the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, at Kings Highway and East 40th Street, dates from 1848. This church is the third on the property; the first stood from 1663 to 1794.

The Baxter House (a.k.a. the Stoothoff-Baxter-Kouwenhoven House), as photographed in 1946. (From the Brooklyn Collection)

Bound sources:

An historical sketch of the city of Brooklyn: and the surrounding neighborhood, including the village of Williamsburgh, and the towns of Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht, and Gravesend: to which is added, an interesting account of the battle of Long Island, compiled from the best authorities by J.T. Bailey (self-published, 1840).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Changing through the century : life at the Lott family farm in the nineteenth century town of Flatlands, Kings County, New York by Christopher Gerard Ricciardi (UMI, 2004).

Brooklyn’s Flatlands: beyond the field by Lee A. Rosenzweig & Brian Merlis (Israelowitz Publishing, 2002).

A history of the city of Brooklyn : including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh by Henry R. Stiles (Heritage Books, 1993 reprint, orig. 1867-1870).

Keskachauge, or, the first white settlement on Long Island by Frederick Van Wyck (Putnam, 1924). [This dude got really excited about his subject - see below.]

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