Bushwick, Suydam House, and the mark of the Hessians

“The Town of Bushwick, having been swallowed up in the great city [of Brooklyn, in 1855], a nice functionary of the City Hall, on assuming charge of its Old Dutch Records, contemptuously thrust them into his waste-paper sacks and sent them to the paper-mill.”

– T.W. Field, 1868

Whoops! At least Bedford’s historical documents were stolen by British sympathizers, not tossed aside by some bureaucrat who couldn’t stand freaky-deaky Dutch. (For the record, Eugene Armbruster attributes the loss to slightly less-evil reasons: the papers were lost because the movable bookcase on which they were sent “was coveted by some municipal officer, who turned its contents upon the floor, whence the janitor transferred them to the papermill.”)

Fortunately, much of the important stuff had already been translated, so we know about Bushwick’s early years. Governor Willem Kieft purchased its land on behalf of the Dutch West India Company in 1638, and in doing so gave the Dutch government its first holding in Brooklyn. Any freeman could receive a plot of land, his payment being a tithe of future yields and an annual capon (castrated rooster) or two.

By 1660, Governor Stuyvesant was concerned about Lenape hostility, which had accelerated when Kieft began a reign of terror in 1641. He ordered landholders to move to towns for added protection. The village he would name Boswijck was strategically situated: Stuyvesant’s farms were immediately to the west, which meant Boswijck would serve as a barrier from the natives’ attacks. 40 men were divided into four groups of ten, with this militia rotating night-watch duties.

The original settlement was not even in what we call Bushwick today. Bushwick Green – Het Dorp, “the village”, in Dutch - was in today’s Williamsburg, between the now-truncated Bushwick Creek and the now-Superfunded Newtown Creek. Here’s a great visual, a map laid over the present grid, along with descriptions from Stiles of the village’s important buildings.

North is to the right; “Cherry Point” would come to be called Greenpoint. (from Armbruster)

This is where I’m going to let some Columbia Historic Preservation students take over so that I can focus on one small bit of history. This group put together a preservation plan for Bushwick Avenue last year, and their history is pretty solid. From the German breweries to the riots during the 1977 blackout, you can read about it here.

There are a few things that I’d add, though, but only because I have a strange sense of humor.

One nugget I particularly enjoyed stemmed from Bushwick’s fight for what today is Ridgewood, Queens. Both Bushwick and Newtown (now Elmhurst) laid claim to the area. In 1708, after the fight had been ongoing for sixty years, Governor Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury declared that the land belonged to neither town. This meant it belonged to the government, giving him the opportunity to distribute 1,200 acres to his friends. (The dispute – and the current boundary, give or take a block – was finally settled in 1769.)

Ok, so that story isn’t very surprising. Much more so was finding out that not only was Lord Cornbury extremely corrupt, but he was also rumored to be a transvestite.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk about the Suydam House, the first known house in the New Lots of Bushwick, Boswijck Nieuw Loten, what we today know as “Bushwick”. This building attracted my attention because it involves Leffert Lefferts – the elder! There were (at least) two Leffert Lefferts, one associated with Bushwick, and the other, his son, known for being the town clerk of Bedford in 1776.

The elder was credited in a few sources with building the house in 1700, even though he wasn’t born until 1701. (That’s the power of a name.) In-utero Lefferts might have had some help from a member of the Van Nuyse family, which has a house still extant in Flatlands.

Drawing of Suydam House. (from Field, 1868)

Lefferts enters the picture (for real this time) in 1724, when he purchased the house; in 1768, his same-named son sold the property to Jacob Suydam, who was apparently unhappy with the way the previous owners had treated the building.

Suydam’s grandson, Adrian, was born in 1824. He kept the farm in a single piece until 1869, when pressure to succumb to the building boom must have gotten the better of him. Within fifteen years, 125 residences were present on the farm property. Adrian, who hosted a party in the old house every Christmas Day, moved to California to deal with health problems, dying in 1894. His death marked the end of the Suydam clan. The land appears to have been sold at auction on May 25, 1898.

The house was razed around New Year’s Day 1900, almost exactly 200 years from its first construction. On the site was raised the Second German Baptist Church. Its proprietors wasted no time: the cornerstone was laid in April.

Approximate area of the Suydam plot. The house’s location is in green.

The Suydam House was typically Dutch. Hidden on a curve on the ancient Bushwick Lane (now Evergreen Avenue, which still meanders a bit), it was set in a depression to mitigate the effects of the winter winds. The roof had the Dutch curve. Its bottom floor was walled in by thick stone. Some compared it to a fortress, estimating that it might have stood for a hundred more years had it not met its early demise.

This made it appealing during the Revolutionary War. The German mercenaries took full advantage of Britain’s policy on quartering: Suydam House served as a home for 21 Hessians and a female cook. While Jacob Suydam escaped to fight for the American side, he left his family behind, who were forced to live in a single room. They soon moved out completely.

Despite their penchant to take what they wanted from the lands they occupied, the Hessians proved popular with the people of Bushwick – at least compared with the British. They also had a tendency to treat their borrowed property with respect. Bushwick was surprised and outraged, then, to find that a Hessian had carved some pieces out of the door frame with his sword.

The Suydams, once they moved back in, knew exactly what to do: nothing. The marks remained on the frame until the house came down, a reminder of the seven humiliating years the house spent in German hands. (Funny that it would be replaced by a German church.)

Suydam House in its final days: Daniel Berry Austin, 1899. (from the Brooklyn Collection)

Interesting side note: The first commander to live in Suydam House was a Colonel Rahl. A man by the same name – who was known to have fought in the Battle of Brooklyn – was held responsible for the Tories’ defeat at Trenton on Christmas 1776. (He was, according to lore, too engrossed in his chess/checkers/card game to read a note warning him of the attack.) Was this the same man? My sources did not link the two, but maybe I’ll be able to dig deeper in the future.

Bound sources:

The Eastern district of Brooklyn by Eugene L. Armbruster (G. Quattlander, 1912). [BPL] [eBook]

Historic and antiquarian scenes in Brooklyn and its vicinity: with illustrations of some of its antiquities by T.W. Field (self-published, 1868). [BPL] [eBook]

Brooklyn’s Williamsburg(h): city within a city by Brian Merlis. [BPL]

Early settlers of Bushwick, Long Island, New York and their descendants, compiled by Andrew J. Provost, Jr. (self-published, 1949-1960). [BPL]

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). [BPL]

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