A Glance Backwards, Brooklyn Sixty Years Ago Part II

 The villages of Brooklyn, Bedford, Gowanus, Brooklyn Ferry, Red Hook and Wallabout-A curious fact for office-seekers-Political corruption-The pay of public officers, &c., &c.,

About the beginning of the century, Brooklyn township was divided, as the writer says, into seven villages, namely, Olympia, Brooklyn, Bedford, Gowanus, Brooklyn Ferry, Red Hook and Wallabout. In Thursday's paper we gave our historian's opinion of his favorite Olympia. The other villages he dismisses in a briefer manner.

Brooklyn, he says, "is an inland settlement, about a mile from the Ferry, three from Flatbush, two from Bedford, and two from Wallabout," in other words, it was situated back of the present City Hall. "Brooklyn contains a Dutch Church and a number of pleasure gardens;" which fact would seem to indicate that our Dutch progenitors were rather more inclined to lager than preaching; the gardens, however, were largely patronized from abroad, and in summer the inhabitants of new York regaled themselves with a sail across the East River, a walk through the fields, and such luxuries as were dispensed in the gardens aforesaid. "The village," says our author, "has no peculiar privileges of its own. Joined with the several townships, it supports two ministers."

"BEDFORD," he says, "is also an inland settlement, situated in a very pleasant dale, at the conference of four roads, which lead to Jamaica, Flatbush, Brooklyn and Bushwick. The soil is luxuriant," but it did not enjoy stated preaching of the gospel, it would seem, or any peculiar privilege or distinction.

"GOWANUS is in a southern direction from "Olympia, between three and four miles distant, "on the shores of the island. The country seats "are very pleasantly situated, commanding extensive views of new York, the East and Hudson "Rivers, with the several islands in the bay; but," concludes the historian, "it has no public buildings except the school house, and no peculiar "privilege of its own."

BROOKLYN FERRY.-This village seems to have been created by the little trade that centered around the ferry which was then as now, at the foot of Fulton street. "The epithet Brooklyn is attached tot he word Ferry as it is the landing, where the inhabitants of new York and others arrive at from that city to pass to Brooklyn, further on the islands. it is directly opposite the City of New York, about three quarters of a mile distant on the Southern shore of the East River. Though in our historian's opinion it had no future before it, such as he dreamed for his beloved Olympia, yet he states that it had already had the honor of having the Clerk's office, and the Records of the County kept there, and what was of more consequence to the b'hoys of that day, it enjoyed a privilege above the other villages of maintaining two fire engines, which were allowed by law."

" RED HOOK- Is about two miles in a Southern direction from Olympia, and one from Brooklyn and is on a point of land which may be said to project into New York Bay. it derives its name probably from a promontory of red sand, which raises itself at the point on this cape. But the most remarkable thing about Red-Hook appears to have been the fact that its ownership was claimed by New York, who alleged it to be the Southern boundary of their charter-grant. The "promontory" has given way to the incessant action of the tides, and New York's preposterous claim has vanished with it. How important the change effected by the water of the East River, is shown by the following which is well authenticated: "It is also remarkable," says the writer, "that persons now living remember when Buttermilk Channel was crossed on a small bridge, by the Dutch girls to carry that article [buttermilk-"not the girls] to New York Market. it is probable that it took its name from that circumstance. The Channel is now [about the year 1860] more than half a mile wide, and ships of considerable burthen may sail through it. The land here is not as good as other parts of the township. "Buttermilk Channel," the writer says in another place, has been made since the settlement of new York. The occasion of its present width, which is half a mile, was by extending docks from the City of new York into the East River, which crowds the water on Long Island shore. In September, 1776, a forty gun ship passed through this Channel and went up the East River, and in the same month after six English ships, one or two of which were men-of-war."

THE WALLABOUT (in Dutch Wallabout) is a cove to the east of Olympia, of about a half a mile across and the same distance inland. it was formed probably by the tide of the East River, which, crossed from Corlaer's Hook. As in natural philosophy, all bodies keep the direction in which they are forced, until impeded by some resistance, so the East River originally in the ebb kept its direction until it arrived at the western shore of the Wallabout, when meeting with resistance it passed off to the west, carrying with it the loose riches of the soil. This is observable, if attention be paid to the course of the river, the channel of which runs very near Long island shore." The writer, in closing his account, incidentally bears testimony to the primitive character of the Wallabout by stating "that there are handsome houses and very productive farms near this cove."

From the extracts we have made, then, it appears that Brooklyn township, at the beginning of the century, contained a population of 1603, of which 405 were slaves; divided into six hamlets, from one to three miles distant from each other. Agricultural was the chief resource of the people, and "the inhabitants, the writer says, being convinced that agriculture is the original and principal source of wealth and independence make it their chief employment."

The inhabitants of these hamlets locally governed themselves in the following fashion: "On the first Tuesday in April, every year the free-holders assemble together and hold a town meeting, and elect one Supervisor, one Town Clerk, no less than three nor more than seven Assessors, one or more Collectors, two overseers of the Poor, and three Commissioners of Highways, each of whom must be a freeholder and an inhabitant of the Town, and so many Constables, Overseers of the Highways, Fence Viewers and Pound Masters, as the inhabitants (freeholders) shall deem necessary, which officers hold their office for one year; or until others are chosen in their place. Every Supervisor, Town Clerk, &c., shall take the oath prescribed by law. Any person refusing to serve in either of these capacities, forfeits the sum of twenty-five pounds, ($125). Any Overseer of Highways, Fence Viewers or Pound Master, who shall refuse, forfeits five pounds, ($25.)

What a difference of public sentiment between these times and ours! Office so far from being sought for was avoided, and the law, not deeming the sense of public duty of the citizen strong enough to compel him to sacrifice his own interest for the interest of the community, came in to compel him by a fine to do so, as it does now by the same means to perform the irksome duty of a grand or petit-juror!

Did our historian building up in his imagination his fair city of Olympia, ever dream of a class of placemen who live for office and by office? did these honest freeholders, dodging the honor of office, every think of being succeeded by those who hunger after it more than the Israelites did after the Egyptian fleshpots; who are willing to spend seven times the nominal salary of an office and run the risk of reimbursing themselves by public plunder? Could they imagine anything like the modern political wire-puller__half bully, half knave, from whose contact a quiet and honest man naturally shrinks, voluntarily resigning the most precious trusts of citizenship, rather than exercise it in such company? Corruption in public office is today more surely sapping the foundation of our institutions than all things else together. The Union and Constitution may tremble beneath the violence of antagonistic opinion, but the sober second thought of the people will restore harmony and peace. The slavery question may be compromised; nature herself prohibits its unlimited extension, and may provide for its abolition. But political corruption grows by what it feeds on, and if not checked in time, will end only when there is no country to rob, or when the strong arm of military despotism follows it in natural sequence, and ends it, and with it puts an end to political liberty.

This, however, is rather foreign to the subject of this article. In 1800 Brooklyn Township was in this respect like the whole country; twenty years earlier Franklin wrote:

"Of civil offices or employments there are few; no superfluous ones, as in open; and it is a rule established in some of the states that no office should be so profitable as to make it desirable. The 36th article of the Constitution of Pennsylvania runs expressly in these words: 'As every freeman, to preserve his independence (if he has not sufficient estate) ought to have some profession, calling, trade or farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no necessity for, nor use in establishing, offices of profit, the usual effects of which are dependence and servility, unbecoming freemen, in the possessors and expectants; faction, contention, corruption and disorder among the people. Wherefore, whenever an office, through increase of flies or otherwise, becomes so profitable as to occasion many to apply for it the profits ought to be lessened by the Legislature."

The frugal Nassau islanders doubtless had all these things fixed economically enough. Thirty years after, when Brooklyn had 15,000 inhabitants we believe the salary of the President of the Board of Trustees was a little over $8 a week; the Street Commissioners had a little over $3 and the clerk not quite as much.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Glance Backwards, Brooklyn Sixty Years Ago Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5/7/1860
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