Schools in Brooklyn Before 1843

THE history of education in Brooklyn and the other Boroughs is quite unlike the history of the development of schools in the former city of New York, at all events in that most interesting period during which the Public School Society, a singular anomaly in educational annals, nourished. Nowhere else were the schools and the school moneys, during a long course of years, placed under the control of a private corporation, having no direct responsibility to the people ; nowhere else were witnessed such memorable religious controversies as those marking the career of the Society, which have been recounted in previous chapters ; nowhere else was a Board of Education confronted for a decade by a rival organization, which it at length succeeded in absorbing.

In the earlier periods, however, a striking similarity is to be noted in nearly all parts of the present city. This is what might be expected, seeing that almost every section was settled by people of similar character, and naturally developed along lines substantially alike. In Brooklyn (Breuckelen), as in New Amsterdam, the minister appears to have preceded the schoolmaster. As nearly as can be determined, the first church on Long Island was established at Flatbush (Midwout) in 1654 ; and the residents of Brooklyn were obliged for some time to travel to Flatbush to attend public worship. In 1660 a minister was appointed for Brooklyn ; and in the following year Carel de Beauvois (or Debevoise) was engaged as schoolmaster.

There is every probability that there was a school in Flatbush a year or two earlier, and very likely as early as 1653. In his History of Flatbush, Dr. Strong stated that Adriaen Hegeman, clerk and schout, was the first schoolmaster, 1659-1671, while, in Early Settlers of Kings County, Mr. Teunis G. Bergen gave the place of honor to Reynier Bastiaensen Van Giesen, with whom an agreement was made in June, 1660, to teach the school, perform the duties of court messenger, etc. Dr. Stiles, in his compendious History of Kings County, endeavors to reconcile the difference between the two investigators. " It will be seen," he says, " that it is quite possible that Hegeman acted in this capacity, from 1653 or '54, the date of his first coming to Flatbush, until 1660, in 5th June, of which year (according to Bergen's translation of the first records) the consistory made an agreement with Van Giesen to become schoolmaster.

He served until October 26, 1663, when Pilgrom Cloeq was engaged, and probably served until 1671. This covers the period for which Dr. Strong could find no other schoolmaster than Hegeman, and places the date of the employment of a schoolmaster at a much earlier point. It is also in accordance with Dutch custom ; for it cannot be supposed that the first settlers were here for nearly fifteen years without a schoolmaster and krank-besoecker " (p. 249).

Writing at a later period, Dr. Ross, in his History of Long Island} asserts that " Hegeman, the common ancestor of that now numerous family, came here from Amsterdam about 1650 and took up his residence at first in New Amsterdam. In 1654 he was a magistrate of Flatbush, and in 1661 schout fiscal of the five Dutch towns ; and he held other public offices, besides being described as an auctioneer. Hegeman appears to have been a man of wealth, and it is impossible to conceive of his performing the full duties of schoolmaster, which, as we shall see, included much that were rather servile in their nature. It is possible, therefore, that he simply performed a part of the duties which fell to the lot of a schoolmaster until a regular and full appointment was made. This was in 1660, when Reynier Van Giesen was installed. . . . Van Giesen held the office until 1663, when he removed to Bergen county, New Jersey, and Pilgrom Clocq was appointed schoolmaster in his stead, continuing as such until 1671."

The first school in Flatbush, which was doubtless the earliest school on Long Island, is reputed to have been located not far from the present site of Erasmus Hall High School. " What is supposed to have been the first village school house stood on a plot to the north of Erasmus Hall campus, and remained in use over a century and a half. Additions were made as needed, so, when it was sold, in 1803, for use as a village store, and the school moved to the Academy, it was composed of three small buildings joined together."

A definite date is fixed for the commencement of the school under Carel de Beauvois in Brooklyn, namely, the 4th of July, 1661. The first school tax of 150 guilders was levied by order of Director-General Stuyvesant, and the government added 50 guilders from its treasury. Dr. Stiles adds that " The names of the earliest settlers of Breucklyn who were assessed to establish public education are still to be found in the archives of the city " (p. 609). The salary fixed for the first teacher was the whole amount raised for school purposes, and he was also furnished with a dwelling house. The school is believed to have been opened in a little church edifice, octagonal in form, which stood near the point where Bridge street now joins Fulton street. The schoolmaster was a learned man, of Huguenot extraction.

The next school (the third) within the present limits of Brooklyn was established in Bushwick(Boswyck), about the beginning of 1663, by Boudewyn Manout, who also acted as court clerk. In Stiles's History appears a quotation from the ancient records (here given verbatim), stating that on December 28, 1662;

"the magistrates of the village of Boswyck, appeared before the council, representing that they in their village, were in great need of a person who would act as clerk and schoolmaster to instruct the youth ; and, that, as one had been proposed to them, viz.: Boudewyn Manout, from Crimpen op de Lecq [a village in Holland] they had agreed with him, that he should officiate as voorleser or clerk, and keep school for the instruction of the youth. For his [services] as clerk he was to receive 400 guilders in [wampum] annually ; and, as schoolmaster, free house rent and firewood. They therefore solicited, that their action in the matter might meet the approval of the Director General and Council in Nieuw Netherland, and that the Council would also contribute something annually to facilitate the payment of the said salary "(p. 276).

The historian adds : " The Council assented, and promised, that, after he had been duly examined and approved by the reverend ministers of the city, they would lighten the annual burden of the village by contributing annually 25, heavy money."

Indeed, the duties of a schoolmaster in the days of Dutch supremacy, and for some years afterward, were multifarious and confusing. On this point interesting light is shed by an agreement made with Johannes Cornelius Van Eckkelen, who was appointed schoolmaster at Flatbush in 1682. The agreement in full is given in Appendix I.

" After the settled pastor came the schoolmaster. He, too, was a learned and distinguished man Carel de Beauvois, an educated French Protestant from Leyden, who was appointed in Breuckelen in 1661, and was also required to perform the offices of court messenger, precentor (voorsanger), ring the bell, and do whatever else is required." Historic New York, II, p. 401. In his History of the Early Schools in Long Island, Thiry says that " In 1661 Brooklyn received its first school-master in the person of Carl De Bevoise, who emigrated from Leyden in 1659. He was the common ancestor of the now widespread and influential De Bevoise family" (p.12)

The Bushwick school was conducted in the church edifice at that settlement, which, like the one in Brooklyn, appears to have been of octagonal shape. It stood near what is now the intersection of Bushwick avenue and Skillman street. " It is," says Dr. Stiles, " an interesting, and, perhaps, to most of the people of Brooklyn, an astonishing fact, that when, about two centuries later, the Board of Education assumed jurisdiction of the public schools of Bushwick, at the time of the consolidation of that town with the city of Brooklyn, in the year 1855, it found the district school still kept on the same site on which it was founded in 1662, and surrounded by the same walls of houses which had guarded it for two centuries " (p. 610). This school became No. 23 after the consolidation of Williamsburgh and Bushwick with Brooklyn.

The fourth school within what is now Brooklyn was organized in the village of Bedford, at the junction of Clove, Cripplebush, and Jamaica lanes,1 probably in the same year (1663). " This school," we learn from Dr. Stiles, " is memorable for many incidents connected with the history of Brooklyn. Here John Vandervoort taught for sixty years. . . . John Vandervoort took charge of this school about 1748 or '50, and is supposed to have been its second teacher. His long service of sixty years was uninterrupted, except for a while during the Revolution, when he was imprisoned by the British. The old school-house had two rooms, with a large chimney between ; one room being the school room proper, the other used as a residence for the teacher; and, about 1775, an addition was made, some fourteen feet square, which the teacher was permitted to use as a grocery store, by means of which he eked out his slender salary" (p. 610). The modern successor of this school has been known as No. 3 since the organization of the Board of Education, in 1843.

The earliest mention of a common school in Flatlands appears in the year 1675, when, according to Stiles, "it was evidently in a mature and vigorous career, under the care of the church elders and was called ' The School of the Town.' The first notice we have of it is in regard to a supply of books by the deacons ;  entries and bills, of elementary and religious books paid for, appear in their accounts from 1675 for a long period of years, along with every variety and order of expenses " (PP- 75, 76). If the well-established custom was followed in this town, and the schoolmaster was also chorister, reader, and sexton, the name of Wellem Gerretse is deserving of honorable mention.

The records of the town of Gravesend show that a school was established in 1728 ; it stood on the site occupied by the town hall at the time of the annexation of the town to Brooklyn, in 1894, and was used until 1778, when a larger building took its place. This was in use for about fifty years, when it was converted into a town hall ; a new site was then purchased and a more roomy schoolhouse built. A second school was started in the town in 1811, and several others were organized before annexation took place.

The town of New Lots was not set off from Flatbush until 1852. A school was opened in that section as early as 1740. A more commodious building took the place of the first one about 1810.

The Dutch, as was shown in an earlier chapter, took pride in maintaining free schools ; but during the British regime little or no attention was paid to public education, and the government did nothing toward the support of schools. The schools previously established seem to have been maintained by their patrons.

Two other schools are supposed to have been organized before the Revolutionary War. One was in the vicinity of the Wallabout Creek; after some years it was removed to what is now Bedford and Flushing avenues, and later it became Brooklyn School No. 4. The other was started in Gowanus, on one of the Bergen farms, principally for the benefit of the families of that name. It was opened in a dwelling-house ; after the Revolution a schoolhouse was built near the corner of the present Third avenue and Fortieth street. This school became No. 2 under the Brooklyn Board of Education.

"In all the schools mentioned above," says Dr. Stiles, " the Dutch language was at first the only one used. But, from about the year 1758 to the year 1800, both the Dutch and English languages were taught. In the Bushwick and Gowanus schools, the use of the Dutch tongue was continued much later, and even down to the Revolution. In the Bushwick school studies in Dutch were not abandoned until about fifty years ago "(p. 611).

"In 1770 the town [Brooklyn] contained only one school of 19 scholars. . . . In 1770, a school house was built by subscription, for the accommodation of the town. The subscribers chose the trustees, who managed the financial affairs, and admitted free all who were unable to pay. . . . This appears to be the earliest attempt at anything like a district or common school system."

The claim is made on behalf of the school in Gowanus that in 1810 that district took advantage of the State law passed in 1805 and elected trustees. If this claim could be substantiated, School No. 2 would have the credit of being the first school organized under the new law in the territory now Brooklyn.

Mr. Tunis G. Bergen, President of the Brooklyn Board of Education from 1882 to 1886, who wrote a part of the chapter on "The Department of Public Education" in Stiles's History, makes the positive assertion that this was done, and names as the first trustees Garret Bergen, Stephen Hendrickson, and Cornelius Van Brunt.

The first distribution of the Common School Fund created by the act of 1805 took place in 1815. In 1816 a tax of $2000 was levied upon the village of Brooklyn, and a common school was opened on the 6th of May in that year, in the lower part of a building in Adams street, near Sands. There were then 552 children within the village limits who did not attend private schools. A schoolhouse in District No. 3, town of Bushwick, was built in 1826, in the vicinity of North First street. In the mean time the original Bushwick school had been organized as District School No. 1, and a second school had been started at Bushwick Crossroads. The school in District No. 1 was the first in what later became the village and city of Williamsburgh. An account of this school was written a few years ago by Mr. James Murphy, 2 and from it the following is taken :

"Williamsburgh's first schoolhouse was located on the block of ground now bounded by Berry street and Bedford avenue, Grand and North First streets. The land for the school site, history tells us, was donated by Mr. David Dunham, a New York merchant, in the year 1820. A schoolhouse was erected thereon by the people of the neighborhood, and was known as District School No. 3 of the town of Bushwick. The earliest schoolmaster of whom we have recollection was a Mr. Beverly, an English gentleman. He was in charge of the school in 1830, and for several years afterward ; how long before that date we have not been able to learn. . . . The old schoolhouse was removed to Sixth (now Roebling) street in the year 1849, and fitted up for a dwelling house, and is still so used. School sessions were held from 9 A.M. to 12 M. the year round, and from 1 to 4 P.M. in winter, 2 to 5 P.M. in summer, except Wednesdays and Saturdays, when there were no afternoon sessions."

Within the present boundaries of Brooklyn several other schools were established before the passage of the act providing a Board of Education for the city: one in 1827 in the neighborhood of what is now the corner of Court and Degraw streets, which in course of time became No. 6 ; another in the same year at the northwest corner of Adams and Prospect streets (the second in the village of Brooklyn), now No. 7 ; another about the same time in a small frame building in Gold street, between Myrtle and Willoughby avenues, which developed into No. 5 ; a fourth in 1830 in Middagh street, between Henry and Hicks, which became No. 8 ; a fifth a year or two later near the present site of the Mount Prospect Reservoir, which afterward was known as No. 9. About the same time a school was started in the vicinity of what was later Fourth avenue and Macomb street ; this became No. 10.

Mention is made by Dr. Stiles (p. 413) of a school established in 1813 by an association of charitable women "for the free instruction of poor children in reading, writing, arithmetic, knitting and sewing," which " ultimately resulted in the establishment of the first public school." It was governed by a board of five trustees, who solicited donations of books as well as of cash for rent and other expenses. The instruction was given by young women of the village who volunteered for the purpose.

Website: The History
Article Name: Schools in Brooklyn Before 1843
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The New York Public School by A. Emerson Palmer, M.A.; The Macmillan Company 1905
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