Title: Brooklyniana, No. 4
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: December 28, 1861
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 28 December 1861: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00219
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
A series of articles on Brooklyn, with special reference to its origin and past history, would hardly be complete without a glance at the conditions of this section of the island when it was first planted by the Dutch, with some brief mention of the natural advantages, etc., of the spot. The histories of our country have much to say on the subject of the Puritan foundation of New England, and the rival foundation in Virginia, with accounts of the tribes found there; and yet here on this island are some points of interest transcending either of those celebrated beginnings of European colonization.
If the reader will but carry his mind back to the times of the original settlement of Kings County, [1614–50,] he will easily perceive that there many interesting circumstances connected with the locality, the original inhabitants, etc., etc.
When the Dutch first planted themselves here (and for some time afterward) the whole of Kings County was possessed and ruled by the Kanarsie tribe of Indians.1 The principal settlements were at Flatbush and according to tradition, the locality toward the shore that still goes by the name of the tribe. In the latter spot was the residence of the sachem.
Our readers may not be aware, that down to a comparatively late period of time, remnants of this tribe still continued to exist in Kings County, and were occasionally seen as visitors, selling clams, fish, baskets, etc., in Brooklyn.—[Descendants of the Indians or half-breeds still remain on the east end of the island, around the neighborhood of Peconic Bay, and especially on the peninsula of Montauk. We have repeatedly seen them there; but we have never seen any of these Kanarsie remnants. The last one, we have heard old Brooklynites say, became extinct between forty and fifty years ago].
So, here these aborigines lived, on fish, clams, berries, wild fruits, and game.---They paid little attention to the cultivation of the land, except, perhaps, a little corn. Besides their canoes, of which some were large and of elegant workmanship, and their bows and arrows, almost the only manufactures among them were stone hatchets, and rude vessels of earth, hardened in the fire. And yet, they had one article of manufacture which is deserving of special notice---an article which made this specific portion of the New World possess a character different from any other, and superior to any other. We mean the manufacture of aboriginal money, which we shall presently describe.
The produce of the settlements of the New Netherlands, and of the station at Albany, were principally furs, peltries, &c., with which the West India Company's2 return ships were freighted. The commerce spring out of the settlement increased regularly from the very outset, and with great rapidity. From the years 1624 to 1635 the number of beaver skins exported from New Amsterdam was 60,192, and of other skins, 9,437, valued at 725,117 guilders.
Then the colony furnished a market for many products of the mother country. Almost everything required by civilized tastes was for a long while imported—even to the tiles for roofing the houses, of these latter, sufficient specimens even yet exist in the limits of Brooklyn and New York to give the reader a visible demonstration of what they were.
Following the peaceful and prudent method of the Dutch, the new comers made specific purchases of the land from the aboriginal inhabitants, as their first move. Our records have numerous evidences of these purchases, even yet.
Of the west of the Island, in possession of the Kanarsie tribe of Indians, though it would be interesting to some degree, to enter into an account of those aboriginal inhabitants, at the time of the appearance of the "Half-moon," and Hendrick Hudson3 in these waters, our time does not now admit.
The name given to our city in old times spells in different modes. "Breukleyn" was a very common style still to be found in the old records. "Brookland" is another. Some have traced the etymology of the first of those terms to the broken land, (namely the mixture of hill and dale,) which characterizes the topography of our region of the island. Others have formed the cause of the record in the brooks of fresh water that used to ripple along the surface. As to these, and all such explanations, we give them for the reader's amusement, without much reliance ourselves on any of them.
Among the differences in the character and "lay" of the land, especially of the shores, between the present day and the times following the original settlement, we will state, it is well known that even so late as the Revolutionary War, cattle were driven across from Brooklyn, over what is now Buttermilk Channel, to Governor's Island—then Nutten Island. The deeping of this channel since is attributable to the carrying out and extension of the wharves and piers on both the New York and Brooklyn sides of the river, greatly narrowing it, and increasing the force of the currents.
As to the peaceful purchases, before alluded to, they were repeated, in behalf of all parties who assumed to have any claim on the lands. Not only the Dutch purchased of the Indians, but when the English governors came into possession, they also purchased the same ground over again, and had deeds made out.—These deeds, and the considerations paid, are, to modern ideas, extremely amusing. For instance, in 1625, the Dutch governor, Peter Minnet,4 purchased from the aborigines the whole of Manhattan Island, including all the land that now forms the city and county of New York, for sixty guilders, (twenty-four dollars!) And in 1670, under the English, the authorities of Brooklyn puhrcased from the Indians the large tract comprising Bedford, and a large stretch towards Flatbush and Jamaica, for the following price: "100 guilders, seawant, half a tun of strong beer, three long-barrelled guns (with powder and lead proportionably,) and 4 coats."
Our neighbors owning house lots in New York city, and those in Bedford, and about the Clove road and East New York, can now tell on what foundation the title of their property actually rests. The purchase-money just mentioned contains the term "seawant." This was the name of the Indian money, of which this same region now comprised in Brooklyn, (and indeed Long Island generally,) appears to have been the principal manufactory for the whole continent. This supposition is warranted by many facts, among the rest that the principal Indian name that this end of the island went by, when discovered, meant, "the money-manufacturing island." This money was made from the shells of quahang,5 (large round clams,) and from those of the periwinkle, oyster, &c. The inside portion of these shells were broken, rubbed on stones, and wore down smooth into bead-shaped dried prices , and then strung upon the sinews of animals, through holes bored through with sharp stones. These strings, braided together a hand's breadth, and of more or less length, were the celebrated "belt of wampum," or seawan. Three beads of this black money, and six of white, were equivalent to an English penny, or a Dutch stuyver.
The process of trade between the Indians and the settlers here and in New York was as follows: the Dutch and English sold to the Indians, hatchets, hoes, combs, scissors, guns, black and red cloth, &c., and received the seawan shells, in strings or belts, for pay; and then in return bought furs, corn, venison, &c., and paid in seawan. The Indians laughed at the idea of gold or silver money, and would not touch either. The seawan was also strung upon the persons of the savages, for ornament. It was the tribute paid by the Indians here, when conquered by the Six Nations, the Mohawks, &c., with whom the aborigines of Kings County had frequent wars.
The French, when they appeared on the stage in North America, got up a bogus wampum, made of porcelain; but the aborigines detected the artifice at once, and nothing was made of it. The Dutch and English, however, made great quantities from real shells—so great, however, that the value depreciated, and nothing was actually gained.
These points are worth putting on record, when we remember that this Island, and especially this end of it, surpassed all the continent in the permanent manufacture of this curions article.
2. The Dutch West India Company (1622–1791) oversaw the colony of New Netherland, of which New York was a part. [back]
3. British explorer Hendrick (Henry) Hudson sailed on the ship Half Moon in 1609 under the Dutch West India Company's commission. The Hudson River is named for him. [back]
4. Peter Minnet (alternately Minuit) was appointed the first Director of New Netherlands by the Dutch West India Company in 1625. He ruled until 1633. In 1638, he returned to America to found New Sweden in present–day Delaware. [back]
5. A misprint for "quahaug." Also spelled "quahog," the word derives from the Narragansett word poquaûhock [back]