Title: Brooklyniana, No. 10
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: February 8, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 8 February 1862: .
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. Gaps from damage to the original have been supplied by consulting Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 261–267.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00226
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, and Sarah Walker
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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
Old Stock of Our City.—The Burial Ground in Fulton Ave., above Smith street.—The Dutch Church in the Highway.—Old Family Burying Spots. —The British Officer.—Washington's Headquarters.—Fulton-street grave-yard, opposite Globe Hotel.—Blowing up of the Steamer Fulton in 1829.—The Martyrs of the Prison ships.
THE old graveyards of Brooklyn! What a history is contained in them! Not so much, to be sure, that comes home to the vast proportion of the present two hundred and seventy-five thousand of our inhabitants who have planted themselves among us for the last thirty years—or mostly, indeed, within the last ten years. Not so much to them, we say. But much, ever so much, to all the descendants of the old stock. Much also, in connection with the name of our city, and with its settlement, growth, associations, and with crowds of interesting traditions and venerable facts of our city—giving it a broad mellow light, a retrospective and antiquarian background. Much that, as they read these lines, (as we hope and trust they may, for such things are among the pensive pleasures of advanced age,) will bring up, by their perusal, to the memory of those who are left of every Brooklyn born and Brooklyn raised man and woman, thoughts of other days—of the days of youth, the pleasures, the friends, scenes and persons long faded away—the appearance of Brooklyn when it was a scattered, rural village of a few hundred people. We are at once carried back to the commencement of the present century—to the "last war"—the village charters—the cutting through and paving of the principal thoroughfares—the digging away of hills—the city charter—and a hundred other of the precedents and preparations which have so rapidly been gone through within the last thirty years, and left for signs of themselves the present advanced condition of this noble, wealthy, intelligent, cultivated, populous, and every way remarkable and to be proud of Brooklyn of ours.
But if we run on in this way we shall gossip up all the time we had devoted, between ourselves and you, gentle reader (we like the old phrase yet,) to a few remarks on one or two of the old graveyards of Brooklyn. We dare say that it is even necessary to say in advance, to a great many of the present inhabitants, that there actually are several such old burial places, yet traceable, in our midst.
One of the oldest and roomiest burial-grounds in Brooklyn was that in Fulton avenue, just above Smith street. This was the depository of the dead appertaining to the old Dutch church that stood at the commencement of the present century on a location upon the turnpike road, now Fulton avenue, just above Duffield street. (This is about as near as we can get at it. We have never seen the old meeting-house, known in history as "the Brooklyn church," but there are persons yet living in Brooklyn who have, and can point out the spot, as they have pointed it out accurately to us.) That was a real old Dutch church.1 It stood right in the middle of the highway, which passed up and down both sides of it. It was a round building or octagon, and had a high conical roof; we think we have been told it was thatched, but we are not certain. This church was dismantled and removed early in the present century—somewhere about the year 1803–8, or perhaps previously. In its stead a massive, square, dark-grey, old-fashioned stone church was built, the location being changed to Joralemon street. The site of this grey stone was the same one now occupied by the Dutch Reformed church in the rear of the City Hall. We have been in that grey stone church often—went to Sunday School there. It was torn down and gave place to the present building some twenty or twenty-five years ago.
As to burial deposits, contemporary with the historical old Dutch Church first mentioned, the said burial deposits were often made, in aboriginal times, irrespective of any regular ground, specifically belonging to any church. Families here, in those times, had their own burial places. On the farms around Brooklyn, and on ground that is now in Brooklyn, far inside of its outer wards, it was not uncommon, half a generation ago, to frequently see these last resting-spots of the passed-away of the original families of this end of the island. We have frequently seen them when a youngster, while rambling about this part of King's County. We recollect one small one, in particular, containing four or five graves, close along Fulton avenue, nearly opposite the residence of Samuel Fleet, Esq.2 This, no doubt, used to appertain to the old round church, destroyed fifty years ago. The graves were surrounded with a fence of open wood-work, and remained there down to the grading and paving of Fulton avenue, a few years since.
All these fractional burying-spots, in old Brooklyn, although it would be of interest to trace them, and point out the spots, they are now so long obliterated, covered with houses and stores, and the families whose progenitors they hold broken up, that it is next to impossible.
A few families or persons of distinction had vaults belonging to, or under the pavement of, the old historical Brooklyn church. Andrew Demarest,3 a very aged citizen, now living, was present at the demolition of this church, mentioned as early in the present century. We remember Mr. Demarest, in a talk we once had with him on the subject of the dismantling of this church, telling us the following among the other incidents connected with it. In removing the traces of the church, the workmen came upon a dead body buried there, dressed in the complete uniform of a British officer of rank. The body was in remarkable preservation, in the midst of its showy uniform, buttons, epaulettes, gold lace, cocked hat, sword by its side, &c. It was exhumed one pleasant morning, soon after the men commenced working; and the event making a good deal of talk, before noon a large part of the inhabitants of Brooklyn had collected to take a look at the body before it was removed. Among the rest, it happened there came a lady who distinctly remembered the burial of the officer, many years before. She did not know the name, as she was a little girl when it happened. It was of a British officer killed at the battle of Brooklyn in 1776, and buried there a couple of days afterward, when the royal troops took possession, after Washington retreated. We think Mr. Demarest told us the lady was one of the Duffield family.4 What a vivid picture the whole occurence serves to bring up before us!
The church we mention, besides its being a sort of central point of old Brooklyn graves, has, in the reminiscences of it, many high and serious historical associations. Washington made it his headquarters during the day and night of his famous retreat after the battle just alluded to.5 It has much that is worth recording, in connection with that momentous occurence, (the pivot, as it was, of our revolutionary war), and of some other matters still; but for our present purposes we can only consider it in connection with the subject named at the head of our article. We must, indeed, keep more closely to our theme.
In the now obliterated burial place in Fulton avenue, above Smith street, were, but a few seasons since, to be found members of all the old families of this end of the island—from the settlers that came hither from Holland—indeed, the suggestions of a complete history of our city, from the beginning down to the late date when burials in our limits were prohibited by law. What material for reflection in that old place of graves! From it, and also the graveyard in Fulton street, opposite the Globe Hotel (of which more anon), might be made out from the solemn installments there, during the times by-gone, nearly all that relates to the personal history of our city, and, by consequence, suggesting the whole of its material history and progress.
The old grave-yards, we say, would tell it all, from the beginning. Many a family tree—many a once familiar name would be resumed—and, indeed, many a yet familiar Brooklyn name too. The main trunks perhaps are there; at any rate, many of the branches, near and remote, are there. By blood, by marriage, by some or another tie, thousands are yet connected there in those old grave-yards—soon every trace of them, however, to be utterly rubbed out, and strangers busy buying and selling on the location of those memorable grounds.
There are (even while we write it is necessary to substitute were) the names of Bergen, Hegeman, Vandewater, Johnson, Garretson, Lefferts, Rapelye, Remsen, Vechte, Boerum, Duffield, Suydam, Doughty, Polhemus, Furman, Mercein, Stanton, Clarke, Joralemon, Moser, Vanderveer, Barkeloo, Sprague, Waring, Rushmore, Pierrepont, Van Nostrand, Leavitt, Walton, Bache, Thorne, Hicks, Prince, Van Wagener, Skillman, Romaine and Willoughby, and many other well-established Brooklyn families besides, in those old collections, the memory of equally important ones escaping us. It is an almost awful thought that, with all the wealth of many of those grand and powerful families above-named, the ones who have originated and belonged to them, and all the possessions of their descendants, have not been permitted to hold uncontested "the measure of their own graves."
We have alluded to the old graveyard in Fulton street, opposite the Globe Hotel. The work of removing the remains deposited here (including not a few of those whose family appellations are given above,) has been steadily going on for some months behind that tall placarded fence. In three months from now a row of magnificent stores will uprise and be completed on this ground; and then but a few years more and the recollection of the former sacredness of the spot will have entirely passed away. Gorgeous with rich goods, seen through plate glass windows, and splendid with glittering jets of gas at night, and resonant with the hum of the voices of crowds, is, or will be, the spot. A fit illustration of the rapid changes of this kaleidoscope of alteration and death we call life.
Before we pass to another topic, we must give of this yet visible grave yard an episode that comes within our own knowledge. It is of an occurrence that happened in 1829, of a beautiful June day, namely, of the steam-frigate Fulton (the first steam vessel ever built for any government) being blown up by the vengeance of an exasperated sailor, who fired the powder magazine, and caused the death of between forty and fifty persons.6 The writer of these paragraphs, then a boy of just ten years old, was at the public school, corner of Adams and Concord street. We remember the dull shock that was felt in the building as of something like an earthquake—for the vessel was moored at the Navy Yard. But more distinctly do we remember, two or three days afterwards, the funeral of one of the officers in the grave yard above mentioned.The only officer listed by the Star as killed is Lieut. S. M. Breckenridge; perhaps Whitman refers to six non-commissioned officers (corporals) who also were killed. It was a full military and naval funeral—the sailors marching two by two, hand in hand, banners tied up and bound in black crape, the muffled drums beating, the bugles wailing forth the mournful peals of a dead march. We remember it all—remember following the procession, boy-like, from beginning to end. We remember the soldiers firing the salute over the grave. And then how everything changed with the dashing and merry jig played by the same bugles and drums, as they made their exit from the grave-yard and wended rapidly home.
The subject we have opened upon has a volume contained within it;—yet one more passing mention and we have done. A late paper alludes to the dead of the old Prison Ships—yet we must return to the subject again. Deficient would that article be on Brooklyn burial places—lacking one of its most vital points, that did not record, before it yet entirely rots away, the existence among us of a strange, ricketty, mildewed, tumbledown wooden structure on Hudson avenue, (Jackson street) a short half mile above the ferry, with its walls covered by a now almost illegible inscription. This wretched piece of wood-work, (it would not bring three dollars to-day if put up at auction,) is all that in a monumental form tells of the proudest and most precious legacy our city holds, from the past, to pass onward to the patriotism of the future. We allude to the remains, deposited in Brooklyn soil, adjacent to the Wallabout, of those twelve thousand unnamed Revolutionary patriots, "roughs," who were from time to time taken in battle by the British, and incarcerated in the celebrated Prison Ships.8 These remains are from all the original Thirteen States—who, from 1776 to 1783, died of sickness, starvation, or cruelty, and were, from day to day, brought ashore and dumped in the sand, in careless heaps, uncoffined, uncared for, with just enough dirt thrown over them to prevent the neighboring air from becoming pestilential.
Most of the unknown patriots' remains, of course, are now altogether lost, built over, dug away, etc., and scattered to the elements. But they were strewed so plenteously that a fair portion has been secured and kept. The wooden structure above alluded to was put up to memorize a great and expensive display in 1808, when a portion of the dead relics of the martyrs of the Prison Ships were, as narrated by us the other day, carried through the streets of New York and Brooklyn in a procession, and deposited here—and the aforesaid wooden mausoleum temporarily erected, to mark the spot, by the Tammany Society of New York.9 It is now an instructive sight. We advise the reader to go visit it. It is probably the most slatternly and dirtiest object to be seen anywhere in Brooklyn. Likewise it has a valuable moral.
1. Whitman writes about the old Dutch church in "An Old Landmark Going" (October 10, 1861) and "An Old Landmark Gone" (October 9, 1862). The first church building was built in 1666 and demolished in 1766, when a new building replaced it. The second building was demolished in 1807 when a new church was built in a better location nearby. The original church location was used as a graveyard until 1849, and the property was finally sold in 1865. [back]
2. Samuel Fleet (1786–1864) was a wealthy farmer and property owner in Brooklyn who made his fortune by buying land during the War of 1812. [back]
4. John Duffield, a Revolutionary War surgeon from Pennsylvania, became one of Brooklyn's first physicians and was the first of a series of famous members of the Duffield family. Whitman also mentions the Duffields in his article "An Old Landmark Gone" (October 9, 1862). [back]
5. The Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (New York, August 27, 1776), was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. British General William Howe defeated American General George Washington. Despite their defeat, the American troops' subsequent escape from Long Island without being attacked was a surprising success. [back]
6. The June 4, 1829, Fulton explosion was likely an accident, and the death toll was closer to thirty than Whitman's estimate of "between forty and fifty." [back]
8. The article that refers to the Wallabout prison ships is "Brooklyniana No. 5" (January 4, 1862). Whitman published a poem entitled "The Wallabout Martyrs" in the New York Herald, reprinted in the "Sands of Seventy" annext to his 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
9. The Tammany Society was established in May 1789, just after George Washington was inaugurated President. The Society played an active role in New York City politics until it was disbanded in the 1960s. [back]