Brooklyn’s Dutch Frontier

“We … rode on to the Vlacke Bos, a village situated about an hour and a half’s distance … This village seems to have better farms than the bay, and yields full as much revenue. Riding through it, we came to the woods and the hills, which are very stony and uncomfortable to ride over.”

– Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, a Labadist minister visiting New York and its environs, 1679

When Pieter Janse Hagewout and his family settled in Flatbush in 1661, it was known as Midwout or Vlack Bos. The heavily forested area lay several miles from New Amsterdam, the small port city on the tip of Manhattan that was the center of the Dutch colony of . Europeans, primarily the Dutch, had inhabited the region since the 1630s.  By 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Director-General of New Netherland, granted Midwout a .


Peter Stuyvesant deed conveying land to Adriaen Hegeman, April 12, 1661; Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box OS1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In the seventeenth century, Midwout was little more than a frontier outpost, home to a few industrious Dutch farmers and their families. These settlers took advantage of the available and fertile land on Long Island, or as it was called by the Lenape Indians.  Some early residents, including Pieter Janse Hagewout, obtained their land via land deeds from Peter Stuyvesant himself.  Yet only a small number of families chose to make their homes on New Amsterdam’s frontier.  In 1696, less than 500 people lived in Flatbush.

During the seventeenth century, Dutch families like the Leffertses, the Hegemans, the Cortelyous, and the Vanderveers lived uneasily with the Canarsee Indians who had occupied Sewanhacka long before European settlement. Between the 1630s and the 1680s, European settlers purchased land from Native American tribes throughout present-day Brooklyn. By the 1680s, the Dutch had bought all of Kings County.  Violent skirmishes over contested lands pitted Dutch settlers against native tribes – and competing tribes against each other – throughout the seventeenth century.  Some Native Americans were taken as slaves and sold off to Dutch outposts in the Caribbean.  Regular smallpox outbreaks further decimated the Canarsee population.  By the eighteenth century, most remaining Native Americans migrated further east on Long Island, or moved westward into the Delaware River valley and beyond.

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How did European and Native understandings of property differ?

When the settlers of Midwout purchased land from the Canarsee, two cultural and economic systems collided. Meanings of land purchase differed greatly among Dutch settlers and Native inhabitants. Most Europeans understood ownership to be absolute and permanent. For the Canarsee, a more nomadic people, this notion of private ownership did not exist. Instead, tribes believed they were negotiating to share use of the land for farming, hunting, or foraging purposes. These very different cultural interpretations of ownership led to fraught and sometimes violent encounters throughout the seventeenth century.

Dutch control of New Netherland came abruptly to an end on September 8, 1664, when Peter Stuyvesant surrendered New Amsterdam to the heavily armed British warships that sailed into New York Bay that day. This and other global events were part of a protracted Anglo-Dutch War that pitted two major commercial empires against each other. The British renamed the colony New York, after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York. Most Dutch residents of Kings County subsequently swore loyalty oaths to the English Crown.
Midwout was one of six towns that occupied present-day Kings County, along with Gravesend, Breuckelen (Brooklyn), Nieuw Amersfoort (Flatlands), Nieuw Utrecht (New Utrecht), and Boswijck (Bushwick). Some of these towns, including Flatbush, would not be annexed into the growing city of Brooklyn until the 1890s, on the eve of Brooklyn’s consolidation with New York City.
translated, the island of shells.