Gravesend, New York, is a vibrant urban town with a unique history. In 1643 Lady Deborah Moody bought 7,000 acres there as a haven for religious dissenters. Gravesend was the only town in New Netherlands that was owned and governed by a woman, the only officially English town, and the only town that had an official policy of religious toleration. Anne and William Bowne, my 9-times great grandparents, came with her from Salem, Massachusetts, and helped her to build the first settlement. Richard and Penelope Stout, also 9-times great grandparents, migrated there to join her community. A few years ago, I visited Gravesend to see what it is like and to see how Lady Moody is remembered.
Before coming to Gravesend, I knew the broad outlines of her story along with a few fascinating details. Lady Moody, born Deborah Dunch, left England in the 1630s as a widow in her early fifties. She was educated, wealthy, and well-connected through her powerful Puritan family. She was also an Anabaptist, which put her dangerously at odds with the Church of England. When she came to the attention of the Court of Star Chamber, she was ordered to stay at her estate on the countryside, away from her dissenting friends in London. Instead, she moved to Salem, Massachusetts.
At that time England and the colonies were filled with dissenters who resisted the dictates of the Anglican Church, often putting themselves in great peril to create their own forms of worship. My Bowne ancestors were Anabaptists from Yorkshire, England, and they became her friends and supporters in Salem. When Deborah was driven from the Puritan community by hostile clerics, the Bowne family sailed with her around Massachusetts Bay to what is now Brooklyn. Lady Moody was granted a charter from Willem Kieft, New Netherland’s Director, on lands in the vicinity of Coney Island.
The broad outlines of her story highlight Lady Moody’s grit, that is her ability to persist in her own goals against challenging odds. The fascinating details, to me, had to do with the alliances she formed and how she was able to form them. She gained the respect and affection of Massachusett’s capable Puritan leader John Winthrop, who described her as “wise and anciently religious“ but failed to protect her from Puritan zealots like John Endicott and Hugh Peter. Endicott was famous for endangering the entire Massachusetts colony by defacing the English flag: he cut the Cross of St George out of the flag’s center, because he thought it represented (or possibly was) the Pope. Hugh Peter, a hostile neighbor, was powerful enough to drive her out of Salem but eventually came to an exceptionally gruesome end, when he was hung, drawn, and quartered years later in England for the killing of Charles I.
When Lady Moody brought her supporters to Gravesend, on the Dutch part of Long Island, the safety of the community depended in great part on her ability to get along with New Netherlands’ Director. In 1643 she was able to get a charter from Willem Kieft, who probably saw the Gravesend settlement as a protective buffer on the frontier. Kieft was a bigoted and inept leader, who ordered the killing of hundreds of Native American men, women, and children in Pavonia and Corlears Hook, thus precipitating Kieft’s War (1643-1645) when many more people were killed. Despite Kieft’s repellent personality and bloody-minded approach to governing New Netherlands, it was essential for Lady Moody to form a good relationship with him. She succeeded in doing that, and I suppose that there is a good chance that I would not be here today if she failed.
In 1647 Kieft was replaced by Peter Stuyvesant, another bigoted and authoritarian personality. Lady Moody’s biographer, Victor Cooper, described how she invited Stuyvesant and his fashionable wife Judith to her home for a visit of several days. Deborah entertained them with warmth and sophistication, making small talk in three languages and playing the harp while Judith sang. Her charm offensive worked, and they remained on good terms until the English seized New Netherlands in 1664.
Lady Moody’s alliances with neighbors and Gravesend residents were just as important to the success of the settlement as those with New Netherlands’ Directors. She seems to have gotten on well with Anthony Janzoon Van Salee, whose land bordered Gravesend. Anthony, the son of a Dutch pirate and a Moroccan woman named Margarita, grew up in the Muslim faith and became one of the wealthiest people in New Netherlands. At some point Anthony and his wife, Grietse Reyniers, were exiled to Gravesend from New Amsterdam. They farmed there and were on good terms with the Gravesend settlement. Their daughters married men from local families including the Van Sycklen family, for whom Van Sicklen Street was named. I am related to Anthony and Grietse through the Van Sycklens, and many famous Americans are their descendants, including the Vanderbilt family and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Within Gravesend, Lady Moody attracted the loyalty of many followers, not all of whom shared her religious beliefs. My 9-times great grandfather, Richard Stout, does not appear to have been an especially religious man. Nevertheless, he shared Lady Moody’s spirit of independence and it seems likely that he appreciated her greatly as a woman of valor. I infer this because his wife, Penelope, was another well-known woman of valor. Before she met Richard, she was famous in Long Island for her own story. She had come to North America as the young wife of a man who became very sick on shipboard. When the ship was wrecked off Sandy Hook, she remained with her sick husband even after everyone else on board abandoned the two of them. The husband was subsequently killed by a group of young Lenape men and she was scalped, then left for dead. After spending days in the trunk of a tree, she was rescued by an older Lenape man, brought to his village, and healed. They remained friends after she left for a European settlement. She was known in Long Island for the headdress she wore, to cover the scalping wound.
Lady Moody’s most famous accomplishment was laying out the original village of Gravesend, following a formal pattern that was rare in North America at that time. That achievement is remembered in large part because the outlines of her design still remain in Gravesend, where the old street grid abuts the more recent one, around the Lady Moody Triangle Park. The village was designed on a block grid plan, with a school, church, and town government. The village center was enclosed in a wooden palisade, and the land beyond the fence was divided between settlers for farmland. My Bowne and Stout ancestors left Gravesend for New Jersey by the 1660s, but Lady Moody lived out her life there and is most likely buried in the Gravesend Cemetery.
When I visited Gravesend, I found a bustling residential community of about 30,000 people. We parked near McDonald Avenue, where the rumble of the F train overhead mingles with breezes off Gravesend Bay. Avenue U, in the main commercial district, burgeons with awnings in bright colors and advertisements in many languages. It borders the Lady Moody Triangle, which is a small paved park with compact monuments, greenery, and bench seating.
Gravesend’s housing stock is exceptionally diverse, with two-hundred-year-old farmhouses standing cheek-to-jowl with 20thand 21stcentury construction. A number of frame houses date from the years when Gravesend was largely farmland. There are also bungalows, brick townhouses, and garden apartments from the first half of the twentieth century, alongside GI housing and multi-story apartment houses built after WWII. Farther east, around Avenue T and Ocean Parkway in a Sephardic neighborhood, you will see blocks of opulent-looking mansions with imaginatively designed gardens, porches, and gates. Farther south, Gravesend is home to the Marlboro Houses, a high-rise public housing complex with 5,000 residents.
For the past one hundred years and more, Gravesend has been an immigrant neighborhood, as it was in Lady Moody’s time. For most of the 20thcentury it has been predominately Italian and Jewish. The iconic Italian restaurant, L & B Spumoni Gardens, started in the late 1930s when the Barbati family began selling pizza out of a horse-drawn cart. It is still under the same ownership, and the pizza is now nationally famous. Scottie’s Pizza Parlor, my own favorite pizza parlor in Portland, Oregon, has an L & B Spumoni Gardens pizza box displayed prominently on the wall. More recent Gravesend residents come from China, Mexico, Korea, Russia, and the Ukraine, to name just a few spots around the globe. Vito’s Bakery, owned since 1980 by the Del Ponte family, now sells its rolls to the Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Hoai, down the block. Pho Hoai serves them in the popular savory sandwiches known as banh mi.
For myself, Gravesend was a comfortable place to be, humming with activity but not overwhelming. I liked the fact that people made easy eye contact with strangers. In the Triangle a woman sat on a bench reading a paperback, with her feet propped up on a cart full of clean laundry. She appeared to me to be about 70 years old, with bright-colored sunglasses and a blonde ponytail. She watched as I examined a granite monument enclosed in a blue fence, with a memorial to Lady Moody on one side and to veterans of the armed services on the other. Waving her cigarette toward the cemeteries in the old village square, she remarked, “Those have been there a long time!” Then she smiled and said, “Enjoy the day!”
The old village is surrounded by the square created by Van Sicklen Street and East, South, and North Village Roads. The two adjoining cemeteries are within this square. One has a slightly spooky iron arch at the entrance that reads “Van Sicklen Cemetery.” The other, the Gravesend Cemetery, has a 1930s-era blue State Education Department plaque. Together they form a leafy island of green, with a canopy of trees arching over graves dating back to the 1600s.
As memorials, the two cemeteries had several problems that I noticed. The maintenance in these graveyards was pretty casual, with tumbled-over gravestones and a fair amount of litter blown in from the outside. I learned later that the maintenance had been far worse during the 1970s, when the cemeteries became a dumping ground for people’s garbage and were surrounded by abandoned cars. Since then, historian and Gravesend resident Joseph Ditta asserts, upkeep has improved greatly with Parks Department oversight. However, I noticed there was still room for improvement.
Another problem was that the blue sign outside Gravesend Cemetery is misleading, if not factually incorrect: Lady Moody’s followers were described as Quakers on the sign, while in fact her followers from Salem were Anabaptist. It is interesting to me that the sign survived so long with that factual error, and it made me wonder if that happens often with older signs, which eventually become historical sites in themselves.
A third problem was that the grounds were not accessible without prior arrangement with the Parks Department, so I wasn’t able to stroll inside. Nevertheless, the burial grounds were interesting to look at even from the outside, and the greenery was a welcome feast for the eyes in the midst of the city pavement. I found it comforting that these two cemeteries still remain, untouched by the redevelopment that often obliterates historically important sites.
I discovered that there are at least two sites besides the Triangle that are named for the town’s founder. One of these is a large brick primary school, P.S. 212, known as Lady Deborah Moody School. The school serves around 700 students and its website is translated into over one hundred languages, reflecting the rich cultural spectrum of present-day Gravesend.
The other site named for Deborah Moody is a small house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, which had children’s tricycles and blooming daffodils in the front yard on the day I passed by. This modest-looking home is an important link to Gravesend’s colonial past, since it is one of Brooklyn’s few remaining Dutch-American houses. It is also the borough’s only known 18thcentury house that is built largely of stone. Known as the Lady Moody/Van Sicklen House, it was never actually occupied by Gravesend’s founder although it was built (very likely after she died) on her original house lot. Preservationists, including Joseph Ditta, have been working for more than 50 years to secure landmark status for the house. They achieved that goal in 2016. This little house has kept Lady Moody’s name in the local press well into the 21stcentury.
Mike Pompa remembers Gravesend
After I returned from Brooklyn to California, I learned my friend Mike Pompa had grown up in Gravesend, and he shared some memories. The Pompas lived six blocks north of the cemeteries, in a frame house that Mike believes was the one remaining farmhouse on the block. Mike’s grandfather, a bricklayer, built the back porch and also replaced the front steps with bricks. In the backyard his uncle, Edmond Casarella, had an art studio in a cottage that Mike’s mother called “the Bungalow.” Edmond Casarella was an eminent printmaker, sculptor, and painter who had produced his first works under the mentorship of Anthony Velonis, leader of the Federal Arts Project in New York.
After Mike’s grandfather retired, he sometimes drove Mike through other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, where he pointed out apartments that he had worked on during his years as a bricklayer, at time when the family moved frequently to be close to his jobs. In addition to seeing his grandfather’s work, Mike met some of his grandfather’s friends from his working years. Mike remembers going to union retiree appreciation dinners with his grandfather.
Mike grew up in the house on West Fourth Street that the family purchased for $5,000. It must have been an important anchor to a rich family life, retaining happy memories, because his mother found it hard to leave in the end. He said, “We eventually convinced my mom to sell the house after my father died. She had lived there for 54 years. It was so run down that she insisted on selling it to a contractor. The contractor tore it down and built a 6-family apartment to match the style of the neighborhood.”
Mike remembers Gravesend’s old cemeteries very well, and one visit in particular. He and his friends were 13 or so, and probably (he thinks) on their bikes. There was an opening cut in a chain link fence that they ducked through, with one boy acting as a lookout since the cemetery was officially closed. They read the dates on the stones, which dated back to the mid and late 1700s, and they also tried to find Lady Moody whose stone – they discovered – is no longer visible. He said, “I think it was fascinating to know that the first foreigners who settled in Brooklyn chose our neighborhood to live in.”
I am also fascinated with the town of Gravesend, and I value my connection through the Bownes, Stouts, and Lady Moody. I live 2,800 miles away so it is not easy for me to visit. Instead, I keep in touch by following history blogs, taking virtual walking tours, and flipping through online photo archives. To satisfy my urge to visit the old neighborhood, I also sometimes skim through Joseph Ditta’s Gravesend Gazette, search the real estate pages of the New York Times, and browse the archives of Brooklyn Daily Eagle. I may never actually pass through this town again, but cyberspace gives me the chance to keep my connection strong.
For further reading:
- Gravesend Gazette, Brownstoner, and Forgotten New York are excellent local history blogs.
- Landmark Preservation Commission Reports pertaining to the Gravesend and Van Sicklen Cemeteries (March 23, 1976) and the Lady Moody/Van Sicklen House (April 12, 2016). These are available as pdfs on the Internet, and they describe the landmarks in detail.
- A Dangerous Woman, New York’s First Lady Liberty by Victor Cooper (Heritage Books, 1995) is a book-length biography gives the fullest picture that I’ve discovered so far of Gravesend’s founder.
- Gravesend, Brooklyn (Then and Now) by Joseph Ditta (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) is a visual history of this town by the town’s prolific local historian.
I am grateful to the historians and preservationists, in particular Joseph Ditta, who have done an impressive job of publicizing Gravesend’s history. I am also particularly grateful to Mike Pompa, for sharing his memories, and to Ellen Pompa, who made that possible.Marian Gold