Early and Colonial Years

The story of Brooklyn began long before Columbus sailed to the New World. Brooklyn, situated at the southern tip of Long Island, was originally inhabited by a group of American Indians who called themselves the Lenape, which means "the People." They included the Nayack and the Canarsee, who planted corn and tobacco and fished in the rivers.

The Dutch, who settled in Manhattan in the early 1600s, called their neighbors "river Indians" or "wild people." They began to buy land across the river in 1636, and their fortunes often contrasted those of the American Indians. As a result of diseases, such as smallpox, that were new to America; war; land deals that were not always honorable; and other factors, by the 1680s the native people had lost all claims to the rolling, heavily forested landscape.

The Dutch founded five villages: Bushwick, Brooklyn, Flatbush, Flatlands, and New Utrecht. Gravesend, a sixth village, was founded in 1643 by Lady Deborah Moody, an Englishwoman who was fleeing religious persecution in England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The British captured the Dutch territory in 1674, and gathered the six villages into Kings County, part of the crown colony of New York.

A census taken in 1698 counted 2,017 people in Kings County. About half of these early settlers were Dutch. The others came from Germany, England, France, and Scandinavia, and included a large number of black slaves brought from Africa. Slavery flourished in these rich farmlands during the 18th century. By 1771, just before the Revolutionary War, slaves represented nearly one third of the population of Kings County. Slavery wouldn't become illegal in New York State until 1827.

During the Revolution, British troops nearly destroyed George Washington's inexperienced Army at the battle of Brooklyn in 1776. The fighting ranged from Gravesend to Gowanus, and the Colonial Army narrowly escaped annihilation by slipping across the East River to Manhattan during a foggy night. The British then occupied Manhattan and Brooklyn for the duration of the war.