A Brief History of Brooklyn: 1800-1850


General Jeremiah Johnson strode on the western end of an old American village bordering on the East River in 1800. The village, originally named “Breuckelen”, already had two hundred years of history under its belt. Originally founded by the Dutch in the 17th century, it was a prominent trading colony from the beginning because it neighbored the East River. This allowed it to not only trade easily with the mother country for the Dutch East India Company, but also to trade with the city just west of the River, New York. When the British conquered New Netherland in 1664 they won the village from the Dutch, later christening it “Brooklyn”.

Johnson journeyed from the East River shore deeper into the Long Island mainland, conducting a census on King’s County and surveying Olympia. Both were tracts of land further inland that would eventually become parts of the Brooklyn village, and later parts of the Brooklyn city. More importantly, Johnson made many observations on Brooklyn’s state as a village, and the steps it would take to one day become a city. He comments on the significant prospect of building bridges to link New York to Brooklyn and the potential of a developed harbor in Wallabout.[1]

In his publication, Johnson writes on Brooklyn’s potential, “Olympia is… surrounded almost with water; the conveniences are almost manifest. A considerable country in the rear affords the easy attainment of produce.” He comments on the Brooklyn streets, “The principal streets in this village are sixty feet, but the cross-parts are not so wide… Latterly, it appears to have the appearance of a regular town. Edifices are erecting, and other improvements constantly making.” His words on the waterfront are exciting to the future bridge-builders, “It has been suggested that a bridge should be constructed from this village across the East River to New York… This would be a means of raising the value of the lands on the east side of the river.” On seafaring, he adds, “Should such a plan be carried into execution [turning the Wallabout into a navy-yard], it would considerably increase the importance of this place.”[2]

Johnson notes Brooklyn’s small but pithy rural infrastructure. He writes that there are only three public schools, one in Williamsburg, one in Gowanus, and on in Brooklyn Ferry. There are sixty scholars who are taught a basic curriculum of grammar, geometry, and astronomy. However, there are no libraries or bookstores, and Johnson strongly suggests the establishment of a village corporation to establish markets, buildings, churches, and courthouses, among others[3].

Whether he realized it or not, Johnson predicted Brooklyn’s transformation from a village to a city, which happened from around 1800 to 1850. He brings up the erection of new buildings, the constant improvement of the village’s old roads and buildings, the building of bridges to connect Brooklyn to New York City, and the importance of a navy yard for the waterfront. He also suggests establishing markets, corporations, churches, and courthouses. All of these establishments and actions play a role in Brooklyn’s growth from village to city.

Brooklyn’s evolution was not a simple and linear one. In order to grow and flourish, Brooklyn needed to develop in many different directions, forming a pattern of growth, urbanization, and modernization. It developed things as basic as its population and number of buildings, to nurturing its own culture through the printing press, schools, and temperance societies, to building an infrastructure by erecting banks, corporations, and the fire department.

Neither was Brooklyn’s development inevitable. Passionate and powerful people throughout Brooklyn’s history pushed for it to become a city, such as Robert Fulton, founder of the Brooklyn Steamboat Ferry Association, and Alden Spooner, publisher of the Brooklyn Evening Star. While you could argue that Brooklyn followed historical trends, such as urbanization as other American cities went through, it needed people to deliberately to make decisions that helped Brooklyn become more urbanized, such as Fulton jumpstarting Brooklyn’s steamboat trade. Throughout this essay, I argue that most of the events that formed Brooklyn into a city can be placed in three main pillars: building an infrastructure, creating a unique culture, and prominent people pushing Brooklyn from village to city.

Infrastructure and Economy

When Johnson surveyed Brooklyn as a village, the commented how little infrastructure the village had. Over time, however, Brooklyn unified under one or a few political standards, which is absolutely necessary to manage a large collective of people such as a city. There were only a few manufactures, mostly gristmills, breweries, and furniture joints[4]. As Brooklyn grew, it built a range of services and corporations, like the fire department, ferry systems, and major building projects like the Apprentices’ Library. People from around the village start advocating for one fire department or one Board of Education.

Brooklyn did not have many institutions in its early history, and those that existed did not follow a universal standard applied to all institutions. For example, Brooklyn’s Fire Department did not exist until 1788. Before then, firefighters were volunteers who followed their duties as citizens, not professionals who followed an official set of duties and safety regulations[5]. Brooklyn’s education system is another example. At 1800, Brooklyn had only three public schools, but as more public schools were built in an increasingly rapid rate Brooklyn needed a universal standard of teaching applied to all schools. This was why a Board of Education was formed, to apply said universal standard and govern all the public schools through one body.

Historically, the Fire Department is one of Brooklyn’s oldest institutions. As early as 1801, Brooklyn was incorporated as a fire district by an act of the County and in 1824, the fire department doubled in manpower and many buildings and offices were installed to be fireproof, such as the County Clerk’s office in the Apprentices’ Library[6]. The Fire Department became a powerful institution, aiding in Brooklyn’s growth. As the Brooklyn Charter puts it, “The said Fire Department of the City of Brooklyn… is hereby empowered and directed to possess and exercise fully… all the duties of the government, management, maintenance, and direction of the Fire Department of the City of Brooklyn and all the premises and property thereof…”[7]

The Fire Department is one manifestation of an institution growing alongside Brooklyn’s path to becoming a city, and becoming organized and bureaucratized to deal with a growing village. In the 17th century it was a voluntary department. The first firemen were not hired, as in taking a mandatory profession, until 1772, and the Fire Department was not organized until 1788[8]. Eventually, the Fire Department was incorporated in 1800. The incorporation of the Fire Department allowed a more standard set of safety regulations. Buildings were constructed to be fire proof, including the significant Apprentices’ Building. Other government-funded programs followed a similar vein, like the creation of a sewer system. In the past Brooklyn had at most some haphazard and crude water sources, unfit to drain the village or dispose of human waste. That changed when side gutters were built and water and sewer systems were installed[9].

The Brooklyn ferry system was also a big leap to morphing Brooklyn from a village into a large, unified, functioning city. Whereas the Fire Department had more to do with helping to establish a unified government, the ferry system had to do with boosting trade and commerce. Before airplanes, steamboats and sails were the only means for trade and communication to countries beyond the seas. So it would make sense Brooklyn obtaining effective and efficient steamboat businesses in the 19th century was essential to its economic growth. 1812 the engineer Robert Fulton and his brother-in-law William Cutting leased the Clement steamboat, which acted as a ferry service between New York City and Paulus Hook, New Jersey. Eventually, they established their own company, Brooklyn Steamboat Ferry Association with a capitol of $68,000, and in 1814 they ran the Nassau, their very own steam ferry[10].

When Henry Stiles, the author of A History of the City of Brooklyn, himself surveyed the now city of Brooklyn to do research, he devoted an entire tour on the waterfront. From Fulton Street straight from the ferry he had enough material to right a book. It’s not hard to see why, as he very well could have written only about ferries and died with inner peace. As he himself noted, by 1814 the Brooklyn Steamboat Ferry Association began a system of ferry corporations, which naturally became a nucleus of business. As Stiles noted in his tour, the waterfront was littered all forms of trade: fish stands, butcheries, groceries, carpenters’ shops, cloth factories, printers, and book binders[11].

A lesser but still significant part of Brooklyn’s development into a city is the establishment of courthouses and jails. A growing legal and prison system helped keep law and order in a growing village. This reflects not only the growing population of the village but also unifying Brooklyn’s judiciary under one standard. In this case, Brooklyn developed many buildings following one code of laws, including trails, persecutions, sentencing, and jailing. Brooklyn’s courthouses and jails develop later in the village’s history, past the 1820s and continuing well into the 1850s. Why this happens is because it takes a lot of manpower to run a legal system, both in the sense of assembling a police force and managing a bureaucracy to keep order.

From the 1820s to the 1850s, Brooklyn’s population exploded, giving it the necessary manpower. In 1826, the village had a population of 9000. By 1830, Brooklyn’s population expenses were over $25,000 (about $547,000 when adjusted for inflation), with $5,292 for people at the waterfront and about $10,000 for people mainland. Around 1828, close to the time Brooklyn officially became a city in 1834, the number of male inhabitants above the age of 18 was about 40,000[12]. Brooklyn’s population burst correlates with Brooklyn’s transformation into a city and with the rise of Brooklyn’s law enforcement and legal institutions.

In 1824, major developments occurred in Brooklyn. The municipal court was established, which had jurisdiction over the New York State, symbolizing Brooklyn’s growing influence and relevance in the rest of the state. In a few decades the village government vastly expanded. In 1829, the Board of Supervisors, representatives of Brooklyn’s nine plus wards, erect courthouses and jails throughout the village (Ostrander 2013). In 1846, the Supervisors made a loan to provide better care for prisoners in the County Jail and, if land was purchased, remove the prisoners from jail and to the new lands. 1849, the city court of Brooklyn was established. In 1854, the Board Supervisors of the Kings wards authorize the building of a new courthouse. [13].

In 1829 the people of Brooklyn recorded an increase in crime rate. Though Ostrander merely records the trend and doesn’t give reasons to it, it is probably because the increase in population and density. Cities are infamous for their high rate of crime, so to have Brooklyn’s crime rate increase is a strong sign it is becoming a city. (Surely enough, it officially became one just five years later.) Brooklyn also has a growth spurt of temperance societies during the 1800s, especially past the 1820s. People were gaining a greater collective moral consciousness, or at least a growing apprehension of crime and vice, and thus the need to prevent and correct it. Unsurprisingly, a lot of churches were also erected around the same time. The growth of a collective cultural, moral, and religious consciousness is significant because it shows that Brooklyn isn’t merely growing economically but also growing culturally.

Culture, Institutions, and Societies

When Johnson recorded his observations of Brooklyn at 1800, Brooklyn had only three schools and one church, but things were about to change very quickly. For the next fifty years Brooklyn would rapidly become a major cultural center, even rivaling New York. Brooklyn grew culturally through several ways, through schools (public and private), churches, societies, and the press through a lesser extent. Just as Brooklyn united its infrastructure, economy, and legal institutions, under one standard it also united its educational and cultural institutions to cultivate its citizens. Brooklyn began to develop a citywide moral consciousness.

Throughout Brooklyn’s history its Board of Education institutionalizes many public schools throughout the land, building a unified standard for education. However, Brooklyn’s’ citizens were the ones who took the initial steps to build public schools in the first place. In 1812, the Loison Seminary, a women’s society, was formed to create the first public school of the 19th century. In 1816, a public meeting was held in the town hall further the Loison Seminary goal. In May of the same year, due to efforts of the Brooklyn Sunday School Union Society, the first Sunday school opened. In 1818 Episcopalians gathered to create a Sunday school of their own[14].

Private schools also opened, albeit later. By 1848, Brooklyn boasted many private schools for both boys and girls. By the time people talked of merging Williamsburg to Brooklyn in 1848, Williamsburg had fifteen private schools of its own. (Williamsburg was a powerful town in its own right, incorporated in 1827 and officiated as a town in 1840.) By 1854, two major universities formed. The Brooklyn Female Academy transformed into the Packer Collegiate Institute for Girls. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, an academy for boys, was also created[15].

Brooklyn erected churches at similar speed, especially during the 1840s, because Brooklyn by then was urbanized enough, with a large enough population and number of institutions, to take the time and energy to make ecclesiastic monuments. Brooklyn had a moral consciousness unified enough to build large expressions of Protestant faith.  In May 1834, Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal church was formed. In 1842, Emmanuel (Protestant Episcopal) church was consecrated. 1843 was a very busy year of church building. The (Unitarian) Church of the Savior was consecrated. The Episcopal (Protestant Episcopal) church was consecrated. The Church of the Holy Trinity, Eighth Methodist Episcopal, Mariner’s Union Bethel Church were all established. The First Reformed Presbyterian Church cornerstone was laid and Middle Dutch Reformed Church was founded. St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the First Congressional Methodist, the First Reformed Presbyterian parish, and Protestant Episcopal Parish of St. Peter’s organized[16].

Societies, mostly temperance societies, formed from 1812 to 1843. In 1812, the aforementioned Loisan Seminary of women formed to create the first public school. In 1815, Society to Prevent and Suppress Vice in the Town of Brooklyn forms and publishes under the Long Island Star, the most influential newspaper at the time[17]. In 1830, the Kings County Temperance Society was founded in Flatbush[18]. In December 1841, the Brooklyn Bible Society (auxiliary to the American Bible Society), the Shamrock Benevolent Society, and the Brooklyn Newspaper were established. In 1843 Brooklyn Protestant Benevolent and Library Association and Laborer’s Beneficial Society, and Nicholas Society of Nassau Island, were inaugurated[19].

Judging by the time the churches were all built, I can make a conjecture of their relation to the schools and societies. From the 1810s to about 1840, the first pioneering societies congregated and helped create the first public schools. Arguably, the societies was where the dream for public schools began, and was where the first efforts to do so were carried out. From the 1830s to about 1850, private schools appeared, as did churches and later societies.

Brooklyn shared a deep Protestant religious consciousness like other northeast American towns, founded by Dutch merchants and having the Dutch Reformed Church branded as the official religion by the Dutch West India Company. In spite of its heritage, Brooklyn was still a village at around 1800, and had yet to really form its own independent religious consciousness. At the time its religious consciousness was “informal”. People acted and advocated for what they thought was right without so much regard to social affiliation, because Brooklyn had only a handful amount of private institutions. In 1800, General Johnson wrote that Brooklyn had only one church.

Later, that consciousness became “official” with the building of churches, private schools and later societies. Both churches and private schools reveal a strong association with a private institution. People define themselves more by the factions they belong to. You can even see this trend in the names of earlier societies compared to later societies. Earlier societies, like A Society to Prevent and Suppress Vice in the Town of Brooklyn and Brooklyn Sunday School Union Society, define themselves more through a mission statement. Later societies, like the Brooklyn Protestant Benevolent and Library Association and the St. Nicholas Society of Nassau Island, define themselves by private institution or faction.

Brooklyn was officially declared a city in 1834 by electing its first mayor, George Hall. Coincidentally, 1834 can be seen as a fulcrum between two sides of a scale. The first side is Brooklyn from the 1810s to about 1830. The second side is Brooklyn from the 1830s to about 1850. Once Brooklyn became a city, its building projects and institution founding really took off because becoming a city made gave its government enough cohesion and power to build such projects. Different private institutions, religious sects, and societies had a better chance of getting the government to act in their interests by lobbying it. By 1850, Brooklyn was a city and a major cultural center, with a unified intellectual, moral, and religious consciousness. Schools, churches, and societies in many varieties sprouted quickly in little time, and became consecrated as institutions, stone monuments of Brooklyn culture.

Powerful People With Lofty Dreams

People, not the environment or a natural automatic process, were and still are the builders of Brooklyn’s history, like all histories. Some people made a bigger influence than others in turning Brooklyn into the dynamic city of the 1850s and today. History never owes its making to any one person since even the most grandiose genius is part of a society built on the backs of millions of people, each of them a part of its character in some way or another. However, there are some people whose named are more remembered than others because they succeeding in big agendas that profoundly shaped the society they lived in. People chose to remember the famous for their deeds for reasons that are sometimes just and sometimes aren’t. In either case, Brooklyn did not “naturally” become a city as the end of an inevitable process. Specific people pushed Brooklyn to become a city.

Robert Fulton was a definite player because he built Brooklyn’s ferry system, which was essential to Brooklyn’s growing trade and commerce. Originally, he, alongside his his brother-in-law William Cutting leased the Clement Steamboat in 1812. They established their own company, the Brooklyn Steamboat ferry association, running their first steam ferry, the Nassau, in 1814. As American philosopher and historian John Fiske wrote, the 1810s were a critical period of Brooklyn’s history, with huge commercial manifestations. Unfortunately, Fulton died in 1815, only 49. He did, however, leave a large legacy behind him as one of Brooklyn’s waterfront architects.

Colonel Alden Spooner was another important figure, publishing the Brooklyn Evening Star, one the most influential during its heyday alongside the Long Island Star. In 1814, Diana Rapalja, an influential heiress from an old family who was politically active, died. Spooner later purchased her property, using it both as a living space and the printing office for the Brooklyn Evening Star, publishing the first issue in 1824[20]. In May of the same year, Spooner proposed to publish a new issue twice a week, which included a census of the number of houses in Brooklyn so far (totaling 1025) and a prospectus for the Brooklyn village. “The great increase of the population and business of Brooklyn, call for corresponding changes in the various establishments which contribute to our interest and our enjoyments.”

His requests did not fall on deaf ears. The village authorities took greater care in areas pertaining to the village’s health, appearance, and welfare by removing health hazards and cleaning the streets. The Trustees passed laws regulating the cleaning of Fulton, Main, Front, Water, and Doughy streets. Spooner soon printed an issue of the Star, explaining that a cart would pass by the streets every Wednesday morning and Saturday morning. When they rung a bell, it would tell people it was time to give them kitchen garbage for them to collect. The Trustees especially requested that people sprinkle the pavement in front of their houses immediately before sweeping[21].

Spooner did not keep his influence restricted to the Brooklyn Evening Star. In 1824, he published the third directory of Brooklyn at the office of the Long Island Star. It contained 1,329 names, 122 more names than in the last directory in 1823. Furthermore, Spooner’s leadership with the press earned him his fair share of political power. Years later, in March 1857, Spooner and was appointed as one of three commissioners by Brooklyn’s legislatures, tasked with mediating financial disputes between the city of Brooklyn and the city of Williamsburg[22].

George Hall, a former military captain, was elected as the first mayor of Brooklyn when Brooklyn became a city in 1834. Previously, he served as a Trustee of the third ward of Brooklyn from 1826 to 1832, and was elected as president of the village at 1833. In 1854, Hall was a mayor candidate of the Know-Nothing Party. Though his opponents tried to use his Irish descent to prove he wasn’t born in America, Hall refuted the accusations. He won the election, becoming the first mayor of the unified city of Brooklyn and Williamsburg[23].

While George Hall claimed many firsts in elections and was the first leader to steer a newly unified city, Jonathan Trotter, a fellow honorary and colleague of George Hall, is better remembered for implementing specific policies. Trotter was elected mayor in 1835 and re-elected in 1836. While he was mayor, he laid the cornerstone of City Hall in April 1836, which was originally the Apprentices’ Library. He opened Myrtle Avenue and made arranged to open up outlying portions of the city. After his election, he unfortunately lost a lot of his wealth in a financial crisis. In 1840, he moved to New York, and while he lived well, he never exerted as much business and political power as he used to (Stiles 1870)[24].

Other famous people clutter Brooklyn’s history, who all shaped the village turned city in their own unique ways. However, Robert Fulton, Alden Spooner, George Hall, and Jonathan Trotter were arguably the most crucial figures from 1800 to 1850. Fulton boosted Brooklyn’s trade at the waterfront, Spooner directed the press and used it to influence policies to an extraordinary degree, Hall held the office of mayor twice for the city Brooklyn and was a decent leader, and Trotter founded City Hall. All the aforementioned people advanced Brooklyn either economically or politically, building its wealth, institutions, and infrastructure.

The people who willfully forged Brooklyn’s history did so by paving a path of many directions, not merely one. Brooklyn’s development, on the whole, was star shaped. Brooklyn became a city by flourishing in many different directions, not by following a straight and narrow path. This is ironic, considering the 19th century industrial idea of progress as a ladder to an ever better future. Even though we, who have the advantage of hindsight, may think of progress differently, it is not too farfetched that 19th century Brooklyn citizens believed in ideal of linear progress.


Ostrander, Stephen M. History of the City of Brooklyn and Kings County Vol. 2. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by A. Black. S.l.: Theclassics Us, 2013. Print.

Records of the Department, comp. Our Firemen: The Official History of the Brooklyn Fire Department, from the First Volunteer to the Latest Appointee. Compiled from the Records of the Department. Brooklyn, NY: n.p., 1892. Print.

Stiles, Henry Reed. A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh. Vol. 1, 2, and 3. Brooklyn: Pub. by Subscription, 1867. Print.

The Charter of the City of Brooklyn: And the Laws of the State of New York Relating Particularly to Said City: Together with the Ordinances Thereof: To Which Is Added an Appendix Containing the Old Charters, Statistical Information, &c. Brooklyn: Henry A. Lees, 1846. Print.

[1] Stiles, Henry Reed. A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh. Vol. 1. Brooklyn: Pub. by Subscription, 1867. 380, 381.

[2] Stiles, Vol. 1. 382-385

[3] Stiles, Vol. 1. 383, 384, 385

[4] Stiles, Vol. 1. 384

[5] Records of the Department. Our Firemen: The Official History of the Brooklyn Fire Department, from the First Volunteer to the Latest Appointee. Brooklyn, New York, 1892. Pg. 28, 29.

[6] Stiles, Henry Reed. A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh. Vol. 2 Brooklyn: Pub. by Subscription, 1867. 223-227.

[7] York, N.Y. The Charter of the City of Brooklyn and the Laws of the State of New York Relating Particularly to Said City Together with the Ordinances Thereof : To Which Is Added an Appendix Containing the Old Charters, Statistical Information, &c. Brooklyn N.Y.: I. Van Anden, 1846. 118.

[8] Our Firemen, 24, 26, 27

[9] Stiles, Vol. 2. 223-227.

[10] Ostrander, Stephen M., and Alexander BLACK. A History of the City of Brooklyn and Kings County. Vol 2. … Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by A. Black. Brooklyn: Privately Published, 1894. 57-60.

[11] Stiles, Vol. 2. 38.

[12] Stiles, Vol. 2. 201, 234, 236

[13] Ostrander, 74, 95, 96, 97

[14] Stiles, Vol. 2. 11-13, 14, 18, 27

[15] Ostrander, 100, 104, 212

[16] Stiles, Vol. 2. 261, 265, 275, 278, 280

[17] Stiles, Vol. 2. 13

[18] Ostrander, 68

[19] Stiles, Vol. 2. 265, 275

[20] Stiles, Vol. 2. 61-63

[21] Stiles, Vol. 2.  108

[22] Stiles, Vol. 2. 220, 428

[23] Stiles, Vol. 2. 244

[24] Stiles, Vol. 2 250


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