In 1636, Dutch colonists purchased land around Gowanus Bay from Brooklyn’s first residents, the Lenape. Much of what we know about the life of the Lenape comes from a journal written by two Dutch explorers, Jasper Danckerts and Peter Sluyter. They visited what is now Kings County from 1679 to 1680 and spent much of their time getting to know the natives.
“We went on, up the hill, along open roads and the little woods, through the first village, called Breukelen…the people made us very welcome, sharing with us bountifully whatever they had, whether it was milk, cider, fruit….There had been thrown upon the fire to be roasted a pail-full of Gouanes oysters which are the best in the coun- try. They are large and full, some of them not less than a foot long and they grow sometimes 10, 12 and 16 together….Walking along the beach from Gowanus to Fort Hamilton [we] came to the plantation of the Najack Indians, which was planted with maize, or Turkish wheat. We soon heard a noise of pounding, like thrashing, and went to the place whence it proceeded and found there an Indian woman busily employed, beating Turkish beans out of pods by means of a stick, which she did with astonishing force and dex- terity.”
Farming stood at the center of Lenape life. Men and women cultivated corn, beans, and squash together in small fields with names like Sassians’s Maoze Land in Downtown Brooklyn and Castutuew in Canarsie.
The Lenape drew much of their living from the waters surround- ing their island home. They caught striped bass, sturgeon, salmon, shad and other fish in nets made of twined roots, sinew or fur. Whales stranded upon Brooklyn’s beaches provided an important source of meat and fat.
Pages from the Danckerts and Sluyter journal (shown here) will be on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society in “It Happened in Brooklyn,” an exhibition opening on November 1.