Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Nobler Pen

By John J. Burkard Area Historic Research, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York

In my previous contribution to, (History Uncovered) I wrote about growing up and residing all my life in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn (75yrs), and my fascination with the historic association my neighborhood has (though often kept secret) with the "Battle Of Brooklyn" during the Revolutionary War.

I need to speak now of a folklore, of tradition, rumor, or call it old wives tale, regarding a Revolutionary War burial site? This was the talk of Red Hook for many years, but no one it seems ever did any research or took the time to find out just how true this belief, perpetuated by the neighborhood residents actually was. After rendering a presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce regarding a Heritage Trail I'm trying to establish, I was approached by the community affairs officer PO Michael De Martino of the 76th police pct. He asked me "What are you doing about the burial site?" I must confess I was taken by surprise, simply because it never crossed my mind to include this site in my Heritage Trail project, as it had never been looked upon as anything more than an undocumented rumor. My curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to dig a little into this long standing neighborhood folklore.

I set about to contact the occupant of the building where this triangular patch of land is located. He told me of his knowledge of the rumors, and of the local public school teachers bringing their charges to the corner site and explaining to them of the significance of the location. He told me they seemed to believe deceased soldiers killed in Prospect Park about 3 miles away were brought here and interred. This made no sense to me, so I set about researching various historic publications relating to the Battle Of Brooklyn, and came across "The Town Of Brooklyn" by Gabriel Furman published in 1823.Mr Furman was born in 1800, and died in 1854 on November 11, date sound familiar?.. And though he lived a relatively short life, it was an active and fruitful one. He was an author, a New York State Supreme Court Justice, a State Senator, and a practicing attorney.

In his book Town Of Brooklyn, he spoke of the Battle of Brooklyn, and of a lane that wound its way down into Red Hook. He wrote of American snipers hiding in trees along this trail and firing upon the British troops who were pursuing them hoping to cut off their escape during the famous withdrawal General George Washington ordered the night of August 29, 1776. This withdrawal was credited with saving the Continental Army from certain defeat. Mr. Furman went on to write of one sniper who though fully aware he would be discovered, continued to fire at the British allowing his comrades to escape. When he was eventually exposed, he was shot and killed, and his body lay where it fell for a number of days. This was the British way of setting example for the Colonists, to let the American dead remain and rot and have their flesh eaten by the vultures.

Eventually he was interred by friendly locals, in a hollow tree trunk that had been struck by lightning during a storm, this became his final resting place. However he had slain two British soldiers, a Major Grant and an aide during this heroic action. They are also said to be buried at this site along the lane. It is unfortunate, we do not have the name of the heroic American soldier. But it just so happens, the gravesite I mentioned, is only one half block from where this Lane ran on its way to Fort Defiance located at the lanes end and terminating in Red Hook.

Gabriel Furman also wrote in his book, "Many of the minor events connected with this battle and the Revolutionary contest are fast sinking into the shades of oblivion. I have therefore thought it proper to relate this piece of history. Not with the idea that I can be immortalized by the events I relate, but with the hope that my efforts will call forth some nobler pen, to do justice to the memories of many of the almost forgotten heroes of these hard fought battles, and arduous contests"

Now let me emphasize very strongly, in no way does this amateur historian/writer consider myself nobler than such a giant of a man as Gabriel Furman, in fact had I to write in those days with the quill pens etc, I would barely be able to scribe my name. But with a computer, we can all look much more competent than we really are, don't you agree?

But perhaps in my mentioning this historic incident it will highlight this location, and the burial site will no longer be just a rumor, but can take its proper place in my Heritage Trail, and the annals of American History.

Some interesting notes; The one story building that is adjacent to this plot was constructed in 1932. It was built leaving the corner triangular piece of land intact. It seems highly improbable this was done for any other purpose except they were prohibited from building on the site. However, researching this building back to the original construction date proved fruitless, since all data pertaining to its construction had been removed from the archive files of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings, and are not available?

I can readily cite a number of instances where historic data and plaques seem to have vanished into the oblivion Gabriel Furman refers to in his Town Of Brooklyn. More recently, the marker at the beginning of Red Hook lane (called Washington Memorial) in downtown Brooklyn vanished about 15 years ago. Now planners are contemplating eliminating the historic lane completely. Thankfully they are meeting with some opposition from many concerned citizens. The plaque marking the end of Red Hook Lane also disappeared some 50 years ago, now the site is being demolished for an Ikea superstore project. A bronze marker on a building in lower Manhattan where Robert Fulton resided while working and testing his steamboat engine, went missing about five years before the original structure was demolished and a large office building now occupies the spot, minus the bronze plaque of course.

Perhaps Mr. Furman, what we really need in New York City, is many, many, more nobler pens, and nobler voices, nobler citizens and if we're lucky a few nobler developers and contractors. But I guess I'm just asking for a little too much nobility.

John J. Burkard: Area historic research, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York
Source: Information from his own personal research and readings.

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