Two hundred-plus years ago, around the time of the American Revolution and long before the city of Brooklyn had gobbled up all of Kings County, visitors to this corner of Long Island thought they had stumbled into the Garden of Eden. They marveled at the abundant wildlife, dense forests, bountiful orchards, fat cattle, and sweeping fields of wheat, corn, and tobacco. An English clergyman pronounced it “undeniably beautiful” and “the richest spot, in the opinion of New-Yorkers, of all America.” Another early visitor rhapsodized about the woods and meadows “curiously bedecked with Roses, and an innumerable multitude of delightful Flowers” whose fragrance could be detected far out at sea.
If you have trouble imagining this bucolic wonderland, you’re in for more surprises. According to a census taken in 1771, the population of Kings County was a mere 3,623 souls (not counting a very small number of Native Americans). Mostly these people were the fourth- or fifth-generation descendants of Dutch farmers who arrived in the middle of the 17th century, when Long Island was part of New Netherland. But 1,162 of them—almost one third of the total—were black slaves, a higher proportion than in any other county north of the Mason-Dixon line. By all accounts, slaves performed a wide variety of essential tasks for their masters: cooking and cleaning, tending crops and livestock, hauling agricultural produce to mills and markets, maintaining fences, building roads. Observed one of the Hessians who occupied Flatbush before the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776: “Near every dwelling-house negroes (their slaves) are settled, who cultivate the most fertile land, pasture the cattle, and do all the menial work.”
There’s more. Since the beginning of the 18th century, the slave population had been growing faster than the white population, and the share of white households with at least one slave had climbed from 40 percent to 60 percent—three of every five. Around two slaves per household was the norm, though a handful of prominent families like the Rapeljes, Remsens, Lotts, and Van Brunts owned as many as 20 slaves at one time. In other words, slavery wasn’t marginal or accidental: It was crucial. Slave labor created wealth for a broad segment of the white population, and the ownership of slaves was a key index of political and social power. Put differently, colonial-era Kings County wasn’t simply a society with slaves; it was a slave society.
None of this is exactly a secret, but it’s too easily overlooked. Many people still associate slavery with the cotton or tobacco plantations of the American South, or the sugar colonies of the West Indies. The Kings County story is a reminder that slavery was a northern institution as well.
Closer to home, it’s also important to know that many old slave-owning families—families whose names still adorn Brooklyn streets—fought for years against the abolitionists. They lost, and slavery was officially ended in New York in 1827, but they didn’t give up. For another century, they and their descendants produced a string of local histories that depicted slavery in Brooklyn as a wise and mild institution, fondly remembered by master and slave alike. Only now are historians beginning to straighten out that part of the story. Better late than never, though.
Edwin G. Burrows is a distinguished professor of history at Brooklyn College. He is the co-author, with Mike Wallace, of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in history.