Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brooklyn's Bergen Street and the firstborn lady of New York

Bergen Street is lovely trek through the borough's most historic sites and neighborhoods -- from its western end through Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, dipping near Park Slope and up through Prospect Heights, and past old Grant Square and the Weeksville Heritage Center, the remnants of an early 19th century free black community. Indirectly, the street's name also has a surprising connection to early New York women's history.

The roughly outlined territory of New Netherlands was charted by the Dutch in the 1610s, building upon the early explorations by Henry Hudson, Adraien Block and others. By 1620, the Dutch had a fort in Albany and became trading partners the local Algonquin tribes. Four years later, it was an official province, with a budding settlement on the tip of Mannahatta

Its earliest Europeans settlers were all male, but Dutch women soon made the voyage over. Among the very first women was young Catalina Trico, all of eighteen years old when she joined her new husband Joris Jansen Rapelje aboard a vessel for the new territory. The pair were actually married days before their life-changing voyage.

The young couple would prosper in New Amsterdam. Rapelje would become an early leader in New Amsterdam, and the family would own a large farm across the water in Breukelen. Catalina would live into her 80s, witness to the British takeover of New Amsterdam in 1664 and the rapid growth of the newly named New York.

In 1625, Catalina gave birth to her first daughter -- in fact, the first daughter ever born in European parents in the Dutch territory. Her name was Sara (or Sarah) Rapalje.

Now here's the modern Brooklyn connection. When Sarah was all of fourteen years old, she was betrothed to the owner of an early tobacco plantation, a man named Hans Hansen Bergen (from Bergen, Norway). Hans and Sarah moved to a large property around today's Brooklyn Navy Yard, an estate she maintained long after her husband's death.

Descendants with the names of Rapalje and Bergen would feature prominently in Brooklyn history. When the streets of the early city of Brooklyn were delineated in the early 19th century, they were ultimately fastened with the name of important families. Hans and Sarah were not forgotten. Years later, the Bergens would not only have a street named for them, but an entire neighborhood (Bergen Beach) and, much later, even a couple subway stops.

Pic courtesy Flickr/wallyg

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