By 1646, five early Dutch towns on western Long Island united as one, called Breuckelen for its namesake near Amsterdam, Holland. The town’s first Italian was Peter Caesar Alberti who started a tobacco plantation near the bay in Fort Greene in 1649, but was killed six years later by the native people. Other plots of land became farms for such families as the Jacksons, Ryersons and van Couwenhovens. The Dutch yielded New Netherlands to British sovereignty in 1664, under the Duke of York, but growth of Brooklyn’s population was very slow — by 1698 there were 509 people, including 65 slaves, and at the start of the War of Independence in 1775, there were only 3,500.
When British forces anchored in the Narrows near Gravesend in 1776, the American Patriots had already created a redoubt, Fort Putnam, on the hillock that is now Fort Greene Park—renamed later in honor of Gen. Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington’s top aides. But vastly outnumbered by the British and Hessian troops, the Patriots had to retreat from the southern reaches of Brooklyn toward Fort Greene, and on the night of August 29, 1776, under a cover of rain and fog, Gen. Washington ordered all his men evacuated by small boats to Manhattan. It was a defeat, yet a victory by saving the army for another day—and ultimate triumph.
Meantime, the British commanded all New York citizens to swear allegiance to the Crown, or face imprisonment aboard derelict old boats moored in Wallabout Bay. Some 11,500 of those prisoners, primarily sailors including African Americans and a few nationals of other countries, and at least one woman who bore a son on board, died of starvation or pestilence. Their bodies were heaved overboard, either for shallow burial in the sands, or simply to wash up on shore. By 1806 the citizens of Fort Greene began collecting those remains for interment in a small crypt near the western edge of the Navy Yard.
Robert Fulton’s steamboat of 1814, the Nassau, gave a new boost to Fort Greene, and, later on, horse-drawn cars to Fulton Ferry made daily commutes to Manhattan quite feasible, making Fort Greene one of NYC’s first suburbs. By 1846 the poet Walt Whitman called for a public park to include the hill where Fort Putnam had been, and to give it the new name of Washington Park. More than a quarter of a century afterward, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ remains were moved into a permanent crypt in this hilly area that had been designed by the famous park planners, William Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Twenty slate coffins are within the crypt, a few of them purposely left empty should more bones ever be found. Surmounting the chamber under the park’s broad granite stairway is an arched ceiling composed of Guastavino tiles. To add to their honor, a 145-foot tall Doric column Martyrs Monument, designed by Stanford White, was erected and dedicated by President-elect Wm. Howard Taft in 1908.