The One With the Old Stone House

Today is Independence Day in the U.S. and I’m taking you on a special Tourist in My Town trip to a little place a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn. The first and largest conflict of the war is about to begin, and this stone house is going to play a crucial role. Old Stone House Brooklyn It’s August 1776 and Brooklyn is mostly wilderness. There are a few ports and farms dotting the landscape. There are more sheep than people. Inside this stone house were the Vechte family of Dutch origin. They harvested oysters from the nearby Gowanus marshes and took them to market in Manhattan. They will eventually live in this house under British occupation and quarter British soldiers, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When they look out into the harbor, they see 400 British ships, carrying more than 32,000 soldiers. There is a general feeling of panic, especially among Dutch settlers who number in the thousands. They have no loyalty to the crown or to the rebellious colonists. They came to America for some peace and quiet and religious freedom.

Sketch of the British fleet in the NY harbor, published in Harper's Magazine on the Centennial, 1876

Sketch of the British fleet in the NY harbor, published in Harper’s Magazine on the Centennial 1876

General George Washington has brought the Continental Army to Lower Manhattan, convinced this is where the British will attack. Control of Manhattan means control of the harbor and the Hudson River, a crucial supply line. But he is wrong. The British go with the element of surprise and instead move into Brooklyn.

Image via NYPL Digital Archives

View of Lower Manhattan from the harbor. Image via NYPL Digital Archives

It is now the First Maryland Regiment’s task to keep the the British contained in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the Marylanders are seriously outnumbered. Early this morning Washington has realized his mistake and sent some of his Continental Army by boat to Brooklyn Heights for reinforcement. He heads to the top of Cobble Hill (which the British will soon level) to gain a vantage point of the fighting. Watching the Marylanders, Washington reportedly says, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” The Old Stone House becomes the focal point of one of the skirmishes, changing hands several times until finally a fresh group of Hessian troops (serving the king) joined the British to take the little house for good. The First Maryland Regiment loses about 260 men—some take direct fire and some drown when retreating through the marshes. Fewer than twelve men make it back alive.

The Old Stone House on the eve of the battle. Image via Wikipedia.

The Old Stone House on the eve of the battle. Image via Wikipedia.

Ignoring advice from his subordinates, British General Howe decides not to press on to Brooklyn Heights where he has most of Washington’s Continental Army nearly surrounded. He probably figures Washington will see the hopelessness of his situation and surrender, thereby avoiding more casualties. But on this night, a great fog rolls in over the East River allowing what remains of the Continental Army (including cannons, horses, and supplies!) to steal away in rowboats to Manhattan. The men row a mile each way, some as many as eleven times, hoping the fog will conceal them from the hundreds of British ships in the harbor. At daybreak, Washington himself is the last man on the last boat and the British awake to find the Continental Army has vanished.

maryland-400-monument

Maryland 400 Monument in Prospect Park

Have you recently visited any historic sites in your city?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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22 comments

  1. Such a cool story! And I love the pictures of the house then and now. I love visiting historic sites — one of my favorite local ones is the house where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived (some of the time) while he attended Bowdoin College, nearby to where I live. If you can believe it, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Franklin Pierce all were there at the same time!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Me too!!! (Hawthorne geek) You would love the Bowdoin College library. They have a ton of Hawthorne ephemera like his college bulletin that he doodled all over. I held it in my hands… talk about swoonworthy moments… and last summer I saw the Custom House for the first time (we’re only about two hours from Salem). It was incredible. Nice to meet another fan!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The closest I’ve gotten on the Hawthorne trail is the cemetery in Concord, Mass. where he is buried along with Louisa May Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson. What an amazing group of contemporaries!

        Coincidentally I see that yesterday was his birthday. :)

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  2. If I’ve heard this story, I’d forgotten it. Very well told!

    Do you know what flag is hanging from the middle window? It’s similar to the current (state of) Maryland flag.

    Also, we have a Brooklyn and a Brooklyn Heights just outside of Baltimore. Someone once told me a story about having a conversation with a tourist who thought she was in New York.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was the flag flown by the First Maryland Regiment. (Apparently going into battle involved a fife-and-drum core complete with flags and musical accompaniment.) I couldn’t find a confirmation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that flag’s design eventually morphed into the current Maryland flag.

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  3. Jackie, loved reading about this Brooklyn history and the historic Old Stone House. Was born and brought up and married and had my 2 kids in Brooklyn. Moved out to Hicksville, LI in 1971! Now I live in Boynton Beach FL. Am still a Brooklyn “girl” at heart. Can’t take Brooklyn out of me. I never heard about the OSH when I lived in Brooklyn. When was it restored and made into a museum? This story in you post is wonderful. Love reading about history and to think I used to live not that far from it. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can take the girl out of Brooklyn… :)

      From time to time, I like to remind myself of all the amazing events that took place here before it was a concrete jungle. :)

      I read that the Old Stone House was restored in the 1930s and then again in the 1980s to upgrade the infrastructure. Now it’s a museum with spaces for school groups.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like the idea it’s being used as a museum and has school groups coming in to view the history of the Old Stone House, and to absorb some of the feeling of what happened so long ago. Great. And thanks again for bringing this info out into the open, so those interested can benefit. As I did.

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      1. You have just made my day! *blushing* Sarah Vowell is one of my favorite non-fiction writers.

        Reggie is doing well, snoring away at my feet. How is Rosie? Enjoying long walks around the neighborhood?

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    1. I find it very connective to be surrounded by such interesting events of the past. It’s the historical fiction writer in me. :)
      The log house is still there (reconstructed). It’s used as a museum and has several exhibits.

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