Walkabout: The Lefferts Family, Flatbush Branch

Lefferts Homestead. Image by Wally G. via Flickr

Read Part 1 of this story.

The Lefferts family was once one of the wealthiest, and most important and influential families in Brooklyn. Up until the latter part of the 19th century, various branches of the family owned the land that would become Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

All of the Brooklyn Lefferts’ are descended from Leffert Pietersen Van Haughwout, who immigrated to Brooklyn from Holland in 1660, one of the early colonists in the Dutch settlement of Flatbush. He and his wife had fourteen children, starting a dynasty that continues to this day.

After only two generations in America, the family formally took the name Lefferts as a surname. One branch of the family moved with Leffert Pietersen to the town of Bedford, where he and his sons and grandchildren continued to buy up land, farm the land with their slaves, and enjoy the status of being the richest men in the town.

These descendants would include a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as wealthy farmers, Brooklyn’s first county judge, county clerks, soldiers, engineers and doctors. By the end of the 1850’s, the Lefferts family had sold off much of their land in the Bedford area, making it possible for the later rowhouse development of Crown Heights North, Stuyvesant Heights, and parts of Bedford, itself. South of Bedford, another branch of the Lefferts family was making its mark on the Flatbush area.

Twelve of Leffert Pietersen and his wife’s fourteen children were male, passing on the family name. When he and at least two of his sons moved to Bedford, he left behind the family homestead, built sometime in the late 1680’s, in what is now Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

The house stood approximately where Maple Street and Flatbush intersect. Leffert Petersen’s son, Pieter Lefferts (1680-1774) kept the family holdings and lived in the house. He was the Treasurer of Kings County from 1737 to 1772.

The house then passed to John Lefferts (1719-1776), a delegate to the Provincial Congress and a judge of the Court of Special Sessions and Common Pleas. At his death, the house and farmlands passed to another Peter Lefferts, born in 1753, the great-grandson of Leffert Pietersen of Holland.

In 1776, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the British invaded Brooklyn, culminating in the Battle of Brooklyn, most of which took place in parts of what are now Gowanus, Greenwood Heights and Prospect Park. Before that battle in August of 1776, American troops burned the Lefferts Homestead down to prevent the British from acquiring it.

After the war, Peter Lefferts rebuilt the house and his lands. He was now one of the wealthiest men in Kings County, with a 240 acre farm, and a large household that included eight family members and twelve slaves.

He was well-known in Kings County, having served as a first lieutenant in the Continental Army, then following his father’s footsteps as a judge of the Court of Special Session and Common Pleas.

In 1778, he was a delegate to the state convention in Poughkeepsie, when New York ratified the United States Constitution. He was also one of the original contributors and trustees of Erasmus Hall. Peter Lefferts died in 1791, and the estate passed to his six year old son, also named John.

John Lefferts (1785-1829) was a congressman and a state senator, serving between 1821 and 1826. He was well regarded, and was known as Senator John to distinguish him from the other family members named John. He had two children, both of whom made their mark on Brooklyn.

His daughter, Phebe Lefferts Vanderbilt was the author of The Social History of Flatbush, which included stories told by her grandmother, Femmetie Lefferts. They would provide historians with valuable stories about the community, the lives of family members, enslaved and free Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans who lived and worked on the farm or in Flatbush.

She spent over 35 years of her life devoted to her favorite charity, the Industrial Home and School for Destitute Children. She died in 1902. Her brother, John Lefferts (1826-1893) inherited the farm at his father’s death. He spent his entire life in the family farmhouse.

He was very active in the Dutch Reformed Church, and donated the land for the Grace Memorial Chapel, at Bedford and Lincoln Road. He was known to be a very kind and pious man, according to a local account, generous to the poor and struggling, white and colored alike.

He was also quite a businessman, and was on the board of the Brooklyn Bank, which his family had established, and was a trustee, or director, of the Long Island Insurance Company, the Long Island Loan and Trust, Flatbush Gas Company, Flatbush Water Works Company and the Brooklyn Safety Deposit Company.

His eldest son, John Lefferts, Jr, was a prominent Brooklyn lawyer, a partner in the firm of Sutphen & Lefferts. It is John Jr.’s son, James, along with his six brothers and sisters, who would sell the farm, and establish Lefferts Manor.

In 1893, only six months after John Jr.’s death, James divided the farm into 600 lots to be developed as a high-end residential development called Lefferts Manor. James set down a very specific covenant to restrict anything he felt was inappropriate to this endeavor.

Most people know about the restriction that requires all of the homes to be built as, and remain, single family dwellings, but there was much more to the covenant than that. The deed prohibits stables, pig-pens, forges, iron foundries, fertilizer, gunpowder, saltpeter, candle, soap, ink, glue and varnish factories, as well as tanneries, breweries, hospitals, theaters, apartment buildings and tenements.

There were also rules regarding the price of the houses, the size, distance away from the sidewalk, placement of stables and fencing. Lefferts hoped that these restrictions would promote an even development, and would attract a strong middle-class community, providing stability and comfort.

The restriction preventing multiple unit housing was especially designed to stop the encroachment of two family houses which were being built in nearby Crown Heights and in surrounding Flatbush neighborhoods.

Building in the neighborhood came to a crashing halt in 1903, when a devastating recession halted everything, but started up again, especially between 1905 and 1911. The architecture was varied, ranging from the classic rowhouses, most famously, those by Axel Hedman, to the neo-Colonials of Slee and Bryson, to the mock Tudors of architect Peter J. Collins.

In 1918, the Lefferts family donated their farmhouse to the City of New York. An apartment building was planned for the corner of Flatbush and Maple. The city moved the house to Prospect Park, where it now stands in the park near Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Empire Blvd.

It is now a house museum, with interactive exhibits and historic re-enactments, based on the tales told in Phebe Lefferts Vanderbilt’s book, which chronicle the lives of the Dutch, African and Native American residents of Brooklyn in 18th and 19th centuries. This house is one of the very few Dutch colonial era houses left in Brooklyn.

Without the huge farms and estates, the Lefferts families settled into comfortable quiet wealth. They were the subject of Teunis Bergen’s genealogy of the family from 1650-1878, published in 1878. Their name also appears in other books, including The History of Long Island by Peter Ross, published in 1903.

There are still Lefferts family members in Brooklyn, and many more in Pennsylvania and around the country. It’s rather amazing that a family this important to the history and development of Brooklyn would be so forgotten today, except for the street and neighborhood names they left behind. They were certainly an interesting family.

Sources for parts 1 and 2 of the Lefferts Family: Designation Reports; Crown Heights North, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, NYC Parks Dept, Brooklyn Eagle, A History of Long Island, by Peter Ross.

Lefferts Family -- Brooklyn History

Lefferts Homestead. Image via Urban Arts Antiques

Lefferts Family -- Brooklyn History

Lefferts Family -- Brooklyn History

Lefferts Family -- Brooklyn History

Lefferts Family -- Brooklyn History

Site of Lefferts Homestead, Flatbush Avenue

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