Walkabout: The Lefferts Family, Bedford Branch

Jacobus Lefferts House. Image via Brooklyn Eagle

Read Part 2 of this story.

You can’t talk about the history of Brooklyn without running into a Lefferts. The family and the name are woven into the fabric of our borough, from the names of streets and neighborhoods, to the builders and former owners of some of the oldest houses in Brooklyn.

They played a part in the War for Independence, yet they were among the largest slaveholders in Brooklyn. Various branches of the family supported churches and schools, and sold the land that became neighborhoods.

They married into the oldest families, bringing now familiar names into our history, and today, the family name still goes on. I can’t possibly cover all of the Lefferts’ who made a dent in Brooklyn history, but the branch that settled in the sleepy hamlet of Bedford might be the most interesting of all of them.

It all began in 1660, when Leffert Pietersen Van Haughwout came to America and settled in Flatbush. The name, in Dutch, literally translates Leffert, son of Peter, from the town of Haughwout. He bought some land near New Lots, and began farming.

In 1692 he was appointed constable of Flatbush, and in 1703 became one of the assessors of the town and a member of the grand jury. Leffert Pietersen married Abigail Van Nuyse, the daughter of another Flatbush farmer, and they proceeded to have 14 children.

Although it was the Dutch custom to be named after one’s father, or the town from whence one came, after a generation or two in America, the family surname was permanently changed to Lefferts.

In May of 1700, Leffert Pietersen bought the land belonging to Thomas Lambertse in the town of Bedford, and the family moved there. Lambertse owned the first tavern in Bedford, and in buying the estate, Pietersen also acquired that building and the business.

Since only two of the 14 children were girls, the Lefferts family and their name began to branch out to various parts of Brooklyn, and to other states, especially Pennsylvania, where there is still a strong Lefferts branch of the family.

Brooklyn History -- Lefferts

Bedford Corners, 1776. Image via New York Public Library

The Bedford branch of the family was continued by Jacobus Lefferts, born in 1686. He settled in Bedford, and through marriage acquired more land in the Bedford area, and he then went on to buy and trade even more land in the area.

All of the records from this time are gone, by the way, taken to England during the Revolutionary War by John Rapelye, the assistant town clerk, who sided with the British. We do know, from family records that Jacobus, and then his son, Leffert, called Squire Leffert, continued to buy as much land as possible in the area.

Jacobus and his wife, Jannetje, had 8 children. He died in 1757. The children would marry into families that are familiar to Brooklynites, if only through street names; the Suydams, Vanderbilts, and Remsens.

Jacobus Lefferts lived in a manorly home located where today’s Arlington Place intersects with Fulton Street, in Bedford Stuyvesant. It survived until the late 1800’s, when it was torn down. His sons, Berent and Leffert, inherited the Bedford part of the estate.

The older son, Berent, was a farmer, later a soldier and also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His son, Rem Lefferts, would build a Dutch style home near Arlington Place that would stand until 1908, when it too, was torn down.

The younger son, Squire Leffert Lefferts, was the town clerk of Bedford, as well as assistant justice. He was also a farmer, and like more than half of the farmers in Kings County, a slaveholder.

Brooklyn had the highest percentage of slaves of any county in New York State, in the mid 1700’s. Most of Brooklyn’s male slaves were used to farm the land, the women tended the houses. Slavery was a part and parcel of the lifestyle of the day.

By 1767, an African burial ground existed in the general area of Dean and Bergen Street, near Bedford and Rogers, but no traces now remain, long ago paved over for row housing. By 1790, the Lefferts family had seven slaves.

The census of 1810 showed Lefferts Lefferts Jr. owning 10 slaves. Slavery ended in New York unofficially in 1799, but was not officially ended by law until 1827.

When the Revolutionary War began, Bedford went from sleepy farm town to occupied territory. After the Battle of Brooklyn, and the retreat of Washington across the East River to safety, the British occupied Brooklyn, and the rest of NY from 1776-1783.

During that time, the houses of Rem and Squire Lefferts, as well as other well-to-do families became officer’s housing, with the Squire’s home, the one Jacobus Lefferts built, being officers’ headquarters. Squire’s son, also named Lefferts Lefferts, would remember life under the British rule, as he was a child during that time, having been born in 1774.

He remembered the officers, who made a pet of him, leaving at the end of the war, something he would comment on later in life. Squire Leffert Lefferts died in 1804, leaving the estate to his son, Lefferts Lefferts, Jr, known as Judge Lefferts.

He would attend college at Columbia, and became a lawyer, a county clerk (out of his home in Bedford) and eventually the first judge of Kings County in 1823. He married Maria Benson, his second cousin, and they had one child, Dorothea, who married James Carson Brevoort.

When the Judge died in 1847, he left his daughter the large mansion he built on what is now Brevoort Place, the grounds of which took up the entire block of Brevoort Place, between Bedford Avenue and Bedford Place, from Brevoort to Atlantic Avenue.

The house was said to have doorknobs of solid silver, and fireplaces so tall, a man could walk into them. The house was torn down in 1893.

After the Judges’ death, the heirs started to sell off the land. This was the beginning of the 1850’s. This part of Brooklyn was starting to develop as a suburban retreat, with country villas replacing farms.

Improved transportation along what is now Fulton Street made a commute to a lower Manhattan office possible in under an hour, so the demand for land was high. In 1854, the heirs sold the farm, literally, selling off 1,600 plots of land for development.

Brooklyn History -- Lefferts

Rem Lefferts House, 1902. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

This comprised some of what is now Crown Heights North. Similar sales of adjacent land held by Rem Lefferts’ descendants, other branches of the Lefferts family, and the Remsen and Vanderbilt families, also relatives by marriage, resulted in the sale of much of Bedford, Stuyvesant Heights, and Crown Heights North, putting much of central Brooklyn up for development.

Today, there is no tangible remain of this branch of the Lefferts family. Their family graveyard once was located roughly at the corner of Jefferson and Bedford Ave.

Brooklyn History -- Lefferts

Rem Lefferts House, 1902. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

It is now a vacant lot, although a building once stood there. The remains were removed long ago. All of the Lefferts homes were torn down, the last, the Rem Lefferts house, on Arlington Place and Fulton St. in 1909.

Brooklyn History -- Lefferts

Site of Lefferts Cemetery. Photo by Suzanne Spellen

It apparently never dawned on anyone to try to save any of them, despite their obvious historical value. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote a story on the Lefferts’ of Bedford, the source of some of this information, on October 2, 1887.

Brooklyn History -- Lefferts

Site of Lefferts Mansion. Photo via Google Maps

At that time, two of the houses, including that of Judge Lefferts still stood. In fact, a Lefferts was still living in it at that time. A description of both houses is in the article. That is all that remains, plus some grainy photographs. Fortunately, other branches of the family left a tangible legacy in Brooklyn.

Next time: the Flatbush branch of the Lefferts Family

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