Women are too often neglected in history, but I try to include them as much as I can, In my last post I took a humorous look at the trials and tribulations of Mrs. New, but all joking aside it must have been hell raising five kids with a husband who ran off.
This post will explore the lives of two generations of Meserole women, both of whom married men twenty years or older than they were. No one, at least in the sources I have seen, has commented on this but striking age difference.
First, let’s get some background on the Meserole clan. No family ever played a more important role in the history of Greenpoint than the Meseroles. Marrying into the family meant acquiring money and honor. For more than two hundred years their actions shaped Greenpoint history. Their men were bankers, industrialists, politicians and soldiers, but all of the family greatness would have been impossible without the strength of Meserole women: Magdalena Duryea Meserole and her daughter Mary Meserole Bliss. These matriarchs played equally important roles as wives, mothers, philanthropists and businesswomen. Without them the success of their husbands, sons and Grandchildren would have been impossible. Both Magdalena and her daughter lived well into their eighties and were noted for their intelligence, independence and energy. They helped make the family name highly respected and were both members of Brooklyn’s social elite.
The Ancestors of the Meserole family arrived in the area in the seventeenth century, not long after the settling of Greenpoint by Dirck the Norman. The Meseroles were part of the second, French Huguenot, wave of immigrants to arrive in Greenpoint. They were among just five Huguenot families, all intermarried, who made up the only area residents for a century and a half. The first Huguenot to acquire land in Greenpoint was Peter Praa who In 1719 Pieter bought 164 acres in Bushwick from the sons of Dirck Volckertszen and all the Huguenot families that settled there were his direct descendants. Praa had four rich daughters, two of whom married Meseroles.
The Meseroles were originally French Protestants, but the clan Patriarch, Jean Miserol, originally from Picardy, lost everything when France ended religious toleration, so he fled for Holland where he married another Huguenot refugee, Jonica Carten. They adopted Dutch culture and language and had an infant son, Jan, in the Netherlands, before leaving for America.
When the Meserole Clan arrived in New Amsterdam in 1663 Brooklyn was opening up to settlement. The following year Jean bought a farm in Bay Ridge. However, hearing about undeveloped land in North Brooklyn, he moved again buying another farm called Kykout, meaning the Lookout, in Dutch. The most important feature of this property was a knoll that allowed the family to see Indian attacks that were very much a danger in 17th century Brooklyn. The Kyckout farm was located in Williamsburg between North 1st Street and Broadway.
Jean Meserole not only fought in the conflict with Brooklyn’s Native Americans, but he evidently captured and enslaved them and slavery would be part of family history for almost a hundred and fifty years. Jean lived at his North side farm until his death in 1695 and in his last testament he passed along as property a Native American woman and her child whom he must have taken as captive in war. His house and the bluff lasted until the 1850’s when the knoll was leveled for landfill and road grading.
Jean Meserole’s son Jan, who arrived from Europe as an infant, married Marytje Covert in 1682 and had five children – the first Meseroles born in Brooklyn. Jan was destined to become the largest owner of land in the Williamsburg area and Jan’s eldest son, John, Meserole Jr. married Elizabeth Praa, and by inheritance and purchase, they ended up owning much of the land that today comprises Northern Greenpoint, as well as the riverfront area of Williamsburg. Another son, Jacob Meserole married another Praa daughter and their family farmed the entire south end of Greenpoint, building a house near the Bushwick Creek meadows between present-day Manhattan Avenue and Lorimer Street near Norman Avenue.
When Praa died in 1739 these two branches of the Meserole family gained control of most of Greenpoint’s farmland. A family daughter, Janite Meserole, would marry Jacobus Calyer, Praa’s grandson, so of the five families that first farmed Greenpoint, three had Meserole blood. The Calyer family, whose name became a Greenpoint street, farmed the western portion of Green Point, and lived in the house Dirck the Norman built near the mouth of Bushwick Creek. The transfer of power from the Dutch to the English in 1664 scarcely affected their daily lives and these Huguenot settlers continued to speak Dutch for generations well into the 1820’s.
Abraham Meserole, a son of John Meserole, built a Dutch style farmhouse early in the eighteenth century near where Newtown Creek flowed into the East River. The house lasted until 1875 when it was leveled to make way for industry. Magdalena Duryea married Abraham’s son and called the house he built home, She was his second wife for Meserole was a widower and she was twenty-nine years his junior.
No one at the time, not even Magdalena, had a sense of the Meserole house’s historic value. Although rich, she did nothing to save it from destruction at the end of her life. Magdalena was born in the equally historic Duyea house, the last original Greenpoint colonial house on Meeker Avenue and Maspeth Creek, which survived into the early twentieth century, but also vanished. However, we have pictures of it and others Dutch houses survive until now elsewhere in Brooklyn, so we know what Abraham’s house on the banks of the East River was like.
Women ran these houses and rarely ventured forth from them, so let us see what they were like. Dutch houses were set close to the ground with large steeply pitched roofs that overshot the walls of the dwelling shielding a porch. It had a stoop, which would become such a common feature of Brooklyn houses for centuries. The Dutch were a clever and practical people, so they created the highly practical half-doors and beds that folded up into closets.
The house had a large stone fireplace in the living room with a large chimney. The hearth was the place where the food was prepared and eaten and where the family in the evening gathered, warmed themselves at the great log fire, and discussed affairs. A huge log for the fire was rolled into place, then smaller logs about six feet in length would be piled in front and on top of the backlog. A roaring fire could easily be kept going to make the entire house comfortably warm except in bitter winter weather. Each house had its outdoor oven in which the busy housewife could easily bake a dozen loaves of bread or as many pies at a time.
Inside the house there was a large central hall with rooms opening off both sides of the hall. There were massive oak rafters and a garret above the hall and rooms. The middle of the main floor was lighted in the daytime either by the bull’s eye glass insets in the upper part of each door, resembling little portholes, or by opening the upper portion of the door. Knockers of brass or iron hung on the outside of the door to announce the arrival of a caller.
The house probably had very little furniture because there were few furniture makers and imported furniture was expensive, but it most likely had a paneled chest where the family kept prize possessions. There were few books, but there was always a family bible. A Dutch dwelling often had oak floors with sea sand used to help keep them clean.
Magdalena would marry Abraham’s son John who was born far ealier, around seventeen fifty-one. and was destined to become a legendary patriot in the American Revolution. The Revolution was a period of suffering for all the families of Greenpoint and they learned the bitter reality of surviving wartime occupation. The Battle of Long Island was actually fought in Brooklyn just a few miles south of Greenpoint and members of the five Huguenot families fought with Washington and the colonials.
John Meserole did not hide his revolutionary feelings to the British well enough and he suffered terribly for it. He fought for Washington’s army in the Battle of Long Island, and the British arrested him on suspicion of being a rebel. He was lucky to survive the ordeal following his arrest. His bravery, though, must have impressed the teenage Magdalena who married the much older war veteran. Like thousands of other American patriots, Meserole was put in prison, but luckily he escaped alive. Eleven thousand in New York City alone were not so lucky to emerge alive. He would marry twice, produce a lot of children and die at a ripe old age in 1833.
Magdalena had the task of managing the family slaves, but she was familiar with the role because her own family owned slaves too. Slavery was an important factor in explaining why the Meseroles and other Greenpoint families supported the revolution. As slave owners, the Meseroles personally profited from slavery and feared British actions to end it. The British promoted emancipating slaves as a way to defeat the Americans, offering enslaved African-Americans freedom if they would fight the colonists. Several thousand freed slaves actually fought for the British. The Meseroles were nervous their slaves would hear of emancipation offers and leave, robbing them of a source of wealth. Some sources claim that the Meseroles were kindly owners, but we can’t ask their slaves what they thought of their masters.
Magdalena would quickly bear four children, three of whom would live to adulthood. She proved to be a model wife, showing amazing ability to run both the family and the family farm. Remarkably energetic and organized with an extraordinary eye for detail, she ran the farm for many years when her husband grew too feeble and continued to run it well in the years after his death. She had real character and was extremely shrewd in making business decisions. Although much older, John would live a long time together with her, dying in 1833 when Magdalena was in her early forties and leaving her with three children to raise and a farm to oversee. She took his death in stride and proved herself more than capable of managing without him.
Before John died their daughter Mary would marry one of the outstanding figures in Greenpoint history, Neziah Bliss ,who came to Greenpoint not only to buy land, but to court Mary. Mary was hardly a beauty and some might consider her homely, but Bliss was a wealthy man and perhaps the eighteen year old Mary would never get a better marriage offer. Magdalena must have told her daughter that she had also married a much older man, which minimized the twenty-two year age difference between Bliss and his teenage bride. Mary’s marriage to Bliss would last more than forty happy years and his real estate development would make both mother and daughter wealthy.
The Dutch Reformed church on Franklin and Java was modest, hardly befitting the wealthy Meserole clan. The Meserole women were a driving force in building a new grand edifice. They wanted to build a more beautiful and elegant structure. Meserole money funded a new Dutch Reformed Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in the area, on Kent Street Church. Following the War, plans were finalized for a larger church that was erected in 1869 costing over $50,00, a fortune at the time.
The Dutch Reformed Church on Kent Street was designed by William –Ditmars, a well-known Brooklyn architect and the structure is a gem. The church is a mix of styles and elements a combination of Early Romanesque Revival and High Victorian forms, which made it a unique church, earning it landmark status. The massing of this church resembles that of the Early Romanesque Revival style churches built by other Protestant sects prior to and just after the Civil War. The focus of the Church of is the entrance portico located in the center of the building, which contains a round-arched entry supported by columns with carved capitals. Each of the flanking towers has a smaller entrance arch with similar columns and bands. Above the main entrance there is a large and imposing wheel shaped window. The Sunday school, designed ten years later by W. Wheeler Smith, is a beautiful two-story structure resembling a Renaissance Italian baptistery. The angled front facade was designed to give the illusion of an octagonal building.
The Meseroles commissioned a building that was far more ornate in style than most Dutch Reformed churches, which are simple and even austere in style. Perhaps it was too unique members of the church who resented its ornate façade and its high Victorian elements. The congregation probably modified the lavish design. An Eastern tower was erected after the congregation decided not to build the 175-foot spire that had originally been designed for the structure. The Dutch Reformed congregation used the church until 1943 when it was sold to St. Elias Church a Russian rite Catholic Church. The last of the Russians in the St. Elias’ congregation died off and now the church sits empty, waiting for a new use.
Magdalena lived a long life, dying in 1879 at the age of eighty-eight. Well into her eighties she was still vigorous with a sharp mind. Her children had grown rich and her grandchildren were among the richest and most respected people in Brooklyn. She would leave Greenpoint in the final years of her life, moving in with her daughter Mary. Both mother and daughter were important members of Brooklyn society with entrée to the most exclusive circles of Brooklyn high society. Mary held soirees with two and a half thousand guests and an invitation by Mrs. Bliss was a sign of membership in the Brooklyn elite.
Mary’s son, Archibald Mesrole Bliss became one of the richest and most respected politicians in Brooklyn. He started his political career as Alderman, but was elected three times to Congress, but was defeated in his bid to be mayor. He used his political connections to start a highly profitable private street car company called the “Bushwick Railroad,” which ran cars from Grand Street to Greenpoint until 1947.