The Norwegian Roots of North Brooklyn

It is an irony of history that the first European settler in Greenpoint, Dirck The Norseman, and the first European settler of Williamsburg, Hans Hansen Bergen, were not only both Norwegians, but were also from the same town Bergen.  They were contemporaries who must have known one another, but they had dramatically different characters and divergent attitudes towards violence against the Native Americans.

Dirck  Volckertszen was born sometime around the start of the seventeenth century in Bergen. At the time there were few economic opportunities for the native-born Norwegians because the country was controlled by a German trading monopoly called the Hansa, which excluded the native Norwegians from many economic opportunities. Still, only a teenager, Dirck headed south to Holland, which in the seventeenth century was a booming trading Empire. Dirck probably heard there about the new colony they were setting up across the Atlantic  called new Amsterdam and the colony needed carpenters like Dirck.

Our first documentary evidence of Dirck’s existence comes from legal records in the Netherlands in which Dirck Volckert and Cornelius Volckertsen, in all probability Dirck’s brother, presented a petition to the States General of the Netherlands seeking permission to send a ship to New Netherlands with all sorts of merchandise to sell. The brothers probably arrived in 1625, the same year Manhattan Island was sold to the Dutch. We have no images of Dirck, but it is probable that he looked like other Scandinavians, tall fair and blond like his Viking forefathers. He was still only a foreign teenager without parents when he reached the new world, but he was a young man of great strength and determination.

Norwegian birth was not extraordinary in Dutch New Amsterdam. Norwegians, were already a presence in the new colony and there were many other Scandinavians in New Amsterdam, even one from his hometown who would settle next to him in Manhattan on Pearl Street. One of those Norsemen was Hans Hansen Bergen, or as he was sometimes called Hans the Norman or Norseman.   Hansen Bergen also arrived early  in New Amsterdam, settling in the colony in 1633 a few years after Dirck. We do not know when Hansen Bergen was born but guesses put it circa 1810-1815. Like Dirck, Hansen Bergen was also a carpenter.

Norwegian was just one of many languages spoken on its streets from the founding of the colony. When Peter Minuet bought Manhattan Island from the indigenous Lenape people of New York, a Norwegian sailor actually acted as Minuet’s translator.. The colony from its start was multi-lingual and multi-ethnic, so Dirck was able to an amazing degree to do business with fellow Scandinavians. Hans owned a tavern for a time, so it is a good bet that the two Norwegian settlers not only knew each other, but were also drinking buddies.

Dirck arrived in the Dutch colony when Manhattan was still a sparsely populated, struggling trading settlement at the very southern tip of the island. It is hard to imagine today, but there was still open land in Southern Manhattan waiting for farmers like Dirck, who farmed the land there for a time. Dirck,like Hans, however, was destined to move to the wild land further to the East. It was in Manhattan, however, where he met his future wife, thirteen-year-old Christine Vigne who would bear him eight children. The Vignes were among the first thirty French Walloon families the Dutch West India Company, imported to establish the New Netherlands colony in 1624. The couple married in 1630, settling with her family on a farm in lower Manhattan. Hans, ironically enough,  would also marry a Waloon girl, Sarah Rapelje, the first female child of European parentage born in the colony of New Netherland. Hans would have eight children with Sarah before his death in 1653. She would remarry a Dutchman named Bogart and would have seven more. Today more than a million people can claim to be a direct descendent of Rapelje and the famous actor Humphrey Bogart is one of her many  descendants.

Both men became interested in the possibilities of cutting lumber  on Long Island that today is Brooklyn. Both were probably there in the eighteen-thirties, illegally cutting wood there for houses that were desperately needed in Manhattan. In 1645 Dirck built the first stone structure in Greenpoint and two years later in 1647, Bergen received a patent for 400 acres  in the Wallabout Bay area of present-day Brooklyn and part of that patent extended into what today is Williamsburg. Did Dirck’s presence in Greenpoint help lure Hansen Bergen across the East River? It is entirely likely.

Despite their many similarities, it seems the two Norwegians had very different attitudes towards violence against the Native Americans. Dirck fought against the Native Americans and in 1655 in all probability was part of the Underhill force that massacred  the Mespeatches Native American village in Maspeth, Queens. Hansen Bergen was famed for his sprinter’s speed and his ability to climb trees. It seems that when the Native Americans attacked rather than shooting, Hansen Bergen sprinted away from the Natives and climbed a tree. The Native Americans circled the tree and Hans’ fate seemed grim.  However, just  when the Norwegian was certain that the natives would chop the tree down and end his life,  Hans began to sing the psalms. He must have had a beautiful voice for the Native Americans were so struck by the beauty of his voice that they allowed him to live.

Dutch record show Dirck the Norseman as a violent man who was often involved in conflict, but Hansen Bergen, on the contrary,  comes down to us as a large jovial man who was often involved in settling conflicts between people. It is ironic that two men with so many similarities should also be so different in their attitudes towards violence.

One thought on “The Norwegian Roots of North Brooklyn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s