Article Contributed by
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
Photos courtesy of Bob Johnston
What’s in a name? Why are names so important? Where do they come from? These are questions we all have asked ourselves or posed to others. And not long ago, in fact in November of 2015, when I was in Jamestown for a day of book signing events on the publication of my third book, Remembering Brooklyn Square: The 1930s to the 1960s, I was asked—“Where did the name Brooklyn Square come from?” Randy Sweeney, the executive director of the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation, was the person who posed that question when we met in person for the first time at Off the Beaten Path Book Store in Lakewood. I’ll never forget it! Here I was, a person who had published two books with the name “Brooklyn Square” in each title, and I could not come up with a definitive answer to Randy’s query. I did, however, direct him to a speculation I made about the possible derivation of the name “Brooklyn” in Jamestown’s Brooklyn Square that appears in an article I wrote entitled “The Home of Jamestown, New York—Brooklyn Square” in the above-mentioned book. I also told him that Jim Roselle once asked me the same question when I was a guest on his and co-host Russ Diethrick’s Saturday radio program “The Times of Your Life.” I couldn’t come up with much, and Jim said that many years ago Jennie Vimmerstedt, a Jamestown writer and speaker, had tried to research the derivation of the name, and she couldn’t come up with much either!
Nevertheless, I’m betting that many Jamestonians have asked the question: where did the name “Brooklyn” in Brooklyn Square come from? And I, as the editor/author of two books that bear that name, Brooklyn Square, The Lost Neighborhood, and Beyond (2013) and Remembering Brooklyn Square: The 1930s to the 1960s (2015), have wondered just how the business area of a rather small town in upstate New York wound up with the same name, intentionally or not, of a very big town in downstate New York—namely, Brooklyn, New York, one of the five boroughs that make up New York City. Quite frankly, I don’t know that anyone has a definitive answer for that burning question, but that is no reason to despair. In fact, the mystery of the history behind the name has led me to some interesting explanations and speculations regarding the origin of Brooklyn Square. So let me take you on a linguistic (or maybe even a “Lindquistic”) journey…
In a web search, I came across the Fenton History Center’s “Self-Guided Walking Tour of Jamestown” that lists Brooklyn Square as a point of interest in the city of Jamestown. It is located at South Main St. between the Chadakoin River and Rt. 60. The description states that it was known as Prendergast’s Meadow, no doubt named in honor of the founder of Jamestown, James Prendergast, and also “the Flats” in 1814. It was pastureland sown in oats and grass that was easily flooded, and in 1866, the area of “the Flats” was raised by 10 to 12 feet above grade by adding gravel to the land. The final sentence of the walking tour guide states: “Being on the south side of the river, it was named Brooklyn Square after that well-known city.” Say what?
That reasoning seems to be a big leap in logic. However, Norman Carlson, Collections Manager at the Fenton History Center, who has done quite a bit of research on Brooklyn Square, suggests that “it was popular for cities that were divided by water, as between Manhattan and Brooklyn, to call the one side [i.e., the land on the south side of the river] Brooklyn.” Carlson cites H.L.F. Cornell’s take on the name that appeared in a letter to the Journal in Oct. 1919. Cornell claimed that “‘Brooklyn or Brooklyn side’ was a common designation for one side of towns [south] with a stream through them, an echo as it were of New York City.” So, if, indeed, we are swayed to believe this is how the “Brooklyn” of Brooklyn Square got its name, then we know for sure, thanks to the “uncovering” of the Chadakoin River or stream during urban renewal, that our Brooklyn Square was surely on the south side of the river. That topographical fact may give credence to what Cornell stated. In fact, an 1867 map shows the Chadakoin River and the area south of it, which was well established as Brooklyn (1864-66) or the Brooklyn Block (1870). The Weeks Block is visible at the center of the map, and the two ads from 1875, placed by proprietors Wallace and Shepard, note that their businesses in the Weeks Block are on the “Brooklyn side.”
But this explanation of how the “Brooklyn” in Jamestown’s Brooklyn Square came to be is based on an unquestioned assumption that people in Jamestown knew about the geography of New York City and the location of its five boroughs. The odds could be good that someone had the knowledge and imagination to tag the area south of the Chadakoin River “Brooklyn,” or perhaps someone from Brooklyn, New York, had settled in this area and the formation of the land north and south of the Chadakoin reminded him or her of Brooklyn. But it also begs the question: are other areas of towns or cities whose south side is divided from its north side by a body of water, albeit a river or a stream, also called Brooklyn or Brooklyn-side? Turning again to Norm Carlson’s local research, he cites from the History of Allegany County (1879) that “the part of Wellsville that was new and south of the river was called Brooklyn by analogy with Brooklyn, New York in New York City.” He goes on to say that “there is also some sort of Brooklyn in Cherry Creek in the 1875 census.” My Internet research has uncovered at least eight towns or cities in the United States called Brooklyn in California, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota, Ohio, and Oregon. Brooklyn, California attributes its name to Brooklyn, New York, and almost all of these eight Brooklyns are located on or near a body of water creating a north-south division. Thus, the “Brooklyn-by-analogy” theory may have merit.
So, the possibility that Jamestown’s Brooklyn Square was named “in honor” of that large New York City borough is a plausible possibility. The “Square” of Brooklyn Square rests on its public function—even though some still like to call attention to the fact that it really was not a square but more of a triangle whose sides, bounded by South and North Main St., radiated from the base of the “triangle” which was formed by the Gifford Building or Gifford Block. Nevertheless, Brooklyn Square really was a square, a city square, bounded by streets and occupied by buildings that housed businesses that catered to all our human needs.
But let’s delve a little deeper. What about the very name “Brooklyn” itself? What is the etymology or derivation of the name? An Internet search revealed that the name actually comes from the Dutch town Breukelen in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It means “broken land,” and the town is divided or “broken” by the River Vecht. The earliest known mention of the name in the New World occurred in a commercial contract in 1646 involving timber cut in Breukelen and delivered to the “ferryman on the strand.” By its Dutch parentage of Breukelen, Brooklyn, New York, is also land “broken” by water, the East River, from Manhattan. When one considers “the Jamestown Flats,” which was flooded land before the grade was raised, we can imagine small parcels of land or islands surrounded or “broken” by water. In fact, some of those islands were still visible in some parts of the Chadakoin Creek when I was growing up in Jamestown. This leads me to speculate that the name “Brooklyn” in Jamestown’s history rests on the practical and functional naming of a region by toponymy—that is, naming a region or a part of a city or town based on its location. Topographically speaking, the Breukelen, “broken land” of Dutch origin, likely became, through an Anglicization of the word, the English “Brooklyn.” According to a website called Al Solutions by Intel, the word Breukelen “sounds roughly the same in Dutch and English. It’s just spelled differently.” In either case, the name indicates location: the “broken land” of Breukelen, the Netherlands, the “broken land” of Brooklyn borough separated by the East River from Manhattan, and the “broken land” of “the Flats” where Jamestown’s Brooklyn Square was developed into a commercial and industrial area. I rest my case!
But if you think this is the end of the story—it isn’t. Stay tuned!