When our ancestor, Matthew Keenan arrived in America, sometime in the 1820’s, Brooklyn, his new home, was really not much more than a small town. In 1800 all of Kings County consisted of approximately 4500 inhabitants, about one third of whom were slaves, the rest being primarily descendants of the original Dutch settlers. What manufacturing there was existed chiefly for local use.
From Village to City
“The air is unusually healthy,” noted a visitor,passing through the small village of Brooklyn in 1794. The 100 mostly one-story houses were “chiefly along the shore or scattered without plan,” he noted, and the streets were “bad, heavy, and unpaved, so that the smallest amount of rain makes Brooklyn muddy.”
The village of Brooklyn, directly across the East River from Manhattan, was the funnel through which the food grown on Long Island’s rich farmlands passed to New York City. As New York City flourished, so did its nearest neighbor. Rowboats, sailboats, and horse-powered ferries plied the waters of the East River, and speculators and merchants began to buy land along the waterfront. The U.S. Navy opened a shipyard on Wallabout Bay in 1801, and Robert Fulton began a steam-ferry service across the East River in 1814, paving the way for wealthy businessmen to live in Brooklyn Heights and commute across the river.
The turn of the century also witnessed an influx of Irish immigrants. The northern edge of Fort Greene, a center for the growing Irish community, was dubbed Vinegar Hill, after the tragic last stand in the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798. Many of these Irish immigrants found work in the small factories that grew up along the waterfront and in the new Navy Yard.
After the War of 1812, New York City saw its role as a leading port slip, as old facilities and difficult access made Brooklyn more attractive to industry. The changes that occurred in the manufacturing sector of Brooklyn over the following decades were drastic. From the few ropewalks and shipyards located in the waterfront in the eighteenth century, the Brooklyn shore was to become a powerful industrial center, from Williamsburg in the north to Red Hook in the south.
In 1816 Brooklyn was incorporated as a Village, and by 1820 that village had a population of 5210 people and consisted of 867 buildings. There were an additional 2000 people living in the surrounding Town of Brooklyn. By 1823 those population numbers had increased to about 7000 and 9000 respectively. In August of that year fifty-three vessels were counted at the wharves of Brooklyn, with another 8 located in the Navy Yard. Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds.
In 1822 the first Brooklyn Street Directory was published by Alden Spooner, and in July of that year the cornerstone to St. James Catholic Cathedral was laid on Jay St. And with those two events arose the possibility of documenting the story of our Keenan ancestors in America.