A `Dangerous' 1600s Woman

Religious dissenter Lady Deborah Moody set a precedent when she founded Gravesend

A 1645 plot map of Gravesend, Brooklyn, established by Lady Deborah Moody.

A 1645 plot map of Gravesend, Brooklyn, established by Lady Deborah Moody.


Nobody knows where Lady Deborah Moody is buried, but an appropriate epitaph would have been what one official wrote about her in 1644: ``Shee is a dangerous woeman.''

Dangerous to the religious establishment she certainly was. This widowed, middle-aged English immigrant also was a most remarkable Long Island woman of the 17th Century. Moody was the founder of Gravesend, the only permanent settlement in early colonial America planned and directed by a woman.

``It was in a man's age that Lady Moody played a part which entitles her to a place among the leaders of that day,'' State Historian Alexander Flick told a meeting of the Long Island Historical Society in 1939.

The town patent granted to her by the Dutch in 1645 was unusual in that it gave Moody and her colleagues absolute freedom of conscience. Although the Dutch West India Co. had ordered that no church other than the Dutch Reformed was allowed in the entire colony of New Netherlands -- making it unlawful to worship publicly in any other religion -- Gravesenders would not be prosecuted for worshiping in any faith in their own homes.

For Moody, who was in her late 50s at the time, this was the moment that she had crossed the seas to achieve. But her success had been full of sacrifice and her journey long.

Moody was christened Deborah Dunch in London in 1586. She came from a wealthy family with both political and religious connections, but also one that believed strongly in civil liberties and religious non-conformity. She married Henry Moody, a well-connected landholder who was later given a knighthood, and thus she became Dame Deborah, or Lady Deborah. Her husband died in 1629, when she was about 33.

These were days of great religious turmoil in England, and Moody was attracted to Anabaptism, a Protestant sect that rejected infant baptism in the belief that baptism should be administered only to adult believers. Unable to live in the oppressive religious climate in England, she sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639.

Moody found the Puritan New England community just as oppressive, for her Anabaptist views were, to them, a ``damnable heresy.'' In July, 1643, the governor, John Winthrop, wrote in his journal:

The lady Moodye, a wise and anciently religious woman, being taken with the error of denying baptism to infants, was dealt withal by many of the elders and others, and admonished by the Church of Salem (whereof she was a member), but persisting still, and to avoid further trouble, etc., she removed to the Dutch against the advice of her friends. Many others, infected with anabaptism, removed thither also. She was after excommunicated.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the equal rigidity of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam, the director general, William Kieft, allowed Moody to settle on choice unoccupied land in what is now southern Brooklyn. There is disagreement on the origin of the town's name: some think that Kieft named it for his birthplace in Holland, Gravenzande, but others feel it comes from the English town of the same name at the mouth of the Thames River.

No sooner had the settlers moved into newly built quarters in Gravesend than they were attacked by Indians from up the Hudson River. Although the Indians were repelled, the group, which included at least 40 men, moved temporarily to Amersfoort (now Flatlands). At that point Moody considered returning to New England. Which led John Endecott, Winthrop's deputy, to write to his superior:

I shall desire that she may not have advice to returne to this jurisdiction, unless she will acknowledge her ewill [evil] in opposing the churches, and leave her opinions behinde her, ffor shee is a dangerous woeman.

Moody returned to Gravesend in 1645, and on Dec. 19, a patent was granted by Kieft that is memorable for the freedoms it allowed. In addition to allowing freedom of conscience, the patent also granted the right to create a self-governing town. With Moody supervising, a unique town plan was laid out.

``Gravesend was the only permanent settlement in America's early colonization period to have been initiated, planned, and directed by a woman,'' wrote Thomas J. Campanella in the fall, 1993, Landscape Journal. ``In its elegant and logical simplicity, the plan of Gravesend was almost without precedent in the English New World.''

The inhabited part of the town consisted of four squares of a little more than four acres each, with two main roadways bisecting north-south and east-west (today's McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road). Each of the four sections had 10 house lots surrounding a one-acre commons. Outside of the village itself were the individual, triangular pieces of 100-acre farms, called boweries, radiating out from the center like spokes from a wheel.

In 1652 war broke out across the Atlantic Ocean between the English and the Dutch. The result was increased tension in New Netherlands between the Dutch rulers and the English towns in western Long Island. That was aggravated in 1657, when the first Quakers came to New Netherlands, a move that infuriated the new director general, Peter Stuyvesant. In one of her last acts of dissension, Moody invited them to Gravesend, and the first Quaker meeting in the colonies was held in her house that year.

Seven years later, the entire Dutch colony would come under English rule, but Lady Moody would not live to see it. She died about 1659, at age 73. It was a quiet ending for the life of a woman whom the historian Flick called ``The Grand Dame of Gravesend.''

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