A map called “Indian villages, paths, ponds and places in Kings County” is one of the more popular items in Brooklyn Historical Society’s Library & Archives. But a question we often hear is: where did the information in this map come from? To find out we had to look, strangely enough, at the life of a construction worker and vaudevillian from County Longford, Ireland.
James A. Kelly’s first sight of Brooklyn came in 1892, at the age of seven, as he stood on a boat anchored for inspection off Bay Ridge. But his devotion to local history wouldn’t take hold until 1916, when he was working on a subway construction team that uncovered the bow and keel of a sailing ship under present-day Cortlandt Street station.
Kelly—who moonlighted as singer and songwriter of such ditties as “If They’d Only Move Old Ireland Over Here”—wanted to take time to dig out the object, which historians thought might be the Tijger, a 17th century Dutch fur-trading ship. When impatient city officials scuppered these plans, Kelly cut off the exposed section and gave it to the New York Aquarium, where for decades it was somewhat preserved by the waters of the seal tank.
His interest in city history—and annoyance with city officials—thus aroused, Kelly began to dabble in politics and historical research, and would eventually become Deputy County Clerk of Kings County as well as the first official Borough Historian.
It was in this capacity that, in 1946, he enlisted the aide of Clarence Nenning, head of the County Clerk’s map division, to create “Indian villages, paths, ponds and places in Kings County.” Kelly didn’t cite his sources, but a brochure he later wrote to accompany the map is in Brooklyn College’s Local History Collection, and it suggests that he relied primarily on land transaction records between European settlers and Indigenous peoples.
Kelly’s map is just one of many items that appear on our new research guide, Indigenous Peoples of Long Island and New York. As a map created by an Irishman in the 1940s, “Indian Villages” is an example of both the enduring interest in local Indigenous history, and the curious nature of the materials we often rely on to tell us this history.
Materials created by Indigenous people are rare in our collection, and those that reliably document what the five boroughs were like pre-contact are virtually non-existent. What this research guide provides instead is a lens on how Americans of European descent have interacted with and reacted to Indigenous people over the last few centuries.
This includes records of land transactions dating back to the 17th century, first-hand documentation of political activity that directly affected Indigenous communities from the 18th and 19th centuries, and accounts of Indigenous life in 20th century Brooklyn, when a Boerum Hill community of Mohawk construction workers helped build the city we know today.
We invite you to explore these materials, and to keep asking questions of history.