Today Greenpoint is a densely populated urban neighborhood, whose remaining factory buildings bear silent witness to its past as one of the largest centers of industrialization in America. However, Greenpoint was once far different. It was a pristine place of great natural beauty, and its Native American inhabitants, the Mespeatches, worshipped the nature here as something holy. Let us take an imaginary canoe trip with them.
We begin our journey in Maspeth, a ways up Newtown Creek from Greenpoint, whose name comes from the Algonquin language and is a corruption of the term the Natives used to describe themselves: Mespeatches, which can be roughly translated as “place of bad water,” referring to the many swamps that once characterized the areas around Newtown Creek, including Greenpoint. It might also be translated as “swamp people.” Their village was located on high ground east of what is now Mount Zion Cemetery, which allowed them to escape the area’s frequent flooding. They lived in several long wooden wigwams with about 20 members of their extended families.
Although there were a few ancient footpaths, the Mespeatches traveled around Greenpoint by canoe, as the land was swampy and often flooded. Later in the nineteenth century these marshlands and estuaries were filled in, hiding the original, naturally environment of the area. Greenpoint was once so extremely swampy that no one could walk for very far without sinking into the many bogs and patches of deep mud. The land west of Franklin Street, in fact, did not exist at all until the 1850s, when hills were leveled and slag was used as landfill. This landfill, however, erased the area’s most defining feature. Around the area of Freeman and West streets there was a long rocky, grass-covered spit of land extending out into the East River about a hundred feet, which Dutch sailors navigating the river used as a landmark. Later this green point was used to refer to the entire peninsula of land around it.
Today Greenpoint borders Williamsburg, but in the seventeenth century, Bushwick Creek, a wide estuary, separated the two areas, marking the southern boundary of Greenpoint. The creek so isolated Greenpoint from other areas of Brooklyn that for many years Greenpoint was very remote and hard to reach. Presently, Bushwick Inlet, a small indentation in the East River shoreline, is all that remains of the once-large creek that, until the nineteenth century, had drained the extensive marshland that would later get filled in with slag to become McCarran Park and adjacent areas. The headwaters of the creek penetrated far inland, reaching a point that today is the intersection of Nassau Avenue and Bedford Avenue.
There was a landing point at the end of an ancient foot trail at the water’s edge, where today Guernsey and Norman avenues meet. From the landing were trails that led east and south. The trail heading east formed a large semi-circle that hugged the creek’s shoreline, crossing over a land bridge between the marshlands of Maspeth Creek to the west and a large wetland to the east. For many years the trail, which was the only way to walk to Williamsburg, followed a path along today’s Driggs Avenue to its intersection with Humboldt Street. Later, settlers would name the clearing on the creek Wood Point Landing, and the path Wood Point Road. It served as Greenpoint’s only public road until 1838.
Newtown Creek marked the northern border of Greenpoint, but a modern resident would hardly recognize the pretty seventeenth-century creek. Today it is a wide, polluted, post industrial body of water. Before it was altered, however, it was far narrower and clearer, with water so pure you could see the bottom of the creek. A number of small islands rose out of the creek. Early visitors notice a large number of beaver dams along its banks, which attracted the attention of the first Dutch to visit the area who traded for beaver pelts with the Native Americans. Before the area became toxic, species dwelling in the Newtown Creek area included gray wolves, mountain lions, river otters, masked shrews, black bears, heath hens, spotted sandpipers, scarlet tanagers, timber rattlesnakes, spotted turtles, marbled salamanders, green frogs, and northern short-tailed shrews. Greenpoint was a rich hunting ground for the local natives who stalked the abundant turkey, deer, rabbits, and waterfowl including ducks and pheasants. They also caught fish from the teeming schools in the creek and the East River, and feasted on the abundant local shellfish including clams, crabs, and oysters.
Oil refining in the second half of the nineteenth century polluted the creek, killing all its wildlife. Today Whale Creek is a tiny inlet from Newtown Creek, but like Bushwick Creek it once extended far inland, reaching what today would be Java Street. Following the line of this creek inland, there was a salt marsh extending to a point south of the present Kosciusko Bridge. Here the river banks rose to a height of a hundred feet and stretched as far as Meeker Avenue. This salt marsh was known as the “Back Meadows” and was full of little streams that ran off in many directions. The area was a source of nuts for the Keskachaugue, who gathered them from the dense groves of trees there. The marsh formed a large crooked triangle with its tip located at the present- day intersection of Driggs Avenue and Humboldt Street. Near this point was the head of a stream called Wyckoff’s Creek, running north near the line of Greenpoint Avenue and then east to Bushwick Inlet, its mouth somewhat south of where the bridge connects Long Island City and Greenpoint. The meadows near both creeks often flooded, forming beautiful miniature bays, but when the water receded it left large fields of malodorous slime.
Greenpoint, according to Native American legend, had once been a dense primeval forest, but a fire had burned it down long before the arrival of the Europeans. Even after the fire, the area still had many trees. The first name for Greenpoint the Dutch used was “Wood Point,” a testament to the large number of trees that survived the blaze including oaks and ash trees that people would memorialize with street names. Dutch sailors reported that the area was overgrown with hemlock trees. There were also many jack pines and low bushes growing in abundance after the great fire. These bushes were so prevalent that for a while the Dutch called the Williamsburg area Cripplebush. Cherry Point was another name for the area, in testament to the large number of wild cherry trees that flourished there.
The eastern edge of Greenpoint only reached as far as Morgan Avenue, which bordered Newtown Creek. Like areas along the East River, it would later receive huge amounts of landfill, extending the creek’s shoreline a few hundred feet east. The western shore of Greenpoint was quite a muddy area, a problem that the first residents of Franklin Street had to deal with, especially when the East River frequently flooded. Greenpoint Avenue originally had planks so that people could walk along it without being covered in mud. The many springs of the area provided ample drinking water, with two springs bubbling up out of the ground on what are today Calyer Street and Meserole Avenue.
In today’s heavily urbanized Greenpoint it takes a lot of imagination to envision how the area was before settlement and industrialization totally transformed it, but it must have once been gorgeous.