Brett Park: 12 acres of history

By Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer

Teaneck Suburbanite, January 9 2008, p. 2

In 1981, when historian Kevin Wright first began working at the Von Steuben house in River Edge, he observed a young man crossing the footbridge from Teaneck carrying a cannonball.

The young man turned out to be a West Point cadet studying Washington's retreat from Fort Lee. He said he had found the cannonball "over there", gesturing toward Brett Park across the Hackensack River, said Wright.

At Wright's initiative, the township has since enacted an ordinance prohibiting the use of metal detectors in Teaneck's public parks to prevent amateur archeologists from ravaging the ground in search of historical artifacts.

The entire area that is Teaneck today was a bloody battlefield throughout the American Revolution. But Brett Park and the adjacent New Bridge Landing, where Washington's troops crossed the Hackensack River in retreat from the British, have particular historical significance.

"Brett Park is sacred soil. It is part of an American battleground," said Wright.

The 12-acre park at the northwest end of Teaneck may be said to contain the seed from which the American nation took root.

Wright, a historian with the New Jersey Department of Parks and Forestry and president of the Bergen County Historical Society, explained that a surviving deed from 1677 shows that Tantaqua, the last sachem of the Hackensack Indians, sold the land to the Van Buskirk fmaily. But earlier, in 1664, said Wright, Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam, unsuccessfully attempted to purchase all the land that constitutes Teaneck today from Oratum, the last great sachem of the Hackensacks.

Oratam was willing to sell only the land south of today's Cedar Lane because he needed the northern half for his home. If he moved farther north, he would be encroaching on the territory of the Tappan Indians, enemies of the Hackensacks.

"The native poeple lived in small communities," said Wright, explaining that the idea of large tribes dates mainly from the 19th century.

Sycamore TreeThe boundary between the Tappans and the Hackensacks was French Creek. Almost entirely underground today, its origin as an inlet running east from the Hackensack River is still visible looking north from New Bridge Landing.

Dr. Abraham Van Buskirk, a physician and apothecary, who represented New Jersey in the colonial congress under British rule, built a house on the property, Wright said.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Van Buskirk, a leading Tory, resigned from the congress and hid in the woods to avoid capture until the British landed when he was commissioned a colonel.

After the war, said Wright, Lord Cornwallis testified that Van Buskirk had rendered essential services to the British forces "being a loyalist of greatest merit who served throughout the whole war with zeal and fidelity."

He and other loyalists, including a substantial number of former African-American slaves who had been offered their freedom in return for service on the British side, were evacuated by the British to Nova Scotia where they were settled on crown land.

At the time of the Revolution, 20 percent of the population of Bergen County consisted of African American, most of whom were slaves, said Wright.

In 1786, Wright said, Van Buskirk filed a claim for compensation for his property, which had been seized by the colonists. A surviving document lists a dwelling house, a gristmill and other out buildings on the land that is Brett Park today.

Van Buskirk, who owned four slaves, also asked for compensation for "one Negro named Sam, 20 years old taken by the rebels."

A large sycamore tree still standing at the north edge of upper Brett Park is believed to have been the door yard tree at the entrance to Van Buskirk's house.

More about Clarence W. Brett

Brett Park: Two centuries, many changes -- By Howard Prosnitz, Teaneck Suburbanite, January 16, 2008, p. 5


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