First Woman Landowner in America
by Guest Blogger Lynn Andrews
Lady Deborah Moody (1580-1659) was born in London from a wealthy family. Once her husband died and her son sold most of the family land, she became associated with the Anabaptists, a Protestant sect who believed baptism should be performed in adulthood and not in children. Her unpopular religious beliefs came to the attention of The Star Chamber, a court for nobility, who began to investigate her time in London. The King, Charles I, had an edict that dictated the nobility were to stay on their estates and not be away for long periods of time. In 1639, suspecting that she was about to be ordered back to what remained of her estate, she left England for Massachusetts. She was 54.
When Lady Moody arrived, she initially settled in Salem, a Puritan community. She knew the governor, John Winthrop, Sr., and was good friends with his son. She bought a farm from a gentleman who wanted to return to England. Unfortunately, her neighbor, Rev. Hugh Peter, a member of The Church of Salem, had already charged and convicted Anne Hutchinson for her Anabaptist beliefs. He was able to get Deborah banished from the state.
Lady Moody and others who wanted to leave relocated to New Amsterdam (New York) which was under Dutch rule and more lenient when it came to religious beliefs. The governor gave her 7,000 acres on the tip of Long Island to establish a village thus making her the first woman in America to be given a land patent. She also became the first woman to write a town charter in the English language and because of owning property, she could vote. She named this new town Gravesend, and it was one of the first villages designed around a town square. She set up a school, town hall, and a church. All were welcome to practice whatever religion they choose.
Initially, the town struggled. The local Indians did not subscribe to the idea of people owning land. Deborah supported the belief that the Indians should receive payment from any settlers who wanted to use the land. These differences culminated with the Indians attacking the village. She wrote to the governor of Massachusetts to ask if she might be welcome back but was told that unless she was willing to give up her religious beliefs, he didn’t favor the idea.
Since she didn’t have any options, Lady Moody and the other settlers opted to stay and further secured Gravesend. The town slowly grew, eventually covering the area that today is known as Brooklyn’s Atlantic shore, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay and Midwood. Some of the streets from 1643 still exist today.
Lady Moody became widely respected and gained much power. When an argument over taxes developed, Governor Stuyvesant asked her if she would intercede. When the Quakers fled to America, she invited them to Gravesend, opening her home, allowing them to hold their first meeting in the New World.
Lady Deborah Moody died at the age of 73. She is buried in Gravesend Cemetery.
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