Long Island Historical Society

Long Island Historical Society

In addition to revealing new insights into Long Island’s history, this examination of BHS’s collections has also uncovered information about the history of the institution. Opened as the Long Island Historical Society in 1863, it was the first cultural institution of its kind on Long Island. Explore the stories below to learn more.

Through a Pastor’s Eyes

Early Ecclesiastical History in the BHS Collection

Map of the southern part of the state of New York including Long Island, the Sound, the state of Connecticut, part of the state of New Jersey and islands adjacent, 1815
William Damerum (publisher)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Two men guided the first century of religious life in East Hampton. The Reverend Thomas James presided over the local church from 1650 to 1699, followed by the Reverend Nathaniel Huntting from 1699 to 1746. During these formative years, negotiations and tensions with the neighboring Montaukett people were a frequent concern. James expressed interest in acting as a missionary among the local indigenous population; town records indicate most of his time was spent establishing the settlement and its local whaling economy. Indigenous peoples were an important source of information, including the potential uses of local plant life for food and medicine, for European settlers.

Nathaniel Huntting journal, 1697
Nathaniel and Jonathan Huntting papers (1974.075)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Rev. Samuel Buell dominated the second half of the 1700s, ministering from 1746 until his death in 1798. Buell’s tenure was marked by the religious revitalization and disruptions of the Great Awakening and the Revolutionary War. After the British victory at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, many American rebels fled to safety across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Buell stayed in East Hampton and cooperated with occupying British forces. His steady correspondence with both British and American leaders helped him negotiate the trade of essential goods with Connecticut during the war. Neither a hardline patriot nor a loyalist, Buell explained to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull that his primary concern during the war was “the Weal and Prosperity of my Native Country and the Public.”

Cordial Glass, 18th century
Brooklyn Historical Society

Buell’s successor, Lyman Beecher, spent the least amount of time on Long Island, but ironically he is the best-known public figure. Beecher arrived in East Hampton fresh from Yale College in 1799 and ministered there only until 1810. Known for his strict Presbyterian teachings, Beecher gained national notoriety for his activism and vocal positions in public debates about the era’s pressing moral issues, including temperance and abolition. Several of his children, among them Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, later eclipsed Lyman’s own celebrity in the fight against slavery. 

Lyman Beecher to Jonathan Huntting
December 4, 1805
Mid-Atlantic Early Manuscripts Collection (1974.002)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Muslims in Brooklyn Today

Anthony Van Salee’s 1643 land deed is definitive proof that Muslims have been a part of American life since before the nation’s founding. From Dutch New Amsterdam to the present day, Muslims, whether born in the United States or newly arrived, have lived, worked, and prayed in Brooklyn, shaping life in the borough. Until recently, however, the stories of Muslims in Brooklyn have been hidden from public view, this gap in knowledge perpetuating the marginalization and erasure of Muslim experiences from the national narrative of the United States.

An Ummah, In Conversation, 2018 

Mohammed Fayaz

In 2017, Brooklyn Historical Society launched Muslims in Brooklyn, a two-year, multi-faceted public history project designed to highlight the stories of Brooklyn’s Muslim communities. The project contextualizes Muslim stories within the broader history of the borough. More than fifty oral histories, collected by BHS over the course of the project, reveal the nuanced lives of narrators and the depth, diversity, and significance of Muslim communities in Brooklyn, past and present.

BHS’s Muslims in Brooklyn project connects compelling histories to real people, humanizing the stories of Muslims in Brooklyn and promoting empathy. Above all, Muslims in Brooklyn helps dismantle the false and dangerous stereotypes of Muslim Americans as foreign “others” that have taken root in today’s fractious political climate. Explore the oral histories collected for Muslims in Brooklyn and reconsider the broader history of Brooklyn and America through the lens of their voices and experiences.

Portrait of Kobir Chowdhury

Photo by Joey O’Loughlin

Kobir Chowdhury was born in 1974 in the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. He immigrated to the United States in 1991 and settled in East New York, where he worked in real estate and banking. Chowdhury attended Masjid Al-Aman in East New York and began to take on leadership roles at the mosque in the 2010s, including serving as an advisor to the executive committee and as president of the mosque’s board. See this narrator’s full biography and oral history.

Portrait of Rabia Ahsin at home

Photo by Joey O’Loughlin

Rabia Ahsin was born in 1991 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. While studying political science at Brooklyn College as an undergraduate student, she joined the Islamic Society of Brooklyn College as well as with the Muslim Women’s Educational Initiative, both of which were targeted by the New York City Police Department for religiously motivated surveillance by an undercover officer while Ahsin was a member. She also became an outspoken activist against human rights abuses, including protesting with the school’s newly formed Students for Justice in Palestine and focusing her studies on surveillance in New York City. She went on to work as a special education teacher at an all-girls’ secondary school. See this narrator’s full biography and oral history.

Saving a Historic Treasure

Conservation of the “Old Plymouth Chair”

Thanks to the generosity of the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation, in 2019, BHS was able to commission critical conservation work to stabilize Henry Ward Beecher’s chair. Funds supported the preparation of this valuable historic artifact for future exhibition and ensured its preservation for future generations. 

From the pulpit at Plymouth Church to the Brooklyn Historical Society, this upholstered chair has survived more than 150 years of wear and tear. Used in the church for only about twenty years, the original pulpit furniture went into church storage in 1869, not to be rediscovered until 1898. Reporting on the surviving examples of “old Plymouth chairs,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the chair’s upholstery had deteriorated, but that Plymouth Church congregant Stephen M. Griswold had searched for five weeks to find “plush of the same material and color” to reupholster the chair. Kept by the church as a Beecher relic, the chair came to BHS in 1983 along with an extensive archival collection that sheds light on the complex Beecher story.

Engraving from “Old Pulpit Chairs”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 16, 1898

Brooklyn Public Library

Previous efforts to conserve Beecher’s chair stalled because of the need for conservators with expertise in both wood and upholstery. That dual skill set was found in 2019 with Fine Wood Conservation, a Brooklyn-based conservation lab. Broken and missing elements of the chair’s wood mahogany veneer on ash frame have now been consolidated and repaired. Although much of the chair’s original jute stuffing had worn out and needed to be replaced, its red mohair velvet upholstery and springs were salvaged and maintain some of the characteristics of Beecher’s original chair.

Chair following wood treatment, before upholstery work, 2019 

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc.

Damaged Crest Rail before treatment, 2109

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc. 

Crest Rail after treatment, 2019 

Photo courtesy Fine Wood Conservation Inc.

The Myth of “Simpler Times”

Coming to Grips with Difficult Histories

Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society) became home to the Montague Street show figure in 1930, when local residents—anxious about the city’s rapid growth—decided it needed to be preserved as a symbol of a “simpler time” in Brooklyn. For years, the show figure was displayed prominently in the society’s main lobby and occasionally used in museum displays about local American Indian life.

Interior view of the Tile Lobby inside the Long Island Historical Society, after 1930

Ernest Tanare


Brooklyn Historical Society

The show figure eventually became synonymous with LIHS’s public identity. It was featured on institutional branding, and in the 1980s, the museum’s store was even named “the Seated Indian Gift Shop.” Looking back, the insensitivity of these early decisions is plain, missteps perpetuated by the complexity of this historical artifact. It is a beautifully carved piece of American folk art. It was an advertising tool from 1862 to 1930 when it was on display in Montague Street. It was also an agent of oppression.

Marking Stamp, before 1985


Brooklyn Historical Society

This sculpture perpetuated racist stereotypes of “noble savages” and concealed the violence and injustices that had been wrought upon American Indian communities from the 1600s to the present. By acknowledging this final truth, BHS also preserves the legacy of the Lenape communities who called New York home for centuries and whose descendants today still live throughout the United States and Canada.

Women’s Contributions from the Home Front

The United States Sanitary Fair Movement

During the Civil War, many women made flags and similar items to sell in hopes of raising money to aid Union troops. Beginning in 1863, American women began organizing “sanitary fairs,” fundraising spectacles intended to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission. This federal agency oversaw soldiers’ everyday “sanitary interests,” providing food, clothing, housing, transportation, and care for the sick and wounded. 


Although it is unclear whether she made this flag for the fair, Martha Ovington undoubtedly knew about the fair and perhaps even attended the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, held over two weeks in February 1864.

Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, Interior view of Academy of Music, 1864

Brown & Co., lithographer


Brooklyn Historical Society

Largely organized by Long Island–area volunteers from the local Women’s Relief Association, the fair was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in two neighboring, built specifically for the fair. The event was both a fundraiser and a community morale booster, providing a diversion from the war. There was an art gallery, agricultural displays, and a popular exhibition designed to resemble a New England kitchen.

Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, New England Kitchen, 1864

Brown & Co., lithographer

Library of Congress

Through solicited donations, ticket sales, and goods sold, the fair raised over $403,000, more than any similar sanitary fair held to that point. 

The Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair lasted only two weeks, but many of the curiosities and historical documents displayed during the event were preserved by the Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society). In February 1864, LIHS was barely a year old, and its founders recognized the fair as an unprecedented collecting opportunity. In a written plea to their members, they asked, “Will you not, among your purchases, remember our Society and procure for us a Picture, a Volume, a Collection of Autographs, a Set of Coins, a Piece of old Armor, Furniture, Costume—any thing, indeed, which is curious and ancient, and which will contribute to illustrate the Past.”

Long Island Historical Society Request for Fair Donations, 1864

Women’s Relief Association Records (ARC.245)

Brooklyn Historical Society

The request from LIHS proved successful with local donors. Today the BHS collection includes artifacts and documents of local and national importance brought into the institution from the fair.

Tin-glazed earthenware tile, 17th or 18th century 


Brooklyn Historical Society

“The interesting and distinguishing beauty of Long Island”

Preservation of the Picturesque Retreat

In the late 1800s, urban pleasure-seekers began discovering eastern Long Island. Many learned of the region’s beauties through publications like Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, whose 1878 article “Around the Peconics” took readers on a rambling journey across the island, from Coney Island in the west all the way to Montauk Point. The author marveled at its beaches and bays, animal and plant life, and eastern Long Island’s remote upper and lower “forks” just east of Peconic Bay in Suffolk County.

Shore at Rocky Point, L.I. near East Marion, 1878

George B. Brainerd


Brooklyn Historical Society

The writer of the article also introduced his readers to the island’s villages, “clean and bright with new paint and prosperity.” He was fascinated by the region’s historic houses and their massive chimneys, writing that the “interest and distinguishing beauty of Long Island…lie in its antiquity and the traces of the memorable past which have survived.”

Interior of the Payne House, East Hampton, 1870

John Mackie Falconer


Brooklyn Historical Society

That eastern Long Island was “as pretty a picture of rural comfort as the tired city man can well imagine” attracted the interest of urban dwellers and land developers hoping to build getaways for New Yorkers and Brooklynites living in increasingly crowded cities. 

This interest from urbanites in Long Island resulted at times in the destruction of treasured local historic structures. For example, the demolition around 1878 of the Old Horton House made national news. Described as “the oldest house in America,” the house dated back to the 1660s, when it was built by Barnabas Horton (1600–80), one of the original settlers of Southold, Long Island. This steady loss of local history spurred many to action.

Old Horton House, Southold, 1878

George B. Brainerd


Brooklyn Historical Society

“The Oldest House in America to Be Torn Down” 

New York Times, October 22, 1878

When the Long Island Historical Society opened in 1863, it was the first institution of its kind on the island. Many of LIHS’s earliest members lived in Queens and Suffolk counties. Witnessing the disappearance of local history, these early preservationists donated artifacts like William Wells’ desk box and Barnabas Horton’s carved chest to the society, ensuring their long-term survival. 


Many of these early members of LIHS went on to become supporters of the American Preservation Movement, dedicated to preserving the country’s historic sites and structures. Today, the efforts of regional and national landmark preservation commissions, historical societies, museums, and private citizens ensure that Long Island’s “distinguishing beauty,” its local history and heritage, does not disappear.

Interior of the Long Island Historical Society, circa 1960

Long Island Historical Society photographs (V1974.031.49)

Brooklyn Historical Society