Moody, Deborah (c. 1583–c. 1659)

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Moody, Deborah (c. 1583–c. 1659)

Early American colonist and founder of several settlements in Brooklyn. Name variations: Lady Deborah Moody. Born Deborah Dunch in Avebury, Wiltshire, England, around 1583 (some sources cite 1580, some cite 1600); died in Gravesend, New Netherland, around 1659; daughter of Walter Dunch and Deborah (Pilkington) Dunch; granddaughter of James Pilkington, bishop of Durham; married Henry Moody of the manor of Garesdon, Wiltshire, on January 20, 1605 or 1606; children: Henry.

Following death of husband and a conflict with English authorities, emigrated to American colonies (1639); lived in Massachusetts until a disagreement with authorities over religious convictions prompted her to move to Dutch province of New Netherland (1643); received land grant and established first English settlement, Gravesend, and designed city layout; credited with designing areas known today as Midwood, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, and Bensonhurst.

A British-born early American colonist who is considered one of the founders of New York City's borough of Brooklyn, Deborah Moody was born around 1583 in Avebury, Wiltshire, England. She was one of five children of Walter Dunch, a member of Parliament in 1584 and 1588, and Deborah Pilkington Dunch , the daughter of James Pilkington, bishop of Durham and a radical Protestant. Moody's father provided dowries for each of his four daughters before his death in 1594, and Deborah, the oldest, was married in 1605 or 1606 to Henry Moody of Garesdon manor, also in Wiltshire. They had one child, Henry, and during her marriage Moody apparently laid out several local villages, gaining knowledge of city planning. Her husband was knighted in 1606, granted a baronetcy in 1621 or 1622, and served as a member of Parliament in 1625, 1626, and from 1628 until his death a year later. Moody then moved to London, but permits were required to stay away from one's home, and in 1635, having over-stayed the limit of her permit, she was ordered to return to Garesdon. This order outraged her sense of civil liberties and, in combination with the unpopularity of her unorthodox religious views, resulted in her decision to leave England to seek greater freedoms.

Moody sailed for the colonies in 1639, while already in her mid-50s. Settling in Massachusetts, she lived first in Lynn, where she was granted 400 acres of land by the Massachusetts General Court. In 1640, she was a member of a nonconformist church in Salem, but she was drawn to the Anabaptists, one of the most radical of the religious sects that formed after Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church. It advocated, among other things, a separation of church and state, which was anathema to the Puritans. Chastised by the Massachusetts authorities for her views, Moody moved in 1643 to the Dutch province of New Netherland. A group of friends and like-minded followers went with her.

In New Netherland, authorities allowed Moody to start a settlement in the far southern reaches of what later became the city of Brooklyn (now the borough of Brooklyn in New York City). Here she purchased land from the Canarsie tribe and established the village of Gravesend, which was the first colonial settlement established and run by a woman. She apparently had second thoughts about staying in her new home after violent conflicts with local tribes forced the settlers to seek protection from the Dutch, but authorities in Massachusetts did not particularly want her to return there. (In 1644, an advisor to Governor John Winthrop told him not to allow her to return unless she would "leave her dangerous opinions behinde her, for shee is an evil woman.") In 1645, Moody became the first woman to receive a land grant when the Dutch issued her a patent that December allowing freedom of worship and self-government. She then put her previous experience in city planning to use, designing and laying out street grids in Gravesend. Moody also later purchased much of the land surrounding Gravesend, designing the original villages of what are now the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, and Midwood. She became an important citizen of New Netherland, and was well respected by its governor Peter Stuyvesant and by Willem Kieft, governor of New Amsterdam.

Deborah Moody reportedly became a Quaker in 1657, after missionaries of the new sect (which was much persecuted in the English colonies, as it was in England) arrived in the area. Some historical sources dispute her conversion, although it is known that Gravesend became a center for Quakerism soon after 1658. Acclaimed by a contemporary as a "wise and anciently religious woman," she died in the village she had founded sometime between November 1658 and May 1659.


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Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California