Today uttering Williamsburg is more likely to precede a snarky comment about hipsters than it is to spur thoughts of its namesake. After all, time has heaped layers of meaning onto New York’s place names, and while places like Fort Greene and Fort Tryon require little effort to discover that they were once military installations, other locales betray little of their origins.
So, what does the “Williams” refer to anyway? Sparing the dramatic lead up, the answer is Jonathan Williams. And let’s face it, though he was acquainted with men of such historical heft as his great uncle Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, he’s far from a household name for most New Yorkers. Boston born and Harvard educated, Williams served his uncle’s private secretary in France before taking a post during the revolution inspecting supplies destined for America.
Though a merchant like his father, Williams maintained scientific interests that helped him to secure membership to the promoter of “useful knowledge”, the American Philosophical Society. His scientific interests eventually wandered into military engineering and he became the first superintendent of the military academy at West Point. Williams is slightly less known as a founder of a complementary organization in 1802, the United States Military Philosophical Society, which curiously mirrored the APS, but with a military focus. Like its fellow infant project, West Point, the USMPS valued the importance of promoting domestic military engineering and science with a vision towards reducing America’s reliance on European expertise.
Meanwhile, in the opening years of the nineteenth century, Richard Woodhull purchased thirteen acres of land in Brooklyn, envisioning a settlement to accompany his ferry service to Manhattan. He named it Williamsburg in honor of the man who surveyed the property, none other than Jonathan Williams. Sources don’t linger on the details of why Woodhull bestowed this honor but presumably it was a statement of gratitude, and perhaps also a sign of Williams’ stature. Unfortunately for Woodhull, his benevolence did not sustain the venture which ended in his bankruptcy in 1806. Despite this failure, Williams’ legacy was unharmed and the area was officially incorporated as the Village of Williamsburgh in 1827.
But we’re not done. Williams managed to leave yet another lasting mark on New York geography by employing his engineering talents on the construction of defensive fortifications in New York and its harbor. The tangible result was the East Battery on Governors Island, better known as Castle Williams. Begun in 1807, construction finished 1811 just in time to protect New York during the War of 1812.