Deborah Dunch was born in London in 1586. She was the daughter of Walter Dunch, the auditor of the Royal Mint, and his wife, Deborah. Her ancestors were loyal supporters of the British monarchy and the Church of England for decades. She married Sir Henry Moody in 1606, becoming Lady Deborah Moody.
After the death of her husband in 1629, Deborah became an Anabaptist. The Anabaptists were a Protestant sect of Christianity who believed that baptism shouldn’t occur until a person was old enough to agree to join the church. In England, where the Church of England was headed by the king, the Anabaptists were treated like criminals. When word of her new beliefs got out, Deborah was summoned to appear in court. Rather than face whatever punishment the government had in mind, Deborah gathered her wealth and set sail for the New World at the age of 54, in search of freedom to practice her beliefs in peace. She arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639.
Deborah drew up the plans for her new community and named it Gravesend. It was the first New World settlement founded by a woman.
Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not the haven of religious toleration that Deborah had hoped. Deborah originally settled in the town of Saugus, Massachusetts, before moving to a large farm in Swampscott, just outside of Salem. She conducted a lively correspondence with other religious nonconformists in the area, drawing the ire of her closest neighbor, Reverend Hugh Peter. Peter believed that the Massachusetts colony should have religious unity; he had already expelled another Anabaptist woman, Anne Hutchinson, two years prior to Deborah’s arrival. In 1643, Deborah was brought before the court for spreading religious dissent. During her trial, Puritan leader John Endecott described her as a “dangerous woman.” She was given the choice to change her beliefs or be excommunicated from the colony. Deborah chose excommunication, gathered her fellow Anabaptists, and set out once again to find a place where they could practice their religion in peace.
At the same time that Deborah was standing trial in Massachusetts, Director Willem Kieft of the Dutch West India Company was looking to recruit new settlers to New Netherland. Willem had recently started a war with the local native tribes and wanted to increase the colony’s population to make it harder for the tribes to take back land. Deborah was a woman with money who already had followers willing to help settle a new community. Since a greater degree of religious toleration was the official policy of the Netherlands and its colonies, their Anabaptist beliefs were less problematic. Kieft granted Deborah the southwestern tip of Long Island, territory that now encompasses parts of Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn.
Deborah drew up the plans for her new community and named it Gravesend. It was the first New World settlement founded by a woman. She allowed the inhabitants of Gravesend to follow whatever religious practices they chose, so long as they abided by the laws of the colony. Gravesend was targeted by local native tribes who felt that the community had robbed them of their land rights. This was no minor threat—in 1643, Anne Hutchinson and all of her family and followers were massacred by native warriors in Pelham Bay, near the river in the present day Bronx that bears her name. In spite of these very real dangers, Deborah and her followers remained and their community grew.
As Deborah’s community grew, so did her influence in the government of New Netherland. In 1647, she was among the colony’s elite who greeted the new Director-General Peter Stuyvesant. In 1654, Stuyvesant called on her to mediate a tax dispute. And in 1655, she was called upon to nominate magistrates for Gravesend. Deborah lived in Gravesend until her death in 1659. Her life story is indicative of the hardships faced by religious dissidents in the seventeenth century, and the success of her settlement at Gravesend speaks to how the practice of religious toleration benefitted the New Netherland colony. She also stands as an example of the unique opportunities granted to women with financial means and heights to which a woman of means and intelligence could climb in the little Dutch Colony on the edge of the world.