Ask a Historian: What’s the deal with Keap Street?

To sign or not to sign

March 7, 2019 By John Manbeck, Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Keap Street has a long and colorful history. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan
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“I’m new to Williamsburg and Brooklyn. I heard that many of the Williamsburg streets are named after signers of the Declaration of Independence. I can’t find Keap among the original signers. Am I missing something?” — Jamie from Williamsburg

Yes. A few of our Founding Fathers are among the missing or have been de-gridded. But Keap is a special case: a spelling error.

Among the streets that the City Fathers eliminated are Rush Street and Gwinnett Street. Benjamin Rush represented Pennsylvania and Button Gwinnett came from Georgia. But “Tho. M. Keap” never existed.

His real name was Thomas McKean, with a fancy twist on the “n.” He was important in Delaware as governor while also acting as chief justice in Pennsylvania, a neighboring state. Delaware thought so highly of him that they sent him to Congress to serve eight years as their representative, even though his home was in Philadelphia.

He also practiced law in New Jersey and is memorialized in Brooklyn. During the Revolution, he led a Pennsylvania militia troop supporting Washington.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

McKean had another distinction: He was the last man to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1781, five years after everyone else, being unavailable because he was fighting a war. That year he was in town as president of Congress, a position no longer available that filled the position of POTUS before the country elected their first.

Then he served three terms as governor of Pennsylvania and eventually was buried in Philadelphia.

This Independence document is a very confusing situation. On July 4, 1776, only two signatures were on the Declaration: John Hancock and Charles Thomson, his secretary. Most names were signed by Aug. 2, but elections and appointments and death in battle meant that the men who agreed to the principles of the document were not the final signers. Seven of the 56 signers had not been elected until after 1776.

Among the signers, eight were immigrants and therefore citizens of another country. Charles Carroll, for whom Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens is named, had supplied Marylander troops for the Battle of Brooklyn yet he could not be a citizen, could not vote and could not hold public office because he was a Roman Catholic. After the British left for home, he was elected one of the first senators from Maryland.

Not many New Yorkers were involved in the revolutionary fervor. William Floyd, who lived on Long Island near Fire Island, was the first to sign on July 9 after the New York colony accepted the document. Philip Livingston was the only Brooklynite. The other two New Yorkers were Francis Lewis and Lewis Morris.

Enjoy Williamsburg, Jamie, otherwise known today as Billyburg or Willy B. A Brooklyn tree once grew here. It has an interesting history with millionaires and a colorful industrial past and lots of beer. It was named after Col. Jonathan Williams, an engineer who surveyed the land but never lived here. In 1840, it was a real city with a mayor but that disappeared when the city of Williamsburg and the town of Bensonhurst were annexed by the city of Brooklyn to become the Eastern District.

But that’s for another story!

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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