The Settlers of the East End
by Patricia Shillingburg © 2003
New England was settled by Englishmen throughout the 1600s. England itself was crowded, unhealthy, and in political turmoil. If you were young, adventurous, had financial resources, and you could leave, you did ... for the opportunities in the New World.
Young families tended to settle with people they knew from the Old World and with whom they had similar interests. In many cases, the interest was to worship together and to be one large family within that Christian community. Of the first nine men who settled in East Hampton, six were from villages in Kent, England -- particularly, Maidstone; five had settled previously in Lynn, Massachusetts, and six had previously lived in Southampton. If they didn’t like the strictures of the group they were living with, they would join with others and move on. Similarly, Roger Williams became fed up with the dictatorial demands of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and with a group of other dissidents moved south to found what is now Rhode Island. Cotton Mather, the self proclaimed arbiter of righteousness in Massachusetts, declared Henry Case with his tolerance of Quakers to be beyond redemption, and Case, fed up, joined another band of like minded folks and helped settle Southold.
The first two colonies on Long Island were settled twenty years after the Pilgrims landed in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. They were the first English settlers on Long Island, and in fact in all of New York State. They had charters from New England governors and signed deeds from the local Indians who they found friendly and helpful.
In 1639, a group of men -- some newly arrived in the New World and others of the town of Lynn, Massachusetts -- organized themselves into a company to found a plantation on Long Island. On May 1, 1640, they landed in what is now Manhasset in North Hemstead. Soon, however, the Dutch Governor at Fort Amsterdam sent officers to arrest them as “strollers and vagabonds.” It is reported that “eight men, one woman, and a little child made answer” that they intended to make settlement there. They had already finished a house and a half. After interrogating them, the Governor told them to move on. He recognized the authority of neither James Farrett, the agent of the Earl of Sterling, nor Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts who had drawn their charter papers. This small band moved East to Southampton and built their village there. They then sent for the rest of their company. Their family names were Howell, Needham, Stanborough, Farrington, Sayre, How, Welbe, Halsey, Harker, Walton, Bread, Newell, Kirtland, Terry, and Ryall.
John Youngs organized his church at New Haven on the 21st of October 1640, and, this band sailed together to Southold. The names were Ackerly, Benjamin, Benedict, Bailey, Booth, Brush, Budd, Case, Cheston, Clark, Conkling, Cooper, Corwin, Dickerson, Easty, Elton, Frost, Glover, Haines, Hallock, Herbert, Hobart, Horton, Hutchinson, Ketcham, Mapes, Moore, Norton, Osman, Overton, Paine, Petty, Peakin, Purrier, Reeve, Rider, Salmon, Stevenson, Swezy, Terry, Terrill, Tucker, Tuthill, Underhill, Vail, Wells, Whittier, Wines, and Youngs.
In the Spring of 1648, Theophilus Eaton, Governor of the Colony of New Haven and Edward Hopkins, Governor of Connecticut (at Hartford) obtained a deed for the area that is now the Town of East Hampton from the sachems of Shelter Island, Montauk, Coirchaug, and Shinecock. The first settlers had all been originally settlers in Southampton and were soon joined by others. The family names were Gardiner, Hand, Talmage, Howe, Thompson, Stratton, Bond, Rose, Barnes, Mulford, Osborn, Hedges, Dayton, Chatfield, Osborn, Fifthian, Brooks, Simonds, Belknap, Parsons, Garlick, Davies, Bishop, Barnes, Veale, Miller, Baker, Conkling, Shaw, and Meacham.
In 1642, Stephen Goodyear purchased Shelter Island and Robbins Island from James Farrett who had been given 10,000 acres by the Earl of Sterling as his commission as agent. There is no record that Mr. Goodyear ever lived there. In 1651, Constant Sylvester, Nathaniel Sylvester, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Rouse, business partners, purchased Shelter Island. In 1652, they drew up Articles of Agreement that described their partnership and in 1653, Nathaniel Sylvester brought his 16 year old bride, Grissell Brinley, to Shelter Island where they engaged in managing a supply plantation for the family sugar plantations in Barbados. The second and third generation Sylvesters sold off much of the 8,000 acres of Shelter Island and in 1730, the 10 owners separated from Southold and formed the Town of Shelter Island. Their last names were Sylvester, Nicoll, Havens, Hudson, Page, Bowditch, Parker, Vail, Conkling, Gilman, Tuthill, L’Hommendieu, Hopkins, and Brown.
Riverhead became important because it was geographically in the middle of what became Suffolk County in 1683. Court for the whole county was held either in Southampton or in Southold, but in 1729, a court house for Suffolk County was built in at the Peconic River’s head. There was no organization until after the Revolution when the first Riverhead town meeting was held at the house of Thomas Griffing on April 3, 1792.
The world of the 17th Century English settler on the Eastern seaboard of North America was tumultuous. Religious persecution in England was rampant. The acceptable religion depended on the monarch, and those who worshipped as neither Catholic nor Church of England were further persecuted. Political upheaval throughout the reigns of James I, Charles I, who was beheaded, Oliver Cromwell, then Charles II and James II did not settle down until William and Mary succeeded to the throne in 1689. If Spain, The Netherlands, England and France were not battling in Europe, they were skirmishing in the New World.
All was not at peace with the native Montauk Indians, either. They had been terrorized for years by the Pequots who had extracted tribute not only from them but also from the Narragansetts and the Mohegans. The Montauks were now attempting to form new alliances since 80 Englishmen from the Hartford area, with the assistance of 80 Mohegans, killed off the aggressive Pequots in 1637, near Saybrook, to clean up a “heathenishe countrye” to make it safe for settlers. The Indians were friendly with the settlers and sold them their land, though one is not sure that they understood what selling entailed. Disease and, by all contemporary reports, rum decimated the population in just a few generations.
The Dutch in New Netherlands and the English in New England were also in competition for land. The Dutch who were settling between New Amsterdam and Fort Orange (Albany) had their eyes on Connecticut and Long Island. And so did John Winthrop of the Massachusets Bay Colony. It was not until September 1664 that the issue was resolved when the English took New Amsterdam which they renamed New York after their patron, the Duke of York. Even then, briefly, between July 1673 and February 1674, New York reverted to the Dutch.
Throughout these conflicts, the East End inhabitants continuously expressed their desire to be associated with the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven. This issue was resolved in 1665 when Governor John Winthrop, Jr. informed the towns on Long Island they were no longer colonies of Connecticut and New Haven, but were now part of New York. The citizens of East Hampton, Southampton, and Southold were horrified, because their lord was now the Duke of York, an autocratic despot who had no interest in their opinions and or care for their good will. His governors were ordered to do his bidding and to tax the colonies to the maximum possible. The towns kept pleading with the Connecticut colonists to accept them as members, but to no avail. When the Duke of York became King James II, all the colonies of North American became his subjects and all suffered greatly. Silas Wood, writing in 1828, described James II:
... he determined to have as little to do with parliaments as possible, so it is probably that he revoked the power which he had given to his governors to call assemblies, and determined that they should rule the colony by his instructions alone, without admitting the people to any participation in the public councils ... The rights of the people, civil and religious, were sacrificed to the claims of the prerogative and the bigotry of the king. His governors resembled their master in the religion and political principles, and seem to have studied to imitate him in their contempt of the rights of the people.
Soon after becoming king, James required a hefty tax of the East End towns. When they objected, he ordered the leaders of the communities arrested and thrown into jail. The final outcome was that the land owners were required to purchase their land a second time. For land rich and cash poor citizens this was a heavy burden indeed.
At the time of the English Revolution of 1689 when James II was dethroned and William and Mary were elected monarchs, all of Suffolk County’s 10 towns had approximately 2,680 inhabitants. By 1723, there were about 6,240.
The early settlers on the East End were men of some substance; they had purchased their land patents from the Connecticut authorities and the land from the Indians.
For their time, they were well educated; they could read and write, important skills for good Christians to understand Christ’s teachings. There were common schools in every community. College preparatory schools were supported in the communities of East Hampton, Southold and Franklinville at different times. It was not unusual for their sons and grandsons to go to Yale.
The two most important employees of each town were its preacher and its school master.
They were also medieval in their understanding. They were deeply superstitious. They knew nothing about their bodies or the nature of illness. Their gardens were their medicine cabinets and their sources for remedies were the Romans. They didn’t trust the water and drank ale morning, noon, and night. They were, however, not intolerant of other peoples’ religious beliefs, but to be a voting citizen of the town, one had to be a supporting member of the town’s church.
Slavery was a part of the culture and many of the larger land owners had at least a dozen and even smaller land holders might have one or two. From early death records kept by the Salmon family of Southold over many generations, the number of “negroes” is astonishing. The Sylvesters arrived on Shelter Island with slaves and there is an ancient “Negro Cemetery” on the manor grounds.
The settlers were industrious and hardworking people. They were quick learners and used ingenuity and muscle to make successful settlements. They believed in community and knew they had to work together to survive. They believed that everything on God’s earth was for their use and they took full advantage. Henry P. Hedges, a lawyer and East Hampton historian, speaking on the subject of agriculture in 1866, described the methods of farming from the beginning of history through his childhood:
Many of us can remember when the ungainly wooden plow, armed with iron hoops and old wagon tire, inverted the sod to the depth of four inches. Our hands have wielded the sickle in the waving grain progressing at the rate of half an acre a day. We have threshed with a hickory flail, and winnowed with a wooden shovel; mowed with a scythe in a crooked snath, spread and raked hay with a white oak rack, and panting, pitched it with an enormous iron-tined oak handled fork. We have made holes for planting corn with a heavy iron hoe ...We have carried in a corn basket the manure to fertilize the hills ...
They grew corn, wheat, oats, rye, barley, turnips, and potatoes. They kept cattle, sheep, and hogs. Every farm had a vegetable and flower garden. One might be a blacksmith, shoemaker or cabinet maker, but he was also a farmer. The farmer was in charge of the oxen and horses, the fields and the orchards and the wife maintained the kitchen garden and barnyard animals.
The second most important industry after farming was whaling. Whales were an important source of revenue, and the townspeople were required by law to serve as whale watchers as whales frequently came close to shore. When they did, scythes and plows were dropped and every man raced to the boats to spear and kill the whale for its blubber and oil.
The bays were teeming with fish of all kinds, and the inlets were filled with shell fish: clams, oysters, muscles and scallops. Osprey built their large nets in tall trees, and piping plovers raced along the shores. In the Spring and Fall, the skies were darkened by geese and other migrating birds.
From the beginning these were Christian communities. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” was an important dictate. Lyman Beecher, the fourth minister of the Presbyterian Church in East Hampton, in 1806 described the relationship of church and state in the minds of the settlers:
The religion of these men manifested its influence in what would at this day be called their political conduct. They would have abhorred the infidel maxim, that religion and politics have no connexion, if the meaning be, as is often insinuated, that men in choosing rulers and making laws, have nothing to do with their bibles. They considered the precepts of their religion as extending to the regulation of their civil as well as to the regulation of their moral conduct, and in these matters they made their bible and their conscience the rule of duty.
Their bible taught them that they had inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These beliefs and the demand for the right to assemble to represent their grievances to the authorities infuriated their lord and eventual king. Authority did not sit well on the shoulders of these farmers.
The early settlers often held certain lands in common for cattle grazing purposes. This experiment in communal ownership was not successful and was soon abandoned.
They taxed themselves to care for the poor respectfully ... the poor were the widows and orphans of their own members. One could not jump off a ship from England in New Haven, take a skiff across Long Island Sound and settle into Southold, for instance. One had to prove oneself respectable, God fearing and industrious. There was a vetting process. You needed credentials. If you had been a troublesome person in your previous community, you were not welcome. Did you have skills required by the town? Would you adhere to the faith and the rules of the community? Only people who fit in were allowed to stay.
Except for Shelter Island -- which was organized differently and nearly a century later -- only members of the church were voting members of the community. This remained true until 1789 when the United States Constitution became the law of the land and churches were separated from government.
In the early years, towns needed certain skills; when they needed, for instance, a blacksmith they advertised. This was particularly true for preachers and teachers. It is clear from the records that good preachers and teachers were often hard to find.
The peoples of the various towns met from time to time to discuss issues of mutual concern. For instance, there were periods of tremendous upset about the arbitrary behavior of their rulers. The George’s of the 1700s turned out to be no better than the monarchs of the 1600s.
However, on the whole, they didn’t like much like each other. There were perpetual border disputes and other kinds of disagreements. John Gardiner, writing his history of East Hampton in 1798, said that there was no inter-marriage between East Hampton and Southampton until after Revolution. The people of the two towns complained that those in the other didn’t speak a recognizable tongue.
There was an active civic life in every area of the East End. Men generally gathered together in their local taverns to discuss local and national issues. Women played no role in these affairs. They were the spinners and weavers of flax, tended their barnyards and kitchen gardens, and cared for the children and the infirm.
Each new generation moved into areas outside of the village centers. For instance, the young families of Southampton moved east into Sagg and Mecox eventually forming the village of Bridgehampton. The young families of East Hampton spread further toward what would become Sag Harbor in the mid 1700s. The young families of Southold within a few generations had extended into Cutchogue and Mattituck. Eventually, some of the descendants of the East End settlers moved into New Jersey.
Distances between the settlements were not great by water, and they moved about. Farmers in Southold purchased farming rights on Shelter Island. Havens’ moved to Sag Harbor to participate in the infant fishing and whaling trade.
The date of birth of Sag Harbor, by tradition, is 1730. By 1745, it was planned to be a town. The land was surveyed in the lower part with lots varying from 24 to 40 feet wide. The first wharf was built in 1761. That same year fifty-one additional lots were surveyed at about 40 feet wide. The residents of Southampton and East Hampton had faith in the future and saw Sag Harbor as a port of entry.
Daily life, though punctuated with political pressures from the outside, on the East End of Long Island flowed steadily with the seasons for 130 years. People farmed and fished. They grew up in tight-knit communities, married their neighbors, had children, and if lucky grew to old age. In fact, people lived to an uncommon old age. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, traveled through the area in 1804 and commented on the number of folks who lived well into their 90s and even beyond 100.
Eventually, the people on the East End experienced the same frustrations as the rest of the colonialists with the English throne. They continued to chafe at the yoke of the English kings. The final humiliation was during the French and Indian wars in the 1750s when young men joined the British troops to serve their king. Bred to be free thinkers and independent men they were not prepared for the lash of their officers’ whips, a common practice in the English army. At Ticonderoga, these East End boys were ill-fed, cold and suffering from illness, and they were often beaten. When they returned to their family farms, they were full of fury.
By 1776, the residents of the East End were ripe for revolution.
In 1776, Southampton had a population of 2,792, 1,434 living east of the Watermill, and 1,358 living west of it. Southold’s population was 3,000. The population of the entire East End was about 8,000. We know these numbers because the British conducted a census to determine what forces they would need to occupy the area. They did not count the slaves because they calculated that the slaves would abandon their masters and attach themselves to the King’s cause, which they did not do.
The Revolutionary War was a disaster for Long Island. After the British won the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, they continued as an occupying force throughout the war.
The people of Southold out-foxed the British, however. They anticipated the defeat, and had time to prepare. Under the able direction of Jared Landon, that first fall of the war they harvested their crops, threshed their grain, burned surplus fodder, penned their cattle, rounded up their pigs, and under cover of night everything moveable in the town was carried to landings where boats from Connecticut arrived to carry the men, their furniture, their harvested crops, and their animals to Connecticut. They abandoned their town. To the approaching invader, nothing was left. They found empty houses, fields closely mowed, acres with no crops -- nothing that was of any use.We are told that 129 captains skippered the boats that emptied the town.
It has been estimated that half the population of Southold abandoned their homes and in Sag Harbor out of 32 dwellings, 14 men fled to Connecticut. The towns of East Hampton, Southampton and Shelter Island all experienced the same exodus. Some male members of a family stayed at home to protect the family assets as best they could. In many cases the women and children were left behind because it was the rule of the British Army not to billet troops in homes occupied by their owners.
Life was extraordinarily difficult for the folks who stayed home, as well as for the refugees in Connecticut who had no way to earn a living. For seven years, the locals sabotaged British efforts to take advantage of their rich land, and the British plundered the crops and livestock even of those who pledged loyalty to the King. The British removed most of the trees from Gardiner’s Island and Shelter Island.
Everyone was terrorized. Sally Hedges, an aunt of Henry P. Hedges, told him of the night she was born in 1777. Her father had a sow and pigs in his basement and sheep and lambs in his bedroom to keep them safe from the British robbers.
The only bright light of the war seems to have been Meig’s raid on Sag Harbor in May 1777. Colonel Meigs and his men crossed from Guilford, Connecticut to Southold in thirteen whale boats, under the convoy of two armed sloops, carried their boats across a narrow slip of land west of present day Greenport, rowed across Hashamomuck Pond and onto the beach at Hogs Neck (North Haven), carried their boats across the beach, and rowed onto Sag Harbor. They hid their boats in the woods. They surprised the British garrison and captured the fort. Under fire of a schooner with 12 guns and 70 men, Meigs’ men burned 10 hogsheads of rum, and a large quantity of corn, oats and merchandise, and returned to Guilford in twenty-five hours from the time of embarking, without the loss of a man, and with 90 prisoners.
By the end of the war, all of Long Island, and especially the East End, was devastated. The homes, barns, warehouses, and wharf facilities in Sag Harbor, an occupied town, were shabby from lack of attention. The fields were over grown, iron tools rusted, and livestock depleted. Houses and farm buildings were is disrepair. When the war was over, the folks took up life where they had left it and in many cases started over, but with great hopes for the future. Their ancestors had settled the area beginning in 1640 believing that they were free to pursue a life of happiness and now that dream could finally be fulfilled.