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Archiving The Town’s Colonial History One Document At A Time

Originally Posted: March 19, 2008

Andrea Aurichio

Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer keeps track of all documents and records, including vintage record books such as the one shown here with its pages carefully protected in clear page covers to prevent further wear and tear. Photos by Andrea Aurichio

Southampton - The Town of Southampton was founded in 1640, and there is a paper trail to prove it. In fact, the paper trial is so extensive and so valuable the town has embarked on a long term, painstaking process to inventory and archive the stacks of paper, surveys, deeds and handwritten record books that have accumulated over the last 369 years or so, outgrowing its digs in the basement at town hall where they are kept.

The documents have irreplaceable historical value, and also serve as a living and enduring testimonial that provides legal documentation establishing ownership, right of ways, road and highway histories and property boundary lines. In order to preserve and protect these documents, the town plans to take an inventory of the existing documents, then digitize the documents so all records will ultimately be available for public inspection on a computer screen rather than having to be handled by the public after they are retrieved from the basement or fetched from vaults located in town storage facilities.

The computerized search capability will enable the public to check town records and pinpoint a crucial piece of information without having to read and rummage through stacks of records. The establishment and ultimate implementation of an inventoried and computer driven data base will also enable the town to preserve the original documents for future generations before they are destroyed by excessive handling or potential floods or fires.

Historic document dated March 10, 1639, still in existence has been
preserved for posterity. An enlarged, duplicated copy of the original
document is on display in the Town Clerk's office where all town records
are stored. The document referred to as the "disposal of the vessel" is an
agreement to contract with a ship to transport people and their belongings
from Massachusetts to Southampton, New York.

"Once a document is gone, it is gone forever. It is lost to history," Steven Russell Boerner, a certified archivist and former surveyor who is working with the town as a consultant on this project said. "Each time we handle these old books and papers we run the risk of tearing them, losing them or even breaking the spine in an old book." According to Boerner, the earliest documents on file in the town hall record storage facilities date back to 1639.

"We need to know what is in these record books, we need to save and preserve all these documents," Boerner added, addressing the Southampton Town Trustees at their regular board meeting on Monday, March 17, just two weeks after Southampton Town Clerk Sundy Schermeyer paid a visit to the trustees previous meeting toting a hand written record book chronicling the trustees business from the years 1911 to 1928 that was being archived as part of the town's on-going project. The trustees were fascinated with the record book.

"We are all about history," Trustee Fred Havemeyer said. "Everything we do as trustees is based on our history." As a collector of old books, Havemeyer shared his first-hand experience with the fragility of old books and papers that can sometimes disintegrate in your hands.

The Dongan Patent written in 1686 still rules in Southampton Town Hall where a replica of the original document has been enlarged for display.

Trustee Eric Shultz noted the value of the records now in the town's possession in the event of any legal actions brought against the town and cited one incident in which the town was able to successfully turn away a lawsuit after the trustees produced records to substantiate their position.

"The lawyers looked at the documents we had in our possession and they realized they didn't have a case," Schultz recounted.

Stacks of books are in storage in the town hall
including this entire shelf containing books in which
the minutes of town board meetings were once

"That was the most satisfying thing I have ever done in my life," Boerner said as he recalled the incident along with the trustees. "A lot of the challenges brought against the town trustees are not based on law, they are not legal issues," Boerner added. It is a mistake to rely solely on the law when a lot of these issues go back to the original deeds and right of ways and surveys."

"In a lawsuit the burden of proof is on us," Havemeyer commented. "These documents are our proof. We need to keep them safe and legible. We have to preserve these documents for future generations."

Havemeyer also noted the safe keeping and easy access to the vast archived town records would ultimately give the town a tremendous advantage. "A lot of people who challenge us don't think we are well organized and they don't think we have the records to back up what we say, but we do."

The Dongan Patent, the document that clearly established the trustees rights to control the bays and access to the ocean and other waterways in the Town, hung on the wall of the meeting room, enlarged, preserved, and a living testament to the trustees authority to govern under the law. Witten in 1686 by Thomas Dongan, the General Governor of New York during the reign of King James II of England, it gave the trustees control of 25,000 acres of land in Southampton. The trustees have continued to carry out their stewardship to the present day.

The document's enduring validity has been upheld by local and state courts and has even been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States where judicial rulings have concluded that the patent is just as valid today as it was in 1686 when it was written.

"We want these records to be here 200 and 300 years from now for future generations," Havemeyer said.

The Pelletreau Building remains standing on the same site on Main Street where the small shingle covered building was first constructed in 1668.

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