Log In   ·   Become A Member

Southampton Village: Before The Resort (1640 - 1870)

Originally Posted: February 28, 2007

Mary Cummings

Like the small band of Europeans from Lynn, Massachusetts, who came to Southampton in 1640, each wave of new arrivals tends to experience the same thrill of "discovery." Stepping ashore at Conscience Point, those 17th-century colonists looked around and saw a wilderness awaiting their imprint, a place to replicate Olde England but with more opportunity and less religious oppression. Never mind that the Shinnecock Indians, who could trace their history back more than 10,000 years, were already there.

Clipper Dreadnought, ca. 1853 James Edward Buttersworth
(1817-1894). Collection of The Peabody Essex Museum

More than two centuries later, when another influx of newcomers—a small band of prominent New Yorkers arrived and founded a "summer colony" in Southampton, they, too, felt a frisson of "discovery." What they saw in this small seaside village was a place ready to be molded into their Anglophile ideal of a country retreat for well-to-do urbanites. Never mind that there was already a well established year-round community there and that not all its citizens were as eager as they were to see their village transformed.

In fact, their view of Southampton as a bucolic backwater, isolated from the outside world, was more convenient myth than reality. Even in 1640, it had been written into Captain Howe's contract with the settlers who had hired him and his sloop for their journey from Lynn, that, over the next two years, he would make three trips annually from Lynn to Southampton, bringing people, supplies and news from the outside world. In the years afterward, new settlers kept coming, some from points west on the Island, others from across the Sound and across the ocean.

Nor did it take long for Southampton's port at North Sea to become a busy harbor for ships sailing to Boston with whale oil, to New York with cordwood, and to Barbados for trade in rum and horses. Later, during the golden years of whaling, many a Southampton man sailed the world's oceans in pursuit of whales and returned not only with full cargoes of precious whale oil, but with exotic treasures and a level of worldliness that is rare even today.

Of course, the Shinnecock had been hunting whales that had drifted into shallow waters long before the English settlers arrived in Southampton. They are also known to have been highly efficient fishermen as well as capable farmers, and history tells us that they were helpful in sharing their skills with the new arrivals though, not surprisingly, there was mutual wariness from the start. Arriving with their royally sanctioned deed from the Earl of Stirling's agent, James Farrett, the settlers were also under orders to come to terms with the Shinnecock concerning ownership of the land - negotiations undertaken in circumstances famously clouded by cultural differences over the very concept of land ownership. Thus for 16 "coates" and 60 bushels of corn to be paid after the harvest of 1641, the Shinnecocks ceded to the English the "eight miles square" of land mentioned in the Farrett deed (approximately from Canoe Place eastward to Wainscott). The agreement also obligated the colonists to protect the Shinnecock from their enemies and to allow them hunting and fishing privileges in the ceded territory. Obviously lopsided, the transaction signaled the long series of conflicts over land title that continues up to the present.

Pelletreau Silver Shop
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

Exactly why the settlers marched past Big and Little Fresh ponds to make their settlement at Olde Towne, a scant mile east of Southampton's present Main Street, is not known. Certainly, the location had many advantages - proximity to the ocean for fishing, good soil for farming; and accessibility to the fresh waters of Old Town Pond and Agawam Lake, which made it well suited to husbandry.

Having lost a month's time in a previous attempt to settle further west in an area controlled by the Dutch, who first arrested then banished them, the settlers were pressed to accomplish much before winter set in. James Truslow Adams, the historian whose 1918 history of the town still stands as the basic text, reports that crops had to be planted without delay and habitations readied. He notes the probability that many families were initially obliged to build what appear in later town records as "cellars," i.e. pits dug six or seven feet deep, lined and covered to provide support and keep them dry. "These and log cabins probably made up the Southampton Village of 1640," wrote Adams.

Also a high priority was a church/meeting house, which was probably completed the following spring. The details of its organization, however, including the choice of Abraham Pierson as pastor, had been established at the very outset. A 1632 graduate of Cambridge University, Pierson was a man of strong faith and stern theology whose writings, scoured by Adams, reveal, in the historian's words, "a man decidedly lacking in sympathetic understanding of the frailties of the human heart and mind, although himself upright, pious and conscientious." That he and his flock ultimately found themselves at odds may reveal as much about the settlers as it does about their minister, who though undeniably of high moral caliber and impressive scholarship - his plan for saving the natives included writing a catechism in their language - proved too rigid for their spiritual needs. In Adams' view, the little Southampton community Pierson hoped to lead through the strait gates to heaven was "singularly tolerant in its religious attitude as well as just and merciful in its court decisions" and the good cleric was simply incapable of bending them to his will.

The clincher was a suffrage issue. While Pierson firmly believed that only church members should be allowed to vote in civil elections, the majority of Southampton men held an equally strong belief that every freeholder should have that privilege. In 1647, when Pierson left Southampton, the record indicates that only "a small part of his congregation" loyally accompanied him to Branford, Connecticut, while his replacement, Robert Fordham, arrived from Hempstead trailing a large following of fans.

There can be no doubt that the early settlers were committed Christians, strict in their observance of the Sabbath and respectful of scripture, but, as Adams points out, life in Southampton was not all dutifulness, drudgery and doggedness. It is true that the settlers were wary of "foreigners" and that the church-state distinction was still in the future (all members of the community were taxed for the minister's salary), but these settlers were no gloomy religious fanatics. It seems, rather, that they were intolerant of intolerance, alert to life's joys, and not at all uninterested in personal prosperity.

In 1648, for reasons not entirely clear, the settlers moved from Olde Towne to the present Main Street, then called Towne Street. During the eight years spent at Olde Towne, they had seen the construction of Edward Howell's mill "at Meacox to supply the necessities of the town." On March 7, 1644, they had voted to join the Connecticut colony, and on June 11, 1647, one year before the relocation, they had announced a new land distribution plan.

Halsey House
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

Between 1640 and 1648, the original land divisions held that each settler was entitled to three acres for a home, 12 acres for planting and 35 acres of meadowland and woodland. In addition, men who had bought shares in the founding company (they were known as "proprietors") were entitled to common lands in proportion to their investments. Newcomers, after careful vetting, were permitted to acquire property from the proprietors, either by purchase or in exchange for services. All land that remained undivided belonged to the original company "their heirs and assigns forever."

The order of June 11, 1647, declared that "by all the inhabitants of this towne, this daye, that this town is to bee divided into fortie house lots, some biger, some less—as men have put in a share." After the move, a tract of land in the "Great Playne" was reserved for "in comers" but new arrivals still had no share in the undivided lands. Later, the town's woodlands were divided according to the same formula, as was the land added to the town with the Quogue and Topping purchases.

The earliest houses were built at the south end of Towne Street and probably resembled the Thomas Halsey House, built in the 1660s and still standing, though perhaps not all were as substantial as the one belonging to this prosperous pillar of the community. Differences in station tended to blur, however, since all joined in the work for the settlement and all young and old, rich and poor were busy at home, where everything people ate or wore had to be cultivated or crafted. Farming, spinning, weaving, cooking, candle-making and carpentry were constants at home, while the men were also expected to be active participants in town business, which was conducted in Southampton's meeting house. Also mandatory for males was militia training; watching for whales, overseeing the building of fences; and maintaining law and order.

The consensus among historians is that by 1650 the new colony was well established. There were houses lining Main Street, the first whaling company had been formed, commerce was strong and the settlement's first spin-off community was getting started at North Sea.

In the decades that followed, agriculture remained the main industry in Southampton, supplemented by whaling and fishing. From a 21st-century perspective, the living conditions may look almost intolerably difficult, though Southampton's farmers at least had the advantage, with several notable exceptions, of being free men, tilling their own land. The exceptions were the indentured servants and slaves, for whose presence in early Southampton there is ample evidence. Adams cites an entry in the town records, which notes that Edward Howell took a child one year old who was to be provided "meat, drinke and Apparel and necessaries fit for such a servant...until the sayd child shall be of the age of thirty years." He also cites records that establish the fact of both Indian and black slavery in local households. He notes that black slaves "seem to have become fairly numerous later as shown by the number of manumissions recorded about the beginning of the 19th century."

Halsey House Kitchen
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

Southampton remained part of the Connecticut colony until 1664, the year that the Duke of York arrived with his fleet in the harbor of New Amsterdam, forcing Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant to surrender. Thereafter, King Charles II declared Connecticut's southern boundary to be Long Island Sound, placing all of Long Island in the province of New York - much to the distress of the East End populace. There were spirited protests from these "fractious towns of the East Riding," as their oppressors called them - protests that continued during the brief return of the Dutch to power in 1673-74, and were aimed again at the English when they came back with their burdensome taxes and assaults on self-rule.

There was little to improve the mood of the settlers until 1693, when the very unpopular New York governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was removed and replaced by Thomas Dongan, whose name lives on in the much revered document known as the Dongan Patent. This famous legal instrument, which has been preserved in a vault in Town Hall, is nearly incomprehensible - a mass of convoluted language and repetition - yet its interpretation as granting broad powers to the inhabitants of Southampton over the land and the waters has been sustained whenever it has been challenged in court. It tilted the balance of power toward home rule to a degree that had few precedents at the time and it has never lost its authority.

From that time until the Revolution brought turmoil again, succeeding generations in Southampton lived like freeborn Englishmen, farming the soil and engaging in trade and commerce. The sloops, brigs and other small vessels that sailed in and out of North Sea Harbor were soon spreading their sails "over wider seas," according to Adams, as they "took their share in the West Indian trade, which then constituted the bulk of American commerce." The whaling industry was also becoming an increasingly important source of income in the off-season when farm fields were frozen. While the large whaling fleets and long voyages would come later, whalers operating offshore were busy from October to March and by 1769 the beach was dotted with try works, each operated by a different whaling company. Once the whales had been successfully harpooned and towed to the beach, the blubber tried and the carcass harvested, oil and bones were shipped off to market.

Though there were no military operations of any importance on the East End, the Revolutionary War caused immense hardship to local families. Only a few weeks after the Battle of Long Island, English soldiers were quartered in Southampton. Many men who had taken part in the battle had been sent home to look after their families. Those who could moved with their families to Connecticut; others returned to the service, leaving their wives and children in the care of older men. Indeed, a company made up largely, if not entirely, of grandfathers formed in Southampton. Adams cites a report, dated July 23, 1776, of "grandfathers to the age of 70 and upwards" who had come together as an independent company and chosen Elias Pelletreau as their leader.

While historians like Adams and Abigail Fithian Halsey, author of "In Old Southampton" write of the war as a time of terrible suffering, endured by a citizenry with little choice but to flee or submit to the humiliations and predations of the enemy, the perception elsewhere was apparently of a pocket of pro-English traitors. Considered Tories by the rest of the country," wrote Halsey. "Plundered by both sides, scorned by the British soldiery who lived upon their garnered stores, the people of the eastern towns plodded on" wrote Halsey, "true to the cause in which their fathers had firmly believed."

Rogers Mansion
Collection of the Southampton Historical Museum

For many in Southampton, the end of the war was not the joyous time it might have been as they returned home to find their families scattered and their farms destroyed. In time, however, Southampton, like its neighboring villages, would start to share the general prosperity spurred by the whaling industry which was fast becoming a major contributor to the economy rather than an off-season supplement. With whale oil in high demand internationally to burn in lamps and for use as a lubricant, the whaling fleet operating out of Sag Harbor expanded significantly.

The economic impact of whaling is hard to exaggerate. There was work for shipbuilders, sail makers, coopers and a whole series of secondary industries. Everyone was busy, the villages prospered, and wealth accumulated. Writing in 1893, almost 50 years after the peak years of the industry, William S. Pelletreau remarked in an article titled "Old Southampton" that "fifty years ago it seemed as if every man was likely to be a sailor. When whaling was in its glory, and Sag Harbor had a fleet of 70 whale ships, every schoolboy longed for the time when he should be old enough to go to sea." It was safe to address any middle aged man on the street as "Captain," he added, "for the chances were that he was one."

When the whalers returned, they not only lined "Captain's Row" in Sag Harbor with their mansions, they built elegant houses on South Main Street in Southampton and in most other villages as well. During the golden age of the whaling industry, which peaked between 1837 and 1847, Pelletreau's 70 ships made Sag Harbor a match for New York as a port, but by 1849 the death knell of the industry was already sounding. The gold rush to California, the increasing scarcity of whales necessitating longer and costlier voyages, and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania all contributed.

George Finckenor, in his "Tales of Sag Harbor," recounts that during the Civil War Sag Harbor's old whaling vessels were filled with rock and iron scrap, towed south and sunk to blockade the ports of Charlestown and Savannah, forming part of the "Great Stone Fleet." Apart from the pride some may have felt in this contribution to the Union cause, there was little to be done on Long Island and the effects of that terrible conflict were mainly felt in Southampton, as in other areas remote from the action, in the absence, and all too often the loss, of those who went to fight in it.

With the conclusion of peace in 1865, the whole country entered upon a new era. That sense of a new beginning would be particularly acute in Southampton, which was about to be "re-discovered."

Related Articles: