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Give Me Shelter - A Brief History Of A Very Special Island

Originally Posted: May 20, 2008

Phil Keith

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As seen from above - Shelter Island is a sanctuary from the sea and a place many people have called home. Photo by Google Earth

Who does not dream of a special place secluded from all the challenges of daily life? Who would not want some castle of blissful solitude surrounded by a moat of peaceful waters? Shelter Island is such a place and it is aptly named.

The Manhanset Indians were the first occupiers of this 8,000 acre glacial remnant surrounded by Gardiner's Island and Peconic Bay. They fished, farmed and hunted here for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Located as the island is between the outstretched arms of the North and South Forks, it is a natural shelter from the storms and tides of the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Long Island Sound to the north.

Sylvester Manor House.

Although included in the original Plymouth Colony land grant made by King James I of England in 1620, the island's very first European settlers were not religious separatists. In fact, thinking that Shelter Island might be too isolated for the pursuit of their religious freedoms the Pilgrim Fathers sold the island in 1651 for 1,600 barrels of badly needed sugar. Four wealthy sugar merchants from the equally remote island of Barbados, led by two brothers, Nathaniel and Constant Sylvester, bought Shelter Island. The sugar barons intended to use Shelter Island to further the needs of their sweet empire.

The island's plentiful white oaks would be hewn down and cut up into staves from which sugar barrels would be made. Sheep would also be introduced to the island at this time (1651). The mutton from the sheep would be pickled and fed to the slaves harvesting the Barbadian cane and the sheep's wool would provide homespun material to clothe slaves as well. Shelter Island became, in effect, the very first northern plantation society. Echoing what was already happening in the South, Sylvester Manor used slave labor imported from Africa, along with more than a few indentured Native Americans. Very quickly, Shelter Island became an important link in the three-sided trade triangle of sugar to molasses to rum that helped firmly establish the American Colonies.

Nathaniel Sylvester settled on Shelter Island at age 42 (1652) and he brought along his 16-year-old bride Grissel Brinley. When Nathaniel died 28 years later he had amassed a great fortune for those times; built a handsome manor house; placed many acres of Shelter Island under cultivation' kept several hundred sheep; owned 20 slaves and fathered 11 children. Two of his sons, Giles and Nathaniel II, inherited most of the estate. The younger Nathaniel's son, Brinley, took over the manor in 1728 and promptly replaced the old homestead with the magnificent dwelling, circa 1733, that still stands today.

Sylvester Manor is, in fact, still one of the most intriguing spots on the island. The 250-acre tract, with permission from its current owner, a direct descendent of Nathaniel, is an active archeological dig under the auspices of the Fiske Center for Archeological Research at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Since 2002, students and supervising archeologists from the Center have been carefully striping away layers of front lawn and the surrounding meadows and woodland grounds in the summer season. Emerging from the digs is a significant array of artifacts portraying life on a northern colonial era plantation.

Early days of the South Ferry.

Shelter Island did become a refuge befitting its name eventually, especially for the Quaker Sect in approximately 1656. Current research shows that the Sylvesters' themselves were Quakers. They gave refuge to the group and opened their island to the Quakers who, at the time, were being severely persecuted for their beliefs all over New England. We know that they were Royalists in an era when the Roundheads ruled their native England and, in fact, they in their turn, had once fled from political persecution. George Fox for example, preached from the Manor and Mary Dyer came here for protection. When Mary returned to Massachusetts she was hung in Boston Common.

The languid, tranquil pace of rural Colonial America wrapped Shelter Island in its embrace right up to the Revolution when the British Army made the island a staging ground for many of its local activities. The white oaks now went for replacement parts for British men-o-war and Hay Beach is so named because it became the spot where the Army loaded the hay grown on the island destined to feed some of its horses. The Revolutionary War was devastating to this tiny island, and it took decades for the local economy and its natural resources to recover - but recover it did.

Interestingly, it was after this era of the island's development that many of the family names that dominate the permanent population today began to arrive on the island: the Tuthill's settled in the 1730's, the Griffing's arrived in the 1830's, and the South Ferry Clark family came in 1839, among others.

The Clark's, of which there are four unrelated families that share that name on the island, seem to have nameplates on just about every island roadway. One family in particular has, for over 200 years, owned and operated the South Ferry. Family Founder Samuel Clark first started making the run across the sometimes treacherous "gut" between North Haven and the island in a rowboat. Eventually sailboats, scows, and then modern-day car and passenger vessels were successively added to the service. The island and the sea are very much a part of the Clark family history and, perhaps, its future as well. Amanda Clark, one of the Bass Creek Clark's, is gearing up for the Olympics this summer in China as a member of the United States Sailing Team. Go Amanda!

By 1845 there were almost 450 full-time residents and this was the golden age of the whaling industry. Whaling had a large impact on the island as major fleets were docked in both Greenport to the north and Sag Harbor to the south. One unfortunate whale was even captured, in 1850, just off the island's South Ferry area. It was quickly flensed and its blubber boiled down into ten barrels of very valuable oil.

Thirty whaling captains ultimately came from Shelter Island. Another twenty islanders dashed off to the California Gold Rush in 1849. Twenty-five men answered the call for volunteers in Mr. Lincoln's army during the Civil War. Five of these volunteers died in that conflict, which was a pretty steep percentage for such a small and close-knit community.

The Manhanset House in Dering Harbor.

It was just after the Civil War that Shelter Island would see the biggest change in its modern history and it is a change that is still making waves today: the arrival of the first summer visitors. In 1871 the Methodist Episcopal Church built a camp - the Shelter Island Grove and Camp Meeting Association. The camp conducted meetings and revival s designed to instill family values and clean living. This was quickly followed by the construction of dozens of summer cottages. Many of the families who could afford to pack up the table linens and the servants for the summer ended up in Shelter Island Heights. Some of the rich and famous congregated in mini-palazzos in Dering Harbor which had the extra advantage of being waterside - there was plenty of space to park the family yacht. The Victorian cottages of the magnificent Manhanset House were built in Dering Harbor in 1874.

Whaling Captain, Town Supervisor, and church elder B. C. Cartwright at his fishing
shack near a menhaden "pot works".

Across the rest of the island a number of the local families turned to fishing for their livelihoods. The most profitable target was the ubiquitous menhaden - sometimes called bunker fish or "pogy." Menhaden has been dubbed one of the most important fish in the sea by those who track the fishing industry. They school by the millions, and in the wild end up being food for whales, dolphins, striped bass, weakfish, mackerel, ospreys and eagles, among others. Menhaden aren't fit for human consumption since they spoil very quickly after capture and have objectionable oil content. The oil, however, was once highly prized and the fish were also harvested to make fish meal for many applications, mainly as a fertilizer. Shelter Islanders built a number of "pot works" on the island to render the menhaden they caught. These works were placed far across the island and away from the sensitive noses of the "rich folk" up on the Heights or in Dering Harbor. The stench was apparently pretty dreadful.

From the late 1800s up and through World Wars I and II life on Shelter Island waxed and waned very much in tune with the economy in the rest of New York and the nation. The Great Depression of the 1930s had a significant impact on island living just as it did everywhere else in America. The aftermath was perhaps even worse as the 1930s and 1940s saw many of the second homes and cottages simply abandoned and left to the elements. Recovery was very slow. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, a new wave of residents and visitors began to arrive.

Many new families put down roots on the island during this period. Small farm co-ops came and went by the mid-1950's. Some of the new residents went into the tourist business to support the next generations of summer visitors and part-time residents that slowly began to return. Summer resorts like the Ram's Head Inn, Chequit, and the Pridwin were either revived or built anew. Boutiques and art galleries popped up. A scattering of excellent restaurants were opened. The island came back to life and a small boom seemed imminent.

The Mashomack Manor House owned by the Nature Conservancy.

But these changes were not always welcomed. People who treasured the island way of life started to become very concerned that there would soon be nothing left that wasn't in the hands of developers. In 1980 a tract of over 2,000 acres, better than a quarter of the entire island, went up for sale. Providentially the entire piece was secured by the Nature Conservancy and is today known as the Mashomack Preserve. Mashomack has been left in its pristine state and is simply one of the most beautiful and scenic properties in the entire Northeast. Mashomack is open to the public year-round, daily except Tuesdays, and has several hiking trails of varying abilities, a nature center and even a new trail dedicated to visitors with special needs.

Today Shelter Island supports approximately 2,500 full-time residents and 8,000 in the summer. It is a place both charmed and charming - a true gem in the crown of all the destination communities that comprise the East End of Long Island.

If there are drawbacks to life on Shelter Island they might be that real estate has become incredibly expensive, accommodations are scarce in summertime, reservations at the best restaurants are problematic in season, and there are lots and lots of wild deer - hundreds of them! They are everywhere and form hazards to both driving and to health. The deer are roving breeders of the nasty little tick that harbors Lyme disease. Today's Shelter Island residents probably find it morbidly ironic that some of the island's first rich summer residents actually imported deer to the island so they could hunt them!

Getting rid of the deer entirely has been deemed "politically incorrect" for any number of reasons but lately the State of New York, to stem an epidemic of Lyme, has begrudgingly started a program to rid the deer of the disease-bearing ticks. Deer feeding stations have been set up around the island. The stations require the deer to get the feed offered by sticking their heads and necks through an opening that has rollers covered with a powerful insecticide. It is harmless to the deer but instantly deadly to the ticks. It seems to be working as the number of reported cases of Lyme disease among resident and visitors to the island is tapering off in recent months.

Despite these few drawbacks Shelter Island is still a suburban paradise of natural beauty and great tranquility. As soon as one steps off either the North or South Ferry (ferries still being the only way for land-based traffic to access the island, unless you are a very strong swimmer) the cares of every day life and the stresses of the job begin to melt away. Once on the island most visitors rhapsodize about being transported to another place where the pace slows and yet the heartbeat seems to quicken in anticipation of good times.

Shelter Island - truly a place for sheltering the soul.

Sailing around Shelter Island.

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Guest (steve) from cape elizabeth, maine says::
i was lucky enough to spend all of my youthful summers at shelter island. i have wonderful and vivid memories. i have been back several times and will visit again in the next few years.
Mar 30, 2010 2:02 pm

Guest (Eric Grez) from Marlboro, New Jersey says::
This article was great to learn the history of the island. My grandparents have owned houses there since before I was born and I still visit it once or twice every year. It truly is a place to get rid of all your troubles and just relax.
Apr 5, 2009 3:01 pm

Guest (Silver Beach Owner) from Surprise Arizona says::
I was raised on Shelter island back in 1955. It is a great place to enjoy the summers away from the city life. Plenty of time to relax and enjoy the fresh air. I still own a home here but rent it out and haven't been back in the past 10 years. I will have to make a trip soon and spend a few days in paradise.
Jul 15, 2008 5:20 pm


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