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Justice in Shinnecock Lawsuit?

Originally Posted: July 07, 2005

Tom Clavin

The golf world is a tad a-twitter about the lawsuit just filed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation in federal court against the Town of Southampton. The tribe contends that Shinnecock ownership of 3,600 acres was illegally dismissed in 1859 and the property was turned over to the town and private interests. Part of the 3,600 acres in dispute are National Golf Links and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, two courses that are routinely listed in the top 10 in the U.S.

I realize that were the tribe to be successful, the consequences for the Town of Southampton would be catastrophic. And let's face it, the real purpose of the lawsuit is to force the town to quit its legal opposition to a casino by piling on more lawyer costs. But I'm going to play devil's advocate: Should the tribe win the lawsuit and gain control of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, there is some justice to that because the Shinnecock Indian Nation literally built the course on its own land.

The members of the tribe to this day consider the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club ancestral ground. "Historically, it always has been within the domain of our territorial homeland," said Rev. Michael Smith, pastor of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church.

However, by 1891, the land was in the hands of private owners. Founders of the club, who included William K. Vanderbilt, Duncan Cryder and Edward S. Mead, had become intrigued by golf during a trip to Biarritz that winter. Upon returning to the U.S. the three men, joined by Samuel Parrish, paid $2500 for 80 hilly acres. They hired Willie Davis away from the Montreal Golf Club for a month to design a 12-hole course. Then the founders hired a local engineer, David Raynor, and his 17-year-old son Seth to survey the grounds and prepare the course for construction. (Seth Raynor went on to design and contribute to several noted courses such as Fishers Island and, with Charles Blair Macdonald, National Golf Links. In fact, Raynor and Macdonald are buried with their headstones facing each other in Southampton.)

The next step was to find enough workers to build it. The most plentiful and accessible source of labor were Shinnecock Indians. By 1891 the tribe had been living on the East End of Long Island for over four centuries, having originated as a splinter group of Algonquian Indians in Connecticut. After the settlement of Southampton in 1640, the tribe's numbers decreased because of lack of immunity to diseases, and its lands dwindled too as colonists bought up and traded for property.

Davis hired 150 members of the tribe to do the construction. There was no heavy mechanical equipment available in the spring of 1891. "Except for several horse-drawn road scrapers, all the work was done by hand," Davis reported it at the time. "The fairways were cleaned off and the natural grass left in. The rough was very rough, with clothes-ripping blueberry bushes, large boulders and many small gullies."

Today, any construction project in Southampton comes to an immediate halt if Shinnecock graves or artifacts are found. There was no such sensitivity then: "The place was dotted with Indian burial mounds and we left some of these intact as bunkers in front of the greens," according to Davis. "We scraped out some of the mounds and made sand traps. It was here that the Indians buried their empty whiskey bottles, but we did not find this out until later when playing the course. One never knew when an explosion shot in a trap would bring out a couple of firewater flasks, or perhaps a bone or two."

James Foulis won the first U.S. Open
played at Shinnecock in 1896.
(USGA Photo

Drinking or not, the Shinnecocks must have been hardy workers because the course was completed and ready for play by June. The members of Shinnecock Hills soon built a separate nine-hole course, and then the original 12 holes were extended to an 18-hole, 4423-yard course.

Shinnecock Hills was one of six clubs that formed the U.S. Golf Association, and it was chosen the site of both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1896. At the Open it was demonstrated that the relationship between the founders and the tribe must have been a cordial one.

John Shippen became the first African American to play in a U.S. Open. But no one knew it at the time. He and Oscar Bunn had been part of the crew that built the club. After it opened they served as caddies; Shippen became assistant pro and was given lessons by head pro Willie Dunn. In 1896, when the Open came to Southampton, the two young men entered the tournament. Shippen was a Shinnecock on his mother's side, so he signed on as a full-blooded Indian because he knew a black man would not be accepted.

Apparently, being a Shinnecock wasn't acceptable either. The other 30 players refused to participate if Indians were included. Theodore Havemeyer of the Newport Country Club and inaugural president of the USGA, had a different idea: The Open would be conducted with only Shippen and Bunn. The players backed down, and the Open began.

Havemeyer's stance seems enlightened today, but we don't know for sure what motivated him. He did not leave a diary or any papers offering an explanation. And because there was no USGA office or staff at the time, the organization can't say. Still, according to Rand Jerris, the USGA historian, "I imagine it's simply a question of fairness - Havemeyer and the Association firmly believing that all players should have an opportunity to compete at an equal level." (A Havemeyer descendant is now a Southampton Town Trustee.)

Bunn did not play well (he finished 21st), but Shippen did. Paired with Charles Blair Macdonald, Shippen shot a 78 in the morning round and was two strokes off the lead, besting his partner by 12 strokes. Macdonald was so disappointed in his 83 that he withdrew but walked the course and kept score for Shippen during the afternoon's 18. The second round wasn't as kind to him - he carded an 81 and tied for fifth place, earning $10.

Shippen later became the head pro at the Maidstone Golf Club in East Hampton, competed in four more Opens (the last time in 1913 at Brookline), and died in 1968 at 88. It would not be until 1948 that another black man, Ted Rhodes, played in a U.S. Open.

For more than a century the Shinnecock Tribe has remained connected to the golf club - though that connection has gotten tenuous in the last few years. Generations of tribal members have been employed by SHGC, most notably as superintendents during the latter half of the 20th century.

Elmer Francis Smith was superintendent from 1956 until his death in 1980, and his father had worked at the club for 40 years. Though only 25, Elmer Smith's son Peter inherited the job. It was he who oversaw the renovations to Shinnecock Hills leading up to the Open returning to the club after 90 years in 1986. Smith's efforts received a lot of acclaim, and even more after the Open returned in 1995.

Peter Smith left in 2000 to be superintendent at a course owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Nation in Connecticut, then died suddenly two years later. (Two more sons of Elmer Smith are superintendents on Long Island, and the fourth is Michael.)

A dispute that began two years ago had the tribe protesting the 2004 U.S. Open rather than supporting it. In both 1986 and 1995 there was an agreement between the Shinnecocks and the USGA to provide 75 workers at the golf club during Open week and VIP parking on tribe-owned land. The tribe expected the same deal for 2004, worth $90,000. For the 2004 Open, the USGA used Gabreski Airport in Westhampton for parking. It's understandable that the tribe would be angry, though the club itself had nothing to do with the USGA's decision.

Still, in a timing-couldn't-be-worse move, two weeks ago Shinnecock Hills GC deep-sixed its traditional logo showing an Indian head in profile and is now handing out to members a new logo, a red shield with a golf club crossed with an arrow and the name of the club underneath it. It's as though the club is trying to completely disassociate itself from the tribe, or worse, deny the connection to the people whose sweat built one of the world's greatest golf courses 104 years ago.

Will the Shinnecocks win their lawsuit and become owners of the legendary golf course named for them? The odds are against it. Then again, I didn't think O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, and Michael Jackson would be acquitted. Down the road, we may see a court put the Shinnecock back into the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

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