It’s easy to be intrigued by Plum Island’s current status as a secret federal animal disease research laboratory, but that’s just one chapter in the island’s rich history.
East Marion resident Ruth Ann Bramson, also board president of the Oysterponds Historical Society, has been researching the island’s pre-lab history for several years and is working on a book on the subject with Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming and collections manager Amy Folk, a Long Island historian who has worked on some of the society’s other books.
She’ll give a presentation on the island’s past at the Peconic Landing auditorium in Greenport at 8 p.m. tonight.
In an interview this week, Ms. Bramson said Plum Island’s history has “not really been collected anyplace. The island has a very rich history of exploration, changing ownership and government acquisition. It’s an interesting lens, I think, to look at American history.”
She said the island was known by Native Americans as Manittuwond, meaning “the island to which we go to plant corn,” and that the first map was prepared by Adriaen Block, a Dutch trader employed by the Dutch East India Company, who also is credited with discovering Block Island.
“He prepared a map in 1614 based on his last voyage, which includes Plum Island,” said Ms. Bramson. “We know that he saw Plum Island.”
Later, between 1637 and 1639, the island played a major role in the Pequot War, the first armed conflict between Europeans and Native Americans.
The island is mentioned in a letter from Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. He wrote that the Pequots, who were “scarce of provision,” made their way to Manittuwond and Munnatawket, their name for Fishers Island, “to take sturgeon and other fish and to grow new fields of corn in case the English destroy their fields.”
The waters between Fishers Island, Block Island and Plum Island later became a “great center of trade between English and Indian tribes,” Ms. Bramson added. “It’s interesting to think of that area as being a center of trade.”
The island also provided the setting of the first engagement between the newly formed Continental Army and the British during the American Revolution.
“On Aug. 11, 1775, shots were heard on the island,” Ms. Bramson said. “We can’t say it changed the course of history. It was just a footnote in history. But it was the first exchange of cannon fire and the first amphibious assault by the U.S. Army.”
She said Plum Island also abounds with stories from the War of 1812, of shipwrecks and efforts by local residents and seamen to build lighthouses on both Plum Island and neighboring Little Gull Island.
During the late 1800s, the island became a well-known place for sportsmen.
“Very famous people came out to Plum Island to stay in the home of the lighthouse keeper, on farms and in barns,” she said. “Grover Cleveland visited frequently aboard the ship Oneida, owned by his very close friend Commodore Elias Benedict.”
Fort Terry was built on the island in 1897 as an artillery post to protect the U.S. coast from enemy ships during the Spanish-American War and later served as a lookout site for German U-boats and planes during World War II, though the fort never saw conflict and was declared surplus in 1948.
Ms. Bramson hopes to explore all these topics in more depth in both her lecture and the book, which the Southold Historical Society hopes to release in mid-2013.
The historical society received a $15,000 grant from the Gerry Charitable Trust, which must be matched by the end of this year, to complete the book, Mr. Fleming said this week.
“We hope that anyone interested in the fascinating history of Plum Island will consider making a donation,” he said.
“We are also currently looking for original documents and images relating to the historic structures and families that once occupied Plum Island. If you are a descendant of the Beebe, Tuthill or other notable families that once called the island home, please consider sharing the material you have with us. It will help make this project much richer and more interesting.”
To make a donation or to reserve a seat for Ms. Bramson’s lecture, call the Southold Historical Society at 765-5500.