What do we know about our history?
Native people — who got the name “Indians” from Europeans — lived on the North Fork for perhaps 10,000 years, arriving from the west in search of new lives as the Ice Age retreated north.
After English colonists arrived in the early 1600s, the Indians were all but gone within two generations. Here for thousands of years, gone in just a few. Why? What can we learn about them?
There are records showing that English settlers in Southold created a reservation at a place called Corchaug Pond — roughly where the Osprey’s Dominion winery is today. But the last pocket of Indians lived on a neck to the west, now called Indian Neck. They refused to move to the reservation.
Laws passed by the English government on the North Fork hemmed the Indians in, restricting where they could hunt and fish, and crippling their ability to sustain themselves and their ancient culture. The English wrote elaborate, fancy deeds, and got Indians they designated as leaders to scratch the bottom of them with a quill pen. Thus, the land was sold out from under the Indians.
It can also be learned by studying the history of this region that the English were only able to leapfrog across Long Island Sound after the mass slaughter of the Pequot people in 1637 in what is today Connecticut. The Pequots dominated eastern Long Island; once they were out of the way, in what is today called the Pequot War, were the English able to arrive in numbers on both the North and South forks and begin to build communities.
Which town came first — Southampton or Southold — has long been a silly competition. It doesn’t matter.
There is no formal monument anywhere on the North Fork to its first inhabitants. Nor is there a monument in Riverhead or Southold to the slaves who were here. What do we know about that institution here in the North? What should we know? Do we know their names?
Shelter Island has Sylvester Manor, perhaps the largest slave plantation north of Maryland. The history of slavery matters greatly at the Manor; it should matter everywhere.
All this is to say that, beginning Jan. 11, Times Review Media Group — the Shelter Island Reporter, The Suffolk Times and the Riverhead News-Review — will publish a series of stories we’re calling The North Fork History Project. Here, history will matter. It will be remembered.
Stories for the project will run every two weeks through the end of the summer 2018. We will begin with geology — explaining why the North Fork looks like a bony, arthritic finger — and proceed forward. We will write about people who, out West, call themselves the First Nations; we will write about the colonists who came and built lives here and about the Revolution that was, in a small way, fought right here even as British troops occupied the land.
We will write about slavery, with the goal of remembrance. Who were they? How did they live?
We will write about whaling, Irish immigration, the Civil War, Polish immigration, World War I, the 1938 hurricane and Greenport during World War II, when thousands lived and worked there building ships to fight the Germans and Japanese.
We will write about us. Who we are. What we were.
In years past, the study of history here was conducted as more of an exercise in genealogy, by people looking to trace their own roots back to what they called the “first families.” This isn’t to say genealogy isn’t interesting and even important; but it’s not our collective past. It doesn’t speak to the larger story. It’s not who we are.
We will answer this question as best we can: What do we know about our history?
Photo credit: Local businesses boomed on lower Main Street in downtownGreenport during the 1800s, when the port was a major hub for shipping and commerce. (Credit: Floyd Memorial Library Courtesy photo)