On a cold day in January 1980, at a public hearing in Riverhead to discuss the future of the Peconic Bay estuary and the proposed preservation of Robins Island, a tall, white-haired man with a patrician air about him walked to the podium.
His name was John Wickham. He wanted to talk history, his family’s history. His was a story nearly two centuries old, but relevant to the matter under discussion. On this day, the past intruded into the present.
Born on his family’s farm in Cutchogue, and a descendant of a Joseph Wickham Sr., who came to Cutchogue in 1699, Mr. Wickham wanted to speak in support of preserving the undeveloped 445-acre island, which sits handsomely in the bay south of New Suffolk.
Mr. Wickham made the point that his ancestors had owned the island for nearly three-quarters of a century, from 1715 to 1784, when the brand-new State of New York confiscated the property and then sold it to a political enemy of Joseph Wickham Sr. Because of the family legacy, John Wickham wanted a voice on the island’s future.
The story of how the Wickham family lost Robins Island — and hundreds of acres in Cutchogue and Riverhead — has its roots in the bitter aftermath of the American Revolution, a struggle that was in every way a civil war that divided towns, hamlets and families. When the war ended with a victory for the American side, some of those on the losing side would feel the winners’ wrath.
“The Loyalists were seen as being on the wrong side of history,” said Neil Buffett, assistant professor of history at Suffolk County Community College. “At the beginning of the war, the Patriot leaders were the rebels and traitors. Once there was a victory, the people who followed the rules and were loyal to the king became the traitors …
“There was definitely in New York a lot of retribution for those who had not supported the cause,” Mr. Buffett added. “Many were forced to leave and to leave behind land that had been in their families for generations. Families broke up. People were ostracized locally. So many just left and went elsewhere and had to start all over.”
Justin Turner, an assistant history professor at Suffolk, said that even before the Declaration of Independence was written in July 1776, Loyalists were branded as traitors and treated with hostility.
“The famous quote from Boston Loyalist Mather Byles asked rhetorically if it’s worse to be ruled by one tyrant who is 3,000 miles way, or by 3,000 tyrants who are less than a mile away,” Mr. Turner wrote in an email.
As told in Dwight Holbrook’s book “The Wickham Claim,” Joseph Wickham Sr. bought large tracts of the North Fork in 1699 and into the early 1700s. He bought Robins Island in 1715 and, a decade later, deeded a huge tract of land in what is now downtown Riverhead to a daughter. He later willed the island and “Wickham’s Neck” — the land in Cutchogue between West and Downs creeks — to a son, Joseph Wickham Jr. When Wickham Jr. died in 1749, the land was passed to his son, Parker Wickham.
And herein lie the roots of the story that spilled over into the 20th century when John Wickham took steps to see the island preserved based on his family’s former ownership.
During the Revolution, all of Long Island was occupied by the British. North Fork Patriots largely exiled themselves to Connecticut. In Southold, Parker Wickham was town supervisor and a land-owning Loyalist. As told in “The Wickham Claim,” published by the Suffolk County Historical Society in 1984, a group of Patriots paddled over from Connecticut in December 1777, kidnapped Wickham and made him their prisoner.
He was later allowed to return to Cutchogue, where he turned over ownership of the island and Wickham’s Neck to his son, Joseph. In 1779, the New York State Legislature passed the so-called Attainder Act, which authorized land seizures. The Revolution ended with a peace treaty in 1783 and British troops evacuated Long Island.
A year later, the Legislature passed the Speedy Sales Act, which expedited the sale of confiscated properties, and in July of that year, the so-called Commissioners of Forfeiture, which has the sound today of a Soviet-era body rather than an American one, sold Wickham’s Neck and later Robins Island.
The confiscation by the state and the sale by the commissioners came about even though the property itself was no longer in Parker Wickham’s hands and, more significantly, even though the treaty ending the war barred any such confiscations. Rubbing salt into the Wickham wound, the buyer of the island, Ezra L’Hommedieu, was a political enemy of Parker Wickham’s.
An outcast, Parker Wickham died in 1785 in New London, Conn., having lost all the property he’d inherited from his father and grandfather. His oldest son, Joseph Parker Wickham, subsequently received compensation for the loss from a court in London, and it seems as though when he returned he lived in upstate New York, not Cutchogue.
In a series of emails, Mr. Holbrook said the state confiscated property from some 49 landowners after the Revolution, including land that today in Manhattan that today is worth tens of millions of dollars. He pointed out the obvious: All of Long I land was under British control, so how did the state Legislature’s Attainder Act have any impact there?
As Mr. Holbrook stated, the lawsuit brought by John Wickham in 1989 against the then West German owners of Robins Island, who intended to develop it, may have had the ultimate effect of preserving it. While a federal district court judge ruled against John Wickham, the court ruled that the New York Confiscation Act should have applied only to lands owned by Parker Wickham, not his descendants.
But the court said “settled history” precluded turning over land to modern-day descendants, which would have produced a tidal wave of similar suits covering land in Manhattan and elsewhere. At the time of the court’s decision, John Wickham said he was satisfied — he had told his family’s story and, to his mind, he won on historical grounds.
Robins Island was later sold by the would-be developers to a New York investor, Louis Bacon, who has preserved nearly all of it.
Today, the modern-day descendants of Parker Wickham continue to farm in Cutchogue, just east of the land taken from Parker Wickham.
The wheel of history keeps turning.