Looking Back: Puritans On Long Island

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By Jim Marquardt

The Duke of York wrote to Governor Andrus, a colonial administrator in New Amsterdam, on April 8, 1675, “I shall let you know that I am well satisfied with your proceedings  hitherto … but more especially at your conduct in reducing to obedience those three fractious towns at the East End of Long Island.” Those three towns were East Hampton, Southampton and Southold. The apparently feisty settlers of the towns were mostly Puritans who had left tyrannical England to seek a better life and perhaps some adventure.

These early “Puritans” don’t deserve the negative connotations we sometimes attach to the name.  According to Reverend Charles E. Craven in a paper presented to the New York Historical Society in October 1932, those early puritans promoted equal rights and liberty of conscience for everyone.  The colonial settlers of the three “fractious” towns originally had migrated to Boston, Lynne and Salem, Massachusetts, but left because of crowded conditions and limited opportunity.  They discovered Long Island to be ideal and founded their little church towns of Southampton and Southold in 1640, and East Hampton in 1648. Most were farmers, some were tradesmen — blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, shoemakers and weavers. A few were Oxford and Cambridge men, and their offspring later filled classes at Yale and Harvard. They purchased their lands directly from Native Americans, and generally enjoyed amicable relations. Lion Gardiner helped preserve the peace.

There were so many cleared fields on the Island holding nomadic Native American villages, camps and planting grounds that the Native Americans willingly sold such arable land to the settlers, no one realizing that years later the Native Americans would be cramped for space. Puritans built thatched houses and meeting places of heavy timbers and sawed planks. Thomas Osman ran a brickyard for chimneys and foundations. In Southold each family was allotted four acres of land for a home, with seven acres granted to minister John Youngs (ancestor of the current vice-president of the Sag Harbor Historical Society). In Southampton, home lots originally were the same size but when the present town site was established in 1648 some were bigger and some smaller depending on the wealth of the owners. Rights to one-acre units of meadows and Native American fields were quite valuable, but a unit of North Sea lots was seven acres, and some settlers accumulated rights to 20 acres or more.

As more land was doled out, some of the settlers presumably edged over to Sag Harbor and branched out from farming into the trades and later into offshore whaling, learning from local Native Americans who had been chasing the leviathans for many years. Sag Harbor’s protected port encouraged its growth as a center for shipping fresh vegetables, wood and other products.

The abundance of game and seafood fed the settlers more than adequately. Home manufacture using flax and wool, skins and furs easily kept them clothed. Reverend Craven doesn’t say where they found markets, but the colonials apparently shipped hides, barrels of beef and pork, shingles and barrel staves, spokes and spars to New Amsterdam and Connecticut, Boston, Barbados and the West Indies.  In this formative period, the towns were essentially self-governing. Serious crimes and civil cases were tried in Hartford or New Haven, but local magistrates had jurisdiction in most cases. Town meetings made laws and appointed committees to follow through. Selectmen were chosen annually to administer town affairs. Along the way, the close union of church and town ceased to exist.

With the defeat of the Dutch in 1664, all of Long Island was annexed into the English colony under James, Duke of York and brother of the king, Charles II. York imposed new laws which did not include a representative assembly and required all trade to flow through the port of New York. This generated much resentment among the East End settlers. The three towns went so far as to petition the king in 1672 for a return to Connecticut’s jurisdiction.

Toward the middle of the 18th century, sons and daughters of these towns began to emigrate to parts of northern New Jersey and southeastern New York seeking new opportunities.  Reverend Craven extolled the families of these old towns, stating “sometimes fractious, but with a deep-seated instinct for law and order. There are no better citizens in the United States of America than the descendants of the Puritans.

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