Tooker, Talkhouse & a Tale of Two Iconic Photos

"beached Whale, Sagaponack" by William Wallace Tooker, 1891
Kevin McCann with the famous portrait of Stephen Talkhouse.
Kevin McCann with the famous portrait of Stephen Talkhouse.

By Douglas Feiden

William Wallace Tooker was a Sag Harbor photographer, author, historian, pharmacist, ethnographer, bibliophile, Algonquinst, collector of coastal Indian artifacts, scholar of tribal cultures and place names, and a resident of Hampton Street.

Stephen Taukus Pharoah, better known as Stephen Talkhouse, was a beloved Montaukett Indian leader, whaler, California Gold Rusher, Civil War veteran, star performer for P.T. Barnum and a long-distance walker who carried the mail between villages.

And Kevin McCann is a native of Montauk who caddied at the Montauk Downs Golf Club, swam at the Surf Club and once sold newspapers at the old Montauk Manor. A self-taught photographer who now lives in California, he’s a construction management consultant and noncommercial winemaker in Sonoma County.

Oh, and he has a deep and abiding decades-long passion for the life and times of both local legends, which led him to extensively research and document two defining 19th-century photographs with which each man is associated.

Now, the 68-year-old Mr. McCann is launching what he dubs the “Tooker-Talkhouse Tour 2016” to raise the profile and promote the photographic works of Mr. Tooker, while also highlighting the story of a portrait photo of Mr. Talkhouse that is one of the most iconic images ever taken in the past 150 years on Long Island.

His mission: Forge worldwide audiences for both Mr. Tooker, who was born in 1848 and died in 1917, and Mr. Talkhouse, who lived from 1821 to 1879 and who bestowed numerous gifts on his much younger and immensely curious friend that helped Mr. Tooker build his vast collection of Native American artifacts.

The druggist-turned-photographer worked in the Sag Harbor Pharmacy on Main Street, and in 1908, he selected the name Mashashimuet for the village’s largest park. He was only 15 years old when Mr. Talkhouse, then one of the last of the pureblooded Montauketts in Suffolk County, joined the ranks of the Union Army’s “129th Connecticut Volunteer (Colored) Regiment” in 1863.

Despite their long, colorful and distinguished careers, both men are better known to East End cognoscenti and academicians than they are to the general public, a state of affairs Mr. McCann is laboring to change. Of course, the tribal leader has surfaced on postcards, mementos and posters over the years, and his name and visage are both familiar to music lovers and habitués of the Stephen Talkhouse, the eponymous nightspot in Amagansett.

“Little did Talkhouse realize as he walked on Amagansett’s Main Street when it was just a dirt trail used by endless numbers of his ancestors that his name and image would one day radiate from a strange house with those strange tribal war cries known as ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’” Mr. McCann said.

Now, he’s trying to insure that the Talkhouse name is enshrined in more than just a popular music emporium. And in his proselytizing for Mr. Tooker, he’s calling new attention to a noncommercial photographer who never sold his works, but managed to capture the historic places, peoples, landscapes — and even the dead whales — of the South Fork.

Clad in his trademark Tooker-Talkhouse Tour t-shirt, Mr. McCann talks about the extraordinary signature photo that was often in the back of his mind, the ever-present image that was part of growing up and coming of age in Montauk in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Stephen Taukus 'Talkhouse' Pharoah" by William Wallace Tooker, 1867.
“Stephen Taukus ‘Talkhouse’ Pharoah.”

It’s the 1867 picture of Stephen Taukus Pharoah sitting cross-legged in a chair with his ever-present walking stick grasped within the curled fingers of his right hand, his gnarled left hand resting on his lap. His long flowing hair cascades down his shoulders, falling on his body-length Civil War frockcoat, there’s a military crease in his white slacks, and he wears a buttoned vest, high-collared white shirt and then-fashionable wide bowtie.

But most of all, it is the face and bearing to which all attention is drawn, the otherworldly countenance of a descendant of revered Montaukett Chief Wyandanch, who in the 1600s sold a huge chunk of the East End to English settler Lion Gardiner by treaty.

“It is a stoic image and a regal presence and a sense of absolute command,” Mr. McCann says. “In that picture, you’re looking back thousands of years into the physiological features of the indigenous peoples at a time they’re vanishing from Long Island. It is the most striking pose imaginable, and you see in him the whole sense of pride that he is a Montaukett.”

That 149-year-old portrait image also foretold a kind of ending: “It chronicles the pivotal point —and unfortunately, the final point — when one culture is vanishing from the landscape as a new one is evolving to be the more influential, permanent society, resulting in a new world that was diametrically opposite of the indigenous culture,” he said.

But who took the picture? Where was it taken? And why?

Those were the mysteries that had long eluded historians that Mr. McCann sought to unravel. And he provides what he believes are definitive answers in a research paper posted on his website, “Looking for Mr. Talkhouse: Tracing the Provenance of the Stephen Taukus Pharoah Portrait Photograph of 1867.”

The “why” turned out to be the easier question to answer: In the 1860s, British philanthropist William Henry Blackmore hired 28 photographers to amass the world’s largest collection of pictures of Native Americans for his museum in England. Much of that work eventually became the founding photographic collection for an upstart museum called the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr. McCann’s research strongly suggested that the Talkhouse photo, and a less famous picture of his father, Sylvester Pharoah, were commissioned as part of that photographic campaign.

As for the “who” and the “where,” look no further than Sag Harbor, he says. After a three-year search, he determined that the photo was taken by one Isaac S. Van Scoy, a descendant of an old Dutch family, at his Palace of Art photo gallery, then located on the corner of Washington and Main streets.

Among the evidence supporting his finding was a September 12, 1867 article in The Sag Harbor Express, headlined, “Lo, The Poor Indian.”

“We now have in our office the two original, and as far as we are aware, the only delineation of the features of the Montauk Indians,” the story begins. “These two pictures are of Sylvester and Stephen Pharoah — present King and heir apparent of the once powerful tribe of Montauk Indians. They are executed in Van Scoy’s best style.”

The article goes on to state that a lock of the younger man’s hair, “over a foot long, accompanies the portraits.”

While Mr. Tooker was never credited with taking the portrait photo of Mr. Talkhouse, he was closely associated with it because in 1881, he donated a personal copy he owned to what is now the Long Island Historical Society.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCann is wrapping up a book featuring 88 original glass-plate negatives from the William Wallace Tooker Collection, which he’s owned since buying it from a private collector in 1976, and he’s about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to guide it to publication.

"beached Whale, Sagaponack" by William Wallace Tooker, 1891
“beached Whale, Sagaponack” by William Wallace Tooker, 1891

The centerpiece photo is Mr. Tooker’s 1891 classic, “Beached Whale,” which captures a 90-foot finback whale aground in Sagaponack as Indians, whites and blacks stand atop the carcass, survey the beast and begin to harvest its remains.

Like the Montauketts, “whales, too, were disappearing and could become extinct,” Mr. McCann writes. “It was a photographic opportunity that could not wait.”

So Mr. Tooker left his pharmacy, packed up his bulky camera and hefty tripod, traveled by horse-and-buggy for eight miles out of Sag Harbor, walked down a sandy beach and took the photograph that captured and forever memorialized another soon-to-vanish chapter in the life of the East End, he said.