Suffolk County Profile

Suffolk County Profile

Source: Our Towns / Community Profile / Suffolk County
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Suffolk County
From an English Colony
Nourished by Soil and Sea
To Suburbia
Knitted Together by Rails

By the time Suffolk County was formed in 1683, English settlers already had been living on the East End for more than 40 years.

The pioneers of Southampton and Southold Towns stepped ashore in 1640, only a year after the arrival of the first English settler, Lion Gardiner, at the historic island just off the East Hampton shore that still bears his name. Separated by miles of wilderness from the Dutch pioneers who came to the west end of Long Island in the 1620s, the English colonists were mostly Puritans from New England, strongly influenced in social, political and religious matters by life in Massachusetts. They farmed and fished, and later would develop their own whaling and shipping fleets. They held annual town meetings that ruled on everything from pig control to who would be allowed into the community.

Their flinty independence had much to do with their dismay at becoming part of the Province of New York after the British took New Amsterdam in 1664 and James, duke of York and brother of King Charles II, became their immediate ruler. The region was then known as the East Riding of Yorkshire. Among other things, the duke abolished their town meetings, having no intention of allowing representative government. Only after years of protest and resistance from Long Island and elsewhere did he agree to changes, finally deciding that citizens would be more agreeable to paying taxes if they had representation.

Those changes came from a New York General Assembly session in New York City in October, 1683. It divided New York into 12 counties, including Kings (Brooklyn), Queens (including what is now Nassau) and Suffolk. The assembly passed a charter of liberties guaranteeing the political and civil rights of the people of New York, and established a new court system at the town and county level. Many problems lay ahead, but it was a start for the new Suffolk County, named for a county of the same name northeast of London.

Suffolk in the 18th Century prospered from farming, fishing, lumbering, shipping and other trades, and continued closer ties with New England than with the rest of New York. Many New Yorkers cast their lot with the British during the Revolution, but most people from Suffolk were Patriots eager for an independent America. A famous anti-British spy ring operated out of Setauket, and after the war George Washington himself dropped in to say thanks.

After the Revolution, Suffolk became prominent in whaling, peaking with Sag Harbor's heyday in the 1840s, and shipbuilding proliferated in places such as Port Jefferson, Greenport and Northport. Over the decades, the growth of New York City spurred demand for farm crops as well as shellfish, firewood, and sand and gravel.

A major turning point occurred with the completion of the Long Island Rail Road to Greenport in 1844, and subsequent migration of thousands of city residents seeking summer fun on the Island, many of whom stayed. The years after the Civil War were marked by the start of many industries that attracted immigrants who contributed to the area's economic and cultural life. By the late 1800s, huge estates were built on both shores even as developers were starting to cut up large blocks of land for those of lesser means.

By the time World War II began, Suffolk, no longer able to depend on traditional farming and fishing, turned increasingly to manufacturing, especially for defense purposes. As the 1950s dawned, huge population gains drove development. In 1960, Suffolk switched to a county executive and charter form of government, a sure sign that the years of rural life were over and the suburban revolution was in full force.


This page was last updated August 28, 2000.