Suffolk County Pre-History to 1683

Suffolk County Pre-History to 1683

Source: Long Island Genealogy

Suffolk County occupies the eastern two thirds of Long Island, New York, which juts about 120 miles into the Atlantic. The County covers roughly a thousand square miles of territory and is eighty-six miles long and twenty-six miles wide at the widest point. The weather is temperate, clean water abundant, and the soil is good and in fact, Suffolk is the leading agricultural county in the state of New York. That it is still number one in farming despite all of the building developments and urban sprawl is a tribute to the excellent soil, favorable weather conditions, and the farmers of this region.

Over the past millennium there has been a procession of all kinds of people from Indians, explorers, pirates and colonists, to an invading army that maintained control for years. There have also been whalers, railroad men, Nazis, summer people, bootleggers, groupies, commuters, and spacemen. Of course, homeowners and farmer fisherman have always been the mainstay of this County. There is a cosmopolitan mixture of 1,300,000 people of all kinds today and the population is still growing.

A variety of nationalities and groups built the area known as Eastern Long Island: Algonquins, English, Dutch, French Huguenots, Scots and Welsh at first. Later, Italians, Germans, Russian Jews, Poles, Asians, Irish, Blacks, Hispanics and Scandinavians. Slaves and freemen, they came from almost every nation on earth , hoping for a better life.

The first people to dwell on Long Island were Algonquins, the group with similar languages and culture which lived throughout New England and the middle Atlantic coastal region. They came to this area crossing small steams and low lands where now the Hudson and East Rivers flow.

Others came south from what is now Connecticut more than 10,000 years ago across low marshlands now covered by the waters of the Long Island Sound. They came hunting caribou and following small game. These small hunting and gathering bands and their ancestors had been on the move for thousands of years always seeking more favorable conditions for living with good shelter, wood for fires, clear drinking water, fish, game, berries, nuts and grains.

Time passed and the earth warmed gradually, causing the massive continental glacier to recede northward, leaving soil and rock deposits which shaped the land into a glacial moraine. The sea evel rose as glacial ice melted to water and the place known today as Suffolk County took shape.

At a time when the great pyramids of Egypt were still a dream, the descendants of the first bands to wander onto Long Island were settled in the Suffolk area. They were thinking people with a common Algonquin language base, culture, and customs. They lived on the shores for the fishing and abundant shellfish and hunted inland during the colder months. They advanced in hunting technology from the spear and atlatl to bow and arrows tipped with stone points.

Indian life was based on a seasonal cycle of resources and an intricate social structure. The concept of land ownership was alien to them. Initially, the Indians of this region exchanged the use of their lands for protection from theIr enemies by the Europeans who had guns, metal weapons, and other things of value. The colonists, either misunderstanding or ignoring their concepts of land use, claimed ownership of the Indian lands and denied them access to it. This denial of their livelihood, was aided by such phenomena as the smallpox plague of 1662, which decimated the Indians since they had none of the immunities that Europeans had. Indians were forbidden to come into towns for fear of pox and were forced to live in outlying, less desirable surrounding areas. As the European population increased, native people were pushed further off traditional lands. They were also forced into farming, instead of their hunting, gathering life. In time the Indians were displaced or destroyed.

At the time of contact between the European and Indian cultures there were somewhere between sixteen and thirteen groups of Indians, each occupying its own loosely defined area of the Island. These groups included the Montauk, Shinnecock, Manhanset, Nissequogue, Setalcot, Matinecock, Massapequa, Merrick, Corchaug, Uncachogue, Secamans, togue, Rockaway, Canarsie and Nesaquake.

Most historians in referring to the European contact period refer to the Indian tribes existing at the time. In fact, these native groups were hardly large enough to be called tribes. They were more like large extended family groups who dwelt in one area of the Island. No firm estimates of native populations here goes above 6000, so the Island was a very sparsely populated wilderness in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The English claim to this area was established by an Italian seafaring man, John Cabot, who sailed in the l5th Century under the flag of an English king. While there is no record of a landfall here, his voyage laid claim to all lands in these latitudes.

Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer sailing under the flag of a French king, was the first European of record to sight Suffolk. He saw this area from the ocean in April 1524. In 1609 Henry Hudson anchored in what is now New York Bay and explored the western end of Long Island. Captain Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer, landed at Montauk and met with local natives. Later in New York Bay his ship, The Tiger, burned. He and his men built another ship, The Onrust, during a stay in Manhattan.

Visits by far ranging Vikings or European fishermen may have taken place at a much earlier time. Indeed, several historians believe that a careful interpretation of old Norse sagas has produced evidence that Karsefni, Leif Erickson's son-in-law may have landed at Belle Terre near Port Jefferson. It is claimed that Karsefni released two Irish slaves directing them to explore the land to the South. If these men did explore in 1010 AD as claimed, they were among the first Europeans to see this area.

The first white settler was Lion Gardiner, a soldier engineer who came to this area from Connecticut in 1639 to start a plantation on land he had purchased from the "ancient inhabitants" and the Earl of Stirling. Lion Gardiner settled on the Isle of Wight between the North and South Forks with his wife, two children, and some of his men. That island bears his family name today and Gardiner's Island and is still owned by his descendants.

Both Southold and Southampton claim to be the first English settlements in this area in 1640. The original people in these towns migrated from New England. The eight men, one woman and child who settled Southampton came from Lynn, Massachusetts; the settlers of Southold from the Colony of New Haven in Connecticut.

While English colonists were coming across the Sound to settle, Dutch families were moving eastward from New Amsterdam (now New York City). Clearly, it was only a matter of time before the rival English and Dutch interests would clash.

At issue was more than land, because Long Island was the best source of the only hard currency of the time, wammans, wampum. These strings of beads made from Long Island clams and whelk were the money of the colonists. Moreover, wampum was absolutely necessary for any social or trading contacts with the interior Indians who had the beaver furs so prized by Europeans. Whoever controlled Long Island's wampum manufacturing, had a control of the economy in general and the fur trade in particular.

The fur trade went something like this: A European trader brought cheap woven trade cloth (duffle) to costal Indians on Long Island. The cheap cloth was traded for wammans, at a good rate of exchange. The wampum was taken to inland Indians where it was highly valued. Lengths of beads were exchanged for beaver and other furs. The furs were shipped to Europe where they commanded high prices. Thus at each step of this trade enormous profits were possible. Long Island the wampum "mine,” was of critical importance!

The English seemed to have seen this more clearly and acted accordingly. They used strong military force to seize sources of wampum. This gave them a commercial and financial advantage over the Dutch.

By 1650 the Dutch recognized the weakened position they were in and agreed to divide Long Island. By agreement, the English took control of the East End with the remainder left to the Dutch. The dividing line for the boundary is almost the same line as the one now dividing Nassau and Suffolk Counties. The agreement of 1650 lasted until 1664 when Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor, surrendered New Amsterdam to Colonel Nicolls in a bloodless coup. James, Duke of York, and brother to the King, now owned New York and all Long Island.

The new settlers of these times were middle class families who left their homeland for new lands for many reasons. Some sought greater freedom in political and religious matters but many others simply wanted more control over all aspects of their lives. Economic considerations played a part; people were looking for good cheap farmland, and bountiful fishing and hunting. Long Island offered this and something else, a chance to engage in the lucrative privateering and smuggling going on in the waters around New York.

Sometimes privateers went beyond the legitimate bounds of seizing the ships of an enemy and preyed on all merchant ships. These acts of piracy were not uncommon in this period of conflict when European countries were struggling for power and wealth in the new world and governments lacked the power to enforce the law. This era produced some of the most colorful legends in Suffolk's heritage. Pirate tales involving men like Thomas Tew or Captain William Kidd. But privateers did not all become pirates and the traditions, skills, and equipment they developed would later serve as the beginnings of the American Navy during the Revolutionary War of 1776-1783.

Despite international struggles, Long Island continued to prosper and develop. With the passage of time more towns spun off the original settlements. Southolders, for example, settled Setauket (Brookhaven) and in turn Smithtown.

Southampton people founded Watermill, Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and Springs in the 1650's. East Hampton, settled in 1648, extended its influence to Montauk by 1657. Shelter Island was settled in 1652. The island was first granted town privileges in 1666 but it was not designated a town until 1683. The Town of Huntington dates its founding from 1653 when land was purchased from the Indians. Subsequent purchases during the next fifty years expanded the town area from the Sound to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1872 the southern portion split off to become the Town of Babylon.

The Town of Brookhaven was established in 1655 along the north shore from Stony Brook to Port Jefferson. Additional land acquisitions in succeeding years rounded out the present town. Patchogue and its environs became a part of the town in 1773.

Smithtown dates back to 1663 when Richard "Bull" Smith received the land as a bequest from Lion Gardiner, to whom it had been given by Wyandanch, the Indian sachem. In 1665 a town patent was granted. The Town of Islip was founded in 1710 following a series of large land grants, the first to William Nicoll in 1684 covering the eastern part of the town. Riverhead Town was formed from the westerly part of Southold Town in 1792. As early as 1727 it was recognized as the County Seat when the County courthouse and jail were located there.

The colonial period was generally peaceful. Wild places and woodlands were turned to farms, and rough log shelters were improved to relatively comfortable homes. Churches, roads, mills, and shipyards were built. It was a time of hard physical labor, but here was land for farming and home sites for those who were willing to work. That excluded slaves and Indians in many places, but basically there was an atmosphere of freedom within the framework of a highly ordered religious society.

By the 1670's political unrest was growing from the continued refusal by the Duke of York to permit the colonists a legislative assembly and greater self rule One result was that collection of taxes had dwindled; people were openly refusing to pay them. The colony was in a hostile mood and the Duke of York had to face a painful decision: whether to continue ruling with an iron hand and face continued losses, or give away some rights for greater self rule in the hope of greater profit from the colony. William Penn, who was visiting England fresh from a trip to North America, counseled the Duke to give in and make some concessions to the colonists. The Duke was finally persuaded to do this and from that persuasion this county it is known today developed .

The Duke of York sent a young Irish Catholic gentleman named Thomas Dongan to govern. Governor Dongan convened the first assembly that head ever been gathered to represent the colonists soon after arriving. The group sat in AIbany for nearly three weeks from the middle of October until the first day of November, and out of those deliberations came a document entitled: The Charter of Liberties and Privileges Granted by His Royal Highness to the Inhabitants of New York and Its Dependencies. It really wasn't a charter, but rather an act of the legislature itself. It spelled out in clear language the principle that the sole legislative powers shall forever be, and reside in, a government council and the people met in general assembly.


This page was last updated August 28, 2000.