Suffolk County History -- 1783-1883

Suffolk County History -- 1783-1883

Source: Long Island Genealogy

Suffolk began its second century in an atmosphere of bitterness that undermined the hopeful spirit of newly won Independence from Britain. The scars of war could be seen in neglected farmlands, burned buildings, and other destruction left by the departing redcoats Patriots were returning to their homes penniless or in debt from years of military service or the hardships of exile. They could not be blamed for hating those who had aided the enemy and prospered under British rule. Actions taken by patriot assemblies against Tories bred more hatred as family after family was ordered to leave their lands and homes behind because of their allegiance to the Crown.

Had the departing British army paid its debts to local people perhaps the situation might have been alleviated somewhat but the Army did not. Instead they left debts, promissory notes, and worthless pledges which meant that simple farming folk who had provided food, goods, or stock in good faith, had only scraps of paper to show for It, and anger!

The Tory exodus, some 100,000 people in all - had begun locally in 1780 when the larger units of British troops were pulled out of Suffolk for action in Southern states. Some 14,000 Tories, native New Yorkers, left their ancestral homes to journey to England, the West Indies or Canada to escape persecution. In 1783 3000 Tory refugees, most from Long Island, founded the city of St. John in New Brunswick. An additional 2000 sailed from Huntington later for the same destination. It was years after the Tory exodus before all property claims and counterclaims were settled. The bitterness faded slowly.

In 1790 an unparalleled excitement came to western Suffolk as word of George Washington's tour of Long Island reached people here. Washington was in the second year of his Presidency and a man of enormous popularity and respect. His purpose was to meet and talk to citizens along the route." He was interested in their views on the government just constituted. Also, as a gentleman farmer, he was curious about Long Island crops, agriculture, and soils.

Traveling with some of his officers, Washington used a cream colored coach drawn by four gray horses with riders. It was an informal tour with no parades or ceremonies. Veterans flocked to see him, and the President greeted and talked with these men and their families. A real politician, he kissed the babies and older women as well.

Washington crossed into Suffolk on April 21, 1790 stopping to sleep at Squire Thompson's, now known as Sagrikos Manor. From here he headed east in the morning stopping at Sayville having lunch in Patchogue. Next, his party headed north through Coramto Setauket where he spent the night at the home of Captain Roe. On the last morning he paused at the Blydenburg home in Smithtown continuing on to the Widow Platt's tavern on the Huntington village green for supper. Washington and his companions drank toasts and dined on native oysters, striped bass, turkey, a round of beef, stuffed veal, and chicken pie. A meal fit for a President.

Two other men who would occupy the presidency also visited Suffolk during this period: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They were guests of the William Floyds of Mastic in June of 1791 and while there Jefferson studied the language and vocabulary of the Unquachog or Puspatuck Indians.

The new government took a census in 1790 which showed Suffolk County had 2,868 heads of families; 3,756 white males above 16 years; 3,273 white male children; 7,187 white females, and 1,098 slaves.

Concern for navigation and safety also led the Federal government to erect Montauk Point lighthouse in 1796. This was to become Suffolk County's most enduring landmark. In time other lighthouses were added to aid coastal shipping: Eaton's Neck off Huntington in 1798; Little Gull off Fisher's Island in 1806; Old Fields outside Port Jefferson; Cedar Island at the entrance to Sag Harbor; Ponquogue Beach in 1857 and the light at Fire Island in 1858.

By the beginning of the 19th Century steady progress in rebuilding the Suffolk area was in evidence. That progress was to be slowed by the three year War of 1812 and the "Year Without Summer" in 1816.
While the War of 1812 involved virtually no land action on Long Island, the presence of warships of the British Navy - in the Sound and off Gardiner's Island - posed a threat of sufficient concern to keep privateers and several militia companies occupied.

Sag Harbor bore the brunt of the action. British naval patrols did impede Sag Harbor whalers who then used Connecticut ports to escape harassment. And in 1813 there was a threatened assault from the sea at Sag Harbor. Fortunately people in Sag Harbor were prepared with an arsenal and artillery battery.

The threat was met by militia units, one foot artillery, one infantry and one horse artillery augmented by other troops. No attacks materialized and after the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815 the troops were demobilized and gun installations dismantled by 1816. But Long Island, like much of the nation, fell prey to a disaster ,weather so unusual that there was a crop killing frost every month of the year.

The year 1816 began with unusually warm weather followed by numbing cold spells until mid March. The end of March was very warm but a heavy snowfall ruined April. Farmers ploughed fields and planted in late April thinking things would soon improve rapidly with Spring in the air. Not so. May brought the most severe cold of the year. Plantings were frozen as were all fruit and berry blossoms.

Now farmers were thoroughly alarmed. They replanted with a rising sense of panic when June brought more snow and ice. Winter weather lasted through July and August. Trees were losing leaves and fodder for stock was virtually non-existent. By now birds and other wild game were dying by the thousands for lack of feed and grain. Things were desperate with people surviving primarily on seafood be- cause livestock was dead or dying for want of hay and grain. Public funds were used to ship fish from coastal ports to people inland.

The following spring when seeds were needed for planting, the long-term effects were felt. Since there were no seeds to speak of locally they had to be imported at considerable cost. Fortunately, this natural disaster-which some believed was caused by excessive volcanic ash in the earth's atmosphere.

Suffolk County people lived out their lives-in these times-within the confines of their own farms and villages. There were a half dozen Suffolk newspapers by the 1830's to bring word of outside events but farm families here led rather isolated lives except for stories brought in by seamen and traveling tradesmen. Education and social life were limited to the home, church, and one room schoolhouse where the fundamentals of the 3 R's were taught.

This isolation was to change to a considerable degree because of two commercial developments, the building of the railroad and the growth of the whale oil industry.

In 1834 men of Industry, engIneers and fInancIers, were looking for a quicker railroad transportation route from New York to Boston. An engineering survey declared the Connecticut coastal route "impassable" because of the rugged hills and many rivers to cross. But, on the map between the two cities lay Long Island, flat and cheap. And so was born that noble institution, the Long Island Rail Road. Tracks were laid from the East River to Greenport at the east end of the county where a ferry took passengers and freight to Connecticut and then by train to Boston. The Long Island Rail Road right of way went right down the middle of the island with no regular stops except to take on wood and water. It is ironic that the world's largest local railroad began with absolutely no thought of service to peopIe of Long Island. Trains ran from the East River to Greenport as early as 1841, but not without trouble. Local residents did not take kindly to the noisy engines, which frightened livestock and sent soot and hot embers spewing over homes, burning fields and wood lots.

Farmers complained, but to no avail. Their frustration led to violence. Depots were burned, train crews ambushed, rails loosened and tracks soaped, to slow down the "march of progress." But these efforts were no more successful than latter day attempts to stop jet traffic with its pollution and noise.

What did bring a change in the Long Island Rail Road's attitude was the completion of a direct rail connection between New York and Boston along the "impassable" Connecticut shore route in 1850. Suddenly the Long Island was a railroad without purpose and no place to go. Its tracks were in the middle of the island and most all its potential customers were settled in towns along the north and south shores.

In a short span of years, some twenty separate railroads came on the scene to connect people with the main line. It was a jumble of wheeling and dealing, violence, and conflict, that reflected, in microcosm, what was happening all across the nation. Suffolk was moving from an isolated agrarian society toward its place in an interdependent industrial economy.

As the railroad took its fIrst steps, another principal industry, whaling was reaching its heyday. By 1840 the off shore whaling begun by Indians and the earliest colonists, was a well established part of the Suffolk towns facing the Atlantic Ocean.

Whaleboats were kept in readiness and lookouts posted to spot whales. Mastic Beach had three boats equipped for Instant action; Shinnecock had two boats; six were at Southampton and others were at Bridgehampton, East Hampton, and Amagansett. This offshore whaling effort produced anywhere from one to six whales a year.

By the 1840s, when America was a growing nation of twenty two states and 17 million people whalers had expanded their sights to all the oceans of the world. Sailing ships were being fitted out as floating factories to sight, catch and kill whales and to extract their oil, hone and other valuable products.

The principal whaling towns in Suffolk were Cold Spring Harbor, a small town of 600 people which had five vessels claiming it as home port; Greenport with seven vessels, and Sag Harbor. Of the three, Sag Harbor was acknowledged as the leader in whaling. By 1847 eighty eight whaling vessels called Sag Harbor their home port.

Stories of boredom, bad food and treatment mixed with hardship, salt water, and high adventure came back with the whalers after their two and three year trips to the ends of the earth. These tales raised people's consciousness of a larger world. But "out there" events were to take place that would doom the American whale fishery.

Gold was discovered in California in 1849. The lure of that precious metal attracted young adventurers, whale men and others interested in getting rich quick. No less than 800 whale men abandoned Sag Harbor alone for California. Many whale ships were refitted to carry these "Forty-Niners" to Panama or around the Horn to the West Coast.

And not so far away in Pennsylvania, a retired railroad conductor, "Colonel" Drake, was to bring in the first rock oil or petroleum well in 1859. This cheap source of energy greatly reduced the demand for whale oil but not before this seafaring industry had added its tales and legends to Suffolk's rich heritage.

The death blows to the whaling fleet came at the hands of Confederate raiders during the Civil War and in Arctic ice which caught and crushed thirty three whaling ships. The last whaler sailed from Sag Harbor in 1871.

The Civil War touched far more people than whaling had. Almost every home in Suffolk was affected as a romantic war of 1861 ground on and became a nightmare of death and destruction before it ended in 1865.

Enthusiasm to maintain the Union was high in 1861 after Southern batteries fired on Fort Sumter on April 12. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to crush the rebellion, the response was strong. Towns and villages that had been assigned a quota of troops to be raised had enthusiastic volunteers in abundance. Indeed, the entire war was fought by volunteers except for those few who had to be drafted in 1863.

Suffolk men served In every department of the Army and In most every kind of naval and military unit. Large numbers were in the 127th Regiment of the New York Volunteers, while others were in the 5th Regiment, Corcoran's Irish Legion or Duryea's Zoaves (Second Battalion of the 165th N.Y. Volunteers).

When the war ended there were celebrations for the returning hometown boys, memorial services for the thousands who had fallen, and usually a drive to erect a statue in their honor. Civil War statuary now graces many village greens around Suffolk to honor those who paid the supreme price in defense of the Union.

The pressures of war had affected agriculture and stimulated the growth of local industry. Mills powered by tide, wind, water, or steam were operating in all parts of the County. Riverhead had an iron foundry in the 1860's using large nodules of pure iron that formed in the sediments of the Peconic River. The chunks of metal were located by poking around with long poles and lifted up by long tongs. Workers crushed this iron and placed it in the furnace with crushed oyster shells and charcoal. The iron that was freed of some impurities was then formed into ingots to be shaped later at the forge. Paper mills, woolen processing plants, ice cutting plants, shipment of cordwood, brick yards, potteries, and shipyards gave Suffolk a diversity of industry in its towns.

Agriculture during the latter part of the 19th Century tended toward the crops for which Long Island would be famous: potatoes, cauliflower, and ducks. The latter were brought in from China in 1873; seven Peking Ducks becoming over the years to a $25,000,000 a year industry.

This period also saw the establishment of cranberry bogs and tremendous growth in commercial fishing and shell fishing as well as the catching of menhaden or mossbunkers for oil and fertilizer.

By the mid-19th century another phenomenon, emigration was beginning to have its impact on Suffolk and the United States. For example, between 1791 and 1841 1,750,000 Irish left the 'old sod' for America. Loss of land, repeated potato crop failures, and political strife sent many of the more imaginative, adventurous, or desperate Irish people toward these shores.

The ships bearing immigrants landed in three ports primarily: New York, Boston or Sag Harbor Some who entered at Sag Harbor were soon taken into the whaling trade which was then sending many ships from that port. Others moved to the Calverton Riverhead area, where they were absorbed as farm workers.

Following the Irish to the East End farms were Germans in the 1880's and Polish immigrants. While these workers got only about $12.00 a month and board, a thrifty, hard working farm laborer could hope to buy his own farm from his earnings. Indeed, by 1900 some of the North Fork land was owned and being worked by these new immigrants of the 1800’s. Other groups, Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans, would come later, but the 19th Century saw a considerable change in the ethnic makeup of this region.

But if the mid-1800's were boom times for population, industry and agriculture, Suffolk also began to show signs of life in the cultural and educational realms as well. New libraries, schools, and academics could be found in Smithtown, Huntington, Miller Place, East Hampton, and a host of other places.

It was in this time period that Walt Whitman was born In West Hills. Perhaps Suffolk's most important son, he showed few distinguishing qualities in his early years on Long Island and New York City.

Born in 1819 to a Quaker carpenter's family, young Walt moved with the family to Brooklyn and grew up there. By 1855 he had already been a teacher, printer and newspaperman, founding The Long Islander, a weekly newspaper that still serves Huntington and Western Suffolk. Whitman traveled throughout the country, read a great deal, and wrote some lack lustre prose and poetry. In 1855 he publIshed Leaves of Grass, a collection of twelve rambling free verse poems which celebrated the individual in a rough and ready world. Whitman's unorthodox style and views did not make the volume a success. Indeed it went almost without much notice save that of some critics who hailed, RaIph Waldo Emerson, among them.

Emerson called Leaves of Grass, "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet produced." This attitude from one of America's most respected minds was of enormous importance to the poet. Whitman brought out nine revisions of Leaves of Grass in his lifetime.

In 1873 he was stricken with paralysis and went to live in Camden, New Jersey, where he died in 1892, bearded patriarch. His poems "Oh Captain, My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" gained him some popularity. He also received increasing recognition for his contribution to poetic style and thinking from scholars and imitators.

Of less fame nationally, but an artist of importance here, was another son of Suffolk of this time period, William Sidney Mount of Setauket. Mount painted the world he knew picturing working farmers and people of his village, both black people and white. Indeed, Mount was one of the first artists to use black people as subjects for his work.

Nor was man's spirit Ignored. In 1852 Stephen Andrews and Josiah Warren purchased 750 acres near what Is now called Brentwood. Their Intention was to build a utopian community to be ca!led "Modern Times." It was to have wide streets, trees, no competition, gardens, a communal factory, a hall for cultural events, a library, and a quality school system. In less than two years 100 idealistic people were living in Modern Times, trying to fashion a utopian way of life for themselves and their families. Work was organized according to a system of values and priorities. Women wore what they wished, some taking to the popular "bloomer" costumes of the day which permitted greater freedom of movement.

But the good things couldn't last without some trouble.The community acquired an undeserved reputation as favoring "free love.' Hoodlums from outside the community took advantage of this unfair press notoriety and caused trouble for the inhabitants.

The financial panic of the late 1850's and the coming of the Civil War led to the end for this group of idealists as many leaders left. By 1862 without enough industry or agriculture, Modern Times ceased to be a community. With the name changed to Brentwood, all that remains of this idealistic dream are tall pines that the founders planted.


This page was last updated August 28, 2000.