Did you know that the incineration of hundreds of Pequot villagers near Mystic, Connecticut, helped put Lion Gardiner on Gardiner’s Island?
That Europe’s appetite for beaver-skin hats and whale oil fueled the settlement of East Hampton Town?
Did you know that the alleged rape of an East Hampton woman led the Montauketts to give Amagansett’s Main Street to the residents of East Hampton?
Can you picture Arthur Benson leaning cool as a cucumber against a tree before stepping forward to making the winning bid for Montauk, a mere $151,000?
“Origins of the Past: The Story of Montauk and Gardiner’s Island” is the fifth volume in the East Hampton Library’s East Hampton Historical Collection Series. Its 25 essays focus on how Montauk and Gardiner’s Island, two outliers, played important roles in the evolution of East Hampton Town, the first 30,000 acres of which the English bought from the Indians in 1648.
The settlers paid them 20 coats, 24 looking glasses, 24 hoes, 24 hatchets, 24 knives and 100 muxes—metal drills used to make wampum—according to one of the essays in the book, by John Strong. The English granted the Native Americans the right “to fish in any of the creeks and ponds and hunt up and down in the woods” as well as the right to the shells they used for wampum and to the fins and tails of beached whales.
That was the founding of East Hampton, but “the action begins 11 years before then” with “the reasons for the town’s existence,” according to Tom Twomey, the book’s editor, chairman of the East Hampton Library and a former town historian. “This is actually the prologue to the other books in the series” which started in 1998 with East Hampton’s 350th anniversary celebration, he said.
Volume Five includes essays about the Montauketts and their dealings with other tribes, European settlers and Montauk itself; about Lion Gardiner, his island and his family; about the importance of locally made wampum as an engine of commerce; and about the Montauk Lighthouse, Montauk’s role in several wars and its appeal to outsiders, whether as pastureland, a port of entry, a hunting or fishing ground or a full-blown resort.
Regarding the Lighthouse: Before it was built, the Montaukett Indians lit signal fires to guide canoes around the point, and the British burned a bonfire to guide their own ships during the American Revolution, according to one essay, by Henry Osmers. Locals who could make a good living scavenging shipwrecks were less than happy when George Washington commissioned the beacon.
Regarding Montauk: Brooklynites seem to have a long history of attraction to the hamlet. Among them was Mr. Benson, who displaced the last remaining Montauketts from Indian Field to smooth the way for the Montauk Association, a cluster of oceanfront cottages for his Brooklyn cohorts, according to a previously unpublished essay by David Goddard that appears in the book.
As Walt Whitman wrote in another piece, an exuberant 1861 article about Montauk for the Brooklyn Standard: “It must be confessed that the east end of Long Island … is emphatically a good spot to go to, as many of our Brooklynites have long since discovered.”
Back to the founding of the town. “Origins of the Past” belies the traditional pastoral view of early East Hampton, according to Mr. Twomey. “East Hampton was not a peaceful, quiet agrarian backwoods community hidden away from the rest of the world,” he wrote in the book’s introduction.
The settlers had personal and financial ties to England, which was then in chaos, but no government or commercial seal of approval from their motherland. They were afraid of the Indians, and the Dutch, who were already established in New York. The settlers had their sights on Peconic Bay, the wampum “mine of the New World,” which could have given them the advantage in trading with northern Indian tribes for beaver skins to send back to Europe.
“If you had a beaver-skin hat in Amsterdam you had arrived” Mr. Twomey said recently at the East Hampton Library. The hats were worth the equivalent of about $5,000 today.
The early settlers were not religious farmers and fishermen who wanted to live a bucolic existence, Mr. Twomey said, but businessmen “who took the risk of coming here because there were very large monetary rewards,” primarily from fishing for right whales.
After the English massacre of the Pequots in Connecticut, the Montauketts, who’d paid the Pequots in wampum and corn for protection, had to seek help from someone else. Thus, Wyandanch approached Lion Gardiner with an offer to pay the English instead, establishing their first Long Island presence, on Gardiner’s Island. This worked to the English advantage not only in terms of the tribute in wampum, but also in gaining a foothold against Dutch expansion to the east.
It didn’t hurt that Gardiner’s Island had a view of Montauk to the east, said Mr. Twomey, who happens to fish off the north side of the island. (Another interesting tidbit in the 560-page volume is that Benson died while fishing in Enterprise, Florida, with his line in the water.)
“The Story of Montauk and Gardiner’s Island” was underwritten by Andrew Farkus and the Montauk Yacht Club and by the Goelet family, descendants of Lion Gardiner and current owners of Gardiner’s Island.
The book is dedicated to Dorothy King, who retired as Long Island Collection librarian in 2003, and its sales will raise money for the collection, which is in the process of being digitized, from Gardiner family documents to whaler’s logs to newspaper archives. The hardcover costs $40 and is available at the library, BookHampton and online.
Meanwhile, work is already under way for the sixth volume in the history series. “Revealing the Past” will include columns, articles and lectures written by local historians over the years and include contributions from Hugh King and the late Sherrill Foster, according to Mr. Twomey.
“I’m a firm believer that all history is local,” he said. “If a community doesn’t know its past, it doesn’t know how to move forward.”