A Bird’s Eye View of Eastern Long Island-Calvet M. Hahn

Oct 1 , 1997



©Calvet M. Hahn 1997

With a population of about 7.3-millions, Long Island has more people today than all but six states: California, Illinois, New York, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Geographically, it stretches from Manhattan east to the Rhode Island border.  Population has always been concentrated on the western end—the Old Dutch five towns—that became the basis for Brooklyn and Queens—rather than to the east, where Suffolk has about half the area but only about 1.1-million people.  Nevertheless, the Suffolk population is about that of new Mexico or Utah and greater than that of a dozen other states.

Within Suffolk, the population also concentrates to the west; Huntington, Smithtown, Copiague, Babylon, Bayshore, Patchogue, etc. are the big population centers.  A line drawn north and south from Riverhead, the former town of Suffolk Court House, which has a population of about 7,585, would show north branch population centers at Greenport (2,459) and Mattituck (1,995), while to the south the various Hamptons add up to about 12,500 in population with Sag Harbor (2,363) and Montauk (1,300) being the other population centers on the south branch.

The earliest Long Island map is one made by Cornelis Hendrieux in 1616.  It shows what appear to be three separate islands and a major inland lake. The Dutch map of 1635 shows the same features.  There is a separation at Jamaica Bay running inland at Valley Stream to the north shore and another offshore island that now comprises the Rockaway’s and the western end of Fire Island.  Shinnecock Bay inlet did not exist.  Lake Ronkonkoma covered a good deal of the central portion of the island.

The appearance of Long Island apparently changed dramatically in the 1630s as a result of the major colonial hurricanes of that decade.  Core studies along the Gulf of Mexico coast began around 1989 under the direction of Dr. Kam-Biu Liu of Louisiana State University with those taken later in the 1990s from Rhode Island marshes indicating two major colonial hurricanes during the 1630s, one in 1635 and a lesser one in 1638.  The eye of the first passed between Boston and Plymouth.  Work is just beginning in Jamaica Bay to see the hurricane indications there.  The colonial maps indicate Long Island was much different prior to the storms of the 1630s.  However, as there was little European settlement except in western Brooklyn until after these storms there are few if any records to demark the changes.

While Manhattan and western Long Island were settled by the Dutch, eastern Long Island was included as part of the Plymouth grant of 1620 and conveyed to the earl of Stirling in 1635.  Among the earliest English settlements were Gardiner’s Island in 1639 and Hempstead in 1640-1643.  Hempstead was first settled from Lynn, Mass. and then Stamford, Conn.  The Lynn men driven out of Hempstead in 1640 settled Southampton, while settlers from Hingham, Mass. and New Haven, Conn. settled Southold (1640-1644).  Lynn men also settled East Hampton in 1648, while Newtown (Middleburgh) was settled in 1652 and Huntington in 1653 by men from New Haven, Hempstead, Southold and Southampton.  Setauket was settled from Boston in 1655, the same year that Cromwellians led by ‘Bull’ Smith settled Smithtown.  Eastern Long Island was Presbyterian through and through.  The Plymouth settlement Puritans were largely Congregationalist while Massachusetts Bay settlers leaned more toward Presbyterianism.  While the two groups cooperated in Massachusetts, the Presbyterians drifted towards Connecticut and Long Island with nine churches established between 1640 and 1670 on Long Island.  Stemming from the religious views, autonomous town meeting governments dominated eastern Long Island from the days of the takeover of New York by the Duke of York onward.

The Hamptons were frequent habitats of pirates and privateers (do things ever change?) and stories of buried treasure on eastern Long Island are still heard.  Whaling began in the Hamptons in 1675 with Sag Harbor (founded 1630) becoming the chief whaling port from the Revolution onward to the late 19th century.  It was a British naval base during the Revolution and George Washington named Henry Dering as custom’s collector—he became Sag Harbor’s first postmaster.  By 1678, trading was sufficiently brisk that Southampton rivaled New York City as a trading port.