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Founder’s Day Celebration Honors 375 Years of Southampton History

Dawn Watson
The Sag Harbor Express

Tucked away out of sight, at the edge of a marsh and down a short path laden with crushed white shells, lies a landmark of historical significance that some say rivals that of Plymouth Rock.

And though it doesn’t draw nearly the attention of that other better-known marker, the boulder at Conscience Point signifies a sacred spot. It’s the approximate landing site where the first English settlers in New York arrived on the shores of eastern Long Island in 1640.

Shortly after landing, this small group of travelers from Lynn, Massachusetts laid claim to the land and established Southampton Colony on June 12, 1640—20 years after the Mayflower pilgrims founded Plymouth Colony. Named for the Earl of Southampton, it is believed to be the oldest English settlement in the state of New York, though residents of Southold dissent, claiming that the title actually belongs to the North Fork settlement.

Of course, there were already significant numbers of people living here off the land at that time—the Native Americans who had made their home here for untold centuries.

“Southampton and Southold Towns love to argue about who got here first,” pointed out Rev. Holly Haile Davis of the Shinnecock Nation during Southampton Town’s celebration of the 375th anniversary of Founders Day at Conscience Point in North Sea on Saturday, June 13. “You can’t. You can only argue about who got here second.”

The arrival of the Puritans—eight men, one woman and one child, who arrived via a ship captained by Daniell How—forever changed the way of life for the Native American stewards of the land. Thus began the journey of the colonization of New York State.

According to the ship’s Disposal of Vessel, which is Southampton Town’s first historic document, the settlers, or “undertakers,” as they were called for their participation in the act of undertaking such a pilgrimage, included: Edward Howell, Edmond Farrington, Edmund Needham, Thomas Sayre, Josiah Stanborough, George Welbe, Henry Walton and Job Sayre. The names of the female passenger and child aboard the ship are unknown.

Prior to the arrival of the colonists, the land, referred to by the Native Americans and now known as “North Sea,” was home to only the Shinnecock Indians. For hundreds of years before the white man ever set foot here, the tribe had made their home, and centered their way of life, on the harbor.

Rev. Haile Davis was one of many members of the Shinnecock Nation on hand to commemorate Southampton Town’s 375th birthday at the historic site, which got its name from the exclamation of the lone female on the journey, who said, “For conscience sake, we are on dry land once more” upon docking. Other local representatives who came to talk about the past, present and future of the area included: Dr. John Strong, who taught history at Southampton College for three decades; Southampton Town Historian, Zach Studenroth; Southampton Historical Museum President Robert Beck; North Sea Association President Barbara Thayer; Shinnecock Nation historian Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile; former U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, who served as emcee; New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele; Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman; Southampton Town Board Member Bridget Fleming; Southampton Town Trustee Ed Warner; and Conscience Point Shellfish Hatchery President and architect Mark Matthews.

Celebrating the founding of the state’s first settlement was the intention for the gathering. But protecting the land—from stanching overdevelopment to water quality issues—and preserving its character were the main topics of conversation on Saturday among those who spoke formally, as well as for the approximate 150 community members who were present.
Mr. Thiele, who presented a proclamation to Southampton Historical Museum and Research Center Executive Director Tom Edmonds on behalf of the New York State Assembly, summed up the meaning behind the day of commemoration.
“In the great Town of Southampton, there’s some good and some not so good. It’s important to remember parts of both,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the Shinnecock Nation, which has not always been included in the town’s historical events, Rev. Haile Davis urged residents to “stop destroying our fragile ecosystems, unearthing the descendants of our ancestors and overdeveloping our shores.” She lamented the destruction that has occurred since the days when Native Americans were the caretakers and only inhabitants of the land.

“You’re right, things are not as they were 375 years ago,” said Mr. Warner, a fifth generation bayman, who spoke after Rev. Haile Davis. “We all have to step up to the plate and do what is right for the environment.”

“Southampton is at a crossroads,” said Mr. Schneiderman, who is running for Southampton Town Supervisor once his term as Legislator ends. “It hasn’t planned fully for growth, and the result is increased traffic, water issues and overcrowding.”
But the news wasn’t all bad. Progress is being made, from the inclusion of the Shinnecock Nation—whose tribe members participated in an Historical Reenactment of 1640, up to and including the arrival of the first settlers—at the event, to the community’s commitment to preservation and environmental protection.

One way to work toward the water problem has already been undertaken, said Mr. Matthews, who reminded the crowd that “we are all aware of the serious issues with our waters.” The Shellfish Hatchery has 245,000 oysters growing right now, he reported, adding that a single mature oyster filters more than 40 pounds of water a day. As an added bonus, “soon there will be North Sea oysters for sale,” he said.

Another positive undertaking is the restoration of the Tepper Boathouse, which was the recipient of a half a million dollar grant from the New York State Historic Preservation Office last year, reported Ms. Fleming, who has announced that she will be running to fill Mr. Schneiderman’s seat in the Legislature. She said she sees the saving of the previously damaged and abused Conscience Point building as a beacon of hope for the future.

“To survive for 375 years, a community has to show resiliency and resolve from one generation to the next. Its people must stand for what they believe in, and at the same time put aside differences and come together when it’s needed,” she said. “Our community is standing together and restoring this historic structure, not only as an emblem to an important past, but … to pass to the next generation, to respect and celebrate, to integrate into our livelihood and economy, our magnificent natural resources.”

It’s clear to see the beauty of our land said Mr. Bishop. Upon rededicating the monument—a glacial erratic rock that “couldn’t have naturally come from the area,” and placed on its present site in 1910, according to Mr. Studenroth—the former congressman said that there’s a simple reason his family has stayed in the area since 1643.
“It’s such a special place to live,” he said.

And in spite of the man-made destruction that has been allowed during the past 375 years, there is hope, said Thunderbird Haile, a Shinnecock elder whose ancestral roots to the area go back more than 10,000 years, she said.

“Hakame. This is a day of welcome,” she said as she introduced the Shinnecock reenactment at the end of the program. “Thank you for coming to hear the story of our people, from the days when everything was in harmony … to the days when strangers came in boats, claiming to be sent by God,” she added. “We must come together to protect this place; we are still the landlords of this land.”