Orient retains character of early English settlers

Boats dock at the Orient Wharf.

Boats dock at the Orient Wharf. (Credit: Courtesy of Oysterponds Historical Society)

The headstones at the Orient Village Cemetery on Main Road are disproportionately filled with seven surnames. The same names can be found carved into war memorials scattered throughout the hamlet, denoting generations of men that have fought for their country and the small community that has supported them.

Even today, descendants of these families can be found all over Orient.

“You can't swing a cat without hitting one of these families,” said Ellen Cone Busch, executive director of the Oysterponds Historical Society. “There's a real sense of walking through history here.”

The region on the eastern tip of Long Island's North Fork was settled in the first half of the 17th century by a group of Puritan families from East Anglia, an eastern region of England. Ever since, the names of these families — Brown, Youngs, King, Horton, Tuthill, Terry and Vail — have maintained a prominent position in the small community.

Though the area became known for agriculture, the Native Americans that inhabited the land for hundreds of years before the Puritans settled were not farmers at all. They were what Cone Busch described as “sophisticated” hunters and gatherers with advanced technology such as atlatl spears, which are engineered for greater velocity when they’re thrown.

When the Puritans came, they changed all that, introducing farming and largely forcing the Native Americans out. Cone Busch said the community has retained much of the character that the early English settlers brought with them.

“For a very long time, Orient and East Marion remained a very homogeneous community,” she said.

With their English roots came loyalty, and during the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied Orient, many of the settlers were still loyalists.

“There was an identity crisis locally,” said Cone Busch. “The thought was, ‘If we’re not English, what are we?’”

As British soldiers raided farms and took over boardinghouses, many of those who were not loyalists fled to places like Connecticut, often leaving their farms and other livelihoods unattended. Some people did not return, and others felt unattached to the lives they lived before the war.

The Vail family, which before the war owned much of Orient Point, then all farmland, came back to Orient and sold its farm to Jonathan Fish Latham.

Latham came to Orient in 1803, and his family still owns one of the last remaining farms in Orient.

“My family has been farming here for 200 plus years,” said Danny Latham, who now owns and operates Latham's Farm. “When you're a farmer, you're a farmer.”

Much of what is known about the history of the area comes from the diary of Augustus Griffin, a resident who was born before the Revolutionary War and died after the Civil War at 99 years old.

Now published, his writings include entries spanning 60 years, from 1792 to 1852, and provide a firsthand account of the changing nature of Orient.

Griffin, who held many jobs including schoolteacher and store owner, also played a hand in the tourist economy after he built the Village House in 1798. It served as a public house for elections and trials, an inn and even a tavern until the temperance movement came to Oysterponds — the original name for the communities of Orient and East Marion — around the 1830s.

Village House, which has been renovated several times over the years, still sits on Village Lane where it is currently being refurbished.

Cone Busch said the additions to the Village House over the years signified a change in the local economy toward a booming tourism business. It grew from an unheated, second-floor loft for travelers to 10 legitimate guest rooms and a restaurant.

When the railroad came to Greenport in 1844, it allowed more vacationers from the city to find Orient. The economic boom in the north after the Civil War brought more travelers. The leisure economy continued to grow throughout the 19th century until its peak in the 1870s and 1880s.

Since then, both agriculture and the travel economy have slowly declined as many of those who were previously tourists built or bought summer houses. Today, a large portion of the population of Orient — at least 50 percent according to an estimate by Cone Busch — is made up of these “second-home owners.”

Joseph Soito, 75, has lived in Orient for his entire life. His father came from Fayal, an island off Portugal, in 1915 and drove a team of horses for the Mount Pleasant Hotel, a popular boardinghouse.

Soito said he’s stayed in Orient all this time because he’s always loved the fishing, the clamming and all the other outdoor amenities the hamlet has offered. But although the community has retained much of its character, it has changed.

“Basically Orient used to be 36 family farms,” he said, and now there are just four. “The kids can’t come back and farm. The mothers and fathers sold their land and people have built houses on it. There are so many rich people here now, they build houses and only come back in the summer.”

Cone Busch said Oysterponds was always a community that welcomed waves of newcomers and adapted to the small changes they created. Now, is no different.

She said that through groups such as the Orient Association and the Peconic Land Trust, residents of Orient — even those who only live in the community part time — seem committed to preserving the bucolic feel of the town, a task that does not leave room for much economic development.

“If you get rid of this and build a Walmart, you're killing something you're never going to get back,” she said.

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