Historians have learned that a long-vacant cottage in East Hampton is the last known dwelling of the Montauketts, the once-powerful American Indian tribe forced out of Montauk by developers more than 100 years ago.
East Hampton Town officials are now laying plans to preserve the two-bedroom cottage, known as the Fowler House, as a local historic landmark -- the only official monument to a tribe that has scattered across the country as its leaders have fought a century-long battle for state recognition.
"It's the end of the end," Montaukett chief Robert Pharaoh said in an interview. "It's the last house that stands. Everything else is gone."
The Fowler House sat in limbo since 2002, as officials weighed using the property, which is in Freetown, for affordable housing. East Hampton officials eventually asked the county to give the home to the town for preservation. Suffolk County, which acquired the 1.7-acre site in a 2002 tax default, gave it to East Hampton in a March 3 vote of the county legislature.
Richard Martin, director of the Suffolk County Division of Historic Services, said county historians realized last year that the dwelling is the only tribal house still standing in its original condition. Other Montaukett homes may exist in Freetown, but they have been significantly altered, Martin said.
The Fowler House is among a handful of cottages where Montaukett families settled in the late 1800s, after they were evicted from their ancestral home by developer Arthur Benson, who began transforming Montauk into a resort in 1879, historians said.
George Fowler, a Montaukett who worked as a gardener on East Hampton estates for several decades in the early 20th century, and his descendants lived for generations in the saltbox-style house on Springs-Fireplace Road.
James Devine, a Montaukett who grew up next door to the Fowler House, has worked to save it since its last occupants died in the 1980s. Suffolk County historians credit him with bringing the site to officials' attention.
"I would feel fulfilled if I could get this done," said Devine, 61, who lives in Montauk. "It seems like part of my life purpose. That's all I can say about it."
An irreplaceable link
The Fowler House is a link to the Montauketts' exodus from Indian Fields, their ancestral Montauk home, said Suffolk Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who sponsored the bill transferring the property to East Hampton. "It's a controversial piece of history," he said.
Benson was expected to respect the Montauketts' right to remain at Indian Fields but began negotiating their removal as soon as he bought the site, said Allison McGovern, a researcher with the Suffolk County Division of Historic Services.
McGovern said documents show Benson paid the Montauketts small amounts of money to move to Freetown but agreed to let the tribe access Indian Fields. Instead, he burned down their houses in Montauk, she said.
Two Montaukett households that remained at Indian Fields moved to Freetown, an African-American community in East Hampton, McGovern added.
Historians are trying to determine whether the Fowler House was built on the site or relocated from Montauk, Martin said. The property, which was heated by stoves and lacked indoor plumbing except for a sink, remains in its original state.
"It truly looks as it was in the 1880s," Martin said.
Long fight for recognition
Pharaoh and other Montauketts have fought for decades to regain official recognition for the tribe and undo a devastating 1910 State Supreme Court decision that declared the tribe "disintegrated" -- and stopped a tribal bid to reverse the sale of Indian Fields.
Pharaoh said there are about 1,500 modern-day tribe members, some as far away as Wisconsin and Hawaii.
Pharaoh said he would like to see "a very carefully planned restoration" of the Fowler House. East Hampton officials said they will develop a long-term strategy to preserve the home, which is badly in need of repairs. The front porch has fallen to pieces and crumpled to the ground, and its roof is protected by a tarp.
Devine has vivid memories of the home going back to childhood. Several Fowler children and grandchildren shared the property at one point in the early 1960s, a period Devine said he hopes is re-created in a restoration of the house.
Jake Fowler, George Fowler's son, was a medicine man and trapper who lived in a two-room house on the property, Devine said. The landscaping, he said, was carefully maintained by gardeners in the family. It was something Devine said he thought the family did to sustain a cherished way of life. But he learned the reality was much starker.
"When my Uncle Len [George Fowler's grandson, Leonard Horton] was dying, he said, 'I wish I could have lived in a more decent house,' " Devine recalled. "I got it backwards. They didn't necessarily want to live that way, but they did."