As the 17th century dawned in Europe, two powerful countries pushed west across the ocean on a search for new lands to exploit and settle. Their collision in the New World would decide the future of Long Island.
The two powers were the Netherlands and England. The Netherlands was enjoying a Golden Age — one of the smallest countries in Europe had become a wealthy superpower. Across the English Channel, England was on the verge of social upheaval that would propel thousands of its citizens out of the country on a search for a new England.
For the Netherlands, the New World represented a business opportunity; for the English, land for new settlements. They both laid claim to Long Island, where the Dutch took hold of the western end and, later, the English settled on the eastern end. In Europe, the English Channel separated the two countries; on Long Island, it was 100 miles of wilderness occupied for thousands of years by bands of Indians.
Before their struggle was resolved, slavery would be introduced to the region; hundreds of Indians would be killed in a brutal episode called the Kieft War; an English engineer named Lion Gardiner would meet a Montaukett Indian named Wyandanch, and their friendship would leave a deep imprint on the history of Long Island; new towns would be settled, churches and schools built; a woman from East Hampton would be put on trial as a witch, and the Indians who had greeted the Europeans would be removed from their land and reduced to paupers.
The story begins on Manhattan Island.
By the mid-1620s, after nearly a decade of trading with the Indians along the great river discovered by Henry Hudson, the Dutch decided to establish a permanent presence at the southern end of what is today Manhattan Island. In its first few years, the tiny settlement was little more than a collection of log huts connected by dirt cart paths; a large warehouse in which furs and other trade items were stored; a church, and a handful of other structures. North of the settlement were open fields where sheep and cows grazed, and beyond that were dense woods and rocky outcroppings that extended all the way to the northern tip of the island.
Needing land to raise food and other crops, such as tobacco, the Dutch soon leapfrogged to western Long Island, a land of infinite promise and far better suited for homesites. Soon, small villages cropped up — New Ultrecht, Breuckelen, both named after towns in the Netherlands, and Gravesend. Ferries plied the river between the settlement at New Amsterdam, on Manhattan Island, and the farming villages on Lange Eylandt.
“In the beginning,” said Paul Otto, a history professor at Dordt College in Iowa, “the Dutch were looking for trade opportunities and not permanent colonies. They were expanding their economy outward into areas such as sugar, tobacco and the slave trade, which was their real bread and butter. But the growth of the English colonies upset the balance, and endangered their claim to the new lands. They set up their colony at New Amsterdam so they could say they occupied the land and therefore it was theirs.”
By the mid-1630s, English settlers had begun to push south along the southern New England coastline. As with immigrants leaving England and sailing to Massachusetts, the motivation for this move was in large part religious. Squabbles among religious leaders in Massachusetts led to conservative groups splitting off to look for new colonies where church rules could be strictly enforced.
This push south into wilderness controlled by Indian groups such as the Pequots brought the Dutch and the English to within 50 miles of each other — the English in Connecticut, the Dutch in rural outposts on western Long Island and in what is now Westchester County.
But the English desire to settle the stretch of coastline that today runs from the mouth of the Connecticut River east to New London would spark a cataclysmic war and the nearly total slaughter of the Pequots, who occupied the land and had trading arrangements with the Dutch. It was this war that allowed for the nearly peaceful settlement of eastern Long Island by English colonists.
In the spring of 1637, soldiers led by two mercenaries, John Mason and John Underhill, attacked a Pequot fort near what is now Mystic. Hundreds were killed by the English, including women and children; many were burned alive when the fort was set ablaze. More than 1,000 Pequots were killed by English soldiers and their Indian allies in subsequent months. (The descendants of the few survivors were settled on a reservation that today is the site of Foxwoods, the world’s most profitable gambling casino.)
Documents show that one of the Indian leaders who hunted down Pequots and cut off their heads to present to the English was Wyandanch, a Montaukett who lived in the area of today’s East Hampton. He did so at the behest of an Englishman named Lion Gardiner, and the two men would become fast friends until death. In the aftermath of the war, Gardiner purchased the island that today bears his family’s name off the coast of East Hampton — he was the first Englishman to settle on eastern Long Island; his daughter, Elizabeth, was the first English child born in what is now New York State.
By 1640, small groups of English colonists followed in Gardiner’s wake, sailing from Connecticut to both the North and South Forks of Long Island. They established tiny communities they called Southold — named for a village in England called Southwold — and Southampton. Each of the Long Island towns claims to have been first; there is no way today to prove it one way or the other.
History on Long Island is in large part an unbroken chain. In Southold, the first families included families such as Reeve, Wells, Terry, Tuthill and Booth, all of whom have descendants there today. The same is true in Southampton, where the earliest names — Howell, Halsey, Cooper and Sayre — also have descendants today.
By that same year, 1640, the Dutch had hundreds of settlers spread across western Long Island in small, remote farming villages. They also had English settlers in their area, and one was Deborah Moody, who was one of the first to settle in Gravesend, Breuckelen. A fighter for religious freedom, Moody was perhaps the most remarkable Long Island woman of the 17th Century. One of the earliest Dutch settlers on Long Island was Joris deRapelje, who in the mid-1620s lived near the present-day Brooklyn Navy Yard. Joris’ daughter, Sarah, born in a Dutch village near Albany, was the first white child born in what was to become New York State. A descendant, Peter Rapelje, lives today in Glen Cove — another example of the unbroken chain.
From a European point of view, Long Island was now multinational — Dutch at one end, English at the other.
“The Dutch saw where they were as New Netherlands, an extension of the old country,” said Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherlands Project in Albany. “Their villages were Dutch, the language was Dutch, as were the customs and laws. New Amsterdam looked like a village in Holland. Even when non-Dutch settlers came into their area, they were part of the Dutch system.”
At the opposite end of Long Island, the tiny communities of the North and South Forks were carbon copies of small, rural villages in England. Here, though, the church controlled all government affairs, and to be an official of any kind, a person had to be a member in good standing of the church. The church set the laws and the punishment for lawbreakers, and basically ran the day-to-day life of the town’s residents. Nonchurch members — such as Quakers, whose practices were heretical to the Puritans — were punished, often severely.
Along with being outwardly pious, these early settlers also were superstitious. According to one early account, “If a rooster crowed on your doorstep, company was coming. If you dropped a fork, it was a man; a knife, a woman; a spoon, a child. A door hinge creaking was a sign of death. If the bottom of your feet itched, you were going to walk on strange ground. If your left ear burned, you would hear bad news; if your right, good news. If you spilled salt, put some in the fire so as to avoid a quarrel. Always take salt and a new broom into a house before moving in. Never cut a baby’s nails until a year old or you will make a thief of it.”
Superstitions were not always so benign. In the 1650s, an East Hampton woman, Goodwife Garlick, was tried for witchcraft after a neighbor — the daughter of Lion Gardiner — died unexpectedly. Her trial — at which she was acquitted — was the first of its kind on Long Island, and presaged a wave of witchcraft trials in New England.
The dramas played out by the English have no Dutch counterpart. The Dutch were spread thin across a wide area, raising tobacco, corn and livestock on land originally cleared by the Indians and trading for such items as beaver and otter pelts. In sharp contrast to the English settlements, New Amsterdam, the log hamlet at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, was home to an abundance of religions and nationalities. New Amsterdam, and all of New Netherlands, from Long Island to the small settlement near what is now Albany, was a commercial venture, not a religious one.
The colony’s commercial underpinnings can be seen in a momentous action that occurred in 1626 — a ship holding 11 African slaves sailed into New Amsterdam. Dutch records attach names to some of the 11 — Paul d’Angelo, Simon Congo, Anthony Portugese and John Francisco. But it would be the English who would expand slavery across the region, with slaves doing farm work in every town on Long Island.
While relations between Indians and English would remain quiet in the aftermath of the Pequot War, this was not the case in the Dutch-held areas. In 1640, the year Southold and Southampton were established, a war broke out across Manhattan and western Long Island that would result in more than 1,000 Indian deaths, including a massacre of more than 100 Indians in what is today Massapequa. It was called the Kieft War, after the Dutch governor of the province, Willem Kieft, who would be recalled in disgrace to the Netherlands. He was lost at sea on his return trip.
Importantly, it is not just modern-day historians looking back at the Kieft War who describe it as brutal — it was described that way by a Dutchman of the day, in a document dated in 1649. The author of the document, who does not name himself, was apparently an eyewitness to events and, more than likely, a government official disgusted by Kieft’s behavior. He writes the document in a question-and-answer format to officials in the Netherlands with the hope of getting Kieft replaced. In the document, he rips into Kieft as a greedy and brutal tyrant who had “for a long time secretly intended to begin a war with the savages of New Netherlands, because they had refused, on reasonable grounds, to give him a certain contribution ...”
The author additionally states: “Further, they [the Indians] had allowed us to remain peaceably in their country ... we were under obligations to them, and not they to us.” In a reference to Dutch explorer Adrian Block — who, in 1614, spent the winter on Manhattan Island building a ship from scratch after his burned to the waterline — the author says, “that when our nation, having lost a ship there had built a new one, they had supplied them with victuals and all other necessaries, and had taken care of them for two winters till the ship was finished; consequently, we were under obligations to them, not they to us.’’
The author writes of Indians being beheaded by the Dutch, or burned alive. “Young children, some of them snatched from their mothers, were cut in pieces before the eyes of their parents, and the pieces were thrown into the fire or into the water; other babes were bound on planks and then cut through, stabbed and miserably massacred, so that it would break a heart of stone ...”
With brute force, the Dutch could push the Indians off their land, but they could not keep the English away. For two decades after the Kieft War, the two nations lived in peace side by side on Long Island. In 1647, a new Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, arrived on the scene at a time of increasing hostility between the two sides, with an English official in Massachusetts, William Bradford, predicting war.
There are few characters in Colonial history quite like Stuyvesant. His tenure as a leader was long, 17 years, and he cut a fascinating figure — he had a peg leg embroidered with silver bands. He lost his right leg when it was crushed by a cannonball in a battle in the Caribbean. One surviving portrait of him, painted in 1660, shows a man with a broad, wide face.
When he arrived on the scene, Stuyvesant could see that English settlers were spilling into Dutch areas, so in 1650 he negotiated a treaty in Hartford that drew a line that began near present-day Greenwich, Connecticut, and crossed Long Island, beginning just west of what is now Oyster Bay. West of this line was Dutch, east of it was English. But forces in Europe were to quickly undo the Treaty of Hartford.
“Beginning in the early 1650s, the Dutch and English began fighting in Europe over trade and naval supremacy,” said Otto, the history professor at Dordt College. “The situation spilled over into the New World, where by the mid-1660s the English were moving to kick the Dutch out of New Netherlands. Locally, there was a desire for more territory and the English were pushing up against the Dutch borders.”
The issue of who owned Long Island and the surrounding territory was settled — on paper, at least — when in March, 1664, Charles II gave his brother, James, the duke of York, a grant that covered the area from Maine south to the “De la Ware Bay.” James organized a fleet of warships under the command of Richard Nicolls — who would become the first English governor of what is today New York State, and whose legacy can be seen in street names, such as Nicolls Road — and in late August he anchored off the shoreline of Gravesend and threatened to attack Fort Amsterdam. By early September, the Dutch agreed to leave, and James sent word of his victory to Massachusetts, signing his letter “from New Yorke upon the Island of the Manhatoes.”
Eighteen months later, the Dutch returned to retake Fort Amsterdam. They did not keep it for long, and in 1674, they gave it up permanently. Nicolls served as English governor from 1664-68, and under his leadership enacted the Duke’s Laws, a code designed primarily for residents of Long Island. These were the first English laws in Colonial New York, covering a number of political issues, and were deeply resented across Long Island because, among other things, the laws imposed taxes without popular consent.
Long Island was now a part of England.