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Historical documents a treasure trove for Town of Islip

Records management assistant Shirleyne Millien-St. Pierre, left, town

Records management assistant Shirleyne Millien-St. Pierre, left, town historian George Munkenbeck and Town Clerk Olga H. Murray go through historical documents Monday at Islip Town Hall. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Tucked away in a corner of Islip’s Town Hall West is a trove of historical documents: Birth records dating to 1881, school records from the early 19th century and a royal patent from 1701 that was instrumental in establishing the town.

Town Clerk Olga H. Murray said she is passionate about protecting these links to the past, which is why she’s spearheading an effort to get expert help preserving the records that tell the story of Islip’s unusual history.

“This stuff is so important,” she said. “By doing this project, not only will we preserve the documents for posterity, but I want to make present-day use of these documents a positive experience for the residents.”

The town is applying for a free preservation survey from the Documentary Heritage & Preservation Services for New York. The nonprofit works with local governments to review how documents are stored, including temperature, humidity and the amount of ultraviolet light, preservation specialist Gillian Marcus said. They then create a report that outlines priorities and a strategy for preserving the collection.

“We feel that local governments have a great deal of important material which sometimes gets overlooked,” Marcus said. “Local governments can have some real treasures.”

She said a decision will be made on Islip’s application in mid-May.

Islip’s collection reveals a story of a very different founding from that of other Long Island towns.

The area was purchased from the American Indian Secatogue Tribe in 1683. Its boundaries were defined by royal patents that the king of England issued to five families that prevented the towns of Smithtown, Huntington and Brookhaven from governing the territory.

Unlike other towns, which have formal charters establishing them, the patents gave these families the rights to manage and run the properties, which amounted to 72,000 acres.

The five founding families ran their estates like English manors, operating mostly in isolation from other towns without a formal government and an emphasis on avoiding taxation.

It wasn’t until 1720 that, at the urging of the Colony of New York, a formal town government was established.

All of these details have been uncovered through the town’s historic documents, with new treasures being found all the time.

In the past year, Murray and town historian George Munkenbeck “were ecstatic” at a new discovery: a 1792 letter from then-Supervisor Nathaniel Conklin to New York State that described the town’s bucolic appearance at the time.

“The main County Road running through this Town, across the said Necks, is about a mile from the Bay . . . It gives the farmer an agreeable prospect, as he may from a door or window of his house see nearly over all the improved part of his farm; together with a prospect of the bay, and ocean and in the summer season almost every day in the afternoon there is a cool refreshing breeze from the sea,” Conklin wrote.

“All of this stuff allows us to literally touch the face of history,” Munkenbeck said. “These are records of ordinary people reacting in extraordinary times. That’s what makes this such a treasure trove.”

Key dates in Islip’s history

1683: The area now known as Islip was purchased from the Native American Secatogue Tribe.

1710: New York governor ordered Islip residents to elect five men to fill public offices, but the community gathered and declined to establish a town board.

1720: New York governor again ordered the fledgling community to establish a government, and this time the 31 property owners elected five men who held the town’s first board meeting.

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