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Life, law, love found in Huntington historic documents

The historical Duke's Law -- an 84-page document

The historical Duke's Law -- an 84-page document drafted on behalf of the Duke of York in 1665 that governed all aspects of life on Long Island -- is one of many historical records that the Town of Huntington has digitized for public access. The original document is seen on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

A slave’s birth record. A 350-year-old law. The deed that sealed the purchase of Huntington from the Matinecock tribe.

The fragile, yellowed documents are finding new life beyond a bank vault door that protects thousands of pages of Huntington’s history in the basement of Town Hall.

Town Clerk Jo-Ann Raia and Town Archivist Antonia Mattheou have spent almost a year in the painstaking process of digitizing archives that date to the town’s founding in 1653. The effort that started in November 2015 has made centuries-old documents accessible for the first time through an online catalogue used by 2,000 libraries and museums worldwide.

“Manuscripts can be as interesting and as beautiful as artifacts, but their value lies in the information they contain,” Mattheou wrote in a memo outlining the digitization project for town officials. “They are the primary sources upon which historical facts are based and they are the sources scholars refer to in order to understand the past and reconstruct events.”

Huntington is the first town on Long Island, and one of just a few municipalities statewide, to digitize historical documents through the Online Computer Library Center — known as OCLC — a Dublin, Ohio-based library cooperative that hosts archives from around the world.

“I’m very proud of this project. It’s opening additional doors to people who can’t actually come and do research here,” Raia said, noting that academics and other researchers often visit the town’s archive, known for its rich collection.

Many Long Island libraries, museums, historical societies and other institutions have digitized their archives through OCLC.

“Digitization makes these things accessible to everyone,” said Virginia Antonucci-Gibbons, regional archivist for the Long Island Library Resources Council. “It just opens the world up, to let people see what history we have here on Long Island.”

Huntington officials continue to expand the town’s digital collection, which so far includes 664 documents. The town pays $225 a year for membership and use of the software, with the only other cost being hours by Mattheou and a part-time archive employee.

The digitization process is complex and slow. Mattheou has been trained to use CONTENTdm, OCLC’s archive software. The town’s information technologies department reallocated a special scanner to the archive department that produces high-quality images of the fragile, centuries-old pages.

Raia contends one of the most important documents is the Indian Deed of 1653, which records the purchase of Huntington from Resaokon Sagamore, then chief of the “Matinnicoke” tribe — the spellings of tribes, names and places often vary in old records. They traded the land for various supplies, including 10 knives, 30 needles and other items that would belie the true value of the deal.

So far, Huntington’s most sought-out document is the Duke’s Law, an 84-page document drafted on behalf of the Duke of York in 1665 that governed all aspects of life on Long Island.

Its addresses jury selection, the discipline of unruly children, and bounties paid for dead wolves, among other rules.

Raia and Mattheou have sought evidence of any other original copies of the Duke’s Law, without success. They said they believe Huntington has the only surviving original, handwritten copy.

Other popular documents include records about slaves, including births, indentures and “manumissions,” which record the freeing of individual slaves.

Each document’s story that contributes to a larger tale of Huntington’s formation, its role in the Revolutionary War and the changes that all British colonies went through when the United States was formed.

“When it comes to archives, it’s like a puzzle,” Mattheou said. “You have pieces, and you keep on finding pieces here and there, and then you put it all together.”

One of the puzzles that Mattheou and Raia said they most enjoyed unraveling was that of Abraham Van Wyck’s heartbreak — as told through love letters he sent in 1819 to a woman only identified as “Mary,” and her own letter breaking off their engagement.

The letters — part of the town’s archives, but not currently in the online collection — offer a rare glimpse into courtship rituals of the time.

Mary informed Van Wyck that she could not marry him because her mother did not approve of the union, but also noted that he could not “support me in the Style of ease & comfort in which I am at present living,” as well as his poor health. “Your constitution has been impaired by that most dreadful of all maladies, the consumption.”

In a six-page response that Van Wyck drafted but never mailed, he recalled how Mary led him on with “an electric kiss from your nectarous lips, as a pledge of your engagement and constancy.”

Raia and Mattheou have not yet confirmed their suspicion that the spurned lover is related to Robert Anderson Van Wyck, the namesake for the Van Wyck Expressway, who in 1898 became the first mayor of New York as a five-borough city.

Mattheou, citing the unusual find of the love letters, said her job sometimes feels like a treasure hunt, with each newly discovered page opening up a window into another time.

“History never gets old,” she said.

Huntington digital archives, by the numbers:

664 — Number of documents uploaded to the town’s digital archive so far.

1,369 — Number of views that Huntington’s digitized documents garnered in July, the most current full month for which data is available.

363 years — The age of the Indian Deed of 1653, the oldest document in Huntington’s digital archive.

To search the Town of Huntington’s digital archive, go to http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16373coll130.

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