This story appeared in Newsday on March 22, 1998, as part of the "Long Island: Our Story'' history series.
Real estate promoters and local officials eager to bring the railroad to the East End of Long Island used questionable and possibly illegal means to break leases with Indians in Southampton and East Hampton towns a century ago and strip away their rights to 14,500 acres of prime real estate.
The breaking of leases with the Shinnecock and Montaukett Indians, in 1859 and the early 1880s, appears today to have been accomplished by deceit, lies and possibly forgery, a Newsday examination of historical and legal records shows. While the Indians themselves raised these issues at the time, their protests were dismissed in the courts.
In the case of the Shinnecocks, an 1859 petition that asked the state Legislature to pass legislation breaking a lease that covered the Shinnecock Hills may have contained forged names, names of dead Indians and minors.
"I remember the day when Capt. Louis Scott, Austin Rose and Capt. Jeter Rose drove on the reservation," a Shinnecock named David Killes testified under oath before a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in 1900. Killes said one of the men told his father ". . . the petition is going to Albany to-morrow and he said to my father, Are you going to sign it?' He said, I told you I would never sign it.' He said, Luther (my uncle), are you going to sign it?' He said, I will never sign it.' But they forged the names and put them on."
In the case of the Montauketts, an East Hampton man later admitted under oath in court that he had lied when he told the Indians that if they signed away their rights to land at Montauk Point, they still could return during summer months. But according to testimony before the same subcommittee in 1900, they were barred by force from returning, and Montauketts alleged that at least one of their homes was burned to the ground.
The breaking of the leases is not only important to historians but resonates today. The Montauketts have filed a notice of intent with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for recognition of their tribal rights. If they win recognition, the Montauketts say they will file a court case alleging fraud in the loss of their lands at Montauk Point, which today are mostly maintained as parkland by Suffolk County and New York State.
In Southampton, the Shinnecocks say they are assembling historical documentation in preparation for filing for federal recognition of their tribal status. Today, nearly all of the Shinnecock Hills are incorporated in two world-class golf clubs that sit on land worth millions of dollars.
Both the Shinnecock and Montaukett land deals were motivated by the expansion of the Long Island Rail Road in the mid-1800s. At that time, the railroad ran through the middle of Long Island from Queens to Greenport, but not along the South Shore. Hoping to induce officials to extend tracks farther east, many towns along the South Shore right of way floated bonds to help defray costs. Committees of businessmen, farmers, fishermen, elected officials and real estate promoters were formed in each town to lobby the Long Island Rail Road to extend its tracks from Queens to Babylon, Islip, Patchogue and east to Sag Harbor, then the most populous village in Suffolk County.
"It is certainly of vital interest that this road be constructed," the Sag Harbor Express editorialized in 1859. The year before, an official Suffolk County map had shown a proposed rail line leading from Riverhead to Southampton. "With the inauguration of this road our property will be doubled in value," the newspaper said.
But to reach the village - or any place on the South Fork, for that matter - a rail line had to cross the Shinnecock Hills, which was Indian land locked away for centuries under the terms of a lease signed in 1703 with the town trustees. The Shinnecocks used the high and rolling hills - among the most striking parcels of land on the East End - to hunt, cut wood and graze livestock.
"It was impossible for the railroad to come to the South Fork without crossing Shinnecock land," said John Strong, a history professor at the Southampton Campus of Long Island University. "The Shinnecocks could not legally sell a right of way because they did not own the land, they leased it. And the lease was good for 1,000 years. For the railroad to come, it had to cross Shinnecock land, so some kind of an arrangement had to be struck with the Shinnecocks or the lease had to be broken."
The Indians lost 3,500 acres of the Hills in the winter of 1859, when a group of investors that included leading citizens of Southampton proposed to break the 1,000-year lease in exchange for giving the Indians title to Shinnecock Neck, a tract of about 750 acres where the Indians today maintain a reservation. Saying they had a petition signed by 21 Shinnecocks in support of the proposition, the investors got the state Legislature to pass a bill authorizing the swap.
Only days after this petition arrived in Albany, records show, a second petition signed by another group of Shinnecocks reached the Capitol, alleging that the first petition was a forgery. The Legislature ignored the second petition. As a tribe, the Shinnecocks received no money for the exchange, nor did they approve it, although a federal law passed in 1790 required congressional as well as tribal approval for Indian land deals.
Records filed in the Suffolk County clerk's office in Riverhead show the investors held the land for two years, then sold it to a larger group that included themselves and others with the same last names. They then sold a 66-foot-wide right of way to the South Side Railroad Co., which would later merge with the LIRR. In 1869, tracks were laid across the Shinnecock Hills, connecting New York City to Sag Harbor. Land values soared.
By the mid-1880s, the Hills were sold to an enterprise called the Long Island Improvement Co. One of the company's five directors was Austin Corbin, president of the Long Island Rail Road. Newspaper accounts say that Corbin and his investors - including the president of Brooklyn Gas and Light Co., Arthur Benson - planned to build a hotel and a large summer colony on the site. Those plans never materialized, but within a few years, Corbin's land company started the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on the site. Today, Shinnecocks work as groundskeepers at the club.
It was a similarly grand dream - involving Corbin and Benson - that helped push the last group of Montauketts off leased land at Montauk Point, where the Indians were objects of curiosity for newspaper writers and tourists traveling to see the lighthouse.
In 1879, Benson bought about 10,000 acres reaching from Napeague to the point for $151,000 from a private group of East Hampton residents. Benson dreamed of an exclusive summer colony along the ocean, connected by railroad to New York City.
But smack in the middle of the point, on a tract of land called Indian Fields, the Montauketts were living under the terms of an East Hampton Town lease that granted to them residency and other rights "in perpetuity." In order for Benson to have clear title to the point - and also so that he would not have an impoverished Indian community inside a ring of expensive homes - he had to persuade the Montauketts to sign away their rights to the land and then move away. As was the case at Shinnecock, there appear to be no records showing that the Montauketts ever were approached as a group and asked to agree to the sale.
Benson hired the town's assessor, Nathaniel Dominy, to induce the Montauketts to move to homes he would provide in the Freetown section of East Hampton. Dominy offered the Montauketts as little as $10 each for signing individual deeds that gave ownership of Indian Fields to Benson. According to court testimony, Dominy also told the Indians they could return to Indian Fields whenever they wanted, a statement he later admitted was a lie.
The transcript of the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing shows that hardball tactics were used against reluctant Montauketts. One Montaukett testified at the hearing that the houses at Freetown that Benson gave the Indians as an inducement to relocate were no better than pig pens.
After gaining title to the property, Benson recouped part of his investment by selling a huge tract to the railroad - whose president was Corbin - for a right of way. He also sold other large pieces to Corbin individually. By 1890, according to newspaper records, the land at Montauk Point had soared in value and was worth between $3 million and $4 million. Records and newspaper accounts show that Corbin and Benson became partners in a grand scheme to turn Fort Pond Bay into what Corbin called a "nationally significant" deepwater port where cross-Atlantic steamships could dock. The dock would be connected to Manhattan by extending Corbin's Long Island Rail Road to Montauk.
If both Indian groups go to court, fraud will not be easy to prove. Official records of the Shinnecock Tribal Trustees, which have been kept by the Southampton Town clerk since the town's earliest history, are missing for the period immediately surrounding the 1859 land swap. Those records could possibly prove what contacts, if any, the original investors had with the tribe itself; they could also possibly substantiate the arguments made in the second petition that the names on the first were forged. There are also questions today as to how private investors in both towns managed to gain control of the land.
And, of course, witnesses to both events are long dead, their legacies kept alive in the memories of their descendants.
"We intend to do what we can to answer these questions," said the Rev. Michael Smith, a Shinnecock who is minister of the Presbyterian Church on the Southampton reservation. "It's important the truth be told." Shinnecock Hills
Soon after their arrival in Southampton in 1640, the English began making land deals with the Indians. The Shinnecocks' land base shrank as the English took more and more farmland and woodland. Soon, the only Indian villages in the town were on both sides of the narrow strip of land that separated Peconic Bay from Shinnecock Bay, a spot called Canoe Place. Today, the Shinnecock Canal passes through this narrow waist of land.
In 1703, the town trustees wrote a lease they said would be good for "one thousand years." It was signed by the trustees, who under the terms of the Dongan Patent - which governed land matters in New York - had the authority to negotiate with the Indians. Three Shinnecocks signed it - Pomguamo, Chice and Mahmanun - but the lease says it was approved by them "and their people."
The lease allowed the Indians to live, farm and cut wood on all of the land east of the Canoe Place, bounded by Peconic Bay on the north and Shinnecock Bay on the south. The eastern boundary ran from Shinnecock Creek north to the bay. This was the entirety of the Hills. In exchange for signing the lease, the Shinnecocks were paid 20 pounds in English money.
By 1859, the clamor to bring the railroad to the South Fork had risen to a crescendo. The year before, an official map of Suffolk County called the Chace map was published. For the first time, a county map showed a proposed railroad line from Riverhead to Southampton.
"The railroad was seen by everyone as progress," said Vincent F. Seyfried, the historian for the LIRR. "It allowed products to go back and forth and connected the towns to New York City. It was the future for these towns."
Apparently beginning in the fall of 1858, the Proprietors of the Trustees of the Common Lands of Southampton - a private group of investors not affiliated with town government - began approaching the Shinnecocks with the express purpose of breaking the lease. According to records, the proprietors were among the town's most influential families - Edwin Rose, David Rose, Austin Rose, David Hedges, Jeremiah Hedges, Enoch Halsey, Isaac Osborn, Erastus Foster, Seldin Foster, Edwin Post, George Post and Jon Fithian.
According to the testimony taken by the U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1900, individual Shinnecocks were approached by some of these men, asking them to sign a petition to the state Legislature that would legalize the breaking of the lease.
One Shinnecock, Eugene Johnson, testified: "In 1859 they circulated a paper among the Indians to get their signatures, agreeing to divide the reservation from the hills. Very few of the Indians signed it. The major part of them refused to sign it." One of the Shinnecocks who testified, James L. Cuffee - whose name appears on the petition - said his name was forged.
Under oath, Cuffee testified: "Mr. Rose came out . . . on the Neck and tried to get all the names signed to it that they could. He came to me at that time. I was trustee on the Neck and I told him no. I would not sign anything of the kind, and he went to several others to my knowledge - I do not know how many - but he could not get the majority of them. They would not sign it."
But the petition - which was entered into evidence at the Senate subcommittee hearings - reads as if the Shinnecocks themselves wanted to give the Hills to the proprietors because of disputes over livestock grazing. It reads, in part:
"Your petitions further show that of late years various disputes have arisen between the said Indians and the trustees of the proprietors of common lands of the town of Southampton in regard to their respective rights under the several deeds and leases, and that to put an end to these differences they have consented to an arrangement with the said trustees by which they are to surrender their lease to certain portions of these lands, and the trustees are to reconvey to the said tribe the residue."
It contains 21 Shinnecock signatures, 10 of which are a simple X. The name James L. Cuffee appears twice. The name Wickham Cuffee appears also as Wicks Cuffee.
Within days of this petition being sent to Albany, a second petition was written, this one signed by 12 Shinnecocks, including James L. Cuffee. It reads, in part: ". . . we depose that said names . . . were forgeries . . . some of the names purporting to be names of signers were not signed by the parties bearing the name in the petition; that others of the signers, or pretended signers, who had a right to those names signed were dead, and buried for years; that others were never known to the tribe, nor did they ever belong to the tribe; that the others . . . were minors . . ."
Today, there are no town or tribal records to show who was alive or dead as of that date, or even who was a Shinnecock. The records of the Shinnecock Tribal Trustees are missing for that period. "There is so much that is lost," said Michael Smith, adding - as the Shinnecocks in 1900 also testified - that there are no indications the community itself approved the breaking of the lease.
"If the breaking of the lease was entirely above board, why didn't they ask the tribal government to approve it?" he said. "If this is a good petition, why are names repeated twice?"
Testimony at the Senate hearing showed that, once the lease was broken and the railroad extended, the value of the Hills soared to more than $3 million. Testimony also showed that Shinnecocks were barred, sometimes by force, from returning. One Shinnecock testified that his elderly Indian aunt "got banged pretty nearly to death for cutting a stick of basket wood."
Records on file in the Suffolk County clerk's office in Riverhead show that the proprietors sold the Hills in 1861 for $6,726, or about $2 an acre - well below the value of surrounding land in the town - to a group that included themselves and family members. There are Roses, Fosters and Posts on both lists. Records in Southampton Town, along with newspaper accounts, said the proprietors retained the railroad right-of-way, which they sold after the 1861 sale for $500. In two years, more than $7,000 had changed hands, none of it ending up with the Shinnecocks. By the spring of 1870, rail service to Sag Harbor had been inaugurated.
Accounts in a Southampton newspaper called the Sea-Side Times show that the arrival of the railroad in Southampton Town began a period of enormous change. In 1881, Corbin - who had developed the summer resort at Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn - became president of the LIRR. During the summer of 1882, he brought what were described as his real estate partners - a British investment firm called the American Improvement Co. - to Shinnecock Hills.
Describing one excursion of Corbin and the investors, the newspaper wrote: "They stopped on some of the elevations on Shinnecock Hills and prospected the sight of a contemplated summer hotel." The same story said: ". . . at Shinnecock Hills, the company proposes to lay out a large park of 500 acres, the arms of which should be lined with cottages - those fronting the sea in villa style, and those inland surrounded by small farms of from two to five acres in extent. Those improvements will cost $3.5 million."
A story in the Brooklyn Union-Argus that summer of 1882 said: "Mr. Corbin's plans for the development of Long Island are so comprehensive that practical people . . . may be inclined to consider them as merely imaginative. But Mr. Corbin is backed by almost limitless foreign capital."
In March, 1884, a company in which Corbin was one of the directors, the Long Island Improvement Co., bought the Shinnecock Hills for an undisclosed price - newspaper accounts say the price was hundreds of thousands of dollars - from a group that included some of the original proprietors who had broken the lease in 1859, one of whom was Austin Rose. Newspaper stories and land records show that one of Corbin's partners on the Hills was Arthur Benson, the Brooklyn Gas and Light Co. president, who in 1879 had bought Montauk Point from the Proprietors of East Hampton - also a group of private investors - and was planning a huge summer resort there.
In 1891, the Long Island Improvement Co. opened the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on the site and a grand clubhouse designed by Stanford White was completed the next year.
"You come out on the train and you see that Stanford White house when you stop at the Shinnecock station," said David Goddard, a Southampton archivist hired by the golf club to research its history. "It was done that way by the improvement company to attract development. Corbin had always had his hand in two places - the development of huge resorts and the expansion of the railroad." Montauk Point
They were a small group in the 1880s, perhaps no more than 20 people. They lived in small houses on rocky land overlooking salt water. They fished, hunted, cut wood, tended livestock and chickens, and worked for white families in East Hampton.
Tourists on their way to the 18th-Century lighthouse at the tip of Montauk Point passed by their little Indian community. Often the visitors would stop and look them over as if they were sideshow attractions. The only thing missing was a billboard telling tourists to turn left at the dirt road if they wanted to see "The Last Village of the Montauk Indians."
Corbin and Benson had big dreams for this same land. Their plan, which would produce millions in new revenue for Corbin's railroad, was to construct an international seaport at Montauk's Fort Pond Bay. They envisioned British merchant ships docking to avoid New York's crowded harbor - reducing their voyage across the Atlantic by 120 miles.
The story begins in 1879, when Benson bought about 10,000 acres of Montauk Point from the proprietors for $151,000. He surprised onlookers by plunking down a 10 percent deposit in cash pulled from his pocket.
But although Benson now owned the land, he did not have unrestricted rights to it - there was the matter of the lease given to the Montauketts in 1703. That lease was for about 11,000 acres of Montauk Point, and covered residency, hunting and fishing rights "in perpetuity." A year before the auction at which Benson bought the property, a local judge had ruled that it was legal for the trustees to sell tracts at Montauk Point, but the tribe's rights to use the same land had to be protected as spelled out in the old lease.
After buying the land, Benson began building summer resort homes, including some designed by Stanford White. Soon, his friends were conducting English-style fox hunting on the high plains. One of his summer guests was Corbin, who promised to build a giant railroad terminus at this new port and to ship passengers and freight on his LIRR trains to New York at 60 mph. He would eventually travel to England and raise $5 million for a syndicate he controlled with investors from London and Boston.
Corbin was not one to shrink from a challenge. By 1881, he had gained control of the money-losing railroad - that year, it lost $136,000 - and began to pull it out of receivership and toward profitability. After purchasing other rail systems running through Brooklyn and Queens, Corbin was dubbed by the press as "the King of Long Island." He bought a luxurious home in Babylon, where he entertained President Chester A. Arthur and his son in 1882.
But Corbin and Benson acted cautiously in informing both the Montauketts and the white townspeople of their plans. In September, 1882, some East Hampton residents expressed alarm about his plans for a railroad through the town. Even as Corbin was suggesting he would extend the line to Montauk, he was already deep in plans to do it.
In October, 1882, the Hempstead Inquirer published an account of a meeting that took place between "Mr. Benson, the proprietor of Montauk, and the representatives of the Long Island Railroad and others interested in the establishment of a fast line of steamers between Europe and Montauk." But the same account said that Benson had "declined an offer of $100,000 for the right of way to Fort Pond Bay and land for a depot."
Two months later, the newspaper indicated that Benson had a change of heart. He was now "willing to sell his land" to the railroad, but with no indication of when such a future deal would take place.
But land records reviewed by Newsday show that Benson had already signed an agreement, in January, 1882, for a railroad right of way with a company called the Montauk Association, which was controlled by Corbin. After an initial payment of $18,235, Benson privately joined in Corbin's Montauk development efforts. Their agreement included a promise by Corbin, as court records would later show, to buy more of Benson's land.
But the Montauketts at Indian Fields were a crucial stumbling block to these grandiose plans. To help secure the rights to this land, Benson enlisted the help of Nathaniel Dominy, the East Hampton Town assessor, whose family had known the Montauketts for a long time. Dominy agreed to act as Benson's agent in trying to persuade the Montauketts to sign away their rights and move to small lots in the Freetown section of East Hampton. Letters written back and forth between the two men show that Dominy was being paid for his services, and that Benson pushed him hard when some Montauketts balked at giving up their rights at Indian Fields and relocating to Freetown.
First, Dominy and Benson focused on Maria Pharaoh - widow of deceased chief David Pharaoh - who worked as a midwife in East Hampton. Together, they tried to persuade her to sign a written agreement that Benson had prepared. Dominy promised that Benson would pay her $100 outright and an annual annuity of $240 if she would sign. Dominy also offered to relocate her home from Indian Fields to Freetown. As he would later testify in a court proceeding, Dominy assured Pharaoh that she could return to Indian Fields in the summer months.
Maria signed the deed in the spring of 1885. Also signing was her brother George, and her son Wyandank, who because he was a youngster, received only $10. In the next few years, other Montauketts who had rebuffed Dominy's initial offers slowly followed their example, each for $100 in cash and a small plot in Freetown. There was no returning after that. Testimony at the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings in 1900 indicated that at least one house at Indian Fields was set ablaze, and newspaper accounts show that Benson leveled the houses there as soon as deeds were signed.
By 1886, Corbin had lined up much of his investment money for his international shipping and rail plan, and began lobbying Congress and Albany for legislation to open the new seaport at Fort Pond Bay. He also wanted to establish a U.S. Customs office on the site. In addition, he pushed hard for federal approval to carry the mail on ships out of Montauk.
In the meantime, Corbin continued to buy up land around Montauk. To show off the viability of his Montauk rail plans, he made a test run from Long Island City to the new train station at Amagansett, covering the 110 miles in 109 minutes.
In 1895 - by now, Benson had died - Corbin and his partners bought 4,000 acres of the original 10,000 from Benson's widow and his son, Frank, for $200,000. Just 16 years before, Benson had bought the entire 10,000 acres for $151,000. A court case brought by the Montauketts later revealed that Corbin planned to buy more Benson family land at Montauk. Meanwhile, Corbin's LIRR planned to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the railroad and other improvements. At Montauk and Shinnecock, Corbin was investing both as an individual and as the president of the railroad.
At a Montaukett community meeting in that summer of 1895, the Indians decided to hire a lawyer to contest the Benson purchase of their ancestral land, which they said had been done without the tribe's approval.
In the meantime, Corbin proceeded full speed with his plans for the Fort Pond Bay development. He arranged for a bill to be introduced in the U.S. Senate that would establish a duty-free port at Fort Pond Bay. And, in March, 1896, he began building docks at Fort Pond Bay, with a new steel pier. But that summer, fate intervened.
While vacationing in New Hampshire, Corbin went for a ride with his grandson in a horse-drawn wagon. At one point, the horses bolted when Corbin raised a sun umbrella into the air and the carriage plummeted down an embankment. The coachman was killed and Corbin and his grandson suffered fractures. Corbin died later that day, leaving an estate estimated at between $25 million and $40 million.
Though some early construction would be finished, Corbin's ambitious plans for Montauk essentially died with him. But his rapid buildup of the LIRR across Long Island is still considered the railroad's golden age.
For the Montauketts, their lawsuit contesting the sale of their lands dragged on for years. Gradually, some questionable aspects of the deal came to light.
At the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in 1900, several Indians testified, as did Dominy, and a number of leases and other documents were entered into evidence. Dominy spoke at length of his efforts to push the Montauketts off Indian Fields, saying at one point that he paid one "lame" Indian child named Ephraim Pharaoh just $10. He also said that, at the time, the boy was a cook in the Dominy household.
The testimony from the Montauketts was bitter and emotional. One man, Eugene Johnson, said Montauketts who tried to return to Indian Fields after Benson bought the property were arrested or removed "by force." Another Montaukett, Nathan Cuffee, said Benson and Dominy promised, in moving the Indians to Freetown, to either relocate their homes or build new ones.
"The understanding or the promise by Mr. Benson to those people was that he was to build them comfortable homes, with so much land to accompany each house," Nathan Cuffee testified. "And I have been in the houses, every one of them, without exception, and most of the houses, except one, are built of plain pine boards, stood on end, without any chimneys to them, without any plastering; just such a pen as I would build for a pig."
In 1909, the Montaukett lawsuit finally went to trial. Now in his 80s, Nathaniel Dominy took the stand. Referring to Maria Pharaoh, he was asked by the tribe's lawyer: "Did you tell her that after she moved away, and was given this deed, that she could move back?"
"I told her this," Dominy replied. "I venture to say . . . I told every one of them."
Instead of trying to defend the deal with the Montauketts, the lawyers for the Benson estate argued that the Montauketts had intermarried with blacks and thus diluted their "Indian blood." After a year of deliberation, Judge Abel Blackmar in Riverhead State Supreme Court threw out the Indians' case, saying that the Montauketts no longer existed as a tribe. Inside the packed courtroom, 75 Montauketts sat in stunned silence. Later, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed Blackmar's ruling.
Robert Cooper - who recently was elected chief of the tribe in a disputed vote - and his cousin, Robert Pharaoh, say they are determined to see the Montauketts' rights as a tribe recognized by the federal government. If the government grants recognition to the tribe, they say they will launch a legal effort to have some of their lands returned. Today, much of the land at Montauk Point comprises county-owned parkland along with private homes.
"I would call it coercion, a land fraud - leading people with promises that never happened," says Pharaoh. "These were people with very little money, who worked as domestics and were victimized from the time they lost their lands until they passed away."
Scholars and legal experts interviewed by Newsday seem to agree with this assessment. "The law says that you can't negotiate directly with individual Indians and that you must deal directly with the tribe," declares John Strong.
By modern legal standards, experts say, a court could overturn this land deal because of the evidence of false promises to the tribe. "You'd have a real shot at overturning on the basis of fraud, especially when the buyer was promising they could return but was already interested in the selling the property to the railroad," says Anthony P. Gallo, chairman of the Suffolk County Bar Association Real Property Committee. "I'd say this was a fraudulent act perpetrated on the Indians."
On a recent afternoon, Robert Pharaoh stood on an overlook of Montauk Highway and gazed toward the small cemetery where his ancestors are buried. Beyond the cemetery, the land sweeps majestically to the sea. The railroad tracks can be seen in the distance, a reminder of what happened a century ago.
"I come here and draw strength from this place," he said. "My ancestors know what happened isn't right."