Last Land Day
When does the East End of Long Island run out of buildable land? Even this question is a long step from the first boat load of Massachusetts Bay Colonists landing in 1640. Initially they erroneously claimed some Dutch land by what would now be northern Hempstead. The ruling Dutch Governor kicked the Englishmen out because land belonged to countries, and they were of the wrong country. They sailed into new waters West of Gardiner’s Island between the forks. Probably just seeing the sand cliffs of Little Peconic Bay or trees to the shoreline, the ship’s captain must have been relieved to find a shallow little inlet now called North Sea Harbor that rolled up to sandy shores.
According to the historical record, my relative Thomas Sayre and his brother Job settled as colonists in Lynn, Massachusetts just south of the Bay colony’s center, Salem where they proceeded to chop down a few stout trees to build a house. Unbeknownst to the Sayres, this was unpermitted land use and they were locked up in jail. After about a year they plea bargained with Governor Winthrop and agreed to leave Massachusetts for good. With some other adventurer-business men, they pooled their money and hired a transport boat to form a colony.
On the face of it, North Sea Harbor must seem like a good place to start a colony. I imagine the boat initially sailed around the North side of Shelter Island, looking out for rocks and taking water depths every once and awhile, and noting the strong tidal flow. Once they entered Little Peconic Bay, they must have already passed up some of the smaller inlets like Clam Island of Jessup’s neck, Wooley Pond of Rose’s Grove, and even wondered about turning back. Was it the draw of towering Holm’s Hill that fueled their curiosity greater than the doubt that a harbor could be found in these protected waters? The captain of this vessel must have been like a nautical blood hound, sniffing out the scent of the best place to start a colony, passing over a multitude of estuaries looking for just the right place.
Their decision for Conscience Point is telling. This band did not select a place for easy vessel entry: they were not setting up a commodities trading post that needed to serve a fleet of sailing ships. That came later with Sag Harbor. No, it was pasture they hoped for, something like what they knew from back home in England. Some land they could claim their own without tribute to the lords and tax collectors.
And they were not hunters like the natives, but surely recognized that a source for fish, shell fish, and game would be critical to survival. While Conscience Point may have seemed good — not too far from fresh water ponds and close to the bay– the band of ten including one wife and young son did not settle there for long. Was it the native Shinnecocks who knew the importance of that estuary and sent some encouragement to the colonists to settle more South and away from an area that provided the dark purple quahogs that are needed to fabricate the wampum trading beads? Eventually the tribe receives sixteen coats and 60 bushels of corn in exchange for the land from North Sea South to the Ocean and West to the canal. In a land brimming with protein, whether fish, deer, or turkeys, the one life limiting ingredient is carbohydrates and thus corn becomes the currency of the land like rice in the Edo period of Japan.
What did the local Natives want with the land? Nothing. They wanted places and areas that resonated with feeling and held sacred meanings. Land was not static but moving zones that produced succulent oysters and clams and hills and valleys that led to sure trapping of game. The idea of land was as fluid as the fishes swimming to different areas with the tide.
And the Conscience Point settlers, what did they want? LAND. A fixed place marked by four straight lines. “…the same and every part thereof quietly and peaceably to enjoy, to them and their heires[sic] forever, without any disturbance, lett[sic] or molestation from the said Earl…” as recorded in the original land patent written by James Farnett.
The original lines, defining land, contained 40 home lots centered on Southampton Hospital and sold for $150. By 1782 all the land had lines on it, recorded and passed down through money or birthright. By the 1800s the most valuable property was the home. Without cordless drills, skill saws and Home Depot, the investment to build a home was considerable. Also, since our country was young the cost of labor was high. By 1838 a visiting Scottish engineer notes labor cost twice in America compared to Britain. Thus began the era of dragging homes over the fields. Some stout timber, a multitude of screw jacks, and a team of horses were all that was needed to relocate. Even on Eastern Long Island, land was considered infinite, but people and materials to build scarce.
Under those fields lie rich loamy soils created by the glacial bulldozer that ran over New England and deposited its load on the glacial moraine called Long Island. Well drained due to the sand base, and buffered by the surrounding waters, the land became well suited to growing potatoes. We can actually survive healthily on a diet of potatoes supplemented only with milk or butter, aka mashed potatoes, which contain the two vitamins not provided by potatoes, vitamins A and D. The cultivation of those potatoes became a predominant business for the Eastern End for nearly a century. By 1909, 560 railroad cars groaned and clacked over tracks to deliver over 360,000 bushels of our potatoes and defined the culture of the people and the land right up to the 1980s. In 2001 the New York Times records the decision by the Logan family, a fourth generation Bridgehampton potato farming family, to no longer plant spuds. In order to make it worth their efforts, they needed land, and the fifty acres of rented farmland to supplement their 50 was being lost piecewise to housing developments.
What value can a land have when it no longer serves to sustain our vital nutritional needs? The artists tell us about the amazing quality of the light out East. And while the remaining farmland does not contribute to the industrial food complex, it remains crucial to the local, fresh food supply and a component to the quality of life living on the east end.
Ironically, the East End art market is sustained by the dramatic increase of square feet of wall space. With the miracle-grow building age peaking by around 2007 and being fed by a steroidal money supply of easy loans, land was needed as the pedestal to show off our 4,000 sq. ft. homes.
Land becomes important again. The standardization of building homes makes it more effective to tear down and build anew to capture a piece of serenity. But it also means our appetite for fresh, green field land remains unchecked.
You can look at the rate of our consumption of open land as noted in the 2004 “Build-Out Analysis for Nassau and Suffolk Counties,” calculate a linear regression for Southampton and East Hampton Townships, and arrive at the day our building plots run out. These days are February 5, 2054 and August 24, 2058 respectively. This is when we have the last land days.
Although we believe otherwise, we are not creatures of the sky or sea. We are of the land. I suspect as we approach the last land day we will learn what our forefathers knew all along. It is the covenant of connection that we lose when it’s all gone; a grounding strap that saves us during the storms of living with each other; a view, a smell, a taste of what’s grown here; sustenance and memories of people and events all tied to a place.