The Tillinghasts of East End: A Tale of a Sea-Chest and Unhiding the Hidden

Written By: Kent Watkins

When I was coming of age, my own unique bildungsroman in Sioux City, Iowa, my mother’s family talked about their Tillinghast clan that first settled in Rhode Island around 1643, and then fanned out to New York, the Hamptons, and places West and South.

So started my memories of Tillinghastiana, delivered from my grandfather’s mouth as he talked of Pardon Tillinghast, a founder of the first Baptist church in America and the antecedents of Brown University, builder of the first wharf and warehouse in Providence, then another in Newport.

His many progeny and through marriages with other notable families of RI, led to Tillinghasts becoming wealthy merchants and landowners, judges, Senators, Governors, and Congressmen; furniture designers; military leaders and collateral beneficiaries of the State’s slave-trading pre-eminent role.  What does the sobriquet, Captain ‘Molasses’ Tillinghast conjure up?

Later, there was A.W. Tillinghast, the country’s foremost golf course designer; Mary E. Tillinghast, prominent woman Gilded Age artist; down to the local now-gone Chicken House near the train station on Race Lane, which the Tillinghasts operated until 1997.  Before that, it had been G&T Dairy, where the family sold milk from its farm.

All this led to my visits to the East End over the years and eventually to meet my cousins, Frank, Bob, and the recently departed Tom.

Alongside Tom and other similar sacred places are buried hundreds of relatives, direct and extended from intermarriage with Mulfords, Hedges, Daytons, Paynes (e.g., Ulysses Tillinghast Payne of Hardscrabble farm married Nellie Cynthia Dayton in 1883), Bennetts, Barneses, Kings, Conklings, Cartwights, Millers, and other such families over the years, in East Hampton, Sag Harbor and Southold.

Well, this segues to the rest of our story, with my standing in Ted and Jean Tillinghast’s garage at Three Mile Harbor not long ago and viewing an antique captain’s sea chest.  It stared back at me – what was it thinking, I wondered, during its sentimental journey over the centuries?

The Sea Chest Speaks

“A hundred and twenty years after the first Tillinghast arrived in America, Captain Joseph Tillinghast sailed from Newport to East Hampton’s Northwest Harbor about 1760.  I was on that voyage with him, providing necessary clothes, bedding, navigational tools, books, trade goods, weapons, and other things that he would use.

“He and his family were all involved in the maritime trade, either through the normal routes, or with the infamous Triangle trading route.

“While in East Hampton, Captain Joseph met Phebe Mulford, a young woman of twenty-two, and daughter of a leading citizen, Town Trustee John Mulford.  Perhaps he courted Phebe in either the extant Mulford farmhouse or the one next to it.  On March 23, 1761, a marriage license was issued to them.  I remember it well, as he picked out the best shirt and trousers from my innards and seemed quite happy as he left that day.  His older brother and fellow ship captain, Thomas, had also married an East Ender, Polly Parsons, on his third go-around, so the local women must have been quite alluring.

“From that time on, I commuted with Joseph, who ‘settled’ in East Hampton, although he continued to keep his primary residence in Newport. East Hampton was only a collection of villages and hamlets, with about 1,250 white people, some 67 black slaves (Phebe’s father had three, as did the minister), and about 34 Montauk Indian families.

“The years passed and my owner and Phebe had seven children, so he obviously didn’t spend all his time in Newport!  Then the British occupied eastern Long Island in 1776, and we all had to flee to Connecticut, with other townsfolk, and live in the town of Haddam.  However, it was not a healthy environment, and a year later, my beloved Captain died, leaving his 38-year old pregnant wife to care for the remaining five children.  Finally, in 1780, she packed me and the other household goods and furniture, along with some farm animals, and took the sloop back to Long Island, even though the British had not left.

“We all settled on North Main Street.  In 1785, the daughter, also named Phebe, now twenty-one, married David Hedges, three years older and of similar status to the Tillinghasts of Rhode Island.  By 1805, Phebe senior began to show some serious systems of chorea, or St. Vitus’s dance.  I observed some of her convulsions.  The family made an arrangement to have her youngest daughter, 28-year old Lydia Bennett, and her husband, stay there during her lifetime.  In turn, they would receive the house and its belongings – forerunner of the modern reverse mortgage!

“A year later, a very sad thing occurred.  Young Phebe Hedge, now 41, started having some similar symptoms as her mother and went to see the family’s physician, Dr. Abel Huntington.  He noted in his account book visits that she may have the inherited chorea.  (By the time of his grandson, Dr. George Huntington, it became known as Huntington’s disease.)  One late June day in 1806, she left the house and literally walked ‘into the sea’.  Her body, noted the Suffolk Gazette, was recovered on a Montauk beach, but no grave has ever been located.  I’m sure that Steve Boerner or Gina Piastuck at the Library would be delighted to know its location, as well as Richard Barons at the Historical Society.  Perhaps she was never buried, although it appears that Rev. Lyman Beecher gave the speech at her funeral at the old Presbyterian church.  Luckily, we are told, the gene gave out a few generations later.

“Well, after that, I was passed from Tillinghast to Tillinghast, starting with Lydia, the last of the children born of Captain Joseph and Phebe.  And her son, Edmund.  Now, there’s another mystery, in a way.  Some historians have posited that Edmund was an orphan from Southold and came to East Hampton and was raised by Abraham and Puah Barnes, at then 19 (now 17) Woods Lane.  But what I can now reveal, is that Lydia had him out of wedlock in 1800, five years before she married William Bennett.

“Edmund, the great-great grandfather of today’s generation of Frank, Robert, and the late Tom Tillinghast, married Mary Petty in East Hampton in 1828, and like his grandmother Phebe’s arrangement with her daughter and son-in-law (the Bennetts), agreed with the Barneses to care for them the remainder of their lives in exchange for their farm, equipment, and home. Around 1850, his mother, Lydia, moved into the homestead.

“The farmland behind the ‘homestead’ (built in 1736) at one time extended down to the ocean along Georgica Road.  Several generations occupied it (Henry and Eliza, Frank Howard and Mary, Carryl, and finally Frank Sr. and Caroline).  As a widow, Caroline moved to the smaller shingled house behind it, and next to the barn and silo, where she operated a B&B in it.  She rented the new house at 19 Woods Lane and put some of her inherited furniture in it, which figured in a famous episode narrated by one of the Keno brothers in their book, a story for another time.

“Other Tillinghasts occupied residences near the main house.  Stafford Tillinghast was at 13 Woods Lane, which later became the Centennial House, a sumptuous B&B, owned by David Oxford and Harry Chancey.  Eleanor Tillinghast married Charles Keyes and they lived around the corner at Mill Hill.  Mary Tillinghast married E.T. Dayton and they first lived across the street on Woods Lane, then moved further west on the highway across from the gas station, on Buckskill.

“Time moved on even more.  The main house at 17 Woods Lane was sold in 1995 to Lynne Breslin, a NYC architect, who renovated it extensively.  She sold it in 1997 to Chabad of the Hamptons.  The Woods Lane house was torn down to become part of the Chabad complex.  The singled farm house and other buildings on Georgica Road, were torn down and now there is a McMansion there.  And the Jewish Center bought the property across the street where Mary Tillinghast and E.T. Dayton had lived.

“Where did I end up?  Well, when the big house was sold, Frank Tillinghast Jr. gave permission to his cousin, Jean Tillinghast, to take me out of the attic and go home with her at Three Mile Harbor.  Please look at the writing that someone had done on the inside of the chest in three places.  I wish I could tell you the circumstances of them, but we will have to do that another time.”

I left the chest, promising that I would look into its story some more.  As I drove back to the Village, I thought of East Hampton being like a palimpsest, or tablet that has been “written” over many times since Captain Joseph Tillinghast wooed Phebe Mulford, and the overlay of generations.  The chest provides me with an intricate roadmap that unfolds in my mind’s eye each time I drive down Woods Lane.  And I wondered, can I be the one to find where poor Phebe is buried!