The Tillinghasts of East End: A Tale of 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 used to talk about their Tillinghast clan that had first settled in Rhode Island around 1643, and then fanned out to New York and places West and South. So started my collection of Tillinghastiana…founder of the first Baptist church in America and the antecedents of Brown University, builder of the first wharf in Providence, wealthy merchants and landowners; judges, Senators, Governors, and Congressmen; military leaders; slave traders and collateral beneficiaries out of Newport; furniture designers; the country’s foremost golf course designer; a prominent woman artist of the Gilded Age; and so on down to the local now-gone Chicken House …and an heirloom that may be the original sea chest of Captain Joseph Tillinghast of East Hampton and Newport.

Locally, there are all those hundreds of relatives, direct and extended from intermarriage with the Mulford, Hedges, Payne, Bennett, Barnes, King, Conkling, Cartwight, Miller, Dayton (e.g., Ulysses Tillinghast Payne married Nellie Cynthia Dayton in 1883, and they continued to live at her birthplace, Hardscrabble farm), and other such families over the years, mostly in East Hampton/ Sag Harbor and Southold. I think I counted more than half the tombstones in the South End Burying Ground at Town Pond as being ‘kin’.

Well, this segues to the rest of our story, or stories, which can only be excerpted here, given the space limits. And we will deal more with the progeny of Joseph Tillinghast than with his older brother and fellow ship captain, Thomas, who also married an East Ender, Polly Parsons, on his third go-around.

That thread begins a hundred and twenty years after the first Tillinghast arrived in America, when Captain Joseph Tillinghast sailed from Newport to either Sag Harbor or East Hampton about 1760, probably to expand his fishing and trading routes. He and his three brothers and one of his brothers-in-law were all involved in the maritime trade, either through the normal routes, as Joseph and Thomas allegedly were, or in the case of Henry and his brother-in-law, Lemuel Wyatt, more so with the infamous Triangle trading route. Remember that Rhode Island was the largest slave trading colony in North America.

While in East Hampton, he met Phebe Mulford (wish we knew the circumstances), a young woman of twenty-two. On March 23, 1761, a marriage license was issued to them. Joseph apparently ‘settled’ in East Hampton, although he continued to keep residence in Newport. Remember that, compared to 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.

Joseph and Phebe had seven children. When the British occupied eastern Long Island in 1776, Joseph and his family fled to Connecticut, with other townsfolk, and lived in the town of Haddam. However, it was not a healthy environment, and a year later, Joseph died, leaving his 38-year old pregnant wife to care for five children. Somehow, she survived nearly three more years, but in 1780, the Phebe decided to return to Long Island, even though the British had not left.

We can only speculate, but most likely Phebe had kept the sea chest amongst her possessions. The family settled on North Main Street (the house that became William Lester’s). In 1785, young daughter Phebe, now twenty-one, married David Hedges, three years older and of similar status to the Tillinghasts of Rhode Island. The new couple settled in with their mother. Phebe senior made an arrangement to live with them during her lifetime and they in turn would receive the house and its belongings – a reverse mortgage prototype!

It is here that the story of Huntington’s disease, as young Phebe was to have, became the subject of much medical interest when she inherited the Mulford gene of St. Vitus’s dance. It had been identified by the local East Hampton physician, Dr. George Huntington. In a haunting book, titled, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea, Professor Alice Wexler tells of Phebe one late June day in 1806 walking ‘into the sea’ – literally or not, we do not know, because her grave has not been discovered. Perhaps she was never buried, although it appears that Rev. Lyman Beecher gave the speech at her funeral. Luckily, we are told, the gene gave out a few generations later.

Joseph’s sea chest began to make its ‘voyage’ through the next few generations of East Hampton Tillinghasts, probably through Lydia, the last of the children born of Joseph and Phebe.

Edmund Tillinghast and the Sea Chest
Historians have posited that Edmund was an orphan from Southold. He came to East Hampton and was raised by Abraham Barnes and his wife, Puah, who lived at 19 Woods Lane. What we know now, from additional evidence, is that his mother was Lydia, who had him out of wedlock in 1800, five years before she married William Bennett. Wexler also notes that Dr. Huntington, in his daybooks indicates that Lydia was Edmund’s mother.

Edmund, the great-great grandfather of today’s (my) generation of Frank, Robert, and Tom Tillinghast, married Mary Petty in East Hampton in 1828, and like his grandmother Phebe’s arrangement with her daughter and son-in-law (David Hedges), 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 in with the Edmund, his wife, and six surviving children, and is buried near him in the South End cemetery.

Edmund owned the last house to the westward of Main Street on the 1855 map, with the farm extending around to Woods Lane or Bridgehampton Road (part of Montauk Highway 27). Other Tillinghasts descending primarily from Edmund’s son, Henry and wife Eliza Jane Edwards, and their son, Frank Howard Tillinghast to the children: Carryl, Frank, and Edward H. built houses along both sides of Woods Lane, with the farm house and other buildings on Georgica Road, just around the corner. Until about four years ago, when I visited Tom Tillinghast there at the ‘red’ house, the barn, silo, and pasture were still extant. The other daughter, Eleanor, married Charles Keyes and they lived in a house further up the highway across from the gas station.

When the main house was sold, there are varying stories regarding the furniture and silver in it. Carryl’s brother’s widow, Caroline, had rented it for a while to a hoarder, who piled stuff on a trio of furniture, actually a tea-table on cabriole legs with open-talon claw-and-ball feet, a bonnet-top highboy, and a drop-leaf dining table, probably made by John Goddard in the 1760s or 1770s. We know, from the Kenos brothers’ book, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture that Leigh Keno was able – by sheer luck – to come onto the pieces and acquire them for purportedly a million dollars. As he observed, “I still think there is nothing like those more elusive sleepers – the kind found in private houses, garages, or attics – that re uncovered only by a mere twist of fate.”

Fast forward. The Chabad House bought the land on the ocean side of the Lane, where several of the Tillinghast houses stood (one is still standing); the Jewish Center bought the properties across the street where another one or two of the Tillinghast houses were. The house on Georgica Rd., where Caroline and her family lived, was demolished and now a mini-McMansion occupies the space.

…I am ushered into the home of another branch of the family and the present owner of the chest, Ted and Jean Tillinghast. Ted’s father was Caroline’s husband’s brother, and his parents had moved from Georgica Road to a location overlooking an inlet of Three Mile Harbor. In the garage, they have placed the sea chest for my perusal. I note the writing that someone had done on the inside of the chest in three places. Jean tells me that when Caroline died, she visited her house, and with Frank’s permission, was allowed to take the chest, which she found tucked up in the attic.

So, East Hampton Village is like a palimpsest, or tablet that has been “written” over many times since Captain Joseph Tillinghast wooed Phebe Mulford, and the overlay of generations provides me with an intricate map that unfolds in my mind’s eye each time I drive down Woods Lane. There remain many questions yet to be solved, such as, can we find where poor Phebe is buried? Will the sea chest prove to be of the vintage of Captain Joseph Tillinghast’s time? Who is enjoying the Goddard pieces now? Did A.C. Tillinghast design the Patchabogue course? Will I complete the composite story of the living and the departed in a way that they would feel forever connected through both oral history and photographs? Stay tuned!