Walking Tall: Stephen Talkhouse and the Montauketts

Written By: Martin  Levinson

I have driven past The Stephen Talkhouse nightclub and bar in Amagansett many times in the five years I’ve lived on the East End and never gave the name much thought. Then, last August, my wife asked me “Who is Stephen Talkhouse?” I figured he was a rock star because The Stephen Talkhouse features rock and rollers. But she googled the name and discovered he was a famous Native American chieftain whose greatest joy was walking. My wife told me I had found a soul mate, because for me walking is a passion.

While I typically clock three to six miles every day, making tracks at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, Indian Island Park, and the beach at Flying Point, my soul mate, Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, was a world-class walker before that term was ever invented. As quick as you could run, he could walk.

Talkhouse regularly took 25-50 mile round trip walks from Montauk to East Hampton and Sag Harbor (the 125-mile Paumanok Path, a trail that goes from Rocky Point to Montauk Point, was inspired by Talkhouse). If you wanted a letter delivered to Bridgehampton from Montauk, Talkhouse would charge you twenty-five cents to walk the twenty-five mile expanse with your missive. That was a pretty good deal, even in the mid-nineteenth century when Stephen Talkhouse, a Montaukett Native American, roamed the East End.

Talkhouse, a direct descendant of the famed Sachem Wyandanch who greeted the first English settlers on Long Island, was born around 1821 in a wigwam at Accabonac (present-day Springs). When he reached forty pounds in weight his mother indentured him to Colonel William D. Parsons, who lived nearby and who legend has it paid forty dollars for Stephen—a dollar a pound. Talkhouse labored for Parsons for many years.

Talkhouse worked as a whaler, hunter, and fisherman. Some say he set sail for California in 1849 to pan for gold. There are also reports he joined the Union Army, serving in a black and Native American infantry outfit during the Civil War. But it was his walking prowess that made Talkhouse the talk of Long Island, with stories about his perambulating from Montauk to Brooklyn, a distance of one hundred miles, in a single day, and how he defeated fifty other contestants in a race, walking from Boston to Chicago.

Talkhouse’s awesome ambles came to the attention of P.T. Barnum, who was spending a summer in Westhampton. He decided to interview Talkhouse to work in Barnum’s Circus as a sideshow act. The meeting went well. Talkhouse got the job and was given the billing “The Last King of the Montauks.” Talkhouse was not a king and he was not the last Montaukett but Barnum, showman that he was, thought the phrase had a nice ring to it.

The act consisted of people lining up and paying money to race Talkhouse to see if they could beat the illustrious walker. It was a foolish wager. The world’s greatest hoofer was unbeatable.

East Hampton entrepreneur Isaac Van Scoy marketed Talkhouse through a posed photograph he took of him in 1867, which was then sold as a keepsake. The photo shows Talkhouse dressed in a black frock coat with a buttoned vest, white shirt and spiffy bow tie, legs crossed, seated in a chair. He is holding a long walking stick in his right hand and looks like a man who would rather be in motion.

People enjoyed taking pictures of Talkhouse. He had a dignified presence, an affable demeanor, and his over-the-shoulder black hair and bone-thin body seemed to many in the white community a good representation of what an ideal Indian should look like. His quiet and unassuming manner made Talkhouse a much-admired figure among whites and Native Americans alike. He was also quite popular with housewives along his walking routes, as he carried hand-carved scrub brushes that he sold for kitchen work.

Talkhouse lived on the high, rocky cliffs at Montauk Point, a place then called Indian Fields that was home to a small number of Montaukett families who hunted, fished, tended livestock, and worked for white people in East Hampton. Their forbears had lived in Indian Fields for millennia and by the end of the eighteenth century it had become the last refuge of the Montauketts.

In 1878, two East Hampton residents filed a suit to force the sale of Montauk lands. Talkhouse joined with his half brother David, who was at the time sachem of the Montauketts, to fight the action in court. David died shortly thereafter and Talkhouse, who became the tribe’s new leader, then battled the litigation alone.

Talkhouse died in the summer of 1879, reportedly of consumption on one of the many paths he cut through the East End. He was buried next to David on a hill overlooking Lake Montauk. The brother’s deaths spared them from seeing the dissolution of Indian Fields.

In the fall of 1879, Arthur Benson, a Brooklyn developer who saw deep-water ports and railroad facilities in Montauk’s future, bought Montauk at auction. To make sure they would not obstruct his plans, Benson offered the approximately 12-30 Montauketts living at Indian Fields small amounts of money to encourage them to leave. The Montauketts, who were illiterate (so they could need read the text of the deed) and falsely told they could return to Indian Fields whenever they wanted, put their x’s on the dotted line. After hundreds of generations in residence at Indian Fields they were the last Montauketts to dwell there.

In 1909, the Montauketts brought a lawsuit against Benson’s executors and others involved in the development plans. They had tried to bring legal action fourteen years earlier but were told by judicial authorities that they needed special enabling legislation to take their case to court. So they lobbied the New York State Legislature and, in spite of negative coverage by the press, ultimately got the green light to sue. They were confident once they presented the merits of their case to a judge he would given them back their land.

The Montauketts asked the court to have the Montauk land sale declared invalid, as it was negotiated with individual Montauketts and not the tribe. The defense argued the Montauketts were no longer a tribe because over the years they had assimilated into the larger society and many had married blacks, which diluted their “Indian blood.”

In 1910, State Supreme Court Judge Abel ruled on the matter in a Riverhead courtroom. He declared the Montauk land sale valid, even though the agent Benson hired to broker the deal testified he misrepresented its terms to the Montauketts. And he declared the Montauketts extinct despite the fact that the tribe held annual meetings, Stephen Talkhouse’s funeral procession went to the Montaukett burial ground, intermarriage occurred in other recognized tribes, and the Montauketts were listed in a 1906 federal handbook of Northeast Indian Tribes.

Blackmar’s judicial genocide of the Montauketts was a severe blow for an East End tribe that the white man had shafted before on real estate contracts. In the late seventeenth century the Montauketts had signed a treaty that transferred much of their land to English settlers. As was Indian custom back then, the Montauketts thought they were giving the Englishmen use of the land not total ownership. The English took a different view of the transaction, one in which they gave goods worth a little over thirty English pounds for possession of a thirty-one-thousand acre parcel.

Today, the tiny Montaukett community that is still around continues a more than one-hundred-year fight for government recognition that the Montauketts are a legitimate Native American tribe and can seek recompense for what they believe are past wrongs. To many supporters of the effort, Stephen Talkhouse is an inspiration and a muse.

Some would like a statue of Talkhouse erected at Indian Fields, which is now part of parklands owned by Suffolk County and surrounded by modern homes. It seems a little enough request to grant and given the shameful ways the Montauketts have been treated by business interests and government authorities one would think the idea a no-brainer: a small tribute to a large spirit, indigenous leader, legendary athlete, and a symbol of fortitude and strength to an embattled but resilient Algonquian people.