The Mast-Head: Almost Lost to Time

Yoco Unkenchie was the chief of Shelter Island’s native people

   The mark is gone now where they laid Yoco Unkenchie. The year was 1653, and a group of Manhansett men were carrying their dead sachem on his final trip from his Shelter Island home to Montauk, where he was to be buried.
    Yoco was the chief of Shelter Island’s native people, and it was said that upon his death they disbanded, some to live among the Montauketts, others to join the Shinnecocks.
    Story has it that the place where his bearers laid Yoco’s bier by the side of the path between Sag Harbor and East Hampton was marked by a small hole dug to memorialize the spot.
    In his 1840 “Chronicles of the Town of Easthampton,” David Gardiner wrote that for more than 190 years passing Indians kept the hole as fresh as if it had been lately made. For the six generations that followed Yoco’s passing, he wrote, no member of the Montauketts would pass the spot without removing whatever sticks, stones, or leaves had fallen into it.
    The hole, about 12 inches deep and 18 inches wide, was still there in 1845, near the three-mile stone that set out the distance to Sag Harbor, when the Rev. N.S. Prime paused there.
     An 1899 history of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church tells the story as well. Its author, the Rev. Jacob E. Mallmann, said he had spoken to an aged Sag Harbor resident who told him that Stephen Talkhouse, for whom the Amagansett bar is named, would kneel down at the spot whenever he passed and clear it with apparent reverence, “following the custom of his forefathers.”
    When the turnpike between the two villages was cut in about 1860, Yoco’s spot was lost. And, as Mr. Mallmann wrote, “the sacred memorial of over 200 years’ standing was obliterated.” My grandmother Jeannette Edwards Rattray said that the place was nevertheless known as Sachem’s Hole forever more, at least into her lifetime.
    New York State erected a marker supposedly on the site in 1935, referring to Yoco as Pocgatticut, a name by which he was called in some records. The familiar yellow-and-blue sign contains several errors, from what I can tell, giving the wrong date and changing Sachem’s Hole to Whooping Boys Hollow.
    I stopped by the sign this week. I had come from Sag Harbor, setting my odometer to zero near the Episcopalian church. As I stood by the side of the road I noticed the thin winter light coming through the stands of oak and pine. Cars’ tires hissed past. Snow remained here and there in a few places. The approach from the north had been up a long grade, I noticed, and I imagined the party that carried the funeral bier being ready for a rest as they reached the crest of the rise.
     Yoco’s burial place in Montauk is lost to time as well, and lost most of all perhaps to the development that began in earnest on its sacred hills in the late 1920s. Even so, it is an astonishing tribute to the man that his people and their descendents maintained a memorial to him for almost two centuries.