Connections: Tourists, Circa 1839

A seven-and-a-half-day tour more than 175 years ago from Westbury to Montauk and back

A longtime reader of The Star has given me a copy of pages from an 1839 diary kept by a Long Island woman named Maria Willets, which describes a seven-and-a-half-day tour she and her husband, Stephen Willets, took in August that year, more than 175 years ago, from Westbury to Montauk and back. 

The typewritten transcript of the diary (I would love to see the original) uses correct English spelling, although the place names are largely archaic. Maria draws vivid pictures of the appearances of landscapes and villages, but doesn’t record much about the people with whom they take tea, dine, or find accommodations. East Hampton, for example, is simply a “pleasant village.”

Nor does she describe the horse-drawn carriage in which they traveled, or whether her husband or a hired hand was the driver. She does point out, however, that they usually set off before the sun rose and traveled for 50 or 60 miles before arriving at their destination at 8 or 9 in the evening. A young mother, she writes that she left her “precious little daughter and dear friend” at home.

After visiting “old Man’s Rock Point, a rough place near the sound,” they arrive at River Head “mostly through woods and bush with no fence and just room for the carriage to pass” and “occasionally stopped and took some twigs of whortleberrys [blueberry] bushes.” 

They went to Ocqueboe, Mattituck, Cachogue, Jamesport, Greenport, and Oyster Pond Point before stopping for “breakfast at Ferry’s at Southport . . . and passed on to Canoe place, a name given on account of being so narrow that the Indians could carry their canoes across.”

They “reached Sag-Harbor for dinner . . . were nicely accommodated at Nathaniel Hand’s” in Amagansett, and “at 1/2 past 4 o’clock on 6th day morning we set off for Montauk Point.” They traveled “through innumerable hills of fertile appearance on which large numbers of cattle and sheep were feeding” and were among the early tourists to see the Montauk Lighthouse, which had been constructed just 43 years earlier.

“As we did not wish to spend a night on the point we industriously employed our time in surveying the shore where the mighty ocean beats with violence. . . . The sublimity of the scene is calculated to inspire the mind of man with a feeling of his own insignificance . . . but a speck in the creation he can but stand and silently wonder and adore.”

Continuing homeward, they left East Hampton and “passed through a fine farming neighborhood called Sag, also the village of Bridge Hampton to South Hampton . . . and soon entered Shennecock Plains.”

Here, at Shinnecock, Maria for the first time in the diary describes how the people lived. She calls the residents the “poor outcast of society” who have found “asylum.” She says they “appeared to be in a way to obtain a comfortable subsistence,” but goes on to say they do not appreciate schooling for their children. Finding only “two or three books for the whole. . . . We purpose to furnish them with some addition.”

It is impossible to gauge whether Maria’s words are condescending or compassionate, although because I learned through internet research that she died at the age of 82 in 1885 and was a member of the Society of Friends, I prefer to think well of her. 

Diaries like this are more than family heirlooms, and I will suggest that this one be added to the expansive Long Island Collection at the East Hampton Library.