The Mast-Head: Keeping Cattle

As far back as 1659, East Hampton Town records indicate that men went to Montauk to prepare land as pasture

First, Second, and Third House in Montauk were so named, one would think, to commemorate the order in which they were built. This is not so. Nor is Gin Beach called that in connection with Prohibition, as is often assumed. In fact, their origins go back to the early 18th century and have everything to do with cattle and sheep, and nothing to do with construction sequences or illicit liquor.

As far back as 1659, East Hampton Town records indicate that men went to Montauk to prepare land as pasture. Once sheep and cattle and some hogs were driven east, on about May 1, the men would take turns sheltering in rude huts to look after them. My grandmother, Jeannette Rattray, in a 1938 history of Montauk printed by The Star, likened tending cattle to jury duty; every man had to go eventually, and no one escaped.

First, Second, and Third House went up, spaced three miles apart, beginning in 1744, and indeed, they were built in that order. However, my grandmother wrote, they got their names because they were the first, second, and third colonists’ structures the drovers would reach as they herded the livestock to summer pastures.

The native people were there, of course, but by the 18th century they were already becoming constrained by economic exclusion and a series of restrictive laws. Even their storehouses, stone-lined pits in the ground called Indian barns, were ordered filled, lest any cattle, sheep, or horses fall in. 

With the livestock, perhaps as many as 6,000 at their peak, came the need, too, for fences, and East Hampton men put them up, using ponds as partial boundaries where they could. One ran roughly north from Fresh Pond in Hither Hills to the bay and south to the ocean near where the state campground is today. Another reached from Fort Pond to today’s Navy Beach, and another from the pond to the Atlantic, somewhere in the vicinity of the Montauk I.G.A. Gates crossed the Montauk road near each of the three cattle keepers’ houses. 

Gin Beach got its name for the gin, a trap-like corral, into which the cattle were driven at round-up time, before they were run, 500 at a time, into the fatting fields. During my grandmother’s time, some of the old folks here still knew the rough boundaries and where the fences had been.

The pasture season ended around Nov. 1, weather permitting, when the livestock was gathered from the swamps and thickets and herded back west. In the early days, Thanksgiving was observed on the Thursday after the cattle were back. There was too much work to do to celebrate before the animals were back in their barns.