History resources for the visitor are apparent as one moves around the Hamptons villages and hamlets, what with the myriad local societies maintaining old buildings and even the fall Whalers Festival in Sag Harbor in which rowing teams compete in ersatz hunts. East Hampton’s Main Street, from Town Pond to Hook Mill, is dotted with centuries-old structures, some open to visitors.
Amagansett has the town’s marine museum. Southampton and Bridgehampton have fine historical museums. Montauk’s historical society has exhibits at the Lighthouse, and a group is working on opening a facility dedicated to the region’s Native Americans, whose presence on Long Island dates to at least 10,000 years ago.
Traces of the Native American presence from its earliest days here are few. Archaeologists have estimated the age of a few artifacts associated with Paleo-Indian hunters at 8,000 to 10,000 years, when the last glaciers were melting. Later settlements tended to be near bays and harbors, where shellfish were found. Agriculture arrived on Long Island much later, about 3,000 years ago; sites excavated in East Hampton show evidence of domesticated gourds, pokeweed, and sunflowers, among others, followed later by the introduction of beans and corn.
There is evidence that about 100 years before Europeans arrived on the scene, Native Americans here had begun to build what appear to be defensive fortifications on high ground. One, on what is called Fort Hill in Montauk, was known in Colonial times and was the site of many Native American burials. Many of the Montaukett and Shinnecock Tribes remain residents of the region today.
Europeans sailed past Long Island in the mid to late 16th century but did not come to live in what would come to be known as the Hamptons for many decades. Lion Gardiner is thought to be the first non-Native American resident, having been granted the island in what is now East Hampton Town in 1639 as a thank-you from the crown for his role in the Connecticut Pequot Wars.
More colonists followed, most English or Welsh, setting up an initial village along the Northwest Harbor shoreline in East Hampton in 1648. East Hampton first was called Maidstone, after the English district from which many of the early colonists had come in the great Puritan migration. During this time, eastern Long Island was part of the Connecticut Colony, culturally and linguistically separate from the Dutch influence around Manhattan.
East Hampton Main Street was laid out around Town Pond and a central commonage for livestock. A few of the lots remain in the hands of descendants of the original families. People subsisted on agriculture and fishing mostly, with the occasional whale hunt to extract the valuable oil, which could be rendered out into barrels and shipped to market by boat.
Mulford Farm, which contains a house built by one of the early English families, is run as a museum by the East Hampton Historical Society. The Home, Sweet Home Museum next door has a somewhat tenuous connection to John Howard Payne, who wrote the popular 19th-century song by the same name; it, too, is a museum and open during the summer and early fall. Farms spread out rapidly from the founding of Maidstone and the other villages.
Montauk has a curious history, being “bought” from the remaining members of the Montaukett in a series of unfortunate deals that began with a cattle-ranching agreement in 1660. In 1879, a speculator from Brooklyn bought most of the peninsula and fairly quickly tricked the last resident members of the Montaukett Tribe off their land. Lawsuits went on until 1915. In 1926 Carl Fisher, who was an early developer of Miami Beach, Fla., bought 9,700 acres there with visions of turning it into a luxury resort; the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression put an end to that plan.
Tangentially, Montauk figures in one of the most important 19th-century Supreme Court cases, the 1839 Amistad affair, in which a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone who had been taken as slaves mutinied, killing the ship’s captain and trying to sail for home. The Amistad was discovered anchored off Montauk, the Africans seized, and the case decided in 1841, as an early inspiration to abolitionists. A replica of the Amistad can be toured at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
Records are few about slavery and the presence of nonwhite residents in the early years here. Sag Harbor, however, was home to a large contingent of free black residents, many working in its 19th-century whaling industry. St. David’s African Methodist Church there was part of the underground railroad, a route by which escaped slaves fled to freedom.
Train service was later in reaching the South Fork of Long Island than it was in much of the rest of the Northeastern United States. The Long Island Rail Road company first laid down a line from Jamaica to Greenport, where travelers could board steamboats for Stonington, Conn., and then continue on to Boston. Early 19th-century decision-makers had considered it a far easier engineering project than going through the hills of southern Connecticut. The first trains made it from Brooklyn to Greenport in three and a half hours. Rails reached Sag Harbor in 1870, but it wasn’t until 1895 that the Bridgehampton to Montauk section was completed, almost 30 years after the transcontinental railroad linked the East and West Coasts of the United States.