Lawrence Cook took a piece of white quartz from his pants pocket and held it in the palm of his hand. The rock had been worked, flaked, and seemed to be about midway through the process of becoming an arrow point or a small cutting tool. It was yet another fragment left by people who lived in Montauk thousands of years ago. Mr. Cook finds them all the time.
On Saturday, Mr. Cook, who is doing everything he can to found a Native American museum in Montauk, said his crusade began 11 years ago shortly after he was bowed by a terrible event. A Montauk resident and New York City fireman, Mr. Cook said a big part of his world had come down with the World Trade Center. It also helped him connect with the Montauketts.
“I was on the Pile, looking down, picking through twisted steel looking for the remains of people. Four days later, Sept. 15, it was my son’s birthday. It was a struggle to get home to Montauk. My car died on the way. A Jitney driver let me on for free. I got off in East Hampton and was hitchhiking when a landscaper picked me up. I was dirty. He asked me if I had been near Ground Zero.”
Mr. Cook described how his post-Sept. 11, downward searching mind-set, and the serendipitous meeting with the landscaper, started a chain of events that have evolved into an almost mystical passion for Montauk’s original inhabitants.
At the time, he was getting ready to build a house on Essex Street in Montauk. “We had been living with our parents. I was distraught, in shock. It was a difficult time.”
“The landscaper said he would take me to Montauk. . . . I had to get rid of trees in order to build. The landscaper said he had property in Manorville and agreed to dig up the evergreens. He came, balled up the trees, and left.”
Not long afterward, Mr. Cook was mowing tall grass near where the trees had been. Speaking of Ground Zero, he said, “I’d been looking for the remains of people. It had me so in tune with the ground. I looked down and there’s a spear point. It felt like a kind of homecoming. It said, You’re home.”
The fireman, who retired about a year ago, said that as time went on he began to see the significance of his property. “I realized I was living where they [the Montauketts] lived. Peter’s Run [a stream] was 100 feet from my front door. I’m in a swale with several streams that run from the [state] golf course to Fort Pond. The whole area between the ponds — Fort Pond and Lake Montauk — has streams.”
“They were on higher ground with a view of the pond. You can see how they would go down and fish. I have a net sinker from Fort Pond, and I found another piece of pottery the other day. They are literally under our feet. It fascinates me. This thing’s got a hold on me. We learn so little about native history.”
That will change if Mr. Cook is able to attract the half-million dollars needed to build the museum. He has completed much of the groundwork and assembled an evocative display at the Amagansett Library.
The East Hampton Town Planning Department has given preliminary approval for a 1,500-square-foot building on the grounds of Montauk’s Second House Museum. If all goes as he hopes, the museum will become one of the Montauk Historical Society’s major buildings. The society maintains Second House and, through a lighthouse committee, the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum.
In the fall, on Oct. 13, the society will host an event “to celebrate the lives of the original locals,” Mr. Cook said. Flint-napping, or chipping, and fire- starting will be demonstrated and such foods as venison stew, corn, beans, and squash served. “There are so many educational benefits,” Mr. Cook said.
Mr. Cook said the museum was gaining other momentum. Dick Cavett, a Montauk resident with a lifelong interest in Native American history, has agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the Montauk Indian Museum Committee. Dr. Maria Sideroff, a Montauk resident who is a member of the Society of Primitive Technology and a recognized expert on pottery, has signed on as a member of the board. Mr. Cook said private collectors had offered their own artifacts. In addition, the museum has the blessing of Robert Pharaoh, one of three descendants of the Montauks who claim the tribe’s leadership, he said.
The project will have a float in Montauk’s St. Patrick’s Day parade this year with the help of the East Hampton Rotary, and a number of business owners have agreed to help raise money, which is to begin in earnest next summer, Mr. Cook said.
A Native American museum in Montauk is a natural, Mr. Cook said. Ed Johannemann, an archeologist, had mounted a small exhibit of Native American artifacts found in Montauk at Montauk County Park in the 1990s, but it never gained the attention needed to expand.
“There is nothing more historic. When Wyandanch met Lion Gardiner it was after the Pequot War,” he said, referring to a years-long series of battles that involved the Pequot and Narragansett tribes. Gardiner, an Englishman who helped build and later commanded a fort at Saybrook near the mouth of the Connecticut River, was eventually awarded the island here that bears his family name.
In 1637, after the Pequot war came to a violent conclusion during which English massacred over 300 Pequots, Wyandanch, the Montauk sachem, paddled a canoe to Connecticut to ask Gardiner if the English would consider trading with Long Island Indians. Montauk’s tribe had been nomadic, enjoying the area’s rich natural resources. By Wyandanch’s time, Native Americans had occupied Long Island, following the seasons, for 8,000 years or more.
Mr. Cook is quick to say there is much more to learn and different areas of Montauk to explore. “I’m not a pot hunter,” he said, referring to anyone who engages unprofessional digging.
“The whole theme is, we are walking on the ground they walked on,” Mr. Cook said.