Somewhere near Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton there is a very small, very old, very decrepit saltbox house, unoccupied for decades except by raccoons, that is newly in the crosshairs of town and county historians.
The falling-down building is in a neighborhood that old-timers still call Freetown which, so the story goes, was settled by former slaves of the Gardiner’s Island family. A 1902 atlas shows the community delineated not by roads or streets — except as lying between “the Springs highway” and “Three Mile Harbor highway,” the only two then in existence — but by “land of” so-and-so (Bennetts and Kings, mostly, but also a widow rejoicing in the surname of Snivelly).
That same map identifies the acre of land where the little saltbox still stands as the property of George Lewis Fowler Sr., a full-blooded Montauk Indian whose name might have dropped from living memory like a stone down a well but for his having been gondolier, caretaker, and expert gardener to Thomas Moran, the celebrated “Artist of the West.” (Moran’s own house, a national historic landmark opposite East Hampton’s Town Pond that is currently being restored, was built in 1885, coincidentally the same year that George L. Fowler and his sister, Queen Maria Pharaoh, signed away their rights to Montauk — the first of the tribe to do so — and moved to Freetown.)
Robert Hefner, East Hampton Village’s director of historic services, calls George Fowler, who also took care of the gardens at Home, Sweet Home, “the connection, the missing link.” The Fowler house, said Mr. Hefner, “completes the picture of the Moran house and Home, Sweet Home. This puts Main Street and Freetown together.”
Last week Mr. Hefner, together with Richard Martin, Suffolk County’s director of historic services; Alison McGovern, an archeologist, and Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society and the Thomas Moran Trust, visited the house. What they found may turn out to be even more than they expected — not just the home of George Fowler, but the only unaltered house here to have come, in whole or in part, from its original site on Indian Field. Ms. McGovern, who has been working at Indian Field, did not respond to an email requesting comment, but she reportedly believes that she has discovered the foundations of Montaukett houses there, and that they exactly match the footprint of the Fowler house.
If so, it would come as no surprise to one Montauk resident, Jim Devine, whose paternal grandmother belonged to a branch of the Fowlers now living in Amityville. Mr. Devine, 61, grew up in the house next to George L.’s, now restored and owned by a year-round local family. “The story is that these houses and others nearby were brought from Montauk with the help of Rat [Erastus] Dominy,” he said Friday. “When they pushed us off Montauk they are said to have burned down some of the houses, but not all.”
“They” would be Arthur Benson, he of the controversial Benson deeds of transfer, which the Montauketts years later claimed had been “obtained by fraud and by undue influence.” In 1910, Wyandank, Queen Maria’s son, then called King or Chief, sued the Benson heirs for the return of the ancestral lands. According to the trial transcript, the first of the Benson agreements, the one signed by George and Maria, provided for “the transportation of the materials of the houses belonging to the above-mentioned Indians, now on Montauk, to the above described lands in Freetown and their re-creation thereon.” Maria, for one, affirmed on the stand that her house, which was near George’s, “was moved from Montauk Point to this other place.”
That long-ago trial, of which much has been written, was a disaster for the Montauketts, with racist overtones all too typical of the time. From it, however, there emerges a singular picture of George L. Fowler Sr.
For starters, despite his standing as the chief’s uncle, he was not called to testify. The other tribal elders all said they wanted to go back to Montauk. Wyandank’s younger brother Ebenezer Pharaoh said he had actually done so, “meaning to shoot” at Big Reed Pond, but “they arrested me, and they fetched me to Riverhead, down here, in this jail” (the trial was held in State Supreme Court, Riverhead), where he was held for five days.
In contrast, George Fowler, according to the testimony of Frank Stratton of East Hampton, an agent for the Benson estate, had been heard to say that “the present conditions were good enough for him. They suited him well enough as they were.”
John Mulligan, who was East Hampton Justice of the Peace, told the court that George had voted a number of times at town meetings. This was highly unusual; the other Montauketts all denied ever being allowed to vote. One said he had tried, but had been “yoked.”
Mulligan said he had heard George speak of Chief Wyandank with disdain. “George Fowler seemed to repudiate Wyandank,” he said. “Seemed to think that the moves he was making [meaning the lawsuit] were detrimental to his interests. He said he wasn’t going to have anything to do with him in regard to these Indian matters, he said he was satisfied the way he was being used and that he shouldn’t have anything to do with him.”
Scant though this evidence may be, George does come off as something of a loner — closer, perhaps, to Main Street than to his Freetown relatives. If so, whether it had anything to do with the survival of his house in its unrenovated condition (and of no other Montauketts’, so far as is known) can only be conjectured.
Suffolk County is the current owner of the property, although East Hampton Town appears to have owned it not so long ago. After George Fowler Sr.’s death in 1933, according to Mr. Devine, the house came down through his grandson Leonard Horton to some cousins, who “went and took stuff out but never lived there.” A malodorous sofa covered in animal feces is about all that remains.
Years passed and the property appeared on the county rolls for nonpayment of taxes. (It had been subject to a county tax lien once before, Mr. Devine was told, after he spotted the legal notice in The Star and called to inquire — back in the early ’20s, which makes sense. Thomas Moran and his family moved to California in 1922, and Fowler may have been strapped for cash.)
Tom Ruhle, now as then the director of the town’s housing office, wondered if the land might be used for affordable housing. The county had no problem with that, provided development took place within a required period, four or five years, and East Hampton took conditional ownership. But the project never happened, and the property reverted back to Suffolk. Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said this week that someone must have realized there was a Native American house on the land.
That was just what happened, said Mr. Ruhle. “Issues of historical significance were raised.”
So there the house still stands, “a shuttlecock between the town and the county,” as Mr. Barons put it. What will become of it, now that historians know what they know?
“If it is what we think it is, how do we go about preserving it?” wondered Scott Wilson, director of the town’s office of land acquisition and management. “I think if we ask for it, the county will give it back. It might become a museum.”
“It hasn’t been sold, so I can’t see any big problem with giving it back, particularly if it’s used as a historic building,” said Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman. “We’re not in a hurry to dispose of it. I can’t speak for the whole Legislature, of course, but I think it’s likely.”
But then, said Mr. Ruhle, “Who should own it? The town’s not going to run a museum, or restore it.”
Money, as usual, is the stumbling block. “Do we want another historic building?” asked Mr. Barons. “Is there an organization that might be interested?”