by Jesse Halsey
Long Island, which sprawls like a great Leviathan across New England’s south shore, with its substantial head abutting rock ribbed Manhattan and its flukes kicking out to sea. It was once named Nassau, indication its Dutch attachments. But the Dutch influence, except for gambrel roofs, never reached beyond the west end, nor did they long hold there. The east end belonged to Connecticut and later to New York (when the Netherlands disappeared) and was known as the East Riding of Yorkshire. There was I born—though the name had long since been changed.
In the spring of 1640 a sloop with twenty settlers left Lynn, Massachusetts, sailed through the Sound and landed on the west end of Long Island. Shortly after landing there they were arrested by the Dutch Authorities, the leaders taken to New Amsterdam where they were reprimanded and let go. They promised to leave Cow Bay and go elsewhere. Back tracking, the rounded Orient Point, sailed ‘round Shelter Island, entered Peconic Bay and landed in a little harbor that they called North Sea. The first woman to alight on the meadow is aid to have ejaculated, “For Conscience sake, I’m on dry land. “ At any rate the spot is called “Conscience Point” unto this day. They landed on June 12, 1640.
Four miles to the north on the Atlantic seaboard they started their little village. “Old Town Pond” saw the first log houses: in a few years the settlement pushed west to a lake called by the Indians “Agawam.” They named their village Southampton.
Among these immigrants, one of the original “undertakers” as they were called was Thomas Halsey who came to Lynn in 1638. I have visited the ancient manor house in Hertfordshire whence he came. The English branch of the family still flourishes with a son of the present generation in Parliament, another in the Church, and a third an Admiral in the Navy. But that is another story.
These men and women were Puritans. They had come truly, for conscience sake, though hope of economic betterment doubtless had its influence. Some of them were second sons of families that would be classed as “landed gentry.” More were of Yeoman stock. Some wrote Esq. after their names, some “Mr.” before and some plain names.
Their colony was built around their church. Literally and figuratively this was true.
Here follows a sample of their laws, transcribed for the old town records still preserved in the office of the town Clerk. (Within two months I have seen and read the old Indian deed by which they bought their land—a whole township for a few coats and bushels of corn--, also the Patents granted by Governor Donghan and Governor Andrus under which South Hampton and East Hampton still in a measure operate, defying to this day in some particulars such as access to the ocean and the land under the waters, the laws of the State of New York.) These rights have been defended within my lifetime in the highest tribunals of the State by the town trustees (one of whom was my father). These ancient rights found their first expression in numerous laws like to the following, all based on Old Testament legislation but soon modified to meet a changing situation.
“1. TRESPASSES. If any man’s swine, or any other beast, or a fire kindled by a man, damage another man’s field, he shall make full restitution for the grain and time lost in securing the swine, &c. Exod.xii.5.6—Lex.xxiv.18. But if a man turn his swine or cattle into another’s field, restitution shall be made of the best he possesses, though it be much better than that which is destroyed. Exod.xxi.34.
“2. If a man’s ox or other beast gore or bite and kill a man or woman, whether child or of riper age, the beast shall be killed, and no benefit of the dead beast reserved to the owner. But if the ox or other beast were wont to push or bite in former time, and the owner hath been told of it, and hath not kept him in, then, the ox or beast shall be forfeited and killed, and the owner also put to death; or else fined to pay, what the judges and person damnified shall lay upon him. Exod.xxi.28,29.
Thus they planned and planted and thus they builded through four pioneering years houses, a school, a church. Then there grew dissension among them. The minister, Abraham Pierson (his son was the first President of Yale College) maintained that citizenship and voting rights in the town meeting were contingent upon membership in the church. This was the policy of “the New Haven” colony. Others held for a separation, that a citizen might vote though not be a communicant. This was the “Hartford” custom. The liberal element out voted the minister so he with his followers left Southampton, going to the mainland under the New Haven jurisdiction. When New Haven and Hartford joined as Connecticut (under the Hartford pattern), Mr. Pierson, true to conviction, moved onto New Jersey and planted Newark.
Our ancestor, Thomas Sr. stayed on, was elected to officers of trust in the town. A house he built still stands, older than any in Plymouth. From that day to this his descendants have held such positions as were in the gift of the citizens of the citizens of the township assembled in that pure democracy known as the “town meeting,” an institution which persisted until a couple of decades ago. (The year I left the village for a somewhat belated college training, I was nominated for town clerk. Such things were in the family tradition.)