Little Montauk’s Big History

Montauk has an interesting and long history beyond its status as a summer destination—and by long, I mean over thousands of years. Native Americans have lived on Long Island for more than 4,000 years, which includes the Algonquin-speaking Montaukett of the East End. The tribe was closely related to the Indians of the rest of Long Island, as well as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Montaukett were dependent on the sea for their livelihood, and they became experts at hunting whales. They became wealthy from the abundance of wampum, sacred shell beads made from shells found on Long Island, which prompted aggression from other jealous tribes.

After Europeans first came to the area in the early 1600s, the Montauketts were coerced into giving up much of their land. In the late 17th century, Chief Wyandanch signed over much of the territory of Long Island to English settler Lion Gardiner. Warfare and new diseases such as smallpox contributed to drastic population declines among the tribe. By 1879, the last of their land was sold to land developer Arthur Benson.

One of the most notable Montauketts was Stephen Talkhouse, as he was famed for making the 30-50 mile trip between Montauk and East Hampton or Sag Harbor and back every day. About 500 members are currently registered as part of the tribe, and native ruins are still visible today at the newly named Montauk County Park.

The East Hampton settlers used the land as a summer pasture for cattle and horses, the location of the first cattle ranch in the United States according to the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. These ranchers laid out Old Montauk Highway in the 1700s, and the annual cattle drives became big local events. Three houses were built to house the herders while they were on Montauk: First House burned down in 1774, Second House (1797) is now a museum maintained by the Montauk Historical Society and Third House (1806) is now the headquarters for the County Park.

Because of its geographical location, Montauk also has an important maritime history. Since the town was extremely important for foreign trade, George Washington commissioned the Montauk Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1796. The Coast Guard was stationed there for many years, and the army used it during World War II. The still-active lighthouse is now a symbol and icon of Montauk.

You may have heard of the schooner Amistad, which landed in Montauk in 1839 after the slaves on board revolted. The white crew tricked them into thinking that they had returned Africa, and they were captured when they arrived. This sparked a widely publicized court case in which the slaves were ultimately freed. There are also legends of pirate booty buried in Montauk, but you are more likely to find liquor buried in the sand dunes from the “Rum Runners” who smuggled it in during prohibition.

Another famous connection to Montauk is when Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were quarantined in the area for yellow fever after the Spanish-American War. They spent their time at Camp Wikoff in 1898. Montauk was imperative in World War II as well, becoming a strategic military base, which included Camp Hero.

As a seaside town, fishing has long been a staple of Montauk life. It has large commercial and recreational fleets, and much of the town is centered around maritime activity. Another “Fisher” has been important in Montauk’s history—Carl Fisher, who purchased most of the East End from the heirs of Arthur Benson in 1926. He had plans to turn Montauk into the “Miami Beach of the North,” laying out the town and building the Yacht Club, the Montauk Manor, the Playhouse and the golf course. Although he lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, the tourist industry was revived in the 1960s and continues to thrive today.

Montauk houses a number of hotels and motels, unique when compared with the other Hamptons towns. Locals and visitors alike are infatuated with its beautiful beaches, surfing, outdoor activities, diverse nature and parks. The town continues to be defined by its connections to the sea, and it will assuredly remain a popular destination for years to come.

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