The Mast-Head: History of You and Me

Things get complicated pretty quick trying to figure out the genealogies

If you are looking for a break from the bustle of the film festival this weekend, one of the more untrammeled options is the modest farm museum on North Main Street in East Hampton.

The museum is in an old farmhouse and focuses on ordinary life from the 1880s to the 1930s, a period of peace, war, growth, and rapid change. The last quarter of the 19th century brought artists to East Hampton; Winslow Homer made a pioneering visit in 1874. The rakish members of the Tile Club arrived in the summer of 1878, among them William Merritt Chase, Homer, John Twachtman, Stanford White, Alden Weir, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The East Hampton Star printed its first edition in December 1885. Train travel from New York City to East Hampton began 10 years later, in part to serve a burgeoning summer colony up by the beach.

But the farm museum is less concerned with these milestones than in the anonymous lives of the town’s ordinary residents. It was with pleasure that I accepted an open-ended offer from its organizers to speak on Sunday during a community turkey dinner. 

My thought was to speak about the value of history and to say that the past is not only important on its own but for what it says about the present. East Hampton has long been going around in what I think of as a history cul-de-sac, obsessing over the leading families, the ones that got here in the 17th century. But that leaves out a lot.

Three hundred and seventy years ago, when the first English colonists came across the Sound from Connecticut to establish this beachhead, the last names were nine in all: Barnes, Bond, Hand, Howe, Mulford, Rose, Stratton, Talmadge, and Thomson. 

Recollections of a number of their descendants have faded. But some have not, and for those of us who have ties to the old families, things get complicated pretty quick trying to figure out the genealogies. When I was at East Hampton High School the joke was that those of us who went way back would call each other “Cuz,” as in cousin — and we probably were if you looked back far enough. In middle school and later, I went out on dates with a distant relative. It was no big deal, even if the kids from away gave us grief about it.

Of course, those early colonists worked hard and were part of the foundation of the American experiment, but they were just part of the story. The muscle and sweat that built East Hampton and the New England colonies, what would one day be the United States, was not just this handful of “upstreet” folks. There were native people, people of African descent, and scores of families that moved here for one reason or another. 

The last names were Bennett and Lester, Halsey, Dominy, Field, Filer,  Gann, Hicks, King, Loper, Payne, Schellinger. There were Sherrills, Strongs, Tillinghasts, Vails, and Van Scoys. There were the Pharaohs, Cuffees, Fowlers, and Lynches, Cards, Iaconos, DiGates, Bistrians, Motts, Andersons, Schencks, Bahnses, Pittses, Eckers, Duryeas, Joneses, Hayeses, and Carters, and on and on.

History is a lot more than just stories about the leading men. And that is what I think the farm museum is so good at — pointing out that everyone in his or her own way contributed to what East Hampton is today. And that this is a story that keeps writing itself.