A new monument honoring the freedom-seekers who landed in search of water in Montauk in 1839 is important in recognizing Long Island’s role in a critical moment in American history. On Saturday, community leaders gathered at Culloden Point to mark the placement of a permanent marker close to where the Amistad rebels first set foot in the United States.
According to a contemporary account, the first thing that the 53 African men, women, and children wanted to know was, “Is this a slave country?” It wasn’t, but in 1839 slavery was still legal in fully one-half of the states plus a portion of the Missouri Territory. This meant that the former captives might be worth a great deal of money, depending on how the courts determined their status. This promise of a sudden windfall was not lost on the people who lived on the South Fork at the time.
For several days before the Montauk landing, a “long, low black schooner” had been noticed lingering not far off the ocean beaches. Several prominent Sag Harbor men who said they had been on a hunting outing discovered some of the Amistad freedom-seekers on the beach and tried to detain them. Later, two of them, Capt. Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham, had their cases dismissed in court after they had sought to win a share in the ship — and, if found to be legal cargo, the men, women, and children as well. The case did not end there, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared the Africans free in 1841, rejecting a Spanish claim that they remained property.
The Amistad freedom-seekers as a whole are important in American history because of the cases that followed and their implication as a cause célèbre for the anti-slavery movement. It is fitting that more attention be paid to them here.