Editorial: Just how old is Cutchogue’s Old House?

History is what binds us to a place and a past and the people who came before us. History is a story and the foundation on which a community is built. For that reason alone we should pay attention to it.

On the North Fork, it was long taught that history began with the arrival of the English. That’s when the clock starts to run. The people who favored this approach were, in large part, descendants of those people. They were promoting their own history. But we know, and have long known, that when the ice finally receded “native” Americans found their way east. They were first, so talking about Europeans holding the honor of stepping onto an undiscovered, uninhabited land is not history at all.

Over time, these “first nations” people became the American Indians of our imaginations, the people James Fenimore Cooper immortalized in his novels. They lived on the North Fork for thousands of years. Europeans have been here a little more than 400 years. It’s worth pointing out that the last community of Corchaug Indians likely lived as paupers on Indian Neck in Peconic. There should be a stone marker or monument to these people in Southold Town.

Word this week that The Old House on the Cutchogue Village Green is about a half-century younger than it has long been believed to be causes local history to be rewritten. Our story has to be reworked.

A study of the rings in the old timbers of the house shows the structure was almost certainly built around 1698, and not in the late 1640s. The so-called Corchaug Division was opened to settlement in the late 1600s, so this new date makes perfect sense. It also opens up the possibility that the house’s first occupant was Joseph Wickham, who had come to Cutchogue from Bridgehampton that year, lived in that house and owned the acreage all around it.

The house’s new date does not change when Europeans arrived here. Official history says 1640. No doubt Europeans walked around here long before that, but they may not have built stable communities until after the massacre of the Pequot people in Connecticut between 1636 and 1638. Once the Pequots were out of the way, the English could arrive on eastern Long Island in numbers and build homes and a church without fear of reprisals.

Lion Gardiner, a soldier in the Pequot War, “bought” Gardiners Island from the Montaukett Indians in the aftermath of the slaughter. Purchase price: a black dog and some rum. A carpenter’s shed on the island, built in the late 1630s, is almost certainly the oldest English-built structure on eastern Long Island. The Halsey house in Southampton may be the second oldest. Is Cutchogue’s Old House the third? Does it matter?

The Old House is a third-generation house — elegant, built in the English style — not a first- or even a second-generation make-do house. The Old House was the kind of home built by people who had already done well here, not people who had just arrived and were scrambling to build shelters, clear land and plant crops.

Conducting archeological digs to learn how and where the Corchaug people lived, finding where slaves lived and were buried, mapping where the English first built and where they farmed — these are far more important.

Photo credit: Krysten Massa