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North Fork History Project: From growing divisions within Southold, River Head town is born

The Jamesport Meeting House, as magnificent a building as stands anywhere on eastern Long Island, was built in 1731 by virtually all the pioneer settlers of what was then the western half of Southold Town.

That group included the Wells family, who farmed on what today is Phillips Lane in Aquebogue. The Wells family still farms there. Daniel Wells Sr., who helped organize financing and construction of the church, was the son of a Justice Joshua Wells of Cutchogue and a direct descendent of William Wells, one of the first Englishmen to come to the North Fork.

It was the group of which William Wells was part that, over perhaps no more than a generation, separated the Indians from their homeland and pushed them out of the way so this could be an English place and not an native one.

Sixty-one years after the church was built, the town of Riverhead was born, with Daniel Wells Jr. as its first supervisor. How the bisecting of Southold Town occurred in 1792 is not revealed in primary source documents available in either Southold or Riverhead. There are no official town papers and records, letters, diaries, or anything that can give historians a better view of the events that precipitated this break.

“There are theories we can put together which probably explain why this happened,” said historian Richard Wines of Jamesport. “But there are no documents that tell us why.”

Mr. Wines and Southold Town historian Amy Folk believe the reason centers on geography and the simple truth that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, nothing traveled faster than the speed of a horse.

From 1640, when Southold was formed, to 1792, when it was cleaved in two, the town extended from Orient Point and the islands around it all the way west to the “wading river” — today’s Wading River. The center of government was in Southold, so in order to conduct official business, someone who lived at the western edge of the town had to mount a horse or buggy and travel for hours, perhaps find overnight quarters, and then head back home.

“At first, the long expanse of the town mattered little because most of the settlers lived in and around Southold hamlet,” Ms. Folk wrote in an essay. “Yearly, in April, residents of the town gathered in Southold to enact government business, elect officials of the town, and discuss and decide any issues brought up by residents.”

Historian Richard Wines of Jamesport in front of the Jamesport Meeting House, built in 1731 by early pioneers of the town. (Rachel Siford photo)

By 1661, as the English population increased, Southold opened more land previously occupied by Indians to white settlement. There are almost no records at all of what became of those Indians; they are simply gone from the history, which they had no part in writing. 

The western side of Southold with this move was called the “Occabauk” division, “which roughly stretched from Mattituck to Aquebogue/Riverhead area and was granted to 19 Southold citizens,” Ms. Folk wrote. By 1711, the land west of that area was opened to settlement, and approximately 23 people were granted large farming lots there.

“For residents at the western border, it took eight hours to travel the twenty-five and a half-mile trip to attend town meetings, pay taxes or vote,” she wrote.

Distance was one complaint of western Southold’s residents, but they surely had others. 

“I suspect the people who lived then in what is now Riverhead felt they were not well represented,” said Mr. Wines. “They felt different, and younger. There seems to have been some political differences, too. The western part of the town was more Republican, Southold more Federalist.”

The Republican model was promoted by Thomas Jefferson, who favored decentralized and local control of the levers of government; Federalists like Alexander Hamilton favored a strong central government.

What is now the Jamesport Meeting House was built in 1731 — a key time in colonial American history, as it coincides with what is called the Great Awakening among the established religious groups. Supporters of a religious revival were the New Lights, opponents the Old Lights. The schism led to bitter conflicts within, for example, the established Presbyterian Church, with which the meeting house was affiliated, as were Presbyterian congregations in Mattituck, Cutchogue and Southold.

“The membership when the meeting house was built was made up of people from the current town line, which didn’t exist then, west to Wading River,” Mr. Wines said. “In the 1750s, most of the membership walked out and formed their own Strict Congregational Church, now Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue. It was a very bitter division.”

A photocopy of the March 1792 New York State law creating the town of River Head from the western portion of Southold Town.

It is only a theory, but an interesting one: Religious differences heightened by the Great Awakening put the older, more established residents in eastern Southold in conflict with the younger, more radical residents of the western end. Frustrated by travel distances, the latter  began clamoring for their own government.  They wanted to be separate from Southold, which they saw as no longer representing them.

In addition, Ms. Folk has written, there were arguments over property boundaries in Aquebogue in the late 1780s, adding to the divisions between residents of the old and new parts of Southold. 

So, in 1792, Southold Town petitioned the state government to split itself in half, citing the length of the town and the fact that residents at the western end found it “very inconvenient … to attend at town meetings and also to transact the other necessary business of the said town …”

The western boundary would run from Long Island Sound, along “the eastern boundary or side of a farm now in the tenure or occupation of William Albertson, and is the reputed line of division between the parishes of Ocquebogue and Mattertuck,” according to state records.

The Aquebogue residents — and their religious differences — were now west of the new line, and would be residents of the new town of River Head. Why Southold picked that spot as  the dividing line between the old and the new is not told in town records. 

Were there arguments over where that line should be drawn? About who would be in Southold and who in River Head? History doesn’t answer such questions.

The first River Head town meeting was held at the home of John Griffing [spelled Griffen in a state record], which was also a tavern. Soon, River Head would begin to prosper, because it also served as the de facto county seat, since the bulk of the population of the county lived on the North and South forks.

“They built the county courthouse and jail there because it was centrally located,” said Mr. Wines. “Before that, they alternated county meetings between Southold and Southampton. The first courthouse was at the north end of what is now Peconic Avenue on Main Street. That building burned down in 1911.”

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North Fork History Project

Part I: Before anything else, there was ice

Part II: Long before the ‘first families’

Part III: When English arrive, Indians disperse?

Part IV: So, who was really here first?

Part V: Slavery, an ignored part of our history

Part VI: Slavery on Shelter Island, a story not hidden away

Part VII: When was Cutchogue’s Old House built?

Part VIII: The Revolution ‘tore families apart’

Part IX: For one loyalist, all would be lost