In January, our papers began publishing the North Fork History Project, a series of stories showcasing the remarkable history of our area. We began with the massive wall of ice that, as it retreated, scraped and carved the land we live on now — its rivers, salt creeks, ponds, hills, valleys and bays.
For much of the year we published every second week. That changed in the fall, with less regular stories, and by last week, with the publication of Bob Liepa’s look at Greenport during World War II, we had completed some 20 stories. Next year, we will do more as time and space allow, because there are more stories that can and should be told.
In February, to celebrate Black History Month, we will write about the farm labor camps that once dotted the North Fork and were home to southern-born black men and women who dug, washed and bagged potatoes. The famed CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow filmed part of his 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame” at a camp that once sat in a grove of trees on Cox Lane in Cutchogue.
The last camp of its kind was on Depot Lane in Cutchogue, home to a half-dozen men and two women. After that camp burned down a decade ago, its residents, suddenly homeless, scattered. Two of them — Oliver Burke Jr. and Frank Singleton — found their way to families in Georgia and South Carolina they’d long lost track of and had little hope of ever seeing again. A third resident, a kindhearted woman named Bea Shaw, moved into an apartment in Riverhead, where she was later murdered by a man who came to the building to buy drugs.
In all the stories we printed — from the wall of ice, through stories about the Native people who lived here for 10,000 years, to the first Europeans, slavery, the Civil War, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the 1938 hurricane — readers were eager to read more. Many learned of a history they never knew existed.
I can recall only two complaints, both from readers who thought the stories about the fate of the American Indians on their land and slavery fit into a left-wing view of our history.
I guess they would have preferred history in the form of feel-good cheerleading. I’d rather stick with facts that can be learned. The indisputable truth is that the Indians were removed from their land via deeds and sales they had no way to comprehend, were restricted to smaller and smaller tracts of land and, within a few years of the arrival of the English, had become impoverished beggars in their own country and indentured servants and slaves to the new arrivals.
As for African-American slavery on the North Fork, our knowledge took a big leap forward with the discovery last summer at the Old Cutchogue Burying Ground of a buried headstone marking the graves of two black children. One was Miriam Reeve, the daughter of a slave named Elymas Reeve; she was 8 when she died in 1822. The other was Parthenia Silone, who was just a year old when she died in 1854. The simple fact that we can now put names on slaves is a major achievement. The best way to advance local history would be a wider project — an East End History Project — examining Indian history, slave history and the stories of the early settlers. Maybe that will happen one day.
There is much more that can be learned. How extensive were efforts here to get around Prohibition? How did the Vietnam War impact lives and families on the North Fork?
We will try to tell stories in print, but also in our new podcasts, as we did last week with Bob’s story about Greenport during World War II. As we’ve said before, history is a wheel that keeps turning.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].