Archeologist Ralph Solecki remembered as ‘pioneer’ of North Fork history

Ralph Solecki was 14 years old in 1931, when his father bought a house on a hilltop in Cutchogue that the locals called Manor Hill. 

South of the house lay farmland bracketed by woods and salt creeks, where the curious teenager searched for arrowheads left behind by the Indians who had lived on the same land for thousands of years.

Moving to that property changed the boy’s life and propelled him toward a career as a celebrated archaeologist and Columbia University professor who made headlines in the 1950s, when he and a team unearthed the bones of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals in a cave in northern Iraq.

But it was his youth in Cutchogue, and his digging along the edge of Downs Creek, just east of his father’s house, that helped shape the history of Southold Town and also make an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the contact period when Europeans first arrived on Long Island and encountered a whole new people.

Mr. Solecki died March 20 at a hospital near the home he shared with his wife, Rose, in South Orange, N.J. He was 102.

The site on the west side of Downs Creek, Fort Corchaug, is now preserved by Southold Town and is a National Historic Landmark. Appropriately, the little bungalow on the site is called the Ralph Solecki Visitors Center in recognition of his pioneering work there — first as a curious teenager looking for spear points and arrowheads and later for his master’s dissertation from Columbia University.

Jim Grathwohl, a former president of the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, helped get the property landmarked in 1999. He said the land at and around the site “was very special to Ralph. It was his baby.

“He did so much of his work there as a young man,” Mr. Grathwohl added. “He felt very strongly that the site was tremendously significant and should be preserved.”

The sun sets on Downs Creek, the area of some of Mr. Solecki’s earliest expeditions. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Mr. Solecki’s son William said his father’s parents were Polish immigrants. His father’s father, Casimir Solecki, purchased the Cutchogue property. It was a summer house at first, then became the family’s full-time residence.

“Those fields and woods were where some of my dad’s friends were finding flint pieces and arrowheads,” William Solecki said. “They did a lot of looking around and exploring as young, amateur archaeologists.”

Those familiar with the site have speculated that the local lore when Mr. Solecki was growing up was that something important was hidden in the woods and fields on the west side of Downs Creek, where there were visible berms in a somewhat rectangular fashion. Ralph Solecki returned when he was in graduate school at Columbia in the 1950s and, through careful excavation, discovered that the berms were part of the support structures of a 17th-century log fort.

It wasn’t an Indian fort built for protection by the Corchaug people, who had lived on the North Fork for thousands of years before losing it all to the newly arrived English colonists, but was more likely a trading post.

“The word ‘pioneer’ for Ralph is certainly accurate,” said John Strong, a retired history professor at Southampton College and an expert on Long Island Indian history. “There had been a discussion on whether this was a fort or a place where the Indians made wampum and traded with the Dutch.

“Ralph advanced the idea of the role of Fort Corchaug as a trading post,” he said. “The evidence was that the Dutch, the English and Indian people from the other side of the Sound came to exchange goods.”

Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, characterized Mr. Solecki’s work as “hugely important. He was a very bright and curious kid and there were men out on the North Fork who were excavating all the time, finding things.

“People knew there was something there, and it was Ralph who found the corners of the ramparts,” she added. She said there were other so-called Indian forts, some of which have been found, but few preserved the way Fort Corchaug has been.

“He was a pioneer, no doubt of that,” she said.

Joel Klein, a retired archaeologist living in Mattituck, characterized the Fort Corchaug site as “clearly one of the most important contact period sites ever found.” He said Mr. Solecki advanced the idea that the period of European-Indian contact was momentous in terms of understanding our history.

“The whole thing about the contact period he passed on to others was the analogy that here were two cultures who had no knowledge of the other,” Mr. Klein said. “They were so different and suddenly they were in contact with each other.”

A comparison, he said, would be if and when we come in contact with extraterrestrials from another world. “It was that momentous,” he said.

William Solecki said his father’s work in Iraq helped revise  what was known about Neanderthal lives and burial practices. He described his father as a curious and learned man — a Columbia University student in the late 1940s, then on to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., then back to Columbia for graduate work.

He taught at Columbia from 1959 to 1988, then moved to Texas with Rose — also a Ph.D.-educated archeologist — to take a faculty position at  Texas A&M University. After 10 years there,  the couple moved to South Orange to be closer to William and his brother, John.

“If you find something that you love to do, and you can make money at it, you don’t ever work a day in your life,” William Solecki said. “He lived that for sure … As a kid he was used to scurrying around and going out into fields and kicked up stones. It sparked an interest that became his profession.”

For our history on the North Fork, for our understanding of the Indian people and how they lived and what became of them after contact with Europeans, we owe Mr. Solecki a huge debt of gratitude.

Top Caption: Ralph Solecki during a visit to his home in New Jersey by officials from Soran University in Kurdistan. (Credit: Soran University Press Release)

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