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Editorial: Historical society takes small, but significant, step

It begins. Finally.

Last week, the Oysterponds Historical Society removed the plaque marking a site on Narrow River Road in Orient where slaves are believed to have been buried. This was not am attempt to cover up or deny the past, but the start of an effort to understand it better. 

Along with removing the plaque — which referred to “servants” owned by a family named Tuthill — the society said it would begin a thorough investigation of the site to try and determine who, in fact, is buried there. Ground penetrating radar may be used to determine the size of the burial ground and how many graves might be there.

The goal is to explore local history in a deeper and more complete way and, by so doing, gain a better understanding of events occurring all across America today. The past, of course, is merely the prologue for the present.

As we’ve written before, history is not putty you can shape into anything you want. History is not a political statement. It is what actually happened, based on available sources. And on the North Fork, what actually happened is that English colonists arrived in the early 17th century and drove the native people from their land, turning some of them into slaves and farm workers and most of them into paupers in their own country, subject to English law.

These Native Americans eventually disappeared — first from the land itself, which was now wholly owned by Europeans, and later from the history books. Theirs was not a story any subsequent Riverhead or Southold town historian felt obliged to tell, at least until very recently.

African slaves were brought to Shelter Island, where the dominant English family also owned vast plantations in the Caribbean that were noteworthy for the high death rate among the slaves working there. Almost nothing has been studied locally about Caribbean slave plantations and how they fed the economy of eastern Long Island.

Slaves were also brought to Southold, which then included all of present-day Riverhead Town. Where they came from, how they were brought here, who sold them and who bought them is not known. Our libraries’ extensive local history collections include stacks of books on the “founding” families; but only a handful of slaves’ names are mentioned in them.

What we know of our region’s history was written by local historians whose interest was more about validating their own ancestry and highlighting stories of the area’s first English colonists, as if this were some American version of “Downton Abbey.” They steered away from any serious look at slavery and the fate of the native people who had lived here for thousands of years.

This effort is the first we can think of on the North Fork where a historical society has basically decided to throw out the accepted wisdom about our past and pursue the truth. Not only should every other historical society on eastern Long Island follow Oysterponds’ lead, but a new group should be formed to coordinate all of them in a far more complete study of the past.

In a release, the Oysterponds society said the Orient marker “ignored the cruel realities of slavery and slave ownership” The society went on to say “essential to that role is a quest for accuracy, and sensitivity to the impact of that history on our society.”

The plaque said that about 20 slaves were buried at the site along with the remains of Dr. Seth Tuthill, proprietor of Hog Pond Farm, and his wife, and noted that it was the couple’s “wish that they be buried with their former servants.”

As Richard Wines, who has studied Riverhead town history in a far more complete way, said: “ ‘Servants’ is a euphemism if there ever was one.”

Oysterponds has acknowledged the link between the past and the present: “We have an obligation as a community to be aware of our history, to know how it has shaped our culture, for good and bad.

“We are struggling to understand the lingering racism and discrimination growing out of our history that affects all of us in one way or another. We are striving to overcome it. We must try to get it right.”

This is an important start. It must continue.