Editorial: Two local groups are saving land and history

Across the East End, the Peconic Land Trust has preserved more than 14,000 acres of fertile farmland and open space. Our farmland is the rich loam the glaciers left behind as they retreated north at the end of the last Ice Age. These farm soils are a great gift that must never be taken for granted.

Native people lived off that farmland for 10,000 years, growing what Indigenous cultures called the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. When English settlers crossed from New England to the North Fork in 1640, they found a growing season of more than 200 days, far longer than what they were used to across the Sound. 

After forcing the Natives out of the way, the newcomers thrived. We are still thriving here. The debate going forward in Riverhead and Southold is how much of this great gift will be left for future generations.

Last month, the trust issued RFPs on 135 acres of this rich farmland on Oregon Road in Cutchogue, offering to sell the land to qualified farmers who will keep it in production. The owner of the land is an entity called Mattituck Farm Holdings LLC.

The trust preferred to keep the person behind this LLC confidential. But we can say it is someone who has saved hundreds of acres on the East End and tens of thousands across the country through a foundation that does extraordinary work. We applaud that person — and the trust — for doing this.

The added benefits of saving farmland and open space are the stories that come with it. Generations of farm families — English, Polish and Irish — lived off that land on Oregon Road. Those Polish farmers, who had once worked as farm laborers, prospered to the point that, in the early 20th century, they built Our Lady of Ostrabrama R.C. Church on Depot Lane in Cutchogue. 

There is no better example of saving history by saving land than the July 20, 2021, purchase by the trust of 4.5 acres on Sugar Loaf Hill in Southampton. This hilltop — from which you can see north to Peconic Bay and south all the way to the Atlantic Ocean — was the ancient burial ground of the Shinnecock people.

The site has been returned to the Shinnecock Nation, whose land once encompassed all of the Shinnecock Hills. In a 2021 story in the East End Beacon, this is what Peconic Land Trust chairman John Halsey said about saving that burial ground:

“This is about a hill, a summit, the most sacred place to the Shinnecock people, a place where their ancestors were buried 3,000 years ago, and I acknowledge for all parties involved that the land we live on here in Southampton is the ancestral land of the Shinnecock people.”

We also want to pay tribute to the North Fork Project, an ongoing research endeavor by historians and researchers Richard Wines, Amy Folk and Sandi Brewster-Walker. Their work has something in common with the trust saving historically significant land.

At a presentation last weekend at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, the project highlighted how, after three years of work, it had discovered the names of more than 350 enslaved people owned by North Fork residents up through the first part of the 19th century. Theirs is the first effort of its kind ever undertaken on the North Fork.

The names of the enslaved aren’t on a wall or a monument, nor are the Native names that were scratched on deeds selling land to the early settlers. Except for that one location in the Shinnecock Hills, we don’t know where the Natives were buried. Nor has the North Fork Project established where the enslaved were buried. 

But when land is saved, as the trust is doing on Oregon Road, when the North Fork Project excavates the names of the enslaved who worked on our farms, our past becomes something far richer, and the landscape and the people who lived on it merge into a single narrative worth remembering.