The 17th Century Islanders

Footnotes to Long Island History

The 17th Century Islanders



Thomas R. Bayles


       In the early settlement of Long Island, each town was at first an independent government, and the people made their own laws and chose their own executives without any connection with any other civil power on the face of the earth.

          Each little settlement was a combination of civil, military, social and religious government.  Forts were built and garrisoned, companies of militia kept organized for protection, civil laws were enacted and enforced and the social condition of the people guarded.  Churches and schools were established, and the ministers and teachers supported by the people.  Assessments were  made upon each individual according to the amount of land he had taken up.

          The towns kept a vigilant eye upon the character of their inhabitants, and individuals who wanted to join the settlements were generally placed on probation for a term of from three to six months.  At the end of that time, if their character and behavior was approved, they were admitted to the privileges of freemen and allotted certain portions of the land, with the same rights as the other settlers.

          Committees were appointed to investigate the character and reputation of proposed settlers, and if they did not prove satisfactory to the committee of the townspeople, they were directed to leave within a specified time.  No individual inhabitant was allowed to sell or lease real estate to a stranger not accepted by the town as a proper person to become a member of the settlement.  By enforcing these restrictions, the society of these first settlements was kept measurably free from undesirables.

          The judicial and executive functions of each town were exercised by three magistrates, a clerk, constable and overseers.  The chosen clerk was generally known as the recorder.  These officers were elected by the people at their annual town meetings, which were held frequently for the election of officers, enactment of such laws and regulations as the times required, judgment of important cases between individuals, and the hearing of criminal cases that might be referred to them from the subordinate town court.

          The people in their sovereign capacity were called the “general court” of the town.  Whenever important matters required attention, a special session of the general court was called.

          The unrestricted sale of intoxication drinks was forbidden, and those authorized to sell them were held responsible for their obedience to certain laws and regulations.  The general court prescribed the maximum quantity which might be sold to a single individual within a specified time, and a heavy fine or forfeiture of his license was the penalty for disobeying this order.  Innkeepers were not allowed to let anyone become intoxicated or to continue drinking after a certain time of night.  Special regulations were imposed for dealing out strong drink to the Indians.

          Sabbath-breaking and profanity were crimes for which most of the town prescribed punishment.  Lying, slander and intoxication were provided for by rigid enactments.  The stocks and the whipping post were common instruments of punishment in those days.

          After managing their own affairs for a few years, the towns voluntarily placed themselves under the protection of the New England colonies.  this was done by Southampton in 1644.  East Hampton in 1657, Brookhaven in 1659, and Huntington in 1660.  In 1648, Southold and Shelter Island joined the colony of New Haven.  The alliance was formed for protection, and did not subject the member towns to control or taxation by the New England colonies.  This territory, not having been claimed by any of the colonies, was in a poor condition for defense against invasion by hostile Indians or the Dutch.

          In 1662, the colony of New Haven was united to that of Connecticut, and a new and more liberal charter granted to the united colony by King Charles II.  A clause in this new charter included the “islands adjacent,” by which  Connecticut claimed Long Island, and this claim was seconded by the towns of Suffolk County.  Seeing the provisions in the new charter which allowed the people a voice in legislations as well as the election of their own officers, these towns were desirous of becoming a part of the Connecticut colony, and were in a measure, so constituted.

          Each town was represented by deputies in the Colonial Assembly, and was required to pay its share of funds towards the general expenses of the government.  In 1662, the people of Oyster Bay, who had previously maintained a sort of neutral position between the Dutch and English, voluntarily placed themselves under the government of Connecticut.

          In the early part of 1664, the General Court proposed to perfect the new arrangements by organizing and establishing courts of justice in the towns of the island.  They sent for the governor of Connecticut and two others, who called a special meeting at Setauket in June, but whatever arrangements were made were rendered inoperative by the opening of a new era in the history of the Island.  That was the conquest of 1664, a revolution which left Long Island in the hands of a new power.

          (The material in this article has been take from “Sketches of Suffolk County,” by Richard M. Bayles.)

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