Early Towns Independent

Footnotes to Long Island History

Early Towns Independent         

October 14, 1954


Thomas R. Bayles


          When the towns on Long Island were first settled by the English they were not under the control of any colonial government, nor had they any political connection with each other.  Each town at its first settlement was a pure democracy, and all questions were determined by the people assembled in town meeting.  In this manner they formed such laws as they thought necessary for the security and peace of the new settlements.

          The first laws related to the division of their lands and the enclosure of common fields for cultivation and pasture.  Also, there were regulations regarding fences, highways and watering places.

          A second class of laws made provision for the public defense, collection of taxes, education of youth, support of religion and the punishment for crimes.

          One of the first measures adopted in every town was one requiring every man to provide himself with arms and ammunition, and to assemble, when notified, at an appointed place, with a penalty for failure to do so.

          The men capable of bearing arms in every town were organized into companies, and were required to meet at specified times for drill.  In 1642 the Military Company of Southampton was required to meet six times a year for this purpose.

          The public expenses were paid by a tax fixed by a vote of the people in a general town meeting, and the taxes were collected by persons chosen for that purpose.  The salaries of the first ministers seem to have been raised in this way, by an assessment on all the people according to the quantity of land they had taken up.

          In 1662 the people of Huntington, by a vote of the town meeting, appointed a committee consisting of their minister and six of their most respected citizens, to examine the character of those who came to settle among them, with power to admit or refuse admission to them.  No inhabitant could sell any land to anyone unless the prospective purchaser was approved by this committee, under the penalty of a fine of 10 pounds, to be paid to the town.

          In 1651 the town of East Hampton passed an act forbidding any person to sell any liquor unless he was depnitized by the town for that purpose.  Young men were forbidden to “remain drinking at unseasonable hours” and it was ordered that they should not have more than half a pint among four men.

          The first settlers made provision for the support of the Gospel among them and demanded attendance a public worship, and a strict observance of the Sabbath.

          In 1650 the town of Hempstead assessed a fine of five guilders upon any person who should be absent from worship service without a good excuse, for the first time, 10 for the second, and 20 for the third.  About the same time the town of East Hampton ordered that no Indian should be allowed to travel through the town on the Sabbath day, and if found so doing, should be liable to corporal punishment.

          For the administration of justice, a court was established in each town composed of three magistrates, a clerk, and a constable, who were chosen annually by the people in their town meetings.

          In 1653 the town of Southampton ordered that if any person over 14 years old should be convicted of willful lying, he should be fined five shillings or put in the stocks for five hours.

          For drunkenness the fine was 10 shillings for the first time, 20 for the second, and 30 for the third.

          In 1682 the town of Huntington ordered that a person who was convicted of bringing a bag of meal from Oyster Bay to Huntington on the Sabbath day should pay a fine of 10 shillings
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