Early Moriches in the 17th and 18th centuries
Submitted by Van Field, June 2005
The Moriches area in the 17th and 18th centuries was an expanse of land along the south shore stretching from the Carman’s River to the Speonk River. This vast area running along the bays and north into Manor was called Moriches. The name was from the name of a Native American, who lived on the east bank of the Paquatuck [now Terrell’s] River by Moriches Bay.
Brookhaven Town was settled first in Setauket where early settlers found a harbor to approach the shore. They were soon attracted to the many streams and shallow bays of the south shore. The first map of Brookhaven Town was drawn in 1797. It shows the old paths that eventually became roads. A major pathway ran from Setauket, through Wincoram At this crossroad, where the south road [old Montauk Highway] crossed Carman’s River, they built a church. It was called “the meeting house in Brookhaven.” It was an extension of the church in Setauket. [Coram] to Yaphank ending in South [Brook] Haven on the Carman’s River.
Churches were central to early community life. This church served the Moriches area for many years. People attended from as far as what is now called Center Moriches. The Beachfern Road cemetery in Center Moriches holds the graves of many of the early settlers. They attended church in South Haven. Their weddings and funerals took place there. Later in 1809 a church was started at the corner of the King’s Highway [CR80] and the road to Manor [Railroad Ave.]
William Tangier Smith came to this area and bought up much land in what is now Eastern Brookhaven Town. Smith applied to Colonial Governor Benjamin Fletcher for a King’s Grant, which was issued by Patent of 1697 from William the 3rd, King of England. This made him Lord of the Manor. He was given authority to hold “court leet and court baron” over the tenants, to collect taxes, and to be exempt from the authority of the local township.
The title of Lord of the Manor was passed on to his eldest son. This lasted until after the Revolutionary war at which time the family relinquished the power to the Town of Brookhaven.
The ancestry of William Smith stops with him. The family tradition claims that his mother was one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting at the British throne and the king was his father. This is believed to be the reason he was so favored by the British crown.
He got the nickname of Tangier from his serving the King at the newly acquired country of Tangiers in North Africa.
St. Georges Manor as the family called the southern part of the estate is often seen in old documents. Today, St George’s Manor is the remains of the estate and house on Smith’s Point in Shirley. It was left to the people of Brookhaven by Eugenie Smith, the last of the line to live there. It is administered by the Furman law firm as was drawn up in her will.
In 1844, when the railroad came through the center of the Island on its way to Greenport and a ferry connection to New England, a station was built and labeled St Georges Manor. Rumor has it that the stationmaster had no love for the British so he grabbed a paint brush and painted it out, leaving Manor Station. This became Manorville. The first trains stopped at Manor to take on more fuel, namely wood. Sparks from the engine often set fire to the woods, causing the local citizenry to do battle with the smoking iron monster. Compensation by the railroad eventually smoothed things over.
Travelers today along the “south road”[old Montauk Highway] find that the road passes over a series of damned streams. These are the remains of the early mills built there. Early settlers needed housing and food. Saw mills were set up to saw trees into lumber for houses. Most could be easily changed over to millstones to grind corn and wheat grown for food. Until the late 1800s people sought out these mills to grind the grain they grew.
The damned streams furnished the water power to do the work. Take a moment to remember as you drive along and cross these places, that early settlers built them and why. In early days roads passed where streams were shallow enough to be forded by wagons and people on horseback.
A classic example is the mill dam on Terrell’s River in East Moriches. It was first dammed in 1737 by Oliver Smith. Prior to that the “Kings Highway” passed the old Terry-Ketcham Inn and went north near what is now Camp Paquatuck where until recent years the white stones placed on the bottom to make a rough road where the stream was forded could be seen.
The earthen mill dam made a good road for horse and wagon traffic. With the arrival of the automobile, a road was laid out south of the old mill dam. The old mill collapsed from the wind and water of the 1938 hurricane.
Gone are most of the meadows so coveted by early settlers. Early land transactions often mentioned the “mow-able meadows” necessary for fodder for cattle and horses.
Nathaniel Smith, grandson of Richard Bull Smith founder of Smithtown owned the large plantation on the east bank of Terrell’s River and a large portion of what is now East Moriches. Col. Josiah Smith lived in the family house [still on Moriches Ave.] and is buried along with family members in their backyard cemetery, now on Paquatuck Ave. This small family cemetery holds the remains of several Revolutionary soldiers. Col. Smith led troops from Brookhaven and east in the ill fated battle of Long Island at Brooklyn in 1776. It is said that the cemetery also holds the remains of many of his many slaves. Large estates on Long Island seemed to have averaged around 20 slaves. Often a slave child would be given to a child of the owner around the same age resulting in bonds of friendship between them. Slavery was abolished in the state of New York in 1821, often earlier in the towns.
One often wonders the mind set of good Christian people toward their slaves! A moral dilemma! Without slaves they would be hard put to exist in this virgin land. Food to live had to be wrested from the ground by hard work.
When addressing attitudes toward slavery, it may help to remember that womenfolk weren’t given the vote until 1922.
Col. William Floyd was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that launched the colonies into a war with the mother country, England. He represented New York in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1782.
Another Revolutionary War patriot from the area was General Nathanial Woodhull, who was one of the leaders at the Battle of Long Island. When he surrendered, the British struck him with a sword fatally wounding him. A wound in those days would often get infected and the person died as a result. He was imprisoned on one of the infamous prison ships in New York Harbor. His wife brought him food, but he soon succumbed to his wounds. He was brought back to Mastic and is buried in a small cemetery on Neighborhood Road in Mastic.
Another road [Eastport-Manor Road] led from the Peconic River to the south shore at Seatuck (Eastport). The mill dam on the Seatuck River makes Eastport’s “mill pond.” The Seatuck is the dividing line between Brookhaven and Southampton towns. The church established there served the families both east and west of there. The back road to East Moriches passes through an area called Benjamintown, named for the many Benjamins that moved there from the Riverhead area before the Revolution. In the disastrous year with no summer, 1816, it was one of the few places that the corn wasn’t killed by frost. The areas near the bay in East Moriches were spared and furnished seed for their neighbors. June was the only month without frost. The Volcano Tambora in Indonesia exploded in 1815 and the ash dimmed the sun throughout the world causing much misery.
Eastern Long Island’s settlers came from England via Massachusetts to Southold and Southampton. As families multiplied, they pushed westward settling western Southold Town, now Riverhead Town and into Manorville and the Moriches in Brookhaven Town. Western Long Island was settled by those coming to Manhattan. Many of the Dutch stayed after the British won the area from them. Many later settlers came via this route. During the Revolutionary War the west end of the Island was sympathetic to the British Crown, while the Eastern people were for independence. They had been here for several generations and could no longer be considered settlers. American’s loyalty to England, a country of their great grandfathers, just wasn’t there. Although still dependant on England for many manufactured goods, it was more business than personal. This accounted for the Nationalism displayed, which resulted in a great many families moving to Connecticut for the duration of the long war.
This helps to explain the Setauket Spy Ring and Major Benjamin Tallmadge’s raid across the sound to Mt Sinai and across the Island to Fort St. George in Mastic. After the 1776 the British occupied Long Island. This meant British troops were quartered in people’s houses [resulting in the amendment to the Constitution after the war]. British troops were everywhere. They took Col Floyd’s house. Often they used the public buildings and large houses to stable their horses.
St. George’s Manor in Mastic overlooked Smith’s Gut, later called Old Inlet. British ships were able to use the inlet to supply their troops. The British made it a fort as it controlled the vital waterway. That inlet closed in 1821.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, we were again at war with Great Britain called the War of 1812, this time over freedom of the seas. The British fleet moved in and laid siege to Long Island. Long Island Sound was blockaded as was the Fire Island Inlet. New York City homes burned wood that came from Brookhaven and other eastern towns by schooner. It should be pointed out that this was an unpopular war and many living along the south shore, used to sail from villages along the Great South Bay, through the Fire Island inlet with loads of produce. They did a lively business with the hungry British sailors on blockade duty off shore. It was a welcome change from the hard tack and moldy, buggy food they had aboard.
On the north shore there were a few naval skirmishes, one at Wading River where the US Revenue Cutter Eagle put in to shore to escape the much larger British men of war. The cutter was beached and cannon dragged up the north shore sand cliffs to fire down on the small boats the warship dispatched to grab the small ship. The local militia also arrived with their hunting rifles. Used to shooting small game, the British Marines were easy targets. A similar battle took place at Hallock’s Landing near the present day Hallockville farm museum.
Schools were always a priority with the early people of the area. It was important for the children to learn how to read the bible, and arithmetic to keep count of their money. Reading land contracts was an essential skill. The schooling had to be squeezed in between fall gathering of crops and spring planting. An early spring meant school was out early! The schools were built where there was a settlement of farmhouses. Boundary lines were soon drawn. The railroad brought regular mail delivery, an improvement over the private stagecoach lines. The Federal government established post offices in settlements and they started drawing boundary lines. Sometimes they coincided with the school districts and often they didn’t. Thus began urbanization.
Small Hamlets sprung up at the apex of roads and rivers. Roads coming from Manorville came into East Moriches (Pine St), Center Moriches (RR Av.), South Haven, Farm to Market Road, etc.
Early Moriches people attended church in south Haven. As Moriches expanded, church was held in people’s homes. South Haven was a long trip in winter. First area church was Congregational. Presbyterians organized and shared a school building with them. They prospered and eventually built the church we have today, next to the old building on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Main Street.
The Presbyterians eventually had a chapel in the eastern part of Moriches, later they built a building that eventually broke away and became the East Moriches Presbyterian Church. Church records didn’t differentiate between the two buildings, it was considered one church. One might wonder why people from East Moriches went to church in Center Moriches when examining early records. They didn’t of course. This helps explain why East Moriches doesn’t have a cemetery. Mt Pleasant cemetery serves the area. It was originally the Presbyterian cemetery, donated by Capt. Josiah Smith [1772-1852]. The East Moriches Presbyterian church is now seeking funds to restore the stained glass windows that are deteriorating.
The second church in East Moriches was the present Methodist church, built on land donated by Presbyterian Joshua Terry, who lived on the curve in the highway.
The area eastward along Woodlawn Avenue in East Moriches was called Benjamintown. The residents of this area were close to and therefore attended the Eastport Methodist Church.
The quaint notions we learn about religious freedom in the colonies is not exactly the way it was. The early church wanted freedom to do what they wanted and that did NOT apply to any others. Quakers were usually run out of town by the local church goers! Why? Well maybe it had something to do with their belief that they didn’t need a preacher! It sort of dug into the neat system of supporting the preacher in return for his blessings!