A few thoughts on some of the quirks of L.I. Local History

Long Island is not a monolith, nor is its history as uniform, simple, or simplistic as is often thought, and sometimes represented.  
 
L.I. and its history is a study in fascinating paradoxes, personalities, nuances, & contradictions.  

  • For a start, there is no universal agreement as to what does and doesn't constitute Long Island. Does it include or exclude the two New York City boroughs, Kings & Queens County)?  Whether or not it is an island is also (sometimes hotly) debated, even though it has even been legislated.  
  • L.I. is indeed entirely surrounded by water (the clear definition of an island). But it is linked, though not by dry land, to Manhattan, Staten Island, and to the mainland (directly and indirectly) by bridges to the west and north west (e.g., Throgs, or in former times, ye Frogs Neck).   So, it is now officially legislated a peninsula, to many in pure defiance of  logic and common sense.  
  • It is a land of many subjective boundaries, geographic, and otherwise, and of sometimes jarringly, side-by-side (juxtaposed) paradoxes, both current and historic. There is no moat at the Queens-Nassau County border, indeed, prior to 1899, the two were one county.  Is not Kings (also known as Brooklyn) physically attached to the rest of Long Island?  Yet, Brooklynites are and are not Long Islanders, are a key borough of N.Y.C., moreso, since 1899.  It's all in how we choose to perceived that county/borough, for convenience, in the moment.  Put a different way, is not a good part of LI also part of NYC., and a good part of NYC (Brooklyn & Queens) part of L.I.?

Across millenia, esp. in recent centuries, people have arrived here for a variety of reasons, purposes, motivations (some known, some unknown):  lived (for a time, a lifetime, or generations) or summered here, or just passed through, from nearly every corner of the globe.Whether it is to be viewed that way, or through a far narrower lens, has long been, and remains, a bone of contention and politicians' football.
 
Long Island's human prehistory extends back roughly 12,500 years.  Its Indians have lived here, by far, the longest.  

  • L.I.  archeology is largely quietly significant (and yes, stratigraphy is found on L.I.).  Findings are possible and being made year by year.  There is a recent upsurge of interest in L.I. Indian prehistory and history (from the Archaic to Woodland Periods, and from the Contact Era to the Present), as local tribes receive Federal recognition and funding, and as related associations, foundations, museums, educational and research institutions spring up, or expand.  That's also part of all Long Islanders' rich cultural heritage (whether still living here or transplanted elsewhere).

Long Island's European colonial history usually begins in the early to mid-17th century...

  • ...with the officially Dutch, but in reality multi-ethnic (Dutch, French [Huguenot], German, English) colonization of its West End, and New England Puritan colonization of its East End, then central section.  (Meanwhile, Europe tore itself apart amid Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Ottoman invasions, and the religious wars of the age.  The English Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restoration, played themselves out on both sides of the Atlantic, as did the Anglo-Dutch and other sometimes forgotten European wars, culminating, eventually in the French and Indian War. This is to say nothing of the conflicts within the New World itself, at the same time.)  
  • There were known (Vespucci) and speculative earlier European contacts (Viking, Portuguese).  Yet, somehow, 17th century settlement is still perversely referred to by traditionalists, as "ancient."  Nothing could be less ancient, and more late early modern.  Another paradox.

Many L.I. towns and villages have existed for over 350 years, i.e., longer than many U.S. states,and L.I.'s population has grown to become larger than that of several of those states.   Noel Gish, a retired teacher of Smithtown, has elaborated on this entertainingly and statistically some years back.
 
Many L.I. villages (incorporated and unincorporated) would be considered cities, were they located upstate, or elsewhere in the U.S. given their considerable populations.
 
Many migrating Long Island residents helped settle the U.S., and participated in key events of U.S. history.  
 
Many former and present L.I. residents have made valuable contributions to the world, across nearly every discipline, across decades and centuries (in the arts and humanities, in the social sciences, in the medical and other physical and theroretical sciences, in technology, esp. high tech,, and in business, and in philanthropy), though, these achievements are, too often dissociated from an origin on L.I., when extolling human progress. 
 
The first humans to set foot on the moon, did so from the LEM (lunar landing module) built on L.I.  That stemmed from pioneering aviators, who flew from L.I. airfields, corporations that they built, planes that they manufactured, and later warplanes critical to the U.S. war effort in two world wars, and their restless tradition of innovation.  
 
L.I. is all too often dismissed as a laughing stock, by those outside it, often for narrowly-focused, foolish or willfully-ignorant reasons.  Even the "lawn-Guy-lind" accent (which arose within a rich cultural melting pot, that spread eastward), so freqeuently an object of ridicule, is not universal on L.I., where native accents vary, and where accents from all over the country and world also abound, varying with neighborhood or locale.  
 
If you think you know Long Island, and its history, you need only open your eyes, and look a bit further to discover and be captivated by Long Island's multi-faceted and complex range of natures.
 
Did you know that the only prairie East of the Mississippi River exists on L.I., where cattle once roamed, or that the same flat fields were used for army training camps in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and later provided take off and landing places for many famous pioneer aviators (including Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis). These same Hempstead Plains, with their prairie ecology, provided army and air corps training camps in WWI & WWII, that are home to shopping centers, factories, a university and to aviation museums, among other things.  
 
The first highway in the U.S.was Vanderbilt Parkway, built between two estates, and were scene of the some of the first automobile races in America.
 
L.I.'s Gold Coast was highlighted in F. Scott Fitgerald's The Great Gatsby.
 
Nor is L.I. a land populated solely by murderers, cannibals, and madmen (as advertised by The Amityville Horror).  It was also the scene of pioneering psychiatric institututions, that represented progress in the more humane treatment of those stricken with various forms of with mental illness.
 
Contrary to popular opinion, Long Islanders have neither cornered the market on rudeness, though I've heard that said, nor are all Long Islanders rude.
 
Nor is it solely the land of The GreatGatsby, and of the Hamptons, populated by mansions and millionaires.  In fact, many of the early mansions have long since been torn down, their land subdivided by developers.  Nor have developers yet devastated everything of historic interest.  Some even contribute to historic preservation.
 
Long Island is not simply the of traffic gridlock, though that is a problem, and may contribute to the rudeness proclivity.    
 
There exist, side by side with these, people in nearly every profession, many making contributions to their fields, while trying to make ends meet, get ahead of debt, or trying to become someone more widely known.There are many parks and beaches, famous golf courses, tennis courts, and race courses, historical sites, historic districts, museum villages on L.I.There are art, theater, movie and television industries on L.I.  Colleges, universities, public libraries, and archives abound on L.I.L.I. while heavily suburban is also the most agriculurally productive area in New York State, and this amid a bustling suburbia.Federal, state and municipal agencies provide a wide variety of services on L.I.  
 
Fire Island National Seashore includes the home of William Floyd, signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  George Washington's most modern spy ring was centered on the village of Setauket, eventually with another key agent in New York.
Ferries connect L.I. with Connecticut and Rhode Island, bridges with New York City and beyond.
 
Nationally-known laboratories, medical research institutions, technological innovators, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners live or have lived or summered here, as do and did famous authors, playwrights, composers, musicians, for a start.  
 
The further you look, the more you will find that surprises, both of shadow and of light.
 
Much more is now available online, or in electronic format, to the general public (on Long Island and New York State history), than was available even a few years ago, and more is always on the way, from many sources. Websites, CDs, DVDs, even some of the social media, and more traditional resources and media, offer more accessible material to researchers than was ever readily available to earlier generations, outside a research institution.  Many histories and genealogies are downloadable.
 
While Long Island history is a large and growing place, there is a lot of "fugitive" material relating to or originating from L.I., owing to family scatter over successive generations, often well outside L.I.  
 
Equally important is that post-1923 findings (when copyright often enters the fray, though sometimes earlier), updates, and corrections to the record have also begun to reach a wider audience.  Local historic newspapers are gradually, painstakingly finding funding, being analyzed and digitized, and often being made freely available to the public (esp. by libraries), expanding the "knowledge base" of what is readily accessible, aiding future research and publication, and creating the potential form many interesting and new "Aha!" moments and perceptions.
 
A great deal of local genealogical material is being made available on websites, CDs, DVDs, in home-grown online resources, and in government, academic, public libraries, archives and special collections.  Much on local history is to be found in all of these resources, as well as in unseen, private hands (knowlingly or unknowingly so).  Search, and inquire, and thee might find, e.g., a missing link, a revealing personality quirk, a fugitive document, a useful lead, an unhearalded or under-hearalded event, site, or personality, or perhaps a previously hidden photo, painting, map, or a few well-chosen words that speak volumes in opening up new insights.   
 
The bad news is that Long Island history does not come with a thorough, trustworthy, reliable, current guidebook.  It is a larger topic than most people realize.  Much of it has yet to be researched, written, and/or verified. To put it another way, there is no fully comprehensive one-stop source resource, or resource person (though there are many helpful ones), to answer every conceivble question on Long Island history (and prehistory), including these web pages (and no claim is made here to that effect); and some questions have no present answer, often because the research is yet to be done.  It is quite reasonable to say that there is more to Long Island history than meets the eye, ear, or has yet been seen in print, microform, or electronically, or that might require the various rugs under which some of it (often the more interesting parts) has been swept, to be lifted, and see daylight, to enrich larger contexts. 
 
On the genealogical front again, prodigals and "black sheep", though not always the best role models, do often make for rolicking good history, even if for no other reason than to highlight the apparent restraint of those "better-behaved".
 
Think of these web-pages as a launching pad to encourage your exploration, reading interests, perhaps to promote scholarship and publication, and hopefully, to serve as an aid to historians, genealogists, librarians, archivists, authors, reporters, teachers (curriculum developers), students, novelists, history buffs, and the general, curious reader, all of whom, at one time or another, are visitors to the local history room.  Another purpose of these pages is to encourage people to share what they learn and to seriously consider collaborating with others, whenever more than one perspective is likely to yield better results.
 
History has taken place all around us, and we are also part of it, as our lives progress.  Yet how many people really expect or want to find any trace of it in their own neighborhood or backyard?  
 
How much of neighborhood lore, as routinely presented, has ever been checked and confirmed (or denied) by scholarly research?  Probably not much.  We like and cling to our myths and legends.  True, legend and lore are an often delightful part of the of traditional crafting and telling of yarns, the storytelling side of history, some bearing a kernel or more of truth, sometimes lacking even that.  It's nice to be able preface or suffix it by a note on its accuracy, or what it says about what or how we (or earlier generations) prefer to believe, evidence aside.   And that, too, is another story.  But, it is not usually the whole story or the true story, which also needs to be researched and told.   History is not always charm, and sweetness and light, any more than it is all the reverse.  There is a balance in all this, with an eye toward the larger story.
 
Most PML local history web pages are internally calssified alphabetically, by subject (or by topic and subtopic). Many L.I. history-related reference works, collection or thematic guides and archival finding aids have been included or links to the web page of the appropriate geographic area (e.g., county, town, or village).  Yet many have yet to be written or brought up to the standards of modern scholarship.   These are beginning to appear online, along with many classic histories and documents-in-collection. Publicly-available digital local history is a recent phenomenon, and far from all-inclusive, but is the direction in which things are heading.  Some websites include a price tag or require membership, but many (for the moment) are freely available online. 
 
With its centuries of history, much that bears on L.I.'s history has had time to scatter, sometimes across the country, sometimes further afield.  Much has been casually tossed out, over time, as worthless, or of no particular interest to the next person to inherit it.  But, much has survived, some of it (like an iceberg) in plain view, but more of it more of likely outside the public view (in basements and attics, garages, spare rooms, closets, sometimes attracting mold and creatures, or fading while being overexposed to light, over time), awaiting discovery or rediscovery.   
 
Much standard wisdom on L.I.'s history is sometimes more a matter of repetition, than of serious (or recent) historic examination or testing, to distinguish fact from pretty legend, though it's important to recognize that both are part of the historic legacy, have someting to say in understanding and dealing with our human perceptions and desires, as well as serving as are landmarks of changing historical value(s).  Then there is the political and social football of the sometimes yawning gaps in the standard, accepted accounts.  There is often a larger, richer picture, still to be, or only beginning to be explored, and incorporated, that includes (or at its own risk, excludes) the more familiar one, as well.  Even then, there is no guarantee that those interpretations will be neutral and unbiased, or will reach the average public or private school or academic curriculum in a timely manner, rather than over decades.  And many private or association findings are either not published, or are distributed primarily or solely to family relations or to a membership group, not really intended for outside view or consumption; though that, too is changing, as the force is strong and varied in online genealogical circles (to use a Star Wars analogy), to render ressearch electronically searchable and retrievable. 
 
L.I. Historic places often still exist, to one extent or another, in historic buildings, sites, markers, preserves, trails, roads, historic districts, museums, and museum villages.  Some places have changed little since an historic event or period in which they figured significantly, others may be less recognizable, or have changed drastically, or have disappeared from the landscape, and even the landscape has sometimes been altered (but not always).  Restoration and the wrecking ball have been in serious competition for decades. 
 
The more senses engaged, the more we tend to feel directly engaged with an historically significant place, and with history itself, when we're there.   Some natural surroundings evoke history in their atmospherics.  Being where history took place and phyically seeing (the same or even repaired or reconstructed sights), maybe touching, or even smelling or tasting (e.g., foods, a smokehouse), or hearing (something said there at a critical moment in history, they way it would have been said at the time) makes history come more directly to life.  That's something we forget when we rush to tear places that matter down, and can't find it again.
 
Sensing history (a sensation of place):  Seeing surviving pieces of the past - with an able tour guide or interpreter, costumed or not, human or electronic (audio, video, web-based, or via some of the brighter social media) - can breathe life and make more direct sense of what and who was once there (and very present), what happened where you may be standing; or if your guide is generous, demonstrating and allowing you to touching an object that once was owned and likely held by someone famous or locally well-known, conveying the feel and look past with an immediacy like little else, esp when accompanied by hearing someone (or the person themself) either quoting primary (first-hand) material or reading you something they themselves wrote, in their own way, which may give it a whole new twist; esp. when it concerns the spot where you sit or stand.   
 
Saving evidence in libraries, archives, museums, government historic agencies helps save the story that each place, person, locale can tell, the inheritance and legacy to all who live there, or will at some time in their lives want to learn more of what there is to know about where they live (once lived, or spent some time). 
 
In history, matching the reseacher with the need for research, and that with the funds for discovery and publication, is largely a matter of luck, catchy rhetoric, timing, and the dartings of the public, funder's, and/or grantor's spotlight.  
 
Long Island, a land of contrasts, has much that's hidden from general view.  It has many historically under-explored and little-known niches -- e.g., unincorporated locales (often with no historian, archivist, public records-keeper, or historical society), historic themes, events, movements, writings, inventions, personalities -- in its history, enough so, that it still remains very fertile ground for U.S., Northeastern Region, Tristate Area, N.Y.S., N.Y.C. and L.I., and more local historians, academic researchers, teachers, authors, reporters,  students, reenactors, history buffs, genealogists, and others -- like the archeologist, those willing to take the time and effort to dig in promising places. 
 
Long Island's history, and the history of its corners and enclaves, is often a microcosm (world written small) of state, national, and world history.  It can serve either as a confirming example, or as a useful exception to the rule. 
 
Conversely, things that originated on Long Island have sometimes altered or influenced the larger world (macrocosm).  Archeology is likely to change and enhance our understanding and appreciation of the longest stretch of L.I.'s past, its prehistory, as well as its early history, via conclusions drawn directly from the material record.  And yes, on Long Island, contrary to the once popular wisdom, stratigraphy does often survive in the sands of time (as anyone who has taken a local geology or archeology course can attest).  Artifacts can support the written word, or open new lines of inquiry.  They lead to fascinating discoveries, re-interpretations, conclusions, and are sometimes good reading.
 
In this vein, L.I. is a land crowded with fascinating paradoxes, sometimes with influences out of proportion to its size.  There have been many times when its personalities, events, participation in movements, role in regional, state, national, or international events, affairs, politics, diplomacy, discoveries was more influential or decisive than is generally reported, known, or credited.  Many a family history has passed through, or yet remains on L.I., whether acknowledged, or perhaps dreaded to be acknowledged, owing often to negative stereotypes that have made for L.I.  Most of those sterotypes do not stand up to, and burst upon closer examination of local reality.
 
Surprises, Eureka! ("I've found it!") moments often await the intreped historian or researcher.  Leads or unearthed information may suddenly merge in unexpected ways, in unanticipated insight, yielding a startling new perspective on history (e.g., exactly how or why things unfolded the way they did; how business, social, and family connections sometimes suddenly are revealed and fall into place, and the reasons for a personal taking certain actions suddenly become clear; or perhaps, how "something said" to a friend changed a perpective, or sparked a new chain of logic that affected things not just locally, but nationally; how a seemignly off-handed remark suddenly affects how we see the past.  Or, how the hint of a trade connection opens a new line of study, or suddenly confirms the place of an historic artifact that previously hadn't seemed to make sense being where it was, within its timeframe; or how that artifact jars with, or doesn't quite jibe with standard historical accounts, leading to new questions, new answers, perhaps, a new archeological dig in "a different part of the forest", and new findings and interpretations. 
 
Genealogists have much to contribute to and to gain from the furtherance of local history, and from creation of new local history reference works.  The good news is that there's room for the historian-as-detective on L.I.   There are many historical societies, museums, museum villages, libraries, archives, special collections (public, private, academic, school, corporate, special), government agencies and officials, on and off L.I. (from the Federal to local municipal levels), as well as associations, philanthropic organizations, and foundations that (or who) focus on various aspects of L.I. history, or are have anything from general collections to niche expertise.  
 
It's important to remember that local history almost never occurs in a complete vacuum, whether studying Long Island (or elsewhere), from prehistory to the present day.  Rarely is a place, its times, its geography, and its people ever completely devoid of larger, more familiar connections and influences.  That is sometimes ignored, when stressing particularism, but context often makes all the difference to our  understandings of how smaller-scale things fit into, or contradict, the larger scheme of things (exceptions perhaps that prove the rule), and fit, or don't quite fit in, with what we might have been taught.
 
The closer you look, the more emerges, and often, at the same time, the greater the human experience explodes, in microcosm (the world, in miniature), in its full richness and range of characters, along with its masks of tragedy.  Both are part-and-parcel of history, too often swept under deeply lumpy carpets.   
 
The view of history as all seriousness, sobriety, inflexible fixity and predestination, needs to be balanced by the notion of history as lived time -- The past was once the present (with the future as yet unknown, unlived), the dead were once lived, the living (and chances are good that then we were not even born).  They had their own experiences of joys amid sorrows, humor amid tears, choices and decisions yielding good and ill, things said or done having sometimes unexpected or unintended consequences; and they lived within the context of their times, with beliefs then current, ways of expressing themselves and dealing with things that were then considered normal, but may seem to us odd, crazy, or just plain wrong.  
 
Humor is as much a part of life, and of former lives lived, as sadness, then as now, and serious points are often far more effectively conveyed with a leaven of humor, than by force-feeding history as castor oil.
 
On fatalism vs. choice:  We tend to think of, and sometimes teach, history as fixed.  That's history at its worst.  History (local or otherwise) much as life today, was not so frozen a thing for those who had to live it, and did not yet know how things would turn out.  Entertaining reasonable might-have-beens, is not heresy, not reality, but simulation-gaming tools can be used to highlight  and distinguish what did occur, from the availability of choices -- roads taken vs. roads not taken -- to unlock and unfreeze the past, and breathe some life back into what once was still within the realm of possibility.  
 
One thing that makes history interesting is that the future is rarely foretold (perhaps outside religious circles) with any great accuracy to those living it, and some would rail at the dying of the light (as John Donne put it), rendering even the foregone conclusion not the entire story.  Social prophecy is the art of recasting the future as the past, before the event.  Its accuracy is wholly dependent on its later fulfillment.  Hubris and nemesis have too often resulted, for them to be dismissed or ignored with impunity.
 
Heraclitus said, "Nature loves hiding."  That was some 2,500 years ago, and it is still true today, both generally, and certainly when applied to Long Island local history.  Take some time to look around you.  Scratch the surface of a your home village and its past, then expect, and often find, and take some delight in the unexpected.
 
Who uses a local history collection?  Why would a library want to have or start one?  How might a library even begin to organize it?  What are some of the key reference works on L.I. History?  These and a number of other questions are addressed in the Librarian's Corner web links.    
Mark Rothenberg