On maps, Long Island resembles a whale that's swum across the
Atlantic Ocean southwest from Ireland, grazing Nantucket Island
and Martha's Vineyard and slamming its big blunt head
against the island of Manhattan, nudging it that much closer to
the mainland at Jersey City.
This whale stretches northeast for 120 miles. Its corroded
flukes, known as the East End, split into North and South Forks
and trail off into the ocean, the former running parallel with
the south shore of Connecticut, which lies across Long Island
Sound, the latter with a series of bays to the north and the ocean
to the south.
No matter where you go on the South Fork, water is nearby.
It plays tricks with the light, which seems both clear and soft. It
permeates the woods and the potato fields, and you sense it as
you walk the streets of the villages. More successfully than most
painters, William Merritt Chase and Willem de Kooning caught
something of its pastel evanescence; it is the primary subject of
everything that came from de Kooning's brush from the mid-1960s
on, informing figures as well as landscape.
The light may be the South Fork's principal aesthetic asset,
but it is not the reason the area was settled in the mid-seventeenth
century. People went there because they felt crowded, in any number
of ways, at home. And there was real estate to be had, and
money to be made. They go there for the same reasons today, and
because it is close to New York City, and because rich and famous
people go there, as they did in the nineteenth century.
The men and women who sailed to Southampton and East
Hampton were part of the Puritan migration that had been making
its way to the Eastern Seaboard since the settlement of Plymouth
in 1620 and the signing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony
charter in 1629. In 1640, the Long Parliament promised tolerance
of Puritans in their homeland, but by then it was too late, for
over twenty-one thousand people had fled the Old World for
The separation of church and state that had been lacking in
England was lacking on the East End, too, but no one minded,
because it was the Presbyterian Church, not the Church of England,
that collected taxes from the townspeople for the next
two centuries: "Everyone into the melting pot, just come out
Presbyterian," as the urban historian and architect Robert A. M.
Stern put it.
Upon arriving in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut,
many of these immigrants found that the place didn't
exactly live up to its advance billing. Land was not as plentiful as
advertised, and the soil was hardscrabble. So they made their
way south, where the land was for the taking and the soil not
With the Indians out of the way (they had been further quieted
with liquor and laudanum), the East Enders set up shop.
Most had come from the English countryside, and so reestablished
themselves in agriculture. The men raised sheep and geese,
planted, hunted, and fished. The women sewed, knit, quilted,
gardened, spun, and churned. They cooked wild birds, venison,
fish, and samp, a cornmeal porridge whose recipe the Indians
taught them. They built cedar- and cypress-shingled houses whose
roofs sloped from two stories at the back to one at the front, a
configuration that allowed them to avoid a tax on two-story
structures imposed by the King.
The settlement was begun in a communal spirit, but a pecking
order was soon established. Lion Gardiner came to America
in the service of the King, who hoped to prevent the Dutch from
claiming the territory, but he was a businessman, the seventeenth
century's equivalent of a real estate speculator. Walt Whitman
admired him, or the idea of him. "Tradition relates that Wyandance,
the great chief of eastern Long Island, loved and obeyed
Mr. Gardiner in a remarkable manner," he wrote. Having once
sailed past it, Whitman conjured Gardiners Island as a kind of
colonial Santa's Workshop:
Imagine the Arcadian simplicity and plenty of the situation,
and of those times. Doubtless, among his workpeople,
Mr. Gardiner had Indians, both men and women.
Imagine the picturesqueness of the groups, at night in the
large hall, or the kitchen-the mighty fire, the supper, the
dignity and yet good humor of the heads of family, and
the stalwart health of the brown-faced crowd around
them. Imagine their simple pleasures, their interests,
their occupations-how different from ours!
Well, yes and no.
Wealth came to the settlers in a way that must have seemed
like a biblical plague. One day, someone noticed that the fifty-foot-long,
seventy-five-ton, glistening, reeking black carcass of a
whale had washed up on the shore from the ocean. The creature
may have been sick; it may have been disoriented or driven inland
by an offshore storm. Such landings were common throughout
The story of whaling on the East End is in outline the same
as that found everywhere they have been hunted. At first, whales
were abundant, washing up onshore or spotted close to land. A
handful of men in a small boat set out in pursuit, and when the
carcass was dragged ashore, it was divided among the townspeople.
As the creatures decreased in number, it became necessary
to sail farther from land to capture them. Eventually, they
were sought on voyages of months or even years. Finally the expense
of the ventures exceeded the revenue they yielded, and the
The Indians had been observed pursuing and killing whales
as early as 1620. They cut up and cooked the blubber, using the
rendered oil to preserve animal hides. The settlers realized that
whales were valuable in manifold ways. Their oil was the most
efficient fuel for illumination available, and everything from
buggy whips and candles to corsets and collar stays could be
fashioned from their bones and baleen. The economies of
Southampton and East Hampton thereby flourished in a way no
one had anticipated.
The disposal of whales was at first a communal effort. Because
time was of the essence-whales rot quickly-everyone
was expected to lend a hand in the unpleasant business of hacking
up the smelly carcasses and cooking down the blubber. Children
were even let out of school. Anyone who did not participate
could be fined.
The East Enders made the process as efficient as they could.
Whaleboats patrolled the coast for weeks at a time. Onshore, a
paid whale watcher alerted the town when he spotted a glossy
black back breaking the ocean's skin. A crew of six-four rowers,
a tiller, and a harpooner-piled into a twenty-foot cedar
whaleboat, patterned after the Indians' dugout canoe. They
chased down the creature, hoping to puncture its heart or lung.
If the wound was made accurately, the whale could be towed to
shore; if not, the whale dragged the men behind it for hours, until
it tired, all the while snapping the boat in its wake like the tail
of a kite.
By the mid-1660s whaling had evolved into the private enterprise
of a few fortunate families. It took capital to purchase a
whaleboat, harpoons, the expensive iron kettle used to boil blubber,
and special barrels for whale oil, and it was an investment
most families could not afford to make. The Montaukett Indians,
whose bartering arrangements with the settlers left them
permanently in debt, entered into contracts in which they agreed
to work for the whaling companies to settle those debts; in this
way, they were bound to the English from year to year with little
hope of paying all that they owed. The early whaling companies
paid their employees with small amounts of cash and with whale
bounty: the Indians were given fins, and the English received
three-foot hunks of meat.
The industry thus hastened the stratification of white society
on the East End. And in a community that numbered about five
hundred, resentments flourished, and were often played out in
court, for the settlers and their early descendants were a litigious
lot. Complaints were routinely filed over trivial matters, the most
popular being slander and defamation of character.
By 1700 Amagansett had become the main source for whale
oil and whalebone on the Eastern Seaboard. A thriving market
economy was now in place on the East End; social classes had
been established. It was almost impossible to buy land unless you
were descended from one of the settling families or extremely
And then the whales simply stopped coming. It would be
years before the hunt for them resumed, this time in three-masted
ships out of Sag Harbor. In the meantime, the East End
lost its position on the front line of the economy, a victim of
what later centuries would call overfishing. There was little reason
for East Enders to maintain more than a tenuous connection
with the rest of the world, and they reverted to obscurity.
The families who had managed to get in on the whaling
boom retained an aura of importance; they owned the most
valuable land, in the hearts of the villages and along the ocean.
Those who hadn't claimed a stake constituted the servant class
and lived in outlying areas. The Long Island Rail Road tracks
would come to mark the dividing line between the classes, then
the Montauk Highway, when it became the more popular travel
route; "south of the highway" still means class on the East End.
As late as 1878, a visitor would describe East Hampton thus:
"It is 5 miles from Sag Harbor, 15 from Greenport, and about
100 miles from New York. But from the way they are behind the
times, should think they were about 5,000." Sag Harbor, however,
had vitality; it was one of the most important whaling ports
on the East Coast from the time of the Revolutionary War until
1857, when a financial crash killed off the industry for the second
time. In any case, the discovery of petroleum a few years earlier
meant that whale oil and spermaceti would soon be replaced
by kerosene and paraffin.
The most notable cultural presence on the East End until the
end of the nineteenth century was that of a woodworking family,
the Dominys. They were East Hampton farmers who in the off-seasons
made about one thousand pieces of furniture over sixty-five
years, handing down the craft through several generations.
Nathaniel Dominy IV and his son and grandson ignored changing
fashions and technological advances, but each added a
specialty to the family's arsenal, and they had a wide range of
clients among the wealthier citizens of the East End. By the mid-nineteenth
century the demand for their custom-made chairs,
tables, desks, and bureaus had fallen as large companies began
providing cheap, well-made furniture. But the Dominys had
something else to offer, though it didn't fatten their purses.
When hordes of painters descended upon East Hampton in the
1880s, the Dominy farmhouse, sagging with age, and its adjoining
workshop became a popular subject. Nathaniel Dominy VII
sometimes stepped outside to watch the artists work at their
easels. "You fellows get a thousand dollars in York for a picture
of my back door," he'd say, "and I get nothing."
Lange Eylandt, as the Dutch labeled it on maps, is sediment left
by a glacier that plowed south as it melted for thousands of
years, part of its detritus the South Fork, a hilly, scrubby ridge
that slopes off to bays on the north, the ocean on the south. Like
bubbles in pancake batter, pockets formed in the glacial sediment,
kettle holes that held meltwater in the form of bays,
ponds, harbors, and creeks.
Because the Dutch wanted eastern Long Island, Lion Gardiner
was sent there in the early 1630s to keep them from having
it. He did so by building and commanding a fort at the mouth of
the Connecticut River, north of Long Island. The fort also was
meant to subdue the Pequot Indians, who had their own plans
for the East End. In 1637, the nation was all but wiped out when
Gardiner's men set fire to the Indian fort. Those who fled the inferno
were shot or hacked up with swords.
The Montaukett Indians, who had been paying protection
money to the Pequots, began paying off the English instead. In a
deal struck with Gardiner by Wyandance, the Montaukett chief,
the English were granted exclusive trading rights with the tribe.
With a continuous source of wampum, Gardiner could trade
shells for whatever his heart desired, including beaver skins,
which London merchants coveted. In this manner he acquired
Gardiners Island, which he named the Isle of Wight on taking
ownership of it in 1639. About a decade later, the English governors
of the Connecticut and New Haven Colonies bought what
is now East Hampton Town for a pile of looking glasses, hatchets,
and knives, twenty coats, and a hundred muxes-the small
metal drills used to string wampum on leather strips. Two years
later they resold East Hampton to Gardiner for $30,000.
At about the same time, the English acquired Southampton
from the Shinnecocks in return for protecting them from the
Narragansetts, and promptly segregated the Indians in Shinnecock
Hills, where the golf club bearing their name, and designed
by Stanford White, would be erected 250 years later.
The Indians who sold the East End to the British thought
they retained the right to hunt and fish where they liked, which
was all they cared about. But the agreement was restrictive in a
way that they could not have anticipated. Although an Indian
was allowed to hunt "up and downe in the woods without Molestation,"
if he killed a deer, for example, he could keep the skin
but was required to turn the body over to the English. The settlers
shunted the Indians from one place to another, making it
clear that they were not welcome in the village center unless
on official business; those who did venture there were closely
By the mid-nineteenth century the Montauketts, whose population
had been drastically reduced by smallpox and tuberculosis,
were planted in an area just north of East Hampton Village
called Freetown; the name can still be seen on maps. They sued
to regain title to their former property in Montauk, but the suit
was dismissed in 1910, and an appeal was thrown out in 1918,
when the court found that the Montauketts, by then even further
diminished in number, no longer existed. A movement to reclaim
the land in recent years has thus far failed to cohere.
At the time Thomas Moran arrived in the late 1870s, East
Hampton was a sleepy backwater whose charms were all but unknown
to most New Yorkers; his presence there would help to
draw attention to the area. Coinciding with his arrival was a
vogue for plein-air painting, and the East End offered a limitless
choice of subjects for painters who found inspiration in direct
observation of nature.
Moran was the first significant artist to call the East End home
and to memorably translate its late-nineteenth-century landscape
into oil paint and scratches on a copper plate. An English-born
traditionalist who was admired and encouraged by a fellow
Lancashireman, John Ruskin, he rejected Impressionism as a distortion
of God's handiwork. At his best, Moran was a relaxed
literalist, and his pictures of East Hampton are his plainest and
most affecting; they do not suffer, as his more famous paintings
of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon sometimes do, from the
tendency to overstatement that Ruskin chided him for.
Moran's friends who had sailed the south coast of Long Island
told him that it was a paradise for painters, as full of subjects
as any place he'd been, including Europe. So why look to
the West, or to the Continent, when such material was close at
hand? European artists saw plenty to paint in their own backyards;
why couldn't Americans?
One day Moran and his wife, Mary, and their children left
Newark at dawn, on a ferry that pitched in the wake of a dozen
other vessels as it traced the southern tip of Manhattan, plowing
gray water to Long Island City, where a gray train waited under
a wooden shed.
The train lurched, then slid forward, the window filling with
field and sky. Five hours later the family descended metal steps
onto a wooden platform, then climbed into a carriage with hard
springs. The road east was a pair of ruts and a blanket of dust.
The air smelled of hay. When, after an hour, they turned sharply
left for the first time, there suddenly appeared a big green pond
set in a thick bright green lawn blotched here and there with
white geese, copper beeches rustling overhead. A shingled two-story
boardinghouse with a smoking chimney faced the pond,
and they got out there, on East Hampton's Main Street.
Excerpted from "De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons" by Robert Long. Copyright © 2005 by Robert Long. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.