The arrival of Europeans changed many elements of life on the river. The Native Americans called it the Connetquot or Connecticut, meaning “long river;” the settlers called it the East Connecticut, the West being today’s Connetquot River. Europeans brought with them entirely alien plant and animal life, as well as strange notions of land ownership rather than stewardship. As a result, both the human societies and the ecosystems had to adapt to and incorporate each other.
Figure 1: Map from 1797
This 1797 map from the Post Morrow Foundation’s collection shows the inlet that opened in 1772 and the shaded areas indicate the location of valuable salt hay grass for harvest or meadowland for cow pasture. Horses and cows are just two of the non-native imports to the area.
Local historian Martin van Lith has made a study of the land titles going as far back as possible. On a presentation on the subject of land, he wrote that Narcomac Meadows, an area south of what is now called Indian Landing on the east side of the river, was in 1657 the first piece of land on the river to be “sold” to white settlers in Setauket:
Because Tobaccus, the local sachem residing at the main Unkechaug village along Unkechaug Creek (first creek east of today’s Smith Point bridge) was unhappy that the settlers paid Wyandanch (grand sachem living in Montauk) for the meadow lands along Carmans River and Mastic Beach and didn’t include him, the settlers decided to also go through the same sale & deed signing/payment with Tobaccus. This happened in 1675 and became known as the “New Purchase” (the old purchase being the land west of Carmans in 1664).
It is interesting to note that because the Unkechaugs didn’t fully understand land ownership/selling confusion continued until William Tangier Smith arrived in 1691. The Unkechaugs often sold the same piece of land to different settlers causing problems. Tangier Smith settled all these disputes by buying everybody out as well as buying the remaining ~100 square miles from Tobaccus.
Colonel William “Tangier” Smith must have been quite a character. He got his nickname from his posting as mayor of the city of Tangier in what is now Morocco, and once owned most of Brookhaven as a royal patent from Governor Benjamin Fletcher (who is himself known for using piracy to boost both his and the colony’s fortunes). In the map, 1-3 are The Manor of St. George from the 1693 patent, 1 is Setauket on the north shore of Long Island, 2 is Mastic on the south shore, and 3 is Longwood in the mmiddle. 4 is part of the manor added in 1697, and 5 is the Moriches patent that was not part of the Manor. (Smith also owned the bay bottom and Fire Island west to Blue Point and east to the Southampton Town Line.)
Figure 2: Map of Smith Royal Patent
The Smith family, along with that of signer of the Declaration of Independence William Floyd, would have an indelible impact on the area around Carmans River. These families of landed gentry had such a strong grip on land ownership around the river that the area was not sold off piecemeal and developed as other rivers in the region would be. Furthermore, because these families had large profitable estates, they required labor, which was supplied by the Unkechaug community at Poospatuck.
As historian John Strong notes in The Unkechaug Indians of eastern Long Island : a history, in the wake of the population crash caused by the introduction of smallpox and other deadly diseases, the labor pattern of indenture to Europeans emerged. The large Smith and Floyd estates had strong relationships with the Unkechaug that kept the community intact even while they actively worked to undermine their land claims. This also enabled the Unkechaug to create other local jobs:
The Indians also established economic relationships with the small landholders and merchants in Brookhaven. Many men from Poospatuck worked as hunting and fishing guides, as whalers, as free laborers, and as indentured servants on farms throughout the Town of Brookhaven. Unkechaug women sold their handmade baskets, wooden kitchen implements, and herbal remedies in the markets.
Strong points out that while the Native Americans and Africans of this time may have been erased from the record and from consciousness by generations of white historians’ bias they were very definitely present and vital parts of the wider society. (It is also important to remember that this neighborhood was not “pure” in any sense of the term—people with mixed heritage have been an element of society since Europeans and Africans arrived in the Americas.)
Figure 3: Harvesting Salt Hay
In this photo by Fredrick Kost, circa 1905 at the end of Beaver Dam Road, a man unloads salt hay from a boat on Carmans River and stacks it on a horse-drawn cart, or vice versa (photo courtesy of the Post Morrow Foundation). Salt marsh meadows were precious to the early settlers because it was land that they didn’t have to clear and cultivate to provide grazing for their cattle. Spartina patens or salt hay grass was also used for insulation in housing and for ice houses in which winter ice was stacked and perishable food was stored.
Overharvesting salt hay could endanger the health of the river, and thus of the humans that depended on it for food, as the grasses provided vital habitat to crustaceans, mollusks, and birds. The salt meadows also provided organic nutrients for the river, and buffered the area from storm surges and pollution. In later years, the Town of Brookhaven Town declared the second Tuesday in September as “Marshing Day” to regulate this activity.