|Table of Contents||Introduction|
The Fort Corchaug Site is an archaeological site showing evidence of 17th-century contact between Native Americans and Europeans, categorizing it as a post-contact site. Fort Corchaug itself was a log fort built by Native Americans with the help of Europeans, potentially serving as protection for the Corchaug tribe against other tribes.
The site involved possibly repeated seasonal occupation or year-round occupation by a large number of people during the period c. 1630-1660. Significance evidence of food preparation, site defense and a number of activities were uncovered during archaeological study.1
Archaeologist Ralph Solecki described Fort Corchaug in 1992 as the best preserved historic Indian site on the eastern seaboard. At the time, the site had never been cultivated or disturbed in its 340-year-old history. He believed it was the last historic remnant of the Corchaug Indians on eastern Long Island, and the best preserved of the forts linking the confederacy of the north and south fork Indians 2
Today Fort Corchaug is a National Historic Landmark. Located on Downs Farm Preserve, which preserves 51 acres of scenic woodlands and tidal wetlands, serving as a valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife. 3
- R. Miller, 1990 ↩
- Solecki, Ralph Stefen. Letter to Ronnie Wacker. 13 Nov. 1992. MS. N.p. ↩
- http://www.groupfortheeastend.org/what-we-do/education/downs-farm-preserve-nature-center/ ↩
1640 A.D. – Contact Period
Fort Corchaug was constructed around 1640, during the time of first contact on Long Island between the indigenous groups and English colonists. One theory is that the Corchaugs built it for temporary refuge only, perhaps for protection against the possible attack of the Narragansetts or English; another theory is that it was built by Pequot refugees after the Pequot war for general protection. It is known that Pequot refugees did come to Corchaug territory after the war, based on the pottery styles found there. The double palisade enclosure did not contain a permanent village. 1
- Oral histories of David Martine, Shinnecock History Timeline ↩
Fort Corchaug proved to be a palisaded strong point and yielded large quantities of Native-made materials, European trade goods, and food remains. Solecki noted that there was evidence of “processes of acculturation,” but did not choose to discuss these. He was more interested in culture-historical relationships, reporting that the Native American artifacts at Corchaug were most similar to those of the Mohegan-Pequot of Connecticut. His closing comment was optimistic: “Armed with the knowledge of the known historic, we are able to delve into the unknown prehistoric step by step” (1950: 35). 1
- Bert Salwen, The Development of Contact Period Archaeology in Southern New England and Long Island: From “Gee Whiz! to “Say What?”, 1989 pp 4 ↩
Fort Corchaug, said Antonia Booth, the Southold Town historian. He staked out where the fort was, found remnants of the Corchaug Indians, which included nails, bolts, pieces of sword and armor, flat knife blades and jews-harps that were trade items for the Indians.
Professor Solecki believes that the remnants are evidence of trade between Europeans and the Indians from before the establishment of the Town of Southold, which is the oldest English town in the state of New York.
In recognition of the historic importance of Fort Corchaug, the site was placed several years ago on the National Register of Historic Places, Ms. Booth said.
The location of Fort Corchaug has been kept quiet over the years because of concerns that the public would destroy what has yet to be studied, said Mr. Turano. It is vital to protect the land from souvenir hunters and amateur collectors, he said. Up to now the land has been protected because most people did not know about it.
Indian-Fort Buy Snags on Price
Preservation of the site of a 17th Century Indian fort on the North Fork has hit a snag, with Suffolk County and the owner of what was Fort Corchaug disagreeing on whether the county agreed 21h years ago to buy the property for $3 million.
William Baxter, ‘the owner of the 105-acre Cutchogue site, said he favors preservation of the land, which was farmed by his family for several generations, and· he said he had an oral agreement with county officials to sell it to them for $3 million.
Suffolk Planning Director Arthur Kunz said that when the land was appraised in 1988, it was valued at about $3 million. But because land prices have dropped since 1988, the Department of Real Estate was supposed to reappraise it and negotiate “a reasonable price. And I don’t think they will want to pay $3 million.”
Kevin Law, Suffolk’s real estate commissioner, said, “We hope to extend a meeting invitation to Mr. Baxter this week and hopefully we can reach an agreement.”
Baxter says the county is reneging on a deal. Both former Suffolk legislator Gregory Blass and Southold Town Board member George Penny said that they recall a price of about $3 million being offered to Baxter. Southold Supervisor Scott Harris, who supports Baxter’s contention, said he is angered by the county’s position. “How quick would they be to reappraise the property if property values had gone up?” he asked. Fort Corchaug was a 17th Century stockade built by a now extinct Indian tribe, the
“How quick would they be to reappraise the property if property values had gone up?” he asked.
Fort Corchaug was a 17th Century stockade built by a now extinct Indian tribe, the Corchaugs, that inhabited the North Fork for 10,000 years. Much of the land is waterfront and on wetlands. Only a handful of such sites have been discovered.
Baxter said Southold Town officials told him in 1988 that the county would give him $3 million, and that he accepted that offer and stayed with it even though a developer subsequently offered him up to $3.6 million for the property. Town, county, and preservation officials have been trying to find the money to buy the land, Baxter and the officials said. For example, they had hoped to use money from the quarter-cent sales tax that is designated for protection of groundwater, but found that it could not be used to purchase this site.
Baxter said that he negotiated the $3 million price with Southold Town officials 21h years ago, and “there was art agreement reaffirmed with numerous calls with legislators and representatives of various agencies and the town of Southold.”
But much has happened in the 21h years since the initial talks. There is a new town supervisor, a new county legislator from the area, the county real estate department was abolished and then reorganized, and land prices have declined. The town has authorized $1 million for the purchase and the county legislature has authorized up to $2 million to augment the town’s money. Other county officials have said the county will attempt to negotiate a “fair market” purchase of the Fort Corchaug property and that, with real estate values on Long Island depressed, it is doubtful that a recently obtained appraisal will support a $3-million price. The county declined to release the new appraisal.
The town has authorized $1 million for the purchase and the county legislature has authorized up to $2 million to augment the town’s money.
Other county officials have said the county will attempt to negotiate a “fair market” purchase of the Fort Corchaug property and that, with real estate values on Long Island depressed, it is doubtful that a recently obtained appraisal will support a $3-million price. The county declined to release the new appraisal. 1
Fort Considered For Housing Site – Newsday July 7, 1988
An affordable-housing development would share a site with an Indian fort in Cutchogue under a proposal of Southold Town Francis J. Murphy.
The proposal comes amid rumblings of private development of part of the 104 1/2 acre tract that contains the site of Fort Corchaug. The Fort, in the woods along Downs Creek, is said to be unequaled on Long Island for what it can tell archaeologists about the period when Indians first came into contact with Europeans.
The fort is “the most important contact-period site on the island existing today,” said Frank Turano, an instructor in the Institute for Long Island Regional Archeology, a part of the anthropology program at the State University at Stony Brook.
Murphy said he would like the town, in conjunction with the state and Suffolk County, to buy the land and “look into the possibility of actually restoring the fort as a tourist attraction,” preserving as much of the surrounding woodlands as possible. The town might put an affordable housing project elsewhere on the site, he said.
“It could work out,quite nicely,” he said, “and we’d be accomplishing many things.” He said he plans to discuss the site’s future with representatives of the state Parks,
He said he plans to discuss the site’s future with representatives of the state Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation Department and with people knowledgeable about the fort.
Preservation of archaeological sites has been pushed recently by the Suffolk County Archeological Association. At a work session of the Southold Town Board last week, Walter L. Smith, president of the Southold Indian Museum, urged that steps be taken to preserve Fort Corchaug and to protect it against pot hunters, or amateur collectors.
The alternative to public preservation could be private development of the tract, not likely including the fort site itself, which would be protected under state regulations. Town Planner Valerie Scopaz said she was approached recently by a lawyer and a bank representative who indicated an interest in a subdivision on the property. No documents for a proposed subdivision have been filed, she said. Town records show that the land belongs to William Baxter of Cutchogue, who has not returned phone calls inquiring about the property.
The fort, listed as a national historic site built by a Corchaug tribe that got water from a spring on the creek bank, caught fish and shellfish out of the creek and bay, decorated its pottery with the edges of clam and oyster shells and had a widespread – and seemingly unfortunate – reputation for the fine wampum beads it made from whelk shells. It was that expertise that is believed to have led to the tribe’s fall to another conquering tribe.
In the 17th Century, the Corchaugs, who numbered only about 200, made a three-quarter-acre stockade of upright logs for protection against enemies but lived outside the enclosure. Their dwellings were domed huts made of saplings and covered with bark or woven plant material, Turano said. The stockade and huts have long since decayed, but the fort is mentioned in records of early settlers.
He said any restoration of Fort Corchaug shouldn’t go all the way – ”You don’t want to restore the thing to the point where you destroy all the archaeological remains beneath it.” 2
Fight Is On to Save an Old Indian Fort – September 4, 1988
After centuries of relative obscurity, the site of a 17th-century Indian fort in Cutchogue has suddenly gained attention as a result of a modern-day struggle between forces that want to preserve it as a historical site and those favoring development.
Efforts to preserve Fort Corchaug, which lies on the west bank of Down’s Creek one mile south of the hamlet of Cutchogue, have touched off an announced plan to sell the 104 ½ acre site on which the fort is situated as well as several proposals to subdivide the land for development.
When the Dutch and English explorers arrived on Long Island in the mid-17th century, the fort was a gathering place for the Corchaug Indians, who lived in the area of the hamlet that was later named after them. It was one of four Indian forts on the East End of Long Island that were controlled by brothers who each presided over his own fort. The other forts were on Shelter Island and in Montauk and Southampton. Of the four, Fort Corchaug is the only one that has not been built on or destroyed.
The site is “without peer on the whole Atlantic Seaboard,” said Ralph S. Solecki, a professor emeritus at Columbia University who has gathered most of the information about the fort. Professor Solecki expressed the hope that the site “will one day be protected as part of Long Island’s cultural heritage.”
For the last 30 years, the area of woodland and farmland has remained untouched under the ownership of the family of William Baxter Jr. But recently the site was put on the real estate market for an asking price of $3.9 million. Since then, several ideas have been proposed for the preservation of the fort and development of the site.
The Town of Southold has expressed interest in buying the land, possibly in conjunction with New York State or Suffolk County, said Town Supervisor, Francis Murphy. One possibility being considered is to use 25 acres for a cluster of affordable housing on half-acre lots and to preserve the majority of the land as historic site and tourist attraction, he said.
“Everybody Is in favor of preserving the land, and everybody is Interested in affordable housing,” Supervisor Murphy said. “Maybe this is one way we can accomplish a little of everything.”
But according to the Southold town planner, Valerie Scopaz, there is no The New York public water or water main near the property, and it is uncertain if the land can support the increased density that would be necessary for affordable housing to be built. All residential land in the town Is zoned for a minimum of two acres per lot, and a zoning change would be needed to increase the density, she said.
“To consider that property for affordable housing is a far-fetched proposition,” she said. “In a historic site like Fort Corchaug, we’d want to think twice before increasing the density.”
There are many other available tracts of primary land on Long Island that would be more appropriate for affordable housing, said William Baxter Jr., the owner of the property. He said it did not make economic sense to acquire such high-priced waterfront land for affordable housing.
“There are many environmentally sensitive issues that have to be dealt with,” he said, “and many more appropriate uses for the property, like preserving the woodlands as parklands or walking woods, and as a historic site.”
The Town of Southold is now studying the best possible uses for the site, Supervisor Murphy said. Before the Planning Board can review any proposal, an environmental study is required.
“Fort Corchaug is important to help us understand more about the Native Americans,” said Frank Turano, an anthropology instructor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “Modem archeological study and excavation of the site could give us insight into that period of history. By examining the remains, we can begin to piece together and understand the Corchaugs before active European settlement, and the European influence on the Native Americans.”
Our suspicion is that the prospect of trade with Europeans may have altered the organization and behavior of the Native Americans,” said Mr. Turano. “We know very little about this period of history. The area has never been completely surveyed, and very little is known about what is around the fort.”
There was a great deal of flux and a major smallpox epidemic in 1616, Mr. Turano said. Some groups were dissolved and absorbed into other groups. Each Indian group may have had unique characteristics.
Professor Solecki, who has gathered so much of the information about the fort, is a former summer resident of Cutchogue. He visited the site 67 times over 12 summers and in 1949 published his master’s thesis on the site. 3
Southold Votes ‘Defense’ for Indian Fort – May 25, 1989
The Southold Town Board voted yesterday to offer $1 million of the town’s open-space funds to help Suffolk County bid for the site of Fort Corchaug, an archaeologically important 17-th century ruin.
The county is expected to offer $3 million, including the town’s share, to buy the 105-acre farm and woodland site on Downs Creek in Cutchogue. A larger offer has been made for the property by North Fork Bank, which is a trustee of the William Baxter estate, owner of the property, according to Suffolk County Real Estate Commissioner Joan Scherb. A source said that offer is $3.8 million.
Scherb expressed hope that the Westchester County surrogate court handling the estate would accept the county’s offer rather than the other. She said the bank’s offer was conditioned on the buyer’s getting approval to subdivide the property.
“It would seem to me that if I were the surrogate I would take a cash offer rather than an offer that appears to . . . [carry] a long and arduous prospect of subdivision, if it goes through,” she said. She said tomorrow is the surrogate’s deadline for the county’s offer.
Fort Corchaug was a three-quarter-acre stockade built by the 200-member Corchaug Indian tribe in about 1640 for protection against enemies. The fort and the huts in which the tribe lived, outside the stockade, have long since decayed. Although nothing remains above ground, archaeologists say the site is the most important one on Long Island from the period when Indians first came into contact with European settlers. They note that there is still underground evidence of the structures, along with artifacts.
Southold’s share in a bid for the land was approved unanimously at a special meeting of the town board. At a work session Tuesday, the board had divided 3-to-3 on the proposal. Supervisor Francis J. Murphy argued at that time the town could save money and still preserve the fort by requiring any developer to cluster dwellings and leave the archaeological site untouched. He was joined by town board members Ruth Oliva and Jean Cochran. Those in favor of offering the money were members Ellen Larsen, George L. Penny IV, and Raymond W. Edwards.
The proposal was not put on the agenda for the regular meeting of the board Tuesday afternoon, following the work session. But Oliva and Cochran voted for it at yesterday’s meeting, called by Larsen, and Murphy went along with the proposal. “I want to protect the fort,” Murphy said, “and if that’s the way we’re going to do it, fine.”
The changes of position followed phone talks held with Oliva and Cochran by Michael Tuthill, chief of staff for Presiding Officer Gregory Blass (R-Jamesport) of the Suffolk County Legislature. He said he told them that if the town did not vote for the proposal, “this parcel would have been lost forever.” Blass has been a strong back of county acquisitions of the property.
Scherb said she told Murphy on the phone earlier yesterday that she was surprised the town board had decided against putting up the funds. She said of the board’s favorable vote yesterday, “Wonderful. I think that’s great.”
The town’s share of the money will come from a $1.75-million bond program authorized by Southold voters in November 1987, for the acquisition of open space. None of the money has yet been spent.
Penny said there was no question the bond money could be used to buy the land. To make improvements connected with restoring and preserving the fort, it might be necessary to have a public hearing and another referendum, he said. But he said that part of the plan could be several years away.4
Presto: Ft. Corchaug’s Subdivided – June 12, 1997
Cutchogue – The three agreements leading to a joint public-private ownership of the Fort Corchaug property went to contract on Friday, and on Monday the Town Planning Board gave quick approval to a three-lot subdivision, offered as an alternative to a long-pending 17-lot plan, that will allow only one new house to rise on the 105 acres.
The Peconic Land Trust, which is coordinating the preservation effort, could go to closing on the $2.5 million deal by the end of the month.
“It looks like it’s finally all coming together,” said Tim Caufield, Land Trust vice president.
When the package is tied together by year’s end, Southold Town will own 51 acres, acquired at a cost of $1.2 million, and philanthropist Russel McCall, an Atlanta businessman, will hold full title to 15 acres and the agricultural rights to another 37.6 acres of farmland. Officials hope the county will acquire the development rights to the farmland.
“The town is finally going to be able to preserve something everybody wants to preserve,” said Charles Cuddy, the Baxters’ attorney.
Several years ago, the Baxters submitted a 42-lot subdivision plan, but later reduced that to 17 lots after the town agreed to buy the acreage surrounding the location of the Corchaug tribe’s 17th-century wooden fort. This week, the Planning Board gave conditional final approval to carving up the land into just three parcels – the town’s park, the 15 acres of woodlands west of Downs Creek where Mr. McCall can, if he wishes, build one house, and the agricultural land.
The one condition is obtaining a waiver from the Suffolk County Health Department. That is largely a formality, given that health department consent usually is not necessary for creating lots larger than five acres.
With archaeological concerns covered by the conservation easements to be placed on the land, “there were no issues left to be resolved,” Mr. Caufield said. “The plan speaks for itself and there was no reason why the town couldn’t move quickly.”
The Land Trust, he said, now will turn its attention to limited the development on a 50-acre parcel along Richmond Creek in Peconic, and may get involved in a similar effort to save some of the undeveloped creekfront along Hashamuck Pond in Southold.
“There’s still a lot to do,” said Mr. Caufield. “We’ll certainly keep busy.” 5
Sale of Indian Fort on L.I. Preserves a Piece of History – Cutchogue, N.Y., June 30
The deed to a 400-year-old Indian fort, which archaeologists say is the best-preserved Indian site on Long Island and perhaps in the Northeast, was passed from private to public hands today, ending a three-decade battle to save it from becoming a housing development.
State, county, and local officials gathered here this afternoon at the Pelligrini Vineyards near the old fort to celebrate the deal and to make peace.
“I’ve had the champagne on ice for years,” said Ronnie Wacker, who as a past president and a member of the North Fork Environmental Council has worked for nearly 30 years to save the fort.
When the Cutchogue Indians built the fort 400 years ago at the end of a well-hidden creek on Great Peconic Bay, it was to protect themselves and their industry – making wampum, or Indian currency from shells – from raids across Long Island Sound by tribes from Connecticut.
The wooded stockade was later named Fort Corchaug by European settlers who arrived in 1640 and who, at first, encouraged the Cutchogue’s art of making wampum.
But when wampum was replaced by colonial currency, the fort fell into neglect. By the early 1700’s through slavery and disease, the Cutchogue had disappeared as a tribe from lands on which they had lived for some 10,000 years.
The fort and most of what was once an Indian village and burial ground now lie beneath a forest, relatively untouched. Two archeological digs have produced clay pipes and pieces of brass and iron that are now on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Today’s purchase was financed with $200,000 from the New York State Department of Parks and Recreation, $285,400 from Suffolk County, and $1.1 million from te Town of Southold, $100,000 from two local civic groups and a little over $800,000 from a private conservationist. The complicated deal was brokered by the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit group working to conserve the rural nature of the East End.
The seller was William Baxter, a land developer and resident of Cutchogue and Stamford, Conn.
“I, too, would like to see the fort preserved,” said Mr. Baxter, whose family has lived on the North Fork for several generations. “And I’m glad it’s a done deal.
According to Timothy J. Caulfield, vice president of the Peconic Land Trust, 51 wooded acres were sold directly to Southold, which plans to preserve 23 acres, including the fort, for archaeological study. Twenty-eight acres will be used for public trails, canoe access to West Creek and a display center.
The remaining 53 acres, 38 out of which are farmland, were purchased by the Peconic Land Trust. Over the next several months, the Land Trust will send development rights to the property to Suffolk County, which said today it was contributing $286,400, or about &8,000 an acre, with money from the county’s Farmland Preservation Program.
The Land Trust will then sell the land for a little over $800,000 to Russel McCall, a private investor, and conservationist, who will continue to use the land for farming.
“It’s a complicated deal, but a good one,” Mr. Caulfield said. “It’s worth bringing the private sector into the process because you get twice as much for every conservation dollar.”
No one was more pleased than Jean W. Cochran, Supervisor of Southold.
“This is a big event for the whole township and it’s been a long time in coming,” she said. 6
- John Mcdonald, Indian-Fort Buy Snags on Price, Year Source needed ↩
- Williams, Donald Mace, Fort Considered For Housing Site, Newsday Jul 7, 1988 ↩
- Linda Saslow, Fight Is On To Save An Old Indian Fort, The New York Times September 4, 1988 ↩
- Williams, Donald Mace. (1989, May 25). Southold Vote ‘Defense’ for Indian Fort ↩
- Kelly, T. (1997, June 12). Presto: Ft. Corchaug’s Subdivided. ↩
- John T. McQuiston, Sale of Indian Fort on L.I. Preserves a Piece of History, The New York Times, July 2, 1997 ↩