|Table of Contents||Introduction|
The Fowler House was moved from Indian Field in Montauk to the area then known as Freetown in East Hampton. During the late 19th century, Arthur Benson, who owned and developed much of Montauk, offered deeds to plots of land in Freetown to Montauketts Indians who still lived in Indian Fields to entice them to vacate their traditional tribal lands.
The saltbox-style house, now owned by East Hampton Town, once belonged to Montaukett Indian George Lewis Fowler and his wife, Sarah Melissa Horton.
George Fowler worked as a gondolier and gardener for the artist Thomas Moran, whose Main Street, East Hampton, house and studio, a national historic landmark, is being restored. Fowler was also a caretaker at Home, Sweet Home.
Freetown received its name as because former slaves of wealthy local families settled it. The Fowler House is the only one that remains.
The house was moved to Freetown around 1890 from Indian Fields and “is possibly one of the most historically significant structures in the Town of East Hampton,” according to town documents. Freetown is now gone, but the Fowler house is undergoing restoration in the historic district of East Hampton.
The Fowler House once belonged to George Fowler, a Montaukett gardener who was forced to relocate after developer Arthur Benson purchased the Montaukett Indian Nation land at Indian Field in Montauk in 1879.
Preservationists have said the house may be the only known survivor of the move to Freetown, an African-American community in East Hampton Town. But they were not sure whether it was built new at the current Springs Fireplace Road site or moved there.
Historic Consultant Robert Hefner said he now believes the house was built new in Freetown around 1885, and the house next to it, originally belonging to Fowler’s sister, was relocated from Indian Field.
Montaukett Chief Robert Pharaoh said a group is also working to eventually convert the Fowler House into the first museum about Montauketts run by members of the tribe. The group has not yet determined what would be on display. 1
The Fowler House was designated as a historic landmark, after a public hearing on the 1.7-acre property, near the intersection of Springs-Fireplace Road and North Main Street in East Hampton.
The history of the area will be the subject of an oral history project, “Mapping Memories of Freetown,” for which those with connections to and memories of the Freetown neighborhood have been invited to the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum, at Cedar and North Main Streets, on Sunday between noon and 5 p.m. A program at 1 p.m. will include comments by researchers and others.
Allison McGovern, an archeologist and professor at the State University at Farmingdale who has been surveying the museum property (the former Selah Lester farm) for the possible remains of a wind-powered sawmill that was once used by the Dominy family of craftsmen, will be on hand, along with anthropologists, to collect oral histories about the neighborhood, as well as ideas about restoring and interpreting the Fowler house and lot.
A 1790 census reportedly recorded Freetown’s residents as 1,299 whites, 99 slaves, and 99 people classified as “all other free people,” according to the Center for Public Archeology at Hofstra University.
“The Fowler house completes the picture of the Moran house and Home, Sweet Home,” Robert Hefner, a history consultant to the town, said in a report. “This puts Main Street and Freetown together.”
With its connection to the former Indian Field site in Montauk (now Montauk County Park), and its archeological resources, the Fowler house is also likely eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, wrote Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town planning director, in a report delivered recently to the town board.
“The house and its property are a valued part of the cultural, historic, economic, and social history of the town,” she wrote. “History tends to record the wealthy and powerful. George Fowler was neither, and we have much less information about the ordinary and poor people in our history. Yet the people who lived in Freetown were the workers who supported the wealthier households in East Hampton Village, Gardiner’s Island, and elsewhere in town. His house and property have the potential to teach us about the lifeways of the Montauketts after they were dispossessed of their homes in Montauk and detribalized by the New York State government. It is a potential interpretive tool for understanding the history of Freetown, which is minimally understood by historians.”
The public hearing on the historic landmark proposal will begin at 6:30 p.m. next Thursday at Town Hall.
In late Summer of 2018, the Fowler House completed restoration.
“Our goal in telling the story of the house, and the people who lived in it, will be to revivify the history of the Montaukett people as an essential factor in East Hampton’s history through this family’s story,” Mr. Devine said. 2