The Cattle Drive

As the story has been handed down…In 1655, seven years after East Hampton Town was settled, a group of East Hampton men wanted to pasture cattle on Montauk. The Indian chief, Wyandanch, gave them the right of pasturage and an option to buy.

In 1660, Wyandanch’s widow and son sold most of the land to the East Hampton men for 100 English pounds, at the rate of ten pounds a year, payable in Indian corn at four shillings a bushel, “or els in good wampum at 6 a penny.”

The 1660 deed gave the Indians liberty to “sit down again upon ye land.” Which they did. They lived in Indian Field, north of what is now Deep Hollow Ranch, until after the 1879 sale to Arthur W. Benson, when they were “re-settled”/ -some say “duped” into moving back to East Hampton.

The average reader of East Hampton Town records is somewhat confused as to the actual ownership of Montauk from 1660 to 1879. According to a thesis written by the late William B. Jackson of New Haven, Conn. and Amagansett, titled “The Manorial Common Pasture System at Montauk,” the pasturage system there was unique in America.

It was not the whole town, but a group of first settlers, who purchased most of the peninsula from the Indians. They were the “proprietors.” From 1660 to 1852, Montauk affairs were, however, managed by the Town Trustees.

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They appointed the time for driving on and off the “cattle, horses and sheep.” They chose the pound-keepers, cattle-keepers and gin-keepers, and named their compensation. The cattle-keepers’ fee included rights of pasturage, a certain amount of firewood they might gather or cut, the use of a house and barn, garden and pightle (old-fashioned word for back yard.)

But “the use of barnyard and pitties adjoining same” must be turned over to any of the Montauk proprietors, when needed for yarding their cattle. Men were named by the Trustees to assist the keepers on the drives; in shifting cattle from one field to another when the grass grew short; and in repairing fences or sheep shearing.

When, about 1838, dissatisfaction arose with the Town’s management, there was legal action. All rights were released by the Town and turned over to the proprietors in 1852.

Down the years, people inherited shares of Montauk, entitling them to a certain amount of pasturage (usually twelve cattle to one share.) Often, these shares were sold. Deeds transferring so many “shares on Montauk” are still preserved. By 1879–after more than two hundred years–Montauk rights were held by a great number of people.

Cattle brands, ear marks for the herds sent to graze at Montauk, used to be registered with the East Hampton Town Clerk. This continued as late as 1914.

When Richard Gilmartin was Town Clerk he was intensely interested in preserving the valuable old records. He found two crumpled, faded sheets torn out of an old account book in the basement of the Town offices. He pressed them flat and studied them, and found them to be a “List for this year 1727 to put Cattle on Montauk,” with the names of owners, number of cattle pastured, and what the owners were charged in pounds, shillings and pence for the pasturage. He totaled up the cattle listed, and it came to the amazing number of 3,424 cattle on Montauk in 1727! He said: “as cattle were considered a symbol of wealth in those days, our old timers must have been a pretty rich lot.”

The old account book sheets made no mention of the sheep, which were driven on Montauk by the thousands. In the East Hampton Trustees’ Journals, volume 1725-1772, it says that sheep ranged over the hither end of Montauk from the Highlands eastward as far as Fort Pond; and swine also ran west of Fort Pond in 1744. Beyond that was “cornmon pasture,” Indian Field, bull and calf pastures, and fatting field.

In 1662 Isaac Hedges was appointed to “keep the dry herd at Montauk.” In 1663, twelve East Hampton men were ordered to go to “Meantaquit” to make a yard for cattle and to build a shelter for the keepers. These shelters were described as rude huts built of crotches and boards. John Stratton and Thomas Talmage were assigned to drive and look after the cattle for the first two days and nights. Then they were to be relieved by two other citizens of East Hampton. It sounded like a regular public duty like jury duty, not to be escaped.

John Stratton agreed in 1669 that his son Stephen, evidently a minor, should keep “ye sheep” for the ensuing year.

Ebenezer Jennings was an early shepherd. Nathaniel Talinage (1711-1784) was first to live at Second House, in 1746. Nathan Hand (1747-1811) ancestor of the late eminent judges, Learned and Augustus Noble Hand, lived at Second House after serving in the Revolution. Christopher Hedges was authorized by the Town in 1809 to make a “seller” for his dwelling house at Fort Pond, and to have “a garden pightel and lot adjoining.” Uriah Miller lived there during the War of 1812. He was succeeded by Jonathan Miller. Keepers of the cattle anti sheep at the three Montauk houses of old times represented most of East Hampton’s early families.

The land between First and Second Houses was sheep pasture. It was the duty of the man at First House to care for the sheep and tend the bars to see that no sheep or cattle strayed westward. The keeper of Second House had to keep the cows out of the sheep pasture and see that the sheep did not stray eastward. The most important place was that of keeper of Third House. He had oversight of all the cattle, including those in Indian and Point Fields, and it was at Third House that the great June roundup was held.

Cattle and sheep went on Montauk the first of May, and came off the first of November. Most were owned in East Hampton village or Amagansett, but some came from a distance. It took at least two days of hard riding for those west of East Hampton to get the cows to Montauk. Animals from out of town were “baited” (fed) on the green at the west end of East Hampton village; the road there is known as Baiting Hollow Road. Sheep were penned in the Sheep Pound, the triangular green in front of East Hampton’s Post Office, today. The herd was driven into a pound at Amagansett the first night, while the drivers stayed at local farmhouses and continued the journey next day.

Mrs. Elizabeth Cartwright set down in the East Hampton Star, years ago, some of her memories of the 1860’s. She told of the general excitement on Cattle Day; “The family was astir long before daylight; East Hampton street was noisy with cattle lowing, men and boys on horseback, one herd after another going slowly by. Hiram Sandford of Sagg had 400 cattle. The farmers would get their dinner at Third House and ride home in the late afternoon. It was a busy time on Montauk the day before, preparing batches of bread, milkpans of pork and beans, dripping pans of roast veal, home-cured ham, pickles, coffee and pie, for sixty or more men.”

Mrs. Cartwright also recollected going on in June when the hills were covered with wild strawberries. Parties of young people would gather all they cared to eat, and have grand frolics. They would stop at one or the other of the three houses for midday dinner. In the 1860’s Mrs. George Osborn was hostess at First House; Mrs. Samuel Stratton at Second House; Mrs. Patrick Gould at Third House. She told of bluefish caught only a half- hour before it came to the table; of wild goose and duck; of wild strawberry shortcake; blackberry, blueberry, or beachplum pie according to season; and wild grape preserve; all appreciated by young people with appetites sharpened by fresh air.

For nearly three hundred years the twice-a-year Cattle Drive was a feature of Montauk life; from 1660 to the Carl Fisher purchase of 1926. Then, after a break of ten years, Phineas Dickinson hired Indian Field, in back of Third House, for pas-ture and revived the custom. Amateur cowhands made a great day of it, herding some 200 head of cattle. This went on for ten or fifteen years. Today Deep Hollow Ranch still raises cattle and horses.

They Built Fences

On April 10, 1655, it was agreed that a good fence should be kept up south of Fort Pond. In 1703, a three-rail fence was built around the fatting field between Great Pond (now Lake Montauk) and Oyster Pond. Many stone walls were built in 1825. Traces of them can still be seen.

On the edge of woodland, mounds were thrown up and lop fences made to keep the cattle out of the woods. For a lop-fence, pliable oaks were cut two-thirds down; the scions growing up from the stump are bent toward those from the next tree. Lopping formed a good strong fence, “horse-high and bull-proof,” and an attractive hedgerow, besides costing next to nothing in those far off days when labor was cheap.

Ponds formed part of the cattle boundaries–Fresh Pond, Fort Pond, Oyster and Reed Ponds, Great Pond.

In 1820 a stone wall was built on the narrow beach between Fort Pond and the ocean to prevent the sea coming into the pond. Sometimes a storm would almost cut the eastern end of Montauk off from the mainland.

Swinging gates crossed the old Montauk road near each house, so that travelers and cattle could be watched.