The Town of Huntington dates from April 2nd, 1653, when Richard Holbrook, Robert Williams and Daniel Whitehead, all of Oyster Bay, bought from Raseokan, Sachem of the Matinecock tribe, a parcel of land that is now known as "the First Purchase." The Oyster Bay men immediately turned the land over to a group of white men who had already settled within its boundaries. This first purchase was bordered on the west by Cold Spring Harbor, on the east by Northport Harbor, on the south by what is now known as Old Country Road and on the north by Long Island Sound. As time went on, other land was purchased from the Indians, gradually extending the limits of the town from Long Island Sound on the north to Great South Bay on the south, and from Oyster Bay on the west to Smithtown and Islip on the east. In 1872 the town was divided, the southern portion becoming the Town of Babylon.
Most of the early settlers were English people who came to Huntington by way of Massachusetts and Connecticut. As a result, they felt more of a kinship with New England than with their Dutch neighbors to the west in New Amsterdam. The town in fact voted in 1660 to place itself under the jurisdiction of Connecticut to gain some protection from the Dutch. Following the custom of New England, the earliest form of government in Huntington was the Town Meeting. Called as the need arose, free men of the town gathered to distribute town-held land, resolve disputes, regulate the pasturing of cattle on town land, engage schoolmasters, appoint someone to keep the ordinary (public house) and maintain the roads, as well as resolve any other matters that concerned the town as a whole. For example, the people of Huntington showed their interest in education very soon after the founding of the town. The Town Meeting voted on February 11, 1657 to hire Jonas Houldsworth as the first schoolmaster. In 1660 the town voted to build a schoolhouse.
When in 1664 the Duke of York became proprietor of the area formerly known as New Netherland, he (in the person of Governor Richard Nicholls) informed Connecticut that by virtue of his royal patent they no longer had any claim to any territory on Long Island. Governor Nicholls summoned representatives of each town on Long Island to meet in Hempstead early in 1665. The representatives were required to bring with them evidence of title to their land and to receive new grants affirming that title. The Hempstead Convention also adopted the "Duke's Laws," which regulated virtually every area of life. At this time, too, Long Island, Staten Island and Westchester were formed into an entity called "Yorkshire," which was divided into three parts, or "ridings," as land was divided in England. Suffolk County, including Huntington, became part of the East Riding. With some modifications, including the abolition of "Yorkshire" and "ridings." this was the form that the government of New York retained until the Revolution.
Governor Thomas Dongan issued a patent in 1688 that confirmed the earlier Nicholls Patent. In addition, it mandated the creation of "Trustees" to manage and distribute town-owned land. The Trustees, like other town officials, were chosen at a Town Meeting. The Dongan Patent also authorized the creation and use of a seal, which is still in use today.
In the years between the first settlement of the town and the start of the American Revolution, Huntington became an established community. The earliest settlers clustered near what became known as the "town spot", the site of the present Village Green. As the town prospered and grew, people moved to fill the outlying areas. In addition to the many farms that were established in remote as well as central portions of the town, the town included a school, a church, flour mills, saw mills, brickyards, tanneries, a town dock and a fort.
Huntington's fine harbor meant that shipping became an important part of the economy. The harbor was a busy place, with vessels traveling not only to and from other ports along the Sound but also as far as the West Indies. Ship making and related nautical businesses prospered, since water was for many years by far the most efficient way to transport both goods and people. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Cold Spring Harbor was a busy whaling port, second on Long Island only to Sag Harbor.
In June 1774 Huntington adopted a "Declaration of Rights" affirming "that every freemans property is absolutely his own" and that taxation without representation is a violation of the rights of British subjects. The Declaration of Rights also called for the colonies to unite in a refusal to do business with Great Britain. Two years later, news of the Declaration of Independence was received with great enthusiasm in Huntington, but the euphoria was short-lived. Following the defeat of the rebel forces at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776 Long Island was occupied by the British Army. Residents were required to take oaths of allegiance to the Crown. If a man refused to take the oath, he and his family could be turned off their property, losing everything. In 1782 the occupying army established an encampment in Huntington's Old Burying Ground, razing tombstones to clear the site. Not surprisingly, many townspeople resisted, waging guerilla warfare until the war was over and the British left in 1783.
Nathan Hale landed at Huntington in 1776, coming by boat from Norwalk, Connecticut on a spying mission for George Washington. Sent to gather information about the British forces on Long Island and in New York City, he was captured and executed in New York City in September 1776. A memorial stands at the approximate site of his coming ashore in Huntington, an area now known as Halesite.
Slavery existed in Huntington until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Farmers relied on slave labor for help in the fields and it was a mark of status to have black slaves as domestic servants, but rarely did a person own more than a few slaves. For example, according to a 1755 census, there were 81 slaves belonging to 35 families in Huntington. Unlike the South, the economy was not heavily dependent on slave labor. The New York State Legislature passed an act in 1799 allowing for the gradual abolition of slavery.
The War of 1812 did not touch Huntington as had the Revolution, but the town was prepared. "On one occasion a corps of 200 militiamen marched from Huntington to Lloyd's Neck on the circulation of a report [untrue] that the British were there effecting a landing in force." In November 1814 the Town Meeting voted that $207.86 be paid by the town for costs incurred in preparing its defense.
Huntington's best-known resident, Walt Whitman, was born in West Hills in 1819. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was a child but he returned to Long Island as a young man. At the age of 19 he founded The Long-Islander, a Huntington newspaper still in existence.
The railroad was extended from Syosset to Northport in 1867. The arrival of the railroad in Huntington presaged the decline of the maritime economy, although shipping was important until approximately the turn of the twentieth century. Since shipping had long been an important part of the life and economy of Huntington, the town had not been unconnected to the rest of the world. With the increased accessibility of Long Island due to steamboats, trains and later automobiles, Huntington became physically less isolated. Residents of New York City were able to easily visit Huntington, as had not been possible in earlier days. Cold Spring Harbor became a popular summer resort.
When World War II ended in 1945 the population of Huntington, like that of Long Island as a whole, exploded. After almost 200 years of gradual growth, the population of the town mushroomed. Huntington had approximately 32,000 residents in 1940. By 1960 there were 126,00 inhabitants. By the 1980's the population had gone over the 200,00 mark. With the enormous growth of the town its rural landscape changed. Farms and vacant land disappeared, replaced by housing, schools, highways, recreational facilities and new and expanding business and industry.
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