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Jun 11, 2018 2:55 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

A Shinnecock Man In The South Pacific Provides A Hint Of The Role Men Of Color Played In Whaling

Jun 11, 2018 3:26 PM

She was writing from San Francisco with news of a discovery in her family tree. Way back, three great-grandfathers ago, she wrote, she had an ancestor named Notley Lee.“My mother is from the Lee family in the Tonga Islands,” her recent email to an editor at The Suffolk Times began. “I am still wondering where and how my great-great-great-grandfather came to Tonga and settled in the Village of Navutoka.”

Tonga is an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific, south of Samoa, closer to New Zealand than Hawaii—and on the far side of the world from Eastern Long Island.

Makeleta Anderson was writing from her home in San Francisco. She said Notley Lee was an American Indian, born and raised on what is now the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton. It seemed improbable—a Shinnecock in the South Pacific!

Forgotten Sailors

The epic saga of the whaling industry, which brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Long Island between, approximately, 1800 and 1860, has been told in history books, novels and movies. Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick,” the story of a captain obsessed with killing the white whale that took his leg, was inspired by the true story of the Essex, which sank in the South Pacific in 1820 after being struck by a vengeful sperm whale.

Included in the story of the whaling industry is that men of color—Native Americans and free black men—signed on to dozens of ships and plied the world’s oceans, often on voyages that lasted longer than three years.

Five Lee brothers from Shinnecock—Milton, Ferdinand, Notley, Robert and James—were on those ships, sailing out of Sag Harbor, Greenport and whaling ports in New England.

“It is not a very well told story, that men of color were such a big part of the whaling story,” said Sandi Brewster-Walker, who grew up Amityville and who is of Montaukett heritage on her father’s side. She has done extensive research and has written about Native Americans and free black men who worked in the industry.

“The work was terrible and dangerous, but whale oil was so important and so profitable,” she said, adding that she knew the story of the Lee brothers. “Why Notley left the ship and stayed on that island is not clear. But he never came home to Southampton.”

According to a 2016 article in the Long Island History Journal by Nancy Shoemaker, Shinnecock men were well represented on whaling vessels. For example, the Pioneer left New Bedford in 1862 with Notley and Garrison Lee aboard, as well as five other Shinnecock men: Russell Bunn, Abraham Cuffee, and Moses, Joshua and Israel Kellis.

It was when Notley and Garrison were aboard the Abraham Barker in 1871 when Notley jumped ship in the Tonga Islands, along with two other crewmen. The captain of the boat retrieved the two crewmen—but Notley Lee stayed behind.

Garrison stayed on board. It’s not hard to imagine how he felt as the ship pulled away from the island, knowing his brother had been left behind, thousands of miles from their home in Southampton.

Bringing Back Light

Before oil was first pumped out of the ground in Pennsylvania in 1859, the oil of oils, the best of the best, was the pure oil found in the head of a sperm whale. Crews went out into the oceans to kill whales, and what they brought back was the light that illuminated cities and towns.

Thousands of whaling vessels sailed the world’s oceans—on Long Island, Sag Harbor and Greenport were the main whaling ports, with small operations in New Suffolk and perhaps Jamesport—in search of whales to kill.

The industry made ship owners and captains wealthy, as is evidenced by the beautiful homes they left behind, in Sag Harbor, and on Shelter Island and the North Fork. One of the most successful captains was Henry Green, who was born in Sag Harbor, had ships outfitted in Greenport, and built a home that still stands on the Main Road in Peconic.

“It terms of dollars, the whaling industry brought in huge amounts of money,” said Michael Butler, the general manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. “It was the main center of employment and the main funding for the local economies. It made a lot of people very wealthy—in today’s dollars, hundreds of millions.

“We also know that probably 30 percent of whalers and sailors were people of color,” he added.

Crew members received tiny portions of the overall value of oil. But, unlike conditions on land for free black men and Indians, life aboard a whaling vessel was a meritocracy—if you were good, you moved up in the ship’s ranks.

On board the Pequod, Melville’s fictional boat in “Moby Dick,” the harpooners were Queequeg, who was from an island in the South Pacific; Tashtego, a Wampanoag Indian from Cape Cod; and Daggoo, a black man.

Disputed Transaction

With the loss of their brother when he stayed in the Tonga islands, the four other Lee brothers, sailing on different boats, eventually returned to Southampton. The whaling industry had died out, and they needed new lives and new ways to support themselves economically.

Shinnecock land, up through 1859, included everything from the current boundaries of the Nation’s reservation all the way north, across the Shinnecock Hills to the Peconic Bay—land that is now home to world-famous golf courses, including Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where the U.S. Open is being played this week.

The tribe lost all the land north of the current reservation, some 3,500 acres, when the New York State Legislature broke a lease signed in 1703 between the tribe and the Southampton trustees. The breaking of the lease allowed the Long Island Rail Road to extend its line from Patchogue, across the Shinnecock Canal and through Shinnecock Hills to Montauk.

Many members of Shinnecock Indian Nation, which is now a federally recognized tribe, consider the land to have been stolen out from under them with fraudulent petitions they say were signed by dead people.

“I remember the day when Captain Louis Scott, Austin Rose and Captain Jeter Rose drove on the reservation,” a Shinnecock named David Killes testified under oath before a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in 1900. Mr. Killes said one of the men told his father: “‘The petition is going to Albany tomorrow,’ and he said to my father, ‘Are you going to sign it?’ He said, ‘I told you I would never sign it.’ He said, ‘Luther (my uncle), are you going to sign it?’ He said, ‘I will never sign it.’ But they forged the names and put them on.”

Once the Hills were no longer under a lease with the tribe, Austin Corbin, president of the LIRR, planned to build a hotel and summer colony on the site. While those plans did not materialize, he and a group of investors started the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on the site.

Tragedy Hits Tribe

This was the world the Shinnecock whalers, including the Lee brothers, returned to. In December 1876, 11 Shinnecock men joined together to help salvage a ship, the Circassian, that had run aground off Bridgehampton in a storm. It was dangerous work, with the boat stuck on sand and awash in a nearly frozen sea.

As the ship broke apart, people onshore heard the Shinnecock men singing hymns, including a favorite, “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” Ten Shinnecock men perished, including Robert Lee. The others were: David Bunn, Franklin Bunn, Russel Bunn, William Cuffee, George Cuffee, Warren Cuffee, Oliver Kellis, John Walker and Lewis Walker.

Nearly all had been whalers, and their deaths—a little-known story in the history of Long Island—shattered the tribe, its legacy still felt today. A monument to their lives stands today on the reservation.

Mary Treadwell, whose three children are descendants of the Robert Lee who perished on the Circassian, and the Notley Lee who lived out his life in the Tonga islands, said: “These stories are not taught. But we don’t forget.”

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