Oyster Bay Town History
After Jesse Merritt,
Nassau County Historian
IIt was the Dutch navigator, deVries, who named Oyster Bay, probably because of the fine oysters found here. Some contend, however, he was inspired by the shape of the fine Oyster Bay Harbor, which resembles an oyster as shown in this 1674 map of Long Island.
The Dutch, intent on holding on to this desirable North Shore real estate, roundly rebuffed the first attempts on the part of English colonists to settle Oyster Bay. However, by 1653 a group of pioneers from Massachusetts, led by Peter Wright, had settled down to live in what would become the Town of Oyster Bay. Wright, often called the "Father of the Town of Oyster Bay", and his group purchased the land known as the "Town Spot" (roughly where the village of Oyster Bay is today) from Chief Mohanes of the Matinecock tribe. Since the town more or less straddled the boundaries of Dutch and English territory, it was not until the English conquered all of New Netherland that Oyster Bay Town residents were sure of whom they owed their allegiance.
In 1665, Dongan, the first English governor of New-York set up the Long Island counties, and at that time Oyster Bay was designated a part of Queens County, where it remained until near the end of the 19th century, when Nassau County was founded. When Governor Dongan set up the counties, he called the "Hempstead Convention," at which Captain John Underhill and Matthew Harvey represented the Town of Oyster Bay. While Harvey distinguished himself as the first Town Clerk, Captain Underhill became known nationally, at first as a remarkable Indian fighter and later, paradoxically, as a respected teacher to the Indians. At the Hempstead Convention, Harvey, Underhill and the other delegates were read the "Duke's Laws" -- the first code of laws in New York State.
Town meetings were held in Oyster Bay every spring, and, until 1919 when they were discontinued as an impractical method of governance, they were the big event of the season. At the meetings you would have met townspeople whose family names are still familiar in Oyster Bay today. The name Underhill is still prevalent, and the Wright, Seaman, Coles, Jones, Pearsall, Mudge, and Townsend families still have descendants among the present residents. Although many of the historic Indian names have disappeared, the name of Tackapausha is kept alive in Massapequa, where a County Park and land preserve bears his name. It was Tackapausha who signed the deed to the Underhill property.
There were few, if any, characters in Oyster Bay's history who were more colorful than Captain John Underhill. His monument, cresting a hill in a secluded private cemetery in Mill Neck bears testimony to his versatility. On one side of the monument, a plaque shows him "laying to" with his broadsword, scattering Indians to the left and to the right. On the other side, he is pictured reading peaceably from the Bible as the Indians seated at his feet pay rapt attention to his words. The colorful Captain had initially fled from New England to Long Island because the Dutch in New Amsterdam were more tolerant than the Puritans. Later, he returned to New England to take part in the British conquest of Long Island, and for his part was rewarded with 250 acres of land at Matinecock, in the area now called Locust Valley.
There wasn't much actual fighting around the Town of Oyster Bay during the Revolution, but Oyster Bay and much of the rest of Long Island was occupied by British troops for most of the war. A band of citizens did raid and burn a British controlled base at Oyster Bay, causing great damage to the British supplies and ships. Like many other places in this part of the country, George Washington "slept here", being a guest of the Youngs family in Oyster Bay during his 1790 tour of Long Island.
The late nineteenth century saw great growth in Oyster Bay with the arrival of summer vacationers and the railroad. Oyster Bay's most famous resident, Theodore Roosevelt, built his home at Sagamore Hill in 1884, and he spent summers here in Oyster Bay during his Presidency.
As you've been reading, much of the early history of America took place right here in the Town of Oyster Bay. Today, history of another kind is being made. The mass migration of people from New York City to the Town of Oyster Bay has changed the face of the town and brought with it a new way of life. The potato and truck farms are gone now and in their place stand thousands of private homes. In four decades the population has risen from 40,000 in 1950 to more than 290,000 at the time of the 1990 census; where a great portion of Oyster Bay Town was once rural, now it is suburban.
And so today, the Town of Oyster Bay celebrates a new era. After a growth in population unprecedented in history, the Town of Oyster Bay is now, even as it was centuries ago, one of America's most attractive places to live, and it bids fair to remain that way for many years to come.
1. Long Island Sirvaide by Robartte Ryder. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Home > History > Town of Oyster Bay