All my life, I have wondered about the first words uttered by the first English settler who came ashore at Southampton. There is a big boulder marking the spot on the beach in North Sea where these first settlers waded ashore in 1640. This place is called Conscience Point.
“For conscience sake, we are on dry land once more,” were the first words spoken, reportedly by a woman.
Has this statement ever bothered you? It bothered me. I have no idea what this statement means. And I wondered, did she? She was feeling something about it, that’s for sure.
Over all these years, I never looked this up. I guessed “for conscience sakes” was some kind of Pilgrim talk. It was some religious thing, some hocus pocus. Of course they knew what it meant. But it was 1640 and people talked in this stilted way. All you have to do is read books written from that time.
Here are the facts. In the spring of 1640, in the port town of Lynn, Massachusetts just north of Boston, a group of several dozen people, a little put off by the strict religious codes of the dominant group of Puritans and also apparently feeling the town was getting a little too crowded for the farming they wanted to do, met and decided to settle another part of the New World. There were about 30 of them. At the time, both the Puritans and the King of England were urging settlers to explore and make new settlements. You could get a patent to settle a piece of land from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These 30 men and women applied for one and only a few weeks after their application, were granted one by the Earl of Sterling for eight square miles of land “to make their choice to sitt downe upon as best suiteth them,” the document read. At the time, the Dutch had settled what is now New York City and Queens. The new English colony would be a counterpoint to the east.
The Puritans set out in a 40-foot sloop owned by Daniel Howe, and they headed out around Cape Cod, went south and then west into Long Island Sound, and then landed on the North Shore of Long Island-—not far, as it horribly turned out, from a Dutch settlement there at Schout’s Bay. The Dutch arrested the English settlers as soon as they got off the boat and put them in jail.
A few days later, after some negotiations, the Dutch freed the English as long as they promised to leave on their boat and never come back. As a result, they sailed back across the Sound to New Haven where, getting a new patent, they regrouped and headed out once again, this time toward somewhere further east on Long Island. Their new charter granted them “all those lands lying and being bounded between Peaconneck and the easternmost point of Long Island with the whole breadth of the said island from sea to sea.” This was quite a charter, though it was modified soon after to exclude all of what is now East Hampton Town because Lion Gardner and his wife, children and servants had gone to live there.
And so the sloop sailed again, this time tucking in south of the North Fork of eastern Long Island and near what is now Shelter Island to land in this place which they referred to as North Sea and which we now call “Conscience Point.” The trip had taken 17 hours from Lynn. They slid up on the beach in a small boat, at which point this woman said her famous line.
It is not clear, after this, whether the local Indians, the Shinnecocks, met them on the beach there, or met them soon after. In any case, the Shinnecocks, a peaceful people, exchanged gifts with them, and then led them down a long trail—today this is North Sea Road—to a clearing inland where they suggested the Englishmen settle. The Shinnecocks either helped them or showed them how to dig deep trenches over which they could place trees and bushes to brace themselves for when they could expect the cold winter. It was July, 1640.
While researching all this, I also looked up whether anybody said anything at the more famous landing by the English at Plymouth, 20 years before. There is a boulder there announcing it as the first English settlement in New England. But what I learned was that this was not actually where the English first landed, and it was very likely that where they first landed they were too miserable to have anything interesting to say. It was late at night and it was raining.
Those pilgrims, more than 102 of them in a bigger boat called the Mayflower, had first waded ashore at what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod. When they first arrived before any of them rowed in, they dropped anchor to think about things. They could see the land. They could see there was nobody on it. And, as it happened, the passengers, all of whom had agreed to become indentured servants to the captain and crew for seven years, started talking about rebellion.
Why should they agree to servitude now? They were here, way beyond the jurisdiction of England. They were many more in number than the colonel who led them and the ship’s crew. They wanted to be relieved of their indenture. The end of this conversation resulted in the captain and crew and the religious leader of the expedition drawing up what was called the “Mayflower Compact” which basically reconfirmed what the original agreement said, but with less stringent terms. Everybody signed.
Then they came ashore. Here are the notes from their leader William Bradford, who was the second governor of Plymouth Colony after John Carver died, about this:
“…though it was very dark and rained sore, yet in the end they got under the lee of a small island [Clark’s Island] and remained there all that night in safety… And this being the last day of the week, they prepared there to keep the Sabbath. On Monday they sounded the harbor and found it fit for shipping, and marched into the land and found divers cornfield, and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation.” At least it was the best they could find. They also could see that the land circled around a vast bay. All they needed to do was follow it around to the other end where, perhaps, they might find something better than the sandy soil they were on. They sent out an exploration party. At First Encounter Beach in Eastham they were attacked by the local Wampanoag tribe, which came with bows and arrows. When the pilgrims returned with musketfire, some of the Indians fell to the ground and the rest ran away. And then they sailed the Mayflower across to what became Plymouth, and that is what became their first settlement.
According to the dictionary, the word “conscience” is defined as having “a sense of right and wrong.” There is a phrase in the dictionary, “In all or good conscience,” which is defined as “what you are saying is truly the case.” There are other definitions, but I think this one is the probable fit.
In other words, she was saying “It is truly the case that we are back on dry land again.”
And they were.