The town of Hampton Bays was originally called Good Ground. The town of East Hampton was originally Maidstone. This is the stuff that happens when towns are 300 years old or so. Their names get changed. They move on.
But nothing compares to what has happened with the town we currently know as Greenport, near the tip of the North Fork. Its name has changed four times since the English settlers came to where the village is now in the 1640’s. It got named one thing, and then another and then another and then another. It’s quite a story.
The first settlers who sailed across the Long Island Sound and landed on the North Fork were Englishmen from New Haven, Connecticut. They founded a town at Southold, which is about 10 miles away from what would become Greenport.
The son of the first minister of the Southold Church, Colonel John Youngs bought the land alongside the fine harbor 10 miles to the east. The local residents called the land The Farms. But in a short while they changed the name to Winter Harbor. The reason was that the harbor was more important than the farm. It seldom froze over. Therefore it was a good place to keep boats in the wintertime.
Almost all the residents of eastern Long Island were staunch supporters of the King of England, Tories. Sometime in the early 1700s, the residents of Winter Harbor felt they should express their support by changing the name of Winter Harbor to Stirling. The reason was that Lord Stirling, a famous Scottish earl who lived in England in the 1600s, had been deeded Long Island by the King in 1636. This was four years before the settling of Southold. Lord Stirling never came to America. Indeed he was an old man, 70, when he got the word he now owned an island. So instead, he sent an emissary to America to tell everybody what was what. James Farrett landed by ship in New Amsterdam, waved a piece of paper at the Dutch, and they arrested him. He escaped, and three years later waved the same piece of paper at the Dutch in Cow’s Bay near Port Washington and they arrested him again. Then in 1640, Lord Stirling died.
Given all this, the later settlers, hearing the rumblings about rebellion in the land in the early 1700s, decided to change the name of Winter Harbor to Stirling. That would declare their allegiance to the King.
An odd thing happened in the late 1750s. A charming young New York City businessman named William Alexander, wealthy and well educated, declared that since he was the great-grand nephew of the original Lord Stirling, he was therefore the inheritor of Long Island. In a way this was kind of a joke, because the Stirling claim had been made over 100 years earlier, and Long Island was now much developed as towns and villages and the original claim had long since gone by the wayside.
William Alexander never pressed his claim, but when he made his claim he insisted that the socially prominent people of the city—and he was one—address him as Lord Stirling from that moment on. So that’s what they did. Lord Stirling built a palatial mansion for himself in Basking Ridge, New Jersey and moved there. He had two daughters and a son. In 1760, one of his best friends, George Washington gave his daughter away at her wedding at the mansion.
In 1776, the founders of this country, after declaring their independence on July 4, asked George Washington to muster an army. They knew the British fleet would soon be arriving with tens of thousands of redcoats to put down the rebellion. Washington, knowing Lord Stirling was a colonel in the New Jersey militia, asked him to be a Brigadier General and protect Washington’s right flank during what would be the upcoming battle. Stirling eagerly signed on, and his forces held the flank during the Battle of Long Island, on the Brooklyn plain, which George Washington lost. But Stirling became a hero in that engagement.
After the fight, Washington needed to retreat and cross the East River to the safety of Manhattan. The British attacked Washington’s flank, hoping to encircle Washington before he could do so, but Stirling and his troops, greatly outnumbered, held off the British for the time necessary to allow Washington and his troops to escape. In the end, Lord Stirling’s forces were overwhelmed and Lord Stirling captured. However he was released in a prisoner exchange and after that fought with extreme bravery. When Washington left his army for two months at one point, he put Lord Stirling in charge. When Washington headed south, he put Lord Stirling in charge of the Northern Armies.
But brave as he was, Lord Stirling was also a heavy drinker. In 1781, the British surrendered at Yorktown. By this time, however, Lord Stirling was in poor health. He died in 1783 at the age of 57. The years passed and the memory of Lord Stirling faded away. He is little mentioned in history books, yet he is ranked among the top generals during the Revolution.
The town of Stirling did not change its name immediately after the Revolution. But there were people at this point those concerned at the fact that they had changed it from Winter Harbor to Stirling. Soon though, when the town had become a well-known whaling and ship building port, locals, unhappy at it being “Stirling,” began to refer to it as Green Hill. The reason was that, as seen from the water, at a place near where today there is the Greenport Yacht and Shipbuilding Company, there was this promontory, a sort of hill, that served as a marker for mariners. So the town abandoned the name Stirling and became Green Hill.
Then, around 1830, there was talk of bringing a railroad out from Manhattan to Green Hill. The tracks had not yet come out to the South Fork. Green Hill would be the official eastern terminus of the Long Island Railroad. On the other hand, if you looked around, you now noticed that Green Hill, the hill, had been leveled so that the dirt could be used to fill in further parts of town to make way for more of the commercial district, wharves and docks. There was no more Green Hill.
In 1838, just six years before the first train came to town, a meeting was held by the good men of Green Hill to discuss incorporating the town with a new name, which would not be Green Hill. They were now a port. Freighters would tie up at the docks. The farmers nearby would bring their produce to the Greenport station to send out to New York City. A lot of people had become fond of Green Hill’s name. And they were thinking how stupid it would be to change the name still once again after all these years. Perhaps the word “Green” could be included in the new name.
And that’s how it became Greenport.
Honestly, since no freightis brought into the city from Greenport by rail anymore, Greenport can hardly be considered a port of entry. It does have fishing boats. But mostly it’s a great restaurant town, a tourist town and a working man’s town. And it could and perhaps should take on the trappings of that famous name “Hamptons.” Great things could come. They would be the first village on the North Fork to incorporate that name.
Hampton Port does have a certain ring to it, don’t you think?