On the East Side, the Peconic Land Trust preserves more than 14,000 acres of fertile farmland and open space. Our farmland is the fertile loam left behind by glaciers retreating northward at the end of the last ice age. These farmlands are a wonderful gift and must not be taken for granted.

Aboriginal people have lived off that farmland for 10,000 years, growing what Aboriginal cultures call the “Three Sisters” — corn, beans and squash. When English settlers crossed from New England to the North Fork in 1640, they found growing seasons of more than 200 days, far longer than they were used to across the Channel.

After forcing the locals to leave, the newcomers thrived. We’re still thriving here. The ongoing debate in Riverhead and Southold is how much of these great gifts will be left to future generations.

Last month, the trust issued an RFP for 135 acres of fertile farmland on Cutchogue Oregon Road, proposing to sell the land to qualified farmers to continue production. The land owner is an entity called Mattituck Farm Holdings LLC.

Trusts tend to keep the people behind this limited liability company secret. But let’s just say he saved hundreds of acres on the East Side and tens of thousands of acres across the country through a remarkable foundation. We applaud that man — and trust — for doing it.

The added bonus of saving farmland and open space is a story that comes with it. Generations of farm families—British, Polish, and Irish—lived on the land on the Oregon Road. Polish farmers who had worked as farm laborers made their fortunes and built Our Lady of Ostrabrama RC Church on Depot Lane, Cutchogue in the early 20th century.

There is no better example of saving history by saving land than the Trust’s purchase of 4.5 acres in Southampton’s Sugar Loaf Hill on 20 July 2021. This hilltop—from where you can see the Peconic Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south—is the ancient burial ground of the Shinnecock people.

The site has been returned to the Shinnecock Nation, whose lands once included the entirety of Shinnecock Mountain. In a report from the 2021 East End Beacon, Peconic Land Trust Chairman John Halsey had this to say about saving cemeteries:

“It’s about a hill, a peak, the holiest place for the Shinnecock people, a place where their ancestors were buried 3,000 years ago, and I acknowledge to all concerned that the land we live in Southampton is ancestral land Shinnecock people.”

We also pay tribute to the North Fork Project, an ongoing research effort by historians and researchers Richard Wines, Amy Folk and Sandi Brewster-Walker. Their work has something in common with trusts that save historic land.

In a presentation at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead last weekend, the project highlighted how, after three years of work, it discovered the names of more than 350 slaves owned by North Fork residents during the first half of the 19th century. Their efforts were The first attempt of its kind at the North Fork.

The names of the enslaved were not on walls or monuments, nor were Aboriginal names inscribed on deeds that sold land to early settlers. We don’t know where Aboriginal people are buried, other than that one place in Shinnecock Hills. Nor was the North Fork project built where enslaved people were buried.

But when the land is preserved, as the trust has done on the Oregon Road, when the North Fork Project unearths the names of enslaved people who worked our farms, our past becomes richer, the landscape and the lives that live in it The people above meld together into a single narrative worth remembering.

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