The table in the historic Wickham farmhouse on Cutchogue Village Green dates back to the mid-18th century. But despite its age, it was not known until May that it contained a private family letter stashed in a secret compartment.
In 2011, a member of the Katsig Horton family donated the table to the Katsig-New Suffolk Historical Committee, which manages the farmhouse. It was probably made in Long Island, and is made of cherry wood, with a sloping top that folds down to form a writing desk.
In May, a woman with knowledge of antique furniture came to the council’s Family History Day. “I showed her around our building on Village Green,” said Mark MacNish, the council’s executive director. “I told her about the table.
“When we got to the desk, it was locked,” he said. “I knew she wanted to see the interior because it was so well made. I opened it. She said, ‘You know, these tables usually have secret compartments for love letters. She stretched out her fingers, slid out of a secret compartment next to a small compartment, and pulled out the letter.
“I read it and I knew it was better than a love letter,” Mr McNish added.
The handwritten note is undated, but Mr McNish estimates it was written in the 1930s-1940s because it refers to an old Cutchogue street named “Skunk Lane”. It was signed “Aunt Joe Horton Cornell” and titled “History of Horton’s Desk as I Can Describe it.”
The author goes on to explain that the table was the property of William Burnett Houghton, who “had a farm on ‘Skunk Lane’ stretching from the creek to Peconic Bay, which is the old-time name…”
William Houghton left Katsig “around 1830” and brought his family and furniture to Andersonville, Georgia, her letter said. He “lived there and ran a slave plantation until the end of the Civil War, when the slaves were emancipated. He moved back to Peconic and built a new house there,” she explained.
“Aunt Jo” describes how the table was passed from Horton to Horton until another William Horton appeared in Kachig. In 2011, Wells Horton donated the desk to the Historical Commission.
The letter — if it was just an unsubstantiated family legend passed down through generations — caught the eye of locals interested in North Fork history, especially the stories of slaves who helped build the town before slavery ended in New York state in 1827.
Until recently, the story of slavery in the region was not the focus of local historians. That changed three years ago when Richard Wins, Amy Falk, Sandy Brewster Walker, and the author of this article formed the North Fork Project to unearth this long-neglected history. East Hampton is working on a similar project, Plain Sight, led by David Rattray, publisher of the East Hampton Star.
Since the North Fork project began, researchers have recovered the names of more than 360 men, women and children who were enslaved by North Fork families. No records have been found specifically of “William Burnett Horton” before he allegedly moved to Georgia and began establishing slave plantations.
After reading the letter, he left Katsig about three years after the end of slavery in New York State. He traveled to Georgia, then still prosperous, where Southern slaves were “liberated” following the end of the Civil War and the subsequent ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, and then moved back to Katsig. In other words, his departure and return are surrounded by key dates in the history of slavery here and in the Deep South.
“My conclusion is that this man’s business model relied on free labor,” said Mr McNeish, who described the letter as family lore rather than history. “He needed slavery to keep his business going. When things ended here, he moved to the South, where it was still legal.”
The 1850 US Census Slave List lists “William B. Houghton” living in Georgia as the owner of three slaves: a 60-year-old female, a 30-year-old female, and a 3-year-old male. The 1860 Federal Census of Slaves shows a “William B. Houghton” in Georgia with a 75-year-old female. The 1870 census showed Holden and his wife living in what was listed as “Peconic.”
As with any family document passed down through generations, the information in the letter must be taken with a grain of salt. Family legends don’t necessarily translate into real history. Consider the long-held belief that a family cemetery in the East holds the remains of those enslaved by that family. Ground-penetrating radar proved this story wrong—there were no remains of enslaved people there.
Still — if accurate — Horton’s letter is one piece of a larger puzzle, the final shape of which has yet to be determined.
“Yeah, it’s interesting,” said Ms Falk, who is also a historian for the town of Southold. But as a professional historian, she is cautious. How much of the information in the letter is true? Maybe nothing, she said.
“When you get these kinds of letters, you have to make sure they are correct,” she said. “You can’t jump to conclusions. To me, that’s problematic.”
Mr Wines, who has done extensive research on North Fork history, agrees. “So I agree with Amy that the story is probably fabricated,” he said.
For Mr. McNish, the letter is another step in his efforts to tell the story of Katschig’s wider history. He recently erected a plaque at the old house on Country Green on behalf of the Historical Commission in memory of a woman named Ketura who was enslaved by the owner of the house and lived in the attic. The presence of slaves in the old house was willfully ignored until this information became public.
Keturah was born in 1789 to slave parents, the daughter of Cyrus and Zipporah, owned by Samuel Landon, a former town supervisor of Southold. Jared Landon released Keturah in 1817 in his will. She died in 1867.
“I wanted to tell the stories of marginalized people here,” Mr McNish said. “I want to feel like we’re telling the best, most fulfilling history we can.”