Paleolithic whale-hunters, American revolutionaries, an adored president, French castles, and bathtub gin all combine to paint a portrait of one of New York’s richest historical landscapes—and one that perhaps few people fully appreciate. Nassau County, home to one of the first English settlements in New York State and an estimated 1,333,137 modern residents, is the first county one reaches after leaving Queens and New York City behind, and is a complex mix of urban and suburban values and lifestyles.
About four of the 13 so-called “tribes” of New York-based Native Americans identified by European explorers lived in Nassau County. The Rockaways, meaning “sandy land,” lived from what is now Rockaway Beach to Long Island Sound. The Matinecocks, “at the hilly land,” lived in Flushing, Glen Cove, Cold Spring Harbor and Huntington. The Massapequans, or “great water land,” lived from what is now Seaford to Islip and also occupied Bethpage and the Merricks, “plains country,” lived in Merrick.
The Native Long Islanders probably referred to themselves as simply, “the people” and used different names to describe where they lived, rather than identify themselves as separate tribes, or stake out land they “owned.” Land ownership and boundaries were a foreign concept introduced by the Europeans.
The first European to set foot on Long Island and explore the land on the western half was Giovanni da Verrazano of Italy, whose fleet entered New York Harbor in April of 1524. Da Verrazano wrote in his journal at the time, “we found a very pleasant place. Situated amongst certain little steep hills. From amidst the hills there ran down into the sea a great stream of water…which we found to rise eight foot [sic]—any great vessel laden may pass.”
After Verrazano’s brief visit, two powerful countries also made their way to the new world in the early 17th century to stake a claim on Long Island for two very different reasons.