Fishers Island, about long and wide, is located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, off the southeastern coast of Connecticut across Fishers Island Sound. It is about from the tip of Long Island, from Napatree Point, Rhode Island, and Groton Long Point, Connecticut, and about southeast of New London, Connecticut, from which it is accessible by plane or regular ferry service.
It is part of the town of Southold in Suffolk County in the U.S. state of New York. It is a census-designated place (CDP). As of the 2010 census there were 236 people living year-round on of land; however, the population rises to about 2,000 during peak summer weekends as throngs from Connecticut disembark on the island.
The island was called Munnawtawkit by the Native American Pequot nation. Adriaen Block, the first recorded European visitor, named it Visher's Island in 1614, after one of his companions. For the next 25 years, it remained a wilderness, visited occasionally by Dutch traders.
Winthrop lived only one winter on the island. Winthrop was named governor of the Connecticut Colony 1657-1658 and 1659-1676, and he used the island to raise sheep for food and wool. After Winthrop died in 1676, his son, Fitz-John, installed a lessee farmer from England, William Walworth, on the island. Walworth brought with him a system of cultivation which was continued on the island for nearly 200 years. He established farmland out of the heavily forested island. Walworth and his family vacated the island nine years later due to the threat of pirates. Fishers Island remained in the Winthrop family of Connecticut until 1863, when ownership passed to Robert R. Fox, and then to Edmund and Walton Ferguson, also of Connecticut.
The island was the subject of a border dispute between New York and Connecticut. Present-day New York state, Connecticut, and Rhode Island meet in the waters east of Fishers Island. Before the British took possession of New York City from the Dutch in 1664, all of present-day Suffolk County was claimed by Connecticut, with British settlers there accepting its jurisdiction. In 1657, when Winthrop became governor of Connecticut, he had included Fishers Island, where he owned land. A 1664 land patent granted to the Duke of York included all islands in Long Island Sound — apparently thus granting Fishers Island also to the Province of New York. The Duke of York held a grudge against Connecticut, as New Haven had hidden three of the judges who sentenced the Duke's father, King Charles I, to death in 1649. Settlers throughout Suffolk County pressed to stay part of Connecticut, but Governor Sir Edmund Andros threatened to eliminate the settlers' rights to land if they did not yield, which they did by 1676. Over two hundred years later, in 1879, a joint commission from Connecticut and New York reiterated that New York would have legal title to Fishers Island.
The island was a target of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, who raided islands in Long Island sound for supplies. Many of the residents of Fishers Island took their herds to the relative safety of Connecticut in 1776. The raids continued though, and in 1779 the British burnt many of the island's homes.
In 1783 brickmaking was established, using the vast amounts of available clay, as the largest and only industry. This business was discontinued in 1889. In 1870, a lifesaving station was erected at the western end of the island by the State of Connecticut, which overlooked the waters between Fishers Island and Little Gull Island. The Race Rock Light, located approximately west of Fishers Island, was constructed in 1878 as a navigational aid for travel in the Race. In the early 1900s a permanent Coast Guard station was built on the west end of the island. In 1898, the Fergusons sold on the western end of the island to the federal government. This land was developed as Fort H. G. Wright, which was named after the Civil War Union commander who was born in Clinton, Connecticut. The fort was established as part of a larger coastal defense project. Over the years Fort Wright drew a large number of residents to the island. The 1890s brought a growing summer population and the construction of the Fishers Island Yacht Club. The E.W. & W. Ferguson business was established: it managed the Mansion House Hotel and Cottages, a ferry service, and the electricity, water and telephone enterprises. This business was renamed Fishers Island Farms in 1918. Following the death of the Fishers Island Farms president in 1965, the business was purchased and became the Fishers Island Utility Company, which continues to own and operate the water, telephone and electrical utilities. The ferry is operated by the Fishers Island Ferry District, a public entity financed through a special tax district. The town contracts with the Ferry District to operate Elizabeth Field airport and to manage other structures in the town's ownership that were part of Fort Wright.
Hurricanes have played an important role in the island's history, with the Great September Gale of 1815 and the New England Hurricane of 1938 both causing widespread damage. The 1815 storm resulted in substantially all of the island trees being destroyed by a combination of the powerful winds and by the storm surge that flooded coastal towns with seawater. The consequences for Fishers Island were visible for almost a century and a half. A panoramic photograph taken from one vantage point on the island in 1910 shows more boats in Hay and West harbors than there are mature trees. Until the 1950s, Fishers Island had the look of Ireland: stone walls, few trees, and windswept moors. The 1938 storm, which blew in seeds returning Fishers to its pre-1815 foliage, was less severe with only a few local residences destroyed, primarily by wind. (Most Fishers Island residences have sitings above sea level that protect them from storm surge.) Winds in excess of ripped the roof off John Nicholas Brown's ultra-modern residence "Windshield", designed by Richard Neutra, which had only recently been completed. The Browns rebuilt "Windshield", but it was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.