Shelter Island is a town and island at the eastern end of Long Island in the U.S. state of New York. It is part of the tip of Suffolk County and is separated from the rest of the county by water. The population was 2,392 at the 2010 census.
Shelter Island was part of the original Plymouth Company land grant made by James I of England in 1620. On April 22, 1636, Charles I of England, told that the colony had not settled anywhere on Long Island, gave the island to William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling. The grant gave Alexander all of Long Island and adjacent islands. Alexander gave James Farret power to act as his agent and attorney in settling Long Island. In reward Farret was allowed to choose for his personal use. Farret chose Shelter Island and Robin's Island for his use. Farret in turn sold the islands to Stephen Goodyear, one of the founders of the New Haven Colony.
In 1651 Goodyear sold the island to a group of Barbados sugar merchants for 1,600 pounds of sugar. Nathaniel Sylvester (1610–1680), one of the merchants, was the island’s first white settler. On March 23, 1652, he made the purchase official by agreement with “Yoki” (called “Pogatticut”) who was the sachem of the Manhanset tribe. The other owners, Sylvester’s brother, Constant, and Thomas Middleton, never came to Long Island. In 1673 Nathaniel Sylvester claimed ownership of Shelter Island, Fishers Island, and other parts of Long Island.
In 1652 Sylvester constructed a house on the island for his 16-year-old bride, Grissel Brinley. The manor house was rebuilt by his descendants about 1733. Sylvester Manor exists today, just off New York State Route 114. The Sylvesters gave shelter to many persecuted Quakers.
Following the death in 1680 of Nathaniel Sylvester, Shelter Island was divided among his two sons, Giles and Nathaniel II. In 1695, William Nicoll, a resident of Islip, bought from Giles the area now called Mashomack Nature Preserve. Three years later, in 1698, another newcomer, George Havens, bought from Nathaniel II. This parcel comprises what today is the Center and stretched south to South Ferry and west to West Neck Creek. Over time these estates and parcels were split and divided by marriage and purchase so that by the early 18th century there were 20 families living on Shelter Island. By order of the Provincial Government, the town of Shelter Island was established in 1730. The community developed from there.
James Nicoll Havens, a member of the New York Provincial Congress, built a home on the island in 1743. He was the first town supervisor on the island. His home is still on the island and is owned by the local historical society.
Jonathan Nicoll Havens (1757–1799), born on Shelter Island, was a member of the First Continental Congress in 1774. He also served in New York’s delegation that approved the federal constitution in 1788. Mashomack Forest (today Mashomack Nature Preserve) was owned by the Nicolls family for 230 years. A few Native Americans still lived in the wooded Sachem’s Neck area up until the 1790s. Nicolls Creek carries the family name.
Shelter Island had brushes with early Colonial military activity:
The first ferryboat to serve the island was run by the Boisseau family at Stearns Point, nearby Crescent Beach. The North Ferry began service to Greenport in 1868.
Shelter Island Heights established
Shelter Island Heights started in 1871 as a summer resort developed by the Shelter Island Grove and Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A group of Brooklyn businessmen purchased the Frederick Chase estate. For eight years the camp meetings took place on the island, before moving to Jamesport. During this time, the Union Chapel was erected in 1875, designed by Robert Morris Copeland. In 1984 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Shelter Island Heights was a planned development by Copeland. The houses that were built here were in classic American styles: Stick-Eastlake, Queen Anne Style, and Colonial Revival. In the eight years from 1872 to 1880 about 70 summer cottages were built in the Heights. By 1890 the district was well-defined; it has not changed much since then. Shelter Island Heights was listed on both the United States Register and the New York State Register of Historic Places in 1993.
At the turn of the 20th century, fish processing plants were still on the island. One was located at the end of Burns Road, another on Big Ram Island, off what is today Tuthill Road. Summer residents could be brought to the island by steam ferries from New York City.
White Hill is the name of the hill that is above the North Ferry landing in Shelter Island Heights. At one time the Prospect Hotel was there, it burned down, was rebuilt, and was destroyed by fire a second time in 1942. Today it is a town park.
Growth after 1900
Francis Marion Smith (1846–1931) was known as the “Borax King” for his mining successes. Smith and his family bought a home on the island in 1892. He expanded it to more than 30 rooms and called his estate Presdeleau. By 1906 he owned more than on the south side of the island. Today, Smith Cove and Smith Street carry on his name. The remains of his property are reinforced concrete retaining walls and a "Japanese" footbridge, built by Ernest L. Ransome about 1898, behind Merkle Lane. Smith also shipped in deer from California to hunt on his “deer park”; the descendants are still on the island.
Another 19th Century millionaire who had an estate on Shelter Island was Artemas Ward (1848–1925), a pioneer in mass-market advertising. Ward made millions by monopolizing all advertising on New York City elevated trains, subways, and streetcars. Ward had a large estate on the south side of the island. Ward wrote a biography of his great-grandfather, Major General Artemas Ward (1727–1800), a commander in the American Revolutionary War. After years of being tied up in court, the vestiges of Ward’s original estate in the Shorewood section of the Island (including a manor house, formal Italian gardens, and a concrete water tower) have been renovated or--in the case of the manor house--partially deconstructed.
Following World War I, development slowly crept onto the island. Summer camps were started in the 1920s, including Camp Quinipet, a United Methodist Church camp and retreat center on Rocky Point Road. On West Neck Harbor, developers Albert and Fred Dickerson built houses on what is today called Montclair Colony. Homes were built on Silver Beach, Ram Island, and Hilo Farms.
Following the Depression, some of the summer cottages were abandoned or left to rot. Recovery was slow, and it was not until after World War II that summer residents started returning in larger numbers. During the 1950s a farm cooperative grew lima beans on the island. This was the end of commercial farming on Shelter Island.
In the 1960s and 1970s more families started to move to Shelter Island and become year-round residents. The Gerard family owned the property at Sachem’s Neck that had once belonged to the Nicoll family for more than 200 years, and later to financier Otto Kahn. Developers eyed the . However, the land was purchased by The Nature Conservancy to keep the land a nature park in perpetuity; half of the funds to buy the forest were raised on the island to create Mashomack Preserve. The Preserve was acquired by The Nature Conservancy in January 1980.
Today, there are many Shelter Island residents who have family roots dating to island families of the American Revolution. Some summer residents are fifth generation seasonal visitors.