Finding God in Southampton

We got an email submission for our Corona Journals project that was a bit longer than the normal submission. Kenneth Gatten III has very close ties to Southampton. His family has owned land here since it was founded. Kenneth is a undergrad student at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and for one of his classes this past spring he wrote the following short non-fiction story musing on his family's connection to Southampton both historically, and today. It was a bit too long for the Corona Journals and bit too good to not include, so I decided it needed its own post. Enjoy!


Finding God In Southampton

Class warfare is raging in the Hamptons: hospitals are overrun, grocery stores are barren, and locals are furious as wealthy elites abscond to their vacation homes to wait out the quarantine. At least, that is how the situation is described by The New York Post.

According to the Post, one vacation homeowner called a Southampton hospital to arrange for medical treatment after being diagnosed with the coronavirus. When she was told to stay home, she took public transportation to receive treatment there anyway. Another person took a private jet to Southampton and then admitted to having the virus after they landed. These elites, as they are styled by locals in the Hamptons, have begun to overrun hospitals so that “we should blow up the bridges—don’t let them in,” says one resident. Another resident observes one conspicuously wealthy person leave a grocery store with a cart full of “just carrots.” He adds that another person’s “cart was full of bottles of water and orange anti-microbial dish soap.” He says that “these brazen acts of selfishness” have left grocery store aisles cleared of paper products, meat, eggs, bread, and cheese.

As someone whose family owns a $2 million beach house in Southampton, I can say that this is not surprising.

The Hamptons have witnessed some of the most dramatic effects of gentrification in the world. In many places, $20 million vacation homes are situated mere blocks or even houses away from the residence of the town florist or pharmacist. The cost of living has risen so quickly that longtime residents are being driven out, selling the small homes they purchased for modest sums for millions of dollars. It is a bittersweet way to leave the place where your family has lived for generations. And my family might be in that very position.

We own our Southampton home not because we purchased it, but because it has been passed down through generations—380 years, in fact.

It all began in 1640 with a scene that could have inspired a sketch in the British comedy series Monty Python. According to Dutch accounts, on May 10, a group of British settlers of Lynn, MA took a small sloop to Long Island, NY. When they landed, the Sachem of the local Native American tribe informed the Dutch governor that some “foreign strollers” had arrived and cut down trees to build houses. They “had even hewn down the arms of their High Mightinesses,” said the Sachem. The Governor sent a Dutch commissary, and he not only found the account to be true, but noticed that where the Dutch arms of State had been nailed to a tree, a scowling caricature had been drawn over the spot, presumably with a rock or stick. The Dutch deemed this “a criminal offense against his Majesty.” On May 15th, my ancestors were arrested as “vagabonds.”

On the same day, Dutch judges questioned the intruders: “by what power or by whose authority have you presumed to settle on our purchased soil?” They answered that they were authorized by a Scotsman, who was no longer among them. The Dutch demanded that this Scotsman be identified. When the intruders answered that his name was James Farrett, the judges were flabbergasted. None of them had heard of this elusive Scotsman.

Never mind that, the Dutch said, “for what reason did you throw down our Mightinesses’ Arms and set up a fool’s face in his stead?” One intruder said he had no idea. Another suggested vaguely that the Scotsman might have done it. The upshot of the case was that my ancestors and their fellow settlers were discharged. Immediately, they boarded their sloop, sailed a mere three miles Eastward through Long Island Sound, and created a new settlement which is in present-day Southampton. They lived freely, governing themselves under their own laws as the first English settlement in New York.

Conscience Point, the supposed landing spot of Southampton's Founders - Photo by Jeff Heatley

It is a quintessentially American story of mischievous defiance and ingenuity.

After a few years, my ancestors had built many notable landmarks. The Old Sayre House, for example, was erected in 1648 and survived as the oldest frame house in the United States until it was demolished in 1912. A main artery of Southampton, Job’s Lane, is named after Job Sayre. The famous Sayre Barn, built in 1825, became a popular trading post on a busy intersection in the area, and the Southampton History Museum restored the structure in 2014.

The Sayre Barn shortly after its reconstruction in 2014

I can even trace my direct lineage to the founders, which includes Thomas Sayre (1597-1670), Job Sayre (1612-1694), Benjamin Sayre (1674-unknown), Benjamin Sayre Jr (unknown-1790), David Sayre (1807-1860), Stephen Sayre (1832-1908), Frank Sayre (1871-1967), Leuellyn Sayre (1904-89), and Ann Curry (1946-). Curry is my grandmother, who inherited our house in Southampton from her mother, Leuellyn.

My ancestry and the landmarks by which it is represented make me feel a permanent, immutable connection to the land. During my childhood, I often escaped to Southampton to feel that uniquely permanent, stable, and irrefutable sense of purpose.

While my grandparents have lived a prosperous, upper middle-class life, I was raised until the age of 14 by my parents, who always seemed to live in poverty. At least, that was my perception: as I attended a private Christian academy with students who came from wealthy nuclear families, my grandparents not only paid my tuition but the mortgage, car payments, utilities, and more. Meanwhile, my home life was tumultuous and traumatic. My parents would fight viciously, my father would direct his ire toward my brother and me, and he would pack up and disappear from our lives for months at a time. In 7th grade, this caused me to act out so that I earned 43 demerits (conduct violations) in one year—the most in the school’s history. I was promptly expelled.

During the ensuing years, I would revisit memories of Southampton, a place I had visited countless times during my childhood. Southampton was for me what the Mississippi Delta is for Blues Singer Lucinda Williams: “a highly personal, emotional reference library, something that she keeps coming back to in her music, for images or metaphors,” as Bill Buford writes for The New Yorker. It was a space of creativity, something against which to contrast my home life.

When I was 18 years old, for example, I wrote this passage for an introductory class on creative writing to describe what it was like to be in my room during my childhood:

I felt on my fingertips parc