In 2015 the Towns of Southampton and Southold celebrated the 375th anniversary of English pioneers landing on the East En
d of Long Island, and the founding of their respective Towns. A plethora of events were held to commemorate 1640, including parades, lectures, historic tours and receptions. But they all seem to pale in comparison with the festivities that took place on a sunny day in June exactly one hundred years before. Luckily, Southampton’s incredible 275th pageant was captured on film, and thanks to YouTube this long-forgotten newsreel has recently come to light.
Southampton worked hard in 1915 to produce a spectacular show. A souvenir booklet published after the event documents 18 committees composed of 133 inspired members eager to create something monumental. The committees represented all 8 villages located within the Town plus those for finance, publicity, construction, decoration, pageant, entertainment, reception, music, police, souvenir sales and attendants for the ladies restroom at the library. A professional was found - Robert K. Atkins, director of community pageants at Cornell University - to ensure a professional production. Everyone seemed to be thinking on a grand scale.
The committees attempted to portray many lofty ideals in just one day. E. Emory Terry, president of the Southampton Colonial Society (known today as the Southampton Historical Museum), states in the souvenir booklet’s preface that the celebration
“was designed to do honor to those things which are true and noble in days gone by; to re-emphasize those truths upon which justice and liberty have been built up in this country, to portray in visual form the life of those earlier days, its home, its democracy and its love of truth and righteousness, and to impress these things firmly upon the mind of the present generation. Thus the past would not be dead history.”
Pathe News, a film company founded in 1910 in the U.K., was providing newsreels to the rapidly growing moving picture industry. They arrived in Southampton with a hand-cranked movie camera to cover the pageant and the parade that followed. The 11-minute film starts off with a bang! It begins, without sound or narration, with 40 young girls in Grecian dress with vine garlands in their hair, doing an Isadora Duncan-inspired performance titled Dance of the Woods and the Waters. The loose and expressive choreography seems very modern for this small farming village located 100 miles from NYC.
Next comes a 19th century whale boat with a handful of people dressed as Puritans recreating the 1640 landing at Conscience Point. Barns that used to surround Lake Agawam can be seen in the background. Oral tradition says the early settlers were Puritans but they were actually English pioneers fleeing theocratic Massachusetts for more tolerant lands. The formal black and white outfits may have been similar to court dress worn in London but certainly not for immigrants arriving in an unfamiliar wilderness.
The Shinnecock Tribe did not participate on any committee but were given a very large role in the pageant even though 1640 was not a good year for them. A close examination of a group shot shows many non-Native Americans wearing makeup, participating alongside authentic Natives. An early Indian raid on the settlement is gingerly acted out with the violator being manhandled and put in a stockade. The dramatization appears starkly racist to today’s audiences. Charles Sumner Bunn, a Shinnecock member well-known then and now, is honored as the only participant standing by himself in costume. Bunn was a popular hunting guide for the wealthy Summer Colony then, and is famous today for his hand-carved decoys. In 2000 one of his shore birds sold at auction for $465,000. If he only knew.
The Southampton Colonial Society can be seen performing a minuet in elaborate 18th century costumes that would have been worn in London or colonial Virginia but certainly not in a small farming village. The dancing re-enactors look stern and, if you look closely, are mentally counting out their steps. Later these bewigged and corseted participants have a lot more fun in a wedding march leading to a chivaree, an English folk custom where wedding guests good-naturedly harass a bride and groom.
Near the end of the film the camera does a slow pan of the crowd, which is beginning to stand in the bleachers for the grand finale. The variety and elaborate designs of the hats popular at that time, on both men and women, are of special note. The actors, which numbered several hundreds, then begin to parade through the Village. The crowd in attendance was estimated to be 10,000.
A few aspects of the pageant are regrettably missing from the film. Being able to see One Hundred Tiny Children March to Greet the Spirit of Old Southampton and The Most Beautiful Baby in Southampton Contest, lunch at the First Presbyterian Church and an evening reception at the Parrish Art Museum would have been a real treat. One gets the feeling that Southampton in 1915 was at its peak. It had declined drastically after the collapse of the whaling industry in 1850 and the immigration of many residents to new farmlands out west. The Summer Colony, merchant families from New York City who began arriving in 1870, had revived Southampton’s economy and its residents were thriving. There was a shared feeling of good will between the two very different social classes. Land development had begun but was not yet a threat to the Town’s natural beauty and resources. WWI in Europe started the year before and President Wilson had promised to keep America out of the war. But the sinking of the Lusitania, which happened just a month before this pageant, changed opinions. A renewed patriotic fever can be felt while watching the parade of marching Minute Men who, sadly, would soon be marching off to war. But on June 12, 1915, it was a perfect day in Southampton.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!