The White Buffalo and Southampton Oysters

Before Giovanni da Verrazano’s ship first entered the Hudson’s virgin narrows, before the Dutch established New Amsterdam to facilitate trans-Atlantic pelt-slinging, Algonquian peoples lived in Manhattan, the Hudson River Valley, and what we now know and love as Long Island. And they ate oysters even 7,000 years ago in Manhattan, according to trash piles that keep archaeologists up at night known as middens.

The Delaware-oriented Lenape people mostly lived, hunted and fished from Manhattan to mid-Island, while the eastern portion of ye olde Island fell to Algonquian groups more linguistically aligned with the Mohegan-Pequot people of the Fishers Island, Mystic, and New London persuasion.

Shellfish were arguably the culinary staple, with oysters harvested from our near-and-dear estuaries, the Peconic and Shinnecock Bays predominating their diets. 

A new study from the Chesapeake region suggests Native Americans there were successful in harvesting oysters in ways that avoided depletion of the base resource endowment. While that makes sense intuitively, archaeologists have actually discovered the opposite with surprising frequency in other geographies.

We aren’t aware of a Peconic-specific study of pre-contact oyster harvest sustainability via reading the midden leaves (hit us up though if you got it), but the middens at least fascinated Walt Whitman. On a Long Island jaunt, he remarked on the ‘frequency of immense shell-heaps, some of them the size of small hills.’

Let’s take an educated guess by considering the Shinnecock people. According to Jonathan Smith, a present-day Southampton Shinnecock oyster guru, his ancestors actually cultivated oysters in pre-European times. They strategically placed branches near beds of spawning oysters, catching free-floating spat (baby oysters; get your mind out of the gutter). They would then move the oyster-laden branches closer to shore where they could tend the maturing oysters more easily. One could argue that such cultivation may have occurred because natural beds were already depleted. If that were the case, though, strategically placing the branches to catch ever-smaller spawning sets probably doesn’t make sense over time.

Fast forward to yesterday: I’m driving towards Southampton after a day of meetings in Williamsburg and my mind drifts unavoidably back to Southampton oysters. I reach for the phone and dial Jonathan’s number on a whim, not expecting to be greeted cheerfully by the world’s happiest oyster farmer.

I meet Jonathan not two hours later at a tobacco shop he started in 1984, situated at the edge of the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. The business has grown, at times testing the limits of what he sees as his tribe’s economic sovereignty. His nephew now runs the shop to give John more time with his oysters. I feel you, bro.

I’ve never met John before, but he takes me inside his home to introduce me to his wife and two of his children before we head down to see his oyster operation.

As we walk to the tidal cove behind his home on the Reservation, we begin a banter that lasts the better part of three hours. We talked about fishing, the merits of ice-eating seawater recirculation pumps, and an encompassing spirituality that informs his business and personal life, both interpretations of a fluid existence rooted in the natural world.

He summarizes the ideology by telling me the Sioux legend of the White Buffalo, and I listen raptly as we pace around his backyard sweatlodge. The upshot is that whenever we as an Earthly people lose track of deeper purpose through misguided or material self-importance, we can find solace through communication with the great eternal (small or large ‘E’?) and comfort in the timeless laws of the oneness of the universe.

Suddenly the conversation was much bigger than oysters, but his oysters are much bigger than most by this time of the year. We drove down to the part of the 800-acre reservation bordering Shinnecock Bay, with the Inlet and Meadow Lane a few hundred meters away but not a privet in sight. We walked along a shelled shoreline of clams, mussels, scallops, whelks, slippers, horseshoe crabs and of course, oysters.

John plants his directly on the bottom after rearing them to an inch or so in upweller systems on the Reservation. He and his customers like the thick shells and appealing green algae that result from constant contact with the bottom and the tumbling they receive due to natural wave action. It’s a beautiful oyster; a bit larger than most you see on half-shell menus but not off-putting in its grandeur.

Next year he’s growing more, and even more after that, enthusiastically. And the best part of it is, on account of being hand-planted and hand-harvested, some never close the loop. Some stay in the wild to do sexy oyster things, make more reefs, cleaner water and more habitat. Because what John is doing is so beneficial, to the environment and otherwise, he can afford to leave a few behind, eternally.