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A story of a shipwreck and salvation: Shelter Island History Center offers a window to the past

On Thursday, May 16, the weather on the Island was gray and the seas were rough. A perfect afternoon, in fact, for visitors to gather at the Shelter Island Historical Society’s Center to hear the story of a dramatic shipwreck and rescue in a late winter storm in 1657.

On the night of March 8, 1657, as a Nor’easter raged, a Dutch ship, The Prince Maurice, slammed into the coast of Fire Island. Aboard were 129 souls – passengers, crew and Dutch West India Company soldiers. Ashore were Indigenous people on their coastal night watch, listening to the ship crash against the shoal.

Until now the story of this dramatic Long Island shipwreck and rescue has been known only to a handful of historians. But the rescue on an ice-laden beach has been part of Indigenous oral history for 400 years.

Now, thanks to a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the New Amsterdam History Center’s groundbreaking Mapping Early New York has merged these written and oral histories of Long Island. The New Amsterdam History Center (newamsterdamhistorycenter.org) is a virtual gateway to the history and events of New Amsterdam.

Its Mapping Early NY project has uncovered correspondence and ship manifests to pinpoint the shipwreck, and tell the story of the rescue. Combining old fashioned research and technology including AI, a new window on history has opened wide.

Presenters Toya Dubin, director of the Mapping Early NY Project, and Drew Shuptar-Rayvis captivated the audience with the stories that have been gleaned from these histories as well as the modern depiction of the persons and events, using interactive maps and 3-D models. Some of the faces shown in the depictions were created by AI, using the faces of descendants of the Dutch voyagers, while Mr. Shuptar-Rayvis, an Algonkian consultant on the cultures of Indigenous people, was the model for some of the local people who saved the passengers and crew.

The decision to rescue and shelter the survivors was made by the elders of the local village, who then called on the surrounding villages to assist them. While the presence of women and children on the ship reassured the Indigenous people that they were not in danger from the ship’s male passengers and crew, they gathered men from the neighboring villages just to be sure.

They opened warm homes and communal buildings to the survivors, keeping them safe — “and keeping an eye on them,” said Drew Shuptar-Rayvis, until word could be sent to Peter Stuyvesant in Manhattan (New Netherland) to come and get them to their destination safely. Stuyvesant was the Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland from 1647 until it was ceded provisionally to the English in 1664.

The humanitarian response of the tribal elders to those in need in their midst was based on Indigenous law: the law of nature, the law of nations, according to the presentation: “If you come in peace, you are entitled to share in our resources.”