This project set out to clarify who the early post-native landowners of Long Island were: what were their names, where did they come from, who were they, and were they American Loyalists or established old inhabitants of the Bahamas? In the end, the project has become the most complete and easily accessible repository for Long Island–specific historic data, from 1700 to the 1820s. It is displayed in a user-friendly web page and interactive GIS map.
Early Land Grants
Long Island, Bahamas
Despite tantalizing hints to the contrary, in resources ranging from published books to tourism brochures, Long Island (like all of the Bahamian Archipelago outside Eleuthera, Governors Harbor, New Providence, and Abaco) is universally said to have been unpeopled (after extirpation of the Lucayans) until the arrival of American Loyalists from the nascent United States, circa 1783-4.
The story that is familiar to every Bahamian history student is that, once the local Lucayan population had been eradicated by the Spaniards by the 1540s, most of the Bahamas, including Long Island, was completely unpopulated until the arrival of the “Loyalists.” As these folks began to arrive, they brought with them large numbers of slaves and experience planting cotton on a large scale, in large plantations dominated by often extravagant dwellings. These “Loyalists” are said to have shaped the history of the Bahamas from there on out, though most of them left the country once cotton began to fail. From these existing sources, it can be presumed that the plantation owners were white, wealthy, and had experience with the large-scale monoculture growing of cotton, and that they left the islands changed forevermore.
In fact, we propose that Long Island was only briefly touched by the arrival of the American Loyalists, and that the successful patterns of subsistence observed from 1820 through the 21st century were those developed by the Old Inhabitants. Long Island was in fact occupied by some of these Old Inhabitants by at least 1776, and likely as early as 1740. Interestingly, too, many of the earliest settlers here were recorded as being free “black,” “mulatto,” or “colored” people.
Loyalists and Old Inhabitants: Where Did They Come From?
We believe that we have been able to show that substantially over half of all the original land grants were given to individuals who had already established a life in the Bahamas prior to the end of the American Revolutionary War. Contrary to popular belief and previous histories, we can now show that over half of the land on Long Island had been granted to those people who had not arrived in the Bahamas after being attainted as traitors in the original 13 American Colonies, but by a hardy group of people already adapted to a Bahamian way of life.
In order to facilitate the settlement of the Bahamas (beyond just New Providence and Eleuthera/Harbour Island), the British Crown first needed to purchase the lands of the Bahamas from the Lords Proprietor, to whom the country had been granted in 1670. In 1717, the Bahamas had become a British Crown Colony, so as to control the rampant piracy here prior to that, but the land itself remained under the control of the Lords Proprietor until 1783, when the Spanish both ceded the Bahamas back to Great Britain, and took possession of East Florida. The first of the American Loyalists began to arrive in the Bahamas in late 1783, but there was still no official legal mechanism to award land to individuals; that took until 1788, when the Crown was able to finalize acquisition negotiations with the Lords Proprietor. By that year, however, multiple grants per day were being filed in the Office of the Registrar General (who at that time was Josiah Tatnall).
We consider the counting of Old Inhabitants who had left the Bahamas for just over a year in 1782 when the Spanish took control of the Bahamas, and then fled Florida with the American Loyalists in 1783 when the Spanish took control of Florida to be one of the largest problems in any previous estimate of the numbers of “Loyalists” who came to the Bahamas 1783-1785. The other major trap previous researchers have fallen into is counting everyone as Loyalists who left East Florida for the Bahamas, including people who could best be described as “old Floridians”—those living in East Florida prior to the influx of American Loyalists. Thus we see that the great Exodus of 1783-4 from East Florida to the Bahamas consisted of three groups who were comingled and counted as one (see Bethel): American Loyalists, returning Bahamians/Old Inhabitants, and a group of East Floridians.
While Long Island had 64 American Loyalist land grantees, there were 90 Old Inhabitants and 32 heads of household with an old family name. This means that the American Loyalists were outnumbered roughly 2:1, although the average size of their land grants was larger.