In the 1930s the Nicoll estate, known to the family as Sachem’s Neck, was sold to Otto Kahn who aspired to own it because Suffolk County had decided to connect the north and south forks of Long Island with bridges across Shelter Island. He saw the prospect of future development of the land as a good business opportunity. Two maiden sisters, daughters of Matthias Nicoll who had been born and raised on the 2,000 acre farm in the last half of the Nineteenth Century, came to Shelter Island and took it upon themselves to burn the Nicoll family papers. They succeeded, except for a few small museum boxes worth that were recovered by Mr. Kahn’s secretary and donated to the New-York Historical Society.
That was the unfortunate state of affairs until the year 2000 when members of the Nicoll family, in emptying out an old family home, donated a jumbled box of old letters to the Queens Public Library. The Library deaccessioned them unread to the Shelter Island Historical Society in 2010. This study of the Nicoll family is possible because of those letters which were saved by Charlotte Ann Nicoll, born in Flushing in 1827, raised on Shelter Island, lived in New York City and Bay Side, died in 1891 and buried in the Nicoll family cemetery at Sachem’s Neck, now Mashomack Preserve.
There are about 350 letters. They were written between 1840 and 1890 by Charlotte’s parents, her aunts, all of her six siblings, her children, some friends, and herself. They are certainly not all of her received and sent letters. There was a purpose to this collection, and we believe it was to exact revenge on her husband, who burdened her family for 13 years with his addictions until his untimely dealth at age 51.
Charlotte’s revenge was instead an historical blessing as the letters have shed valuable insight into this Nineteenth Century family, how they lived, and what they thought. The tales reveal the true story of a thoroughly decent family, infected by a husband’s addiction to alcohol, which rallies to protect their daughter and her children. We and the Shelter Island Community are grateful to Charlotte for having saved and preserved these letters.
Patricia and Edward Shillingburg
© 2013 Patricia and Edward Shillingburg