Fisher’s Island lies near the mouth of Long Island Sound, a narrow strip of land situated about 2 miles from the Connecticut coast. The island, which has a permanent population of less than 300, is fairly isolated despite its proximity to the shore; the only way on or off (other than flying) is via a ferry from the Connecticut town of New London. The island’s children take the ferry to go to Connecticut public schools, the local Boy Scout troop is part of the Connecticut Rivers Council, and the island’s Catholic church belongs to a diocese in Connecticut. Honestly, other than the fact that Fisher’s Island is surrounded by water, it’s really no different than any other coastal Connecticut town. Well, except for one thing: Fisher’s Island is actually part of New York.

Fisher’s Island. A strange border, no?

The Empire State’s claim on the island has resulted in some very interesting dualities. Fisher’s Island has a Connecticut zip code, but a New York area code; New York state troopers patrol the island, but they have to drive nearly 100 miles through Connecticut (or take two ferries) to get there first. The whole situation just doesn’t seem to make any sense, at least until you look at the history. As it turns out, Fisher’s Island has been the subject of a dispute between New York and Connecticut for nearly 400 years. Let’s take a look at the colonial history behind this peculiar piece of New York, and find out why the Nutmeg State was robbed of one of its islands.

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The Early History

To understand the dispute around Fisher’s Island, we must first be aware of one important fact: in the 1600s, nearly all of Long Island (including Fisher’s Island) was considered part of Connecticut. This is due to the fact that, while the British owned Connecticut and Long Island, the Dutch still laid claim to New York (then called New Amsterdam). As a result, there was no controversy at all when a man named John Winthrop bought Fisher’s Island from the colony of Connecticut in 1641. Winthrop became a successful politician, becoming governor of Connecticut in 1657. Since he still owned the land, it seemed obvious that Fisher’s Island would become a permanent fixture of the colony.

Then, in 1664, controversy arose. The British won control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch, and subsequently created the Colony of New York (to be overseen, appropriately, by the Duke of York). The Duke was a bit vengeful towards Connecticut, and for good reason: the colony had sheltered three of the judges who sentenced his father, King Charles I, to death. As a result, he drew the borders of New York to include all of Long Island, as well as the islands in Long Island Sound, to punish his northern neighbors. This effectively gave Fisher’s Island to New York, with legal documentation to back it up.

James II by Peter Lely

The vengeful Duke of York. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, quite a few of the residents of Long Island weren’t too keen on the whole idea of switching states. Many continued to petition for a return to Connecticut; most protests were silenced by 1676, when the Duke of York threatened to take away these settlers’ lands if they did not accept New York as their new home. However, Fisher’s Island (backed by the furious defiance of Governor Winthrop) would not yield to the Duke’s wishes. The island remained a disputed territory all the way until 1879; at this time, both states signed an agreement which clearly set Fisher’s Island within New York’s boundaries.

• • •

The Lobster Wars

The physical boundaries may have been settled, but the dispute raged on. From 1880 onwards, most of the tensions surrounding Fisher’s Island arose from the area’s fishing industry. The redrawn boundary severely limited the size of Connecticut’s waters, and it was illegal to fish across state lines at the time. This simply wouldn’t do; lobster fishermen from Connecticut had used the island as a base for years, and they weren’t going to let some arbitrary line get in the way of their business. The fishermen continued to run roughshod over Fisher’s Island despite the protests of authorities in New York. Finally, in 1900, a group of lobstermen were detained on the island and charged with illegal fishing practices.

You, too, can read about the Lobster Wars!

A long, drawn out legal battle ensued, and I had the great pleasure of reading through the ensuing correspondence. Fun fact: New York has (or used to have) a government position titled “Superintendent of Shellfisheries.” That’s a heck of a resume booster! Anyways, the short version of the case is that Connecticut fishermen were temporarily barred from Fisher’s Island, but efforts would be made to change interstate fishing policies in the future. Of course, fishing laws changed throughout the years, and each time they did Connecticut fishermen tried to exert their influence over Fisher’s Island: once in 1947, and again in 1967 and 1971. Each time, New York won the ensuing legal battles. With the decline of the fishing industry in Long Island Sound, the issue seems to have disappeared, at least for now.

• • •

Other Concerns, Past and Present

Fisher’s Island may have remained a begrudging member of New York through the lobster wars, but even more controversies plagued it throughout the 20th century. During World War 2, a small military instillation was set up on the eastern end of the island. The town of Groton, Connecticut, famous for its submarine production, made a push to change the boundary and bring the island (and the military base) under Groton’s wing. It was a compelling argument – Fisher’s Island was in an ideal spot to protect Groton from any enemy subs sneaking into the (American) Thames River. Still, the idea fell through with the conclusion of the war.

Fleet boat under construction, groton (archives.gov)

Groton’s shipyards in wartime. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1976, further controversy arose when New York discovered that the Connecticut-based Fisher’s Island Ferry had been dumping waste into the waters near the island and blaming New York for the pollution. The ferry operators were fined, but no further action occurred. Even today, the fight over Fisher’s Island continues. Many residents feel that they are underrepresented in their local government (the island is part of Southold Town, which is located over 20 miles away). This led to a push for Fisher’s Island to become its own village in 2014 – yet another unsuccessful movement. There’s even a change.org petition to return the island to Connecticut (it got a whopping 66 signatures). Still, New York clings to Fisher’s Island, its lucky reward from an angry Duke. There’s no telling when the next dispute will arise. But until then, the residents of Fisher’s Island will continue to live as New Yorkers in name and Connecticutters in practice.

 

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