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HANNAH OAKES AND THE SMITH OAKS HOUSE: AN UNINTENDED HISTORY
By John Bogack
As the title states this is an unintended history. Its origins begin with another person’s history. It’s in 2019 that Cherry Grove’s historian Karl Luss writes a short history for the readers of the Fire Island News. It was titled “Jeremiah Smith A Cherry Grove Pirate’s Story”. In it he assesses a number of historical sources that he thinks may have created the mix of legends and facts that contributed to the origins of the history of Jeremiah Smith, Fire Island’s most notorious land pirate.
One part of it caught my attention. It related to the Smith Oakes family thought to have run a public house on Fire Island in the early 1800s. He had this to say about Smith Oakes and his wife:
“A very real land pirate and scurrilous character. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Jan 1848) identifies Oakes who, with his wife, owned of a “sort of public house” a mile or so from the lighthouse at Fire Island beach as of 1843. In other news the house is described as built from ships’ salvage. The “S. Oaks” (sic) domicile was still in existence in 1858, depicted at the “East Beach” fork of Fire Island inlet on a map of Islip and Brookhaven townships drawn by J. [John] Chace, Jr.
The Oakes family was suspected of preying upon the shipwrecked for many years. They were at the scene of the wrecked “Louisa” (1843). Three years later Mrs. Oakes wife is discovered selling property stolen from that ship’s captain in Brooklyn and New York City. The captain had taken shelter at the Oakes home at the time of the shipwreck. Newspaper accounts associate the Oakes with several other Fire Island shipwrecks of the era.”
You can see his full history at this link: https://fireislandnews.com/jeremiah-smith-a-cherry-grove-pirate-story/
It was an intriguing story. It pointed to either a poorly researched part of early Fire Island’s history or to original research revealing an entirely new chapter of early Fire Island history. However, I didn’t have the time then to follow up on the trail that Karl Luss had cut to see where else it led. Over the next year and half time was needed instead to be devoted to the writing of other histories about Fire Island.
When that was done I had some time to go back and look a bit more at historical trails that in the past looked worthwhile to explore and report about. It was then that I began to compile a list of candidates for a new history of early Fire Island provisionally called “Women of Fire Island”. During the course of writing the three earlier histories I had discovered that the role of women in the development of early Fire Island has in the past been greatly unreported.
Their contributions to the development of Cherry Grove, Water Island, modern day Saltaire, Watch Hill, Old Inlet, modern day Davis Park, and other locales in western Fire Island generally were subsumed by their husbands getting the credit for their work. The result was an historical inaccuracy. The disproportionate credit to male decision makers had resulted in hiding the roles of nearly a dozen women who were also significant pioneers.
So, I drew up a list of candidates for an historical piece about these first women of early Fire Island. After looking at a first draft I realized I had one name left out. This led me back to the already cited Karl Luss article. Smith Oakes wasn’t alone on Fire Island in its early days. His wife was with him too. And that meant her history could be among the earliest for women on Fire Island.
Initially I didn’t even have a first name for her, or any other basic biographical information about her. Although she had appeared in a number of newspaper accounts for some years she had consistently and exclusively been reported always as Mrs. Smith Oakes.
With some digging some minimal information was gleamed from census reports. And then as sometimes happens while doing research an unexpected treasure chest was stumbled upon. It came in the form of a diary of sorts, written by Henry David Thoreau in 1850. A leading historical literary figure in his right, he had visited Fire Island in 1850. He was there searching for a lost manuscript of another American writer Margaret Fuller.
In July of 1850 Margaret Fuller, her husband and child and others perished when their ship sank off Point of Woods in a sudden unexpected storm. In reviewing his notes, a wonderful surprise was discovered. The Elizabeth had sunk within the vicinity of the Smith Oakes public house and Thoreau had written about his encounters with both Smith Oakes and and his wife. It was a trove of new information about them both and their business.
So, from the sources I had found this starting point of information could be gleamed.
Mrs. Smith Oakes is Hannah Oakes born in 1807 who lived in Islip with her husband Smith Oakes.
She is also the first woman to run a business along with her husband on Fire Island and that would be the Smith Oakes public house origin date 1839.
Her Fire Island history is very much bound together with the barely explored history of the Smith Oakes public house of which it turns out there is a considerable about of information to be reported. I realized then that this unexplored history would overwhelm any history of a larger collection of women pioneers.
So sadly the “Women of Fire Island” will have to wait some more for their just historical recognition. Although this time they will be stepping aside for one of their sisters to take the stage of history. She is after all one of the first on line in any event. So, my apologies to Phoebe Dominy the first woman to live on Fire Island, the Avery sisters, Elizabeth and Sarah Perkinson and others. In time there will be other acts to follow and the curtain will come up on all these women.
HANNAH OAKES 1843-1850 IN THE EYE OF THE PRESS
Hannah Oakes’ history is a bit complicated. Along with her husband she is among the first to found a hospitality business on Fire Island and the first woman to do so. In the disaster scene that accompanied the wreck of the Elizabeth she was caring figure who cared for the living and the dead. Yet she also does appear to be one of Fire Island’s first land pirates just as Karl Luss has previously alluded to. Which if true is somewhat ironic because it’s Jeremiah Smith to whom history has assigned the major credit for that role in the early history of Fire Island. That would make her of course another example of the pattern in the earlier historical reporting of Fire Island to assign to men the acts of women.
But this is getting ahead of the story.
Hannah Oakes’ history is going to be outlined in this form: first the newspaper trail for the years 1847-1850. Then everything else that has been discovered.
While her actual Fire Island history begins in 1839 it’s newspaper coverage that begins about her and her husband in 1847 and continues on to 1850 that provides a lot detail about her history and that of the Smith Oakes public house as well. That newspaper history is good to know for another reason. It will help provide some context for the information in the Thoreau account.
That period is book ended by two historical events. The wreck of the Louisa in 1843 which the newspaper accounts of 1847-48 reference, and the wreck of the Elizabeth in 1850. Their stories are bound up with Smith Oakes and his wife and are worth telling in their own right. They open doors onto other important parts of the early history of Fire Island. That is the history of the perils of the sea off Fire Island, and the perils of the sands of Fire Island.
Both Smith Oakes and Hannah are bound up in that history. They are at times scorned as villains, and later renowned as heroes. Hannah Oakes in the end finds some redemption for her prior suspected bad acts. She will then at the moment of her good reputation restored find herself standing next to her husband just as at the same moment he returns to infamy.
Not long afterwards they both then disappear from history.
Ahead are tales of pioneering hopes, avarice and the foolishness it sometimes breeds, the terror of the ocean seas, heart break, broken ambitions and courage theirs and others bound up in the destinies of both Smith Oakes and Hannah whom fate will equally bind to the destinies of others.
It’s a true tale of Fire Island from its earliest time.
1847 THE LOUISA AFFAIR BEGINS TO SURFACE
This part of this history begins with a review of a multitude of newspaper articles that have been unearthed relating in one way or another to Hannah and her husband.
The first newspaper account appears in 1847. It seemingly appears out of no where but as other news accounts follow it just how it relates to them will become quickly apparent.
On 11-30-1847 Smith Oakes takes an ad in the New York Tribune. He posts a reward of fifty dollars for anyone who will identify for purposes of prosecution for the charge of defamation any person who has defamed his business on Fire Island. He is concerned that his personal reputation and that of his business will be harmed by false claims of a robbery occurring at the business “said to have taken place some time ago”. He denies any such event occurred.
If the purpose of the ad was to prevent the worst from occurring it failed to ward off such a perceived calamity on the horizon. Worse was on the way.
1848 A STORM OF A DIFFERENT KIND BREAKS OVER FIRE ISLAND
On January 8, 1848, just a few days after Smith Oakes’ reward notice for information about anyone defaming his reputation, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle publishes in its pages a news report titled “Curious Developments”. It’s a seminal account about the history of both Hannah and Smith Oakes. From its words the first public picture of both them is drawn. It is the first public acknowledgement of their business the Smith Oakes public house on Fire Island. It also reaches into the public’s fears about crime on Fire Island by telling a tale of the errant chest of the brig Louisa and its captain searching for his lost gold and jewels once within it.
Because it is so important, setting the stage for years to come, in ways evident when first read and in other ways future foretelling, it’s reprinted here in full.
Wreckers have from time immemorial sustained a most unenviable character; but the facilities which they almost uniformly enjoy of gratifying their piratical propensity for plunder, enable them in most cases, to perpetrate their outrages with tolerable impunity, so that very few reliable developments have directly come to light. Very few convictions have ensued for the inhuman offence of preying upon those who have had the misfortune to be shipwrecked. Revelations in this connection have recently transpired, which very conclusively affix the guilt of a nefarious robbery at the scene of a wreck, upon an individual who has hitherto been suspected thereof.
It seems that the brig Louisa, Capt. Michael Baker, from Harve, was wrecked in 1843 upon Fire Island beach, and while the wreckers were getting out the cargo, which was mostly saved from the elements, a chest belonging to the captain, was taken from the tent on the beach, to a sort of public house on Fire Island kept by one Smith Oakes. This chest contained some very valuable articles among which were eight rich shawls, four gold watches, diamond broaches, and finger rings.
When Capt. Baker returned from New York whither he had been to transact the necessary business with the underwriters in relation to the wreck, the chest and contents were missing. He accordingly circulated a handbill offering a handsome reward for the recovery thereof; and caused a search warrant to be issued directed against the premises of the Oakes, but all to no purpose, and he accordingly gave up all hope of ever finding the valuables.
When three years had elapsed to which the finding of an indictment for criminal offence is limited, the stolen property began by degrees to emerge from the place where it had “long laid hid”, and proofs as strong as holy writ were obtained about the mode in which it had appeared. About a year ago, the mate of the Louisa alleges that he accidentally encountered the wife of Smith Oakes on board one of the ferry boats at Brooklyn, wearing an elegant and costly shawl, not usually worn by the ladies of Fire Island, which bore no distant resemblance to those deposited in the chest above alluded to.
Quite recently she sold an elegant diamond finger ring worth from thirty to forty dollars to an acquaintance in this city for the paltry sum of five dollars; and within a month she has likewise, bartered away at a jeweler’s shop in Fulton street, for a gold chain two more costly diamond rings.
These transactions having come to the knowledge of Captain Baker, he conferred with the holders of the rings, which he identified as part of his missing property, and the purchasers readily delivered them up on his representations. In addition to the above circumstances, we are told it can be proved that Oakes himself has occasionally exhibited gold watches; and worn common a diamond broach, of about $100 value.
These facts, which can be amply proved make out a tolerably strong case of guilt, and as by the operation of law the participants therein is now not amenable to criminal prosecution it is no more than strict justice requires that he should be held answerable at the bar of public opinion; and we should not do our duty as journalists were we to suppress anything that may tend to lessen the disgraceful scenes which there is too much reason to believe are enacted at wrecks along our sea coast”.
On 1-11-1848 the Jamaica Farmer reprised the Brooklyn Eagle report in its pages giving further life to the Eagle post.
On 1-27-1848 an article titled the “The Wreck Plunder Affair” appeared in both the Brooklyn Eagle and the Kings County Democrat. The story referred to an article related to the affair that had appeared in yet another period newspaper the Star earlier in the month.
This is the account from that date as printed:
“The Wreck Plunder Affair: In a communication of Mr. Wise to the Star, very properly denying the imputation of having purchased two rings from Mrs. Smith Oakes far below their real value, said rings having been purloined from Capt. Baker of the bark Louisa, which was wrecked on Fire Island beach, we regret to see the name of Mrs. Ann Oakes as prominently displayed. The circumstances might mislead some who are unacquainted with the high character she bears for integrity. We have the most reliable assurances that her presence on the occasion of Mr. Wise’s establishment was entirely accidental, and that she had not the least information that the rings were not honestly in the possession of Mrs. Smith Oakes. It is only necessary for us to make these remarks to those who do not know Mrs. Ann Oakes.”
Not supplied in the news account is any accounting for Ann Oakes. Research into her has led to this provisional opinion about her. She appears to be the wife of Andrew Oakes, brother of Smith Oakes, and therefore Hannah’s sister-in-law. Andrew Oakes had died several years earlier after suffering from a sudden illness, inflammation of the lungs, after swimming in the waters off Fire Island. Ann Oakes was therefore his widow.
While Ann Oakes gets a pass for any inadvertent involvement in buying stolen goods the person duping her is Hannah Oakes who does not get any kind words for her alleged acts thus cementing further an image of duplicity attributed to her by the earlier newspaper accounts in January 1848.
In any case the fire that Smith Oaks had sought to damp out in late December 1847, before it began to burn, did appear to snuff out soon enough as there are no other newspaper accounts that have been found taking up the subject of the so-called Wreck Plunder Affair after the end of January 1848.
As per the Eagle account the statue of limitations on any theft had passed therefore those who might have been otherwise charged due to a “tolerably strong case of guilt” never faced any criminal penalties. Capt. Baker got back some of his missing goods.
For Smith Oakes and Hannah though they were left with a legacy of having been tried in the press for being land pirates. Whether true or not what the newspaper articles did establish was the existence of a public house on Fire Island dating back to at least 1843, one year before the historically recognized Dominy House opened in 1844. The use of the term public house also conveyed that the business served food, drink and had overnight sleeping accommodations. And it established two owners for it who in addition to their hotel duties might or might not be involved in trafficking goods from the beach, stolen, to the city and elsewhere for sale.
This propels both Smith and Hannah Oakes into the historical position of being the first persons to run a business on Fire Island, and Hannah as the first woman to claim that title for her gender a rare role for women in the history of Fire Island with that status.
Smith Oakes is at this time 38 years old and his wife is 36 years old.
The articles also exposed the strong public concern and anger towards “wreckers” those who preyed on stranded ships, their cargoes, their crews and passengers washed up on the Fire Island beach. In 1848 Hannah and her husband Smith were the leading targets of that anger and scorn. They did survive though and kept to their business on Fire Island however chastened by the events of 1848.
However, this was to change. Two years later the eyes of the nation would be upon them and others who crowded into their small part of Fire Island: the Elizabeth had arrived born by wind, water and Fate.
1850: THE WRECK OF THE ELIZABETH AND THE DEATH OF MARGARET FULLER
On July 17th 1850 the bark Elizabeth that left port in Leghorn Italy about seven weeks earlier, off course, and buffeted by a sudden July gale, crashed into a sandbar off Point of Woods Fire Island. It carried a cargo of fine marble, rags, a seven-foot marble statue of John C. Calhoun, various sundry other articles of freight, and three special passengers. One of them Margaret Fuller who was at the peak of her career as a writer.
In Italy on assignment as a news reporter, the first woman war correspondent in American history, she met Giovani Angelo Ossili, had a child by him, Angelo, and became entangled in Italian Revolutionary politics. By late 1849 fortunes had turned against the Italian revolutionaries her husband included and by early 1850 Margaret Fuller now Margaret Fuller Ossili decided to return to America with her husband and their two-year-old child for a fresh start.
There are many accounts of the tragedy that befell her and her family who all perished. For the purposes of this short history of Hannah Oakes the importance of this event is that it led to a coincidence of historical factors that exposed both her and her husband to national attention in different forms.
If after the scandal of 1848 both she and her husband had retreated to the isolation of their home on Fire Island by July 1850 this strategy was about to become upended. The world was coming to them.
In the first instance the wreck of the Elizabeth drew the curious and plunderers. One newspaper account reported that a thousand people had come to the wreck site. Some of them were drawn by the lure of plunder: Margaret Ossili was said to have a 3,000-dollar ring on her finger and her body was not yet found (it never was). There was clothing to be found. Almonds and fruits thrown up on the beach sand. And whatever other possessions the crew and passengers had were also fair game for thievery.
The seven-ton statue was beyond any means of being hauled away. It was buried deeply in the sand beneath shallow waters. The real treasure of the ship was its cargo of 150 tons of fine marble that too beyond removal by simple carts safe beneath the waves of the Atlantic. But everything else washed up onto the beach was day and night the target of many people looking for anything that could find and take for themselves before the authorities arrived to safeguard what remained.
The tragedy also brought another class of visitors. Margaret Fuller had worked as a reporter for Horace Greely’s New York City’s Tribune. He knew her and immediately dispatched a reporter to the scene of the ship wreck to help find her body and to report on the events of the disaster.
Elsewhere Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America’s finest poets, also had a personal relationship with Margaret Fuller. It was Emerson who would send Henry David Thoreau, another one of America’s great writers, on a double mission to the disaster scene. He was to help find Margaret Fuller’s body. And the treasure he was seeking among others was the last manuscript she was working on. It was her history of the Second Republic of Italy the very same movement both she and her husband had been caught up in before having to flee its end.
The newspaper accounts in July and the Thoreau account both establish that due to proximity to the wreck site the Smith Oakes house became the central location for the rescue and recovery effort. They were both present on Fire Island when the ship crashed against the unseen sandbar. Newspaper accounts related Smith Oakes’ own efforts to help rescue crew members and passengers from the water. Hannah was pictured as caring for victims of the storm. She also had a role in trying to save papers from the ship that at one point were thought to be pages from the Fuller transcript being so urgently sought by Thoreau. They turned out be papers of hers but not the manuscript being sought which ultimately disappeared into the sea never found.
Thoreau’s field notes from his visit, in the form of a contemporaneous diary, have been known for some time. They have been valued in particular for documenting a number of things. They show the failed efforts to rescue the passengers and crew that might have gone another way but didn’t. The notes also document the predatory behavior of “pirates” who looted the cargo of the ship indifferent to the fate of crew and passengers while doing so.
For the purposes of this narrative however the Thoreau diary is important for another reason that seemingly has escaped earlier analysis by prior writers. It captures Fire Island life at a particular time period 1850 and in particular Smith Oakes and Hannah emerge from his accounts too with more detail than has been discovered before.
Smith Oakes turned out to be something of a Virgil for Thoreau accompanying him almost everywhere and providing details about his life in the process. Hannah too was an assistant to him and she too seemed agreeable to talk to him about her life. Thoreau as well was a sharp observer and one thing he did observe was the Smith Oakes house. Although it turned out as honest as Smith Oakes appeared to be in sharing details of his life with Thoreau it later turned out he was keeping a secret not discovered until Thoreau was gone. He too was a pirate and was robbing cargo even as he otherwise appeared to be a benevolent agent.
THOREAU’S FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF FIRE ISLAND: AMONG THE PIRATES
Thoreau described the area of western Fire Island where he was visiting:
“The western end near Fire Is. inlet is called Fire Is. Beach from near some half sunken islands of that name in the Bay opposite”.
That would place the Smith Oakes house off the Great South Bay just south of what was then called the “Fire Islands” today’s East and West Islands.
The Oakes told him that their house was “isolated”. “There are but 4 houses worth naming on the whole beach. Selah Strong’s at the Lighthouse one mile from the Western extremity. Felix Dominy’s public house a mile further east. Smith Oakes’ another low public house 3 miles farther, and Homans 10 miles farther E. still. There are 2 or 3 temporary fishermen’s bunks beside.”
The house had a fire place and a small kitchen.
The house appears to have been at least two stories tall as Hannah Oakes told Thoreau she had been aware of the ship’s distress because she could see the vessel and passengers plainly from the windows. That means that the house had an upstairs view of the ocean at a minimum.
The area was apparently hilly as there are frequent references to sand hills both near the beach and near the Smith Oakes public house. Indeed, Hannah Oakes was instrumental in the burial of Fuller’s two-year-old son whose body did wash up on the beach. Angelo was given temporary burial between some sand knolls near the Smith Oakes house.
More specifically he had this to say about the Smith Oakes public house:
“Oakes’ is a perfect pirate’s house, and his men good specimens of that nearly extinct class.
There were the stern ornaments of wrecked vessels over the door, and the fragments of wrecks cluttered the yard.”
Smith Oakes also told Thoreau that in the past his house had been searched by the police.
He also told him that in the past his wife had been arrested.
Thoreau also said that he had been told that Smith Oakes “has concealed himself on the beach and been troubled in many ways on account of his dealings with wrecks.”
Lastly and most importantly the Oakes provided a time line for their presence on Fire Island: eleven years prior to their interview meaning that they had first opened their public house in 1839.
Thoreau would later journey to Patchogue New York on the south shore of Long Island east of the wreck site on Fire Island. His search for the Fuller manuscript there was in vain. He later returned to the wreck site and after more futile searching for the body of Margaret and her husband and her manuscript left for home.
On 8-6-1850 Henry Bangs, who had been the acting captain of the Elizabeth and who has survived the shipwreck being rescued from the waters by Smith Oakes, took an ad in the New York Herald on his behalf and the crew thanking both Smith Oakes and his wife for their life saving efforts.
He referred to their “kindness” and “humanity”.
It was quite a turn around from the gloomy dates of January 1848 when both Smith and Hannah Oakes were the subjects of far less generous news accounts. It marked a redemption point for the both of them restoring their good name in the eyes of the public.
But it would be short lived.
In addition to wreckers searching for goods to be looted, and reporters searching for a story and Thoreau looking for a manuscript and a body, there was another set of searchers at work too. John Law was on the beach too.
The news accounts of the Elizabeth wreck were sensational. Margaret Fuller was a celebrity. The tale of terrible ocean conditions, the heartbreaking loss of her, her husband and their son and others resonated with the public. In addition, tales of indifferent crowds on the beach who appeared not to lift a finger to help rescue the victims but were instead more interested in robbing their possessions inflamed not just the public but public authorities too.
This time there was a determination to find some of those responsible and make an example of them.
City and local law enforcement fanned out and began to press their investigation into the plundering. One early news account mentioned that 40 suspects had been found but none were named.
On 8-8-50 the New York Herald reported the arrest of 7 men for possessing stolen goods from the wreck of the Elizabeth. One of them was Smith Oakes. The stolen goods: highly prized castile soap from the cargo of the Elizabeth the value of the stolen goods being 150 dollars a significant sum in this time period.
In the space of just two days Smith Oakes had gone from being a hero to a villain. His arrest confirming the suspicions about him first raised in 1848 too.
Hannah Oakes was not arrested nor was she ever implicated by press accounts in the activities of her husband.
Margaret Fuller’s body was never found, nor that of her husband. Their child was disinterred from his lonely grave on Fire Island and buried anew at another time.
The Fuller manuscript about the history of the Second Republic of Italy was never recovered and was lost to history.
The seven-foot marble statue of John Calhoun some months later was hauled off the Atlantic shore from underneath shallow waters. It was mostly intact and shipped to South Carolina its original destination where it was later displayed. It was later destroyed by the Union army when General Sherman arrives. The statue had at that point been moved from Charleston to Columbia for safe keeping. But the building housing it, along with the rest of the city of Columbia, burned down during the attack on the city by union forces. No remnants of the statue were ever found.
On 9-13-1850 the New York Evening Post reported that a marble statue, not that of John Calhoun, but a much smaller one depicting a youth, had been found on the Fire Island beach after a recent storm. It was returned to authorities by its finder shortly after being discovered. It is thought to have been part of the cargo of the Elizabeth. A news account the next day reports it was returned to its owner in New York city immediately thereafter.
By coincidence the finder of the small statue is John Homan, brother of Daniel Homan, one of the seven men arrested along with Smith Oakes for plundering the Elizabeth’s cargo.
It’s perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the history of Fire Island that so many people over so long a period of time have searched in vain for various alleged treasure chests said to have been left by pirates buried within its ocean facing dunes. No one has ever found any such treasure. The irony being that the only documented treasure off Fire Island is the cargo of the Elizabeth that no one has apparently ever tried to salvage.
The Elizabeth was not a passenger ship. It was a freighter. It’s manifest probably not an item easy to find perhaps impossible to find now. But newspaper reports consistently indicated it held a cargo of one hundred and fifty tons of Carrara marble.
This was then, and still is today, a valuable mineral. Mined from the Carrara region of Italy for centuries pure white Carrera marble was prized by sculptors. The “David” by Michelangelo was sculpted from this stone.
Since the end of the 19th century this particular color, pure white, has essentially been mined out. Consequently, it’s a rare mineral today.
It’s not known today whether the marble in the hold of the Elizabeth was pure white but even at today’s prices, whether pure white or not, a conservative value for one hundred and fifty tons of this brand of marble is one million dollars.
One hundred and seventy-one years later, in the sand, one quarter mile from shore, under the salty Atlantic the marble remains buried. It could have all turned to chalk by now. Or those very same sands might have preserved all or some of that bulk.
Its raw value could be inflated as well by its historical pedigree: salvaged from the wreck of the Elizabeth.
No newspaper accounts have been found confirming that the marble was salvaged from the sea. The one account of part of the cargo being salvaged from the sea relates to the one-ton Calhoun statue. That was reported. It took three months to effect and an engineering effort that the newspaper account describes as a "miracle". The statue was found buried in three feet of sand but getting it out turned out to a feat that amazed even those involved. That of course raises a question about whether 150 tons of stone would not have represented an even greater challenge.
This is the account about that statue recovery detailing the issues found and overcome. It's from the Brooklyn Eagle, 11-8-1850 edition: https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031151/1850-11-08/ed-1/seq-2/#date1=07%2F02%2F1850&index=0&date2=12%2F31%2F1850&words=Fire+Island&to_year2=1850&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&from_year2=1850&proxdistance=5&page=1&county=Kings&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=fire+island&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&SearchType2=prox5
In any case “there be treasure buried” maybe.
In 1901 American poet Julia Ward Howe dedicated a memorial to Margaret Fuller and the victims of the loss of the Elizabeth at Point of Woods Fire Island. In 1913 it was washed away by yet another Atlantic storm.
Previously in 1883 Julia Ward Howe published her biography of Margaret Fuller. In Chapter 16 there appears her account of the last days of Margaret Fuller: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/32511/32511-h/32511-h.htm
Following the newspaper accounts of the arrest of Smith Oakes historical investigation has developed only two more newspaper references to the Smith Oakes house.
On 8-28-1851 an article appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle about a visit to Sayville and Fire Island. It’s notable for two reasons. The writer describes a visit to the Smith Oakes house and he reports seeing Smith Oakes at the business. While he had been arrested in the summer of 1850, one summer later he was a free man back on the sands of Fire Island although his actual legal status at the time remains unknown.
He had robbed the cargo of the Elizabeth. But he had also acted in an exceptional manner. He was one of the few present on the beach who braved the stormy waters of the Atlantic and went out and actually saved lives. It may have mitigated his punishment.
The news account author also makes a point of saying that one of the reasons he had visited was to meet women. That comment reveals an unusual aspect of the Smith Oakes house that is that it was a place for visitation not only by unaccompanied men but women too in a time when women on trips were generally chaperoned by their husbands or family members.
The last discovered news account about the Smith Oakes house is from an 11-17-1908 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. An article about Fire Island includes a memory from an “old bay man” about the Smith Oakes house circa 1850. It’s described as sitting on top of a knoll “beside the bay”. He further reported from his own memory: “In those days the wooden sloops and schooners harbored opposite Oakes house while awaiting a fair wind”.
EXIT INTO THE UNKNOWN
Smith Oakes died in 1856. Hannah’s life after the death of her husband and when Hannah passed away is presently unknown.
The Smith Oakes house is mapped as part of the 1858 Chase map. It is not mapped again in subsequent maps particularly the 1878 Sammis map that did map every known structure on Fire Island at that time.
The circumstantial evidence that does exist is that sometime after 1851 the business ended perhaps with the death of Smith Oakes in 1856.
HANNAH OAKES: PIONEER AND PIRATE
As indicated earlier the Hannah Oakes history is a complicated one. If for the moment the issue of piracy is removed from her history what remains is that along with her husband she helped found the first hospitality business on Fire Island in 1839. She would be the first woman holding that status in the early history of Fire Island.
What remains about her history is the issue of criminal behavior. Although press accounts in 1848 accused her of theft she was never convicted of that charge or any other criminal charge as well. In 1850 when her husband was in fact arrested for theft she was not formally implicated in his actions nor did any press account in public appear suggesting that she was part of her husband’s alleged misdeeds.
There is however more than enough to cause some wonder about just what she did know about her husband had been doing while living alongside her and whether she was his accomplice.
If for the moment we do not give her the benefit of the doubt and judge her culpable of the same intentions of her husband this does however raise a dubious but interesting point about her and her husband.
That is whether they, not Jeremiah Smith, were Fire Island’s “premier” land pirates.
Fire Island’ geography has helped give rise to the view that piracy is linked to its early past. It’s a remote location. For most of its history it’s been underpopulated and underdeveloped. It’s a wilderness. The ocean is on one side allowing for access to the shore from anywhere in the world. Its storm swept ocean coast regularly deposited ships that wrecked upon its sands burst open with valuable goods just for the taking for those prepared to do so. Within its boundaries life on the margins could occur shrouded by its isolation from law enforcement when it appeared if it did at all.
CORE ELEMENTS OF THE JEREMIAH SMITH MYTH
Out of this mix of permissible factors the Jeremiah Smith legend arose. It almost did not matter if it was true or not. It was a great tale.
Wrecks upon the ocean coast waiting to be plundered.
One man directing a group of confederates to help him in an organized criminal conspiracy.
A house on the beach that provided a store house for stolen goods some kept on the property, most shipped off island for sale on the black market.
The house tall enough to have a second floor with a window to allow for candle light to beckon wayward ships to a false landing upon the sandbars near it.
When rich enough, exit and departure to points unknown, safe from consequences for all the acts that contributed to the wealth amassed every pirate’s dream.
The issue with actually proving that Jeremiah Smith is the model for this myth is that no evidence really exists for doing so.
No house every attributed to him has ever been found or mapped.
Accounts about his time on Fire Island are inconsistent. There are some accounts that say he was a pirate. There are others who swear he was an honest man.
Legal records document he was a land holder on Fire Island and not a trespasser on someone else’s beach land.
And this brings this narrative back to close to its beginning. It’s time to bring Karl Luss back in focus, his analysis that is about the Jeremiah Smith legend. It’s his view that Hawes, the first author who promoted the Jeremiah Smith tale, was really using him to distract from a hidden description of persons he really knew to be the land pirate he otherwise created a fable about.
Luss names those persons as the Smith Oakes. If that is too extreme a characterization it would certainly seem fair to say he strongly inferred it.
He appears to have been righter than perhaps he himself realized.
Hawkes, as Luss suggested, could have met the Oakes on one of his visits to Fire Island. There is a time line in the existence of the Smith Oakes house and Hawes for that to have occurred.
Now we know this is what he would have seen.
ONE AND THE SAME: OAKES REAL WORLD COMPARED TO SMITH FABLE WORLD
As per Thoreau’s eye witness account “Oakes’ is a perfect pirate’s house, and his men good specimens of that nearly extinct class.
There were the stern ornaments of wrecked vessels over the door, and the fragments of wrecks cluttered the yard.”
This is a pretty good comparison to the house allegedly occupied by Jeremiah Smith with one important qualification. It’s a description of a real house while the Jeremiah Smith account belongs to an account that includes mermaids a far less credible one.
We know as well that the Smith Oakes house was built atop a sand hill. We know as well from Hannah Oakes' own mouth that she could see the ocean from the top windows of the house she lived in on Fire Island.
This is real information not fable.
It also provides for the possibility that for some one so inclined the legend of a candle put in a window that could be seen from the ocean sea beckoning a false light of safe landing to those in peril could have occurred. If Hannah could see the ocean from her window then a light could have been seen from ships at sea too.
It’s Thoreau who confirms that the Oakes had a crew of confederates in their company. If you are going to move goods from the ocean to the bay for disposal to do so quickly and competently the more hands the better.
Smith Oakes did have the means to do so as well. The Thoreau account confirms that Smith Oakes had a beach cart to move goods a process in plain view at the sinking of the Elizabeth.
Smith Oakes had a boat. He told Thoreau he did. With a boat you can move goods across the bay to any point to the south for disposal.
The Smith Oakes house was isolated. It was sited among tall sand dunes. It was south of half-submerged islands that would have blocked prying eyes from ships on the Great South Bay. This is a near perfect clandestine environment within which much could be hidden. Smith Oakes in fact told Thoreau that due to his association with being a wrecker he often “concealed” himself on the beach to avoid “troubles”.
And it’s clear that both Hannah and Smith Oakes did have a history and a long one of suspicious activity at the very least, criminal activity confirmed in the end for Smith Oakes when he was arrested for that theft of stolen goods from the wrecked Elizabeth.
Even if not directly involved in her husband’s acts it’s hard to believe in the small world they both inhabited for many years his actions escaped her notice or knowledge. The possibility of being an accessory to his acts either by implication through silence or other passive and active acts has got to be seen as high.
That said, Hannah Oakes is not present to explain herself. It’s possible that some other explanation for her behavior may yet emerge.
However, until that does occur it’s a dubious “honor” now attributed to Hannah Oakes. It’s not pretty and it may not be fair since much is still unknown. But it certainly does look based on the facts presently known that along with her husband her life and his provide the actual foundation of the piracy tales that are embedded in the history of Fire Island.
That gives them both but Hannah certainly a unique status.
The reality of her life has become the stuff of legends passed down from her time to these days.