The earliest known inhabitants of the land between Manhasset Bay and Hempstead Harbor were the Matinecocks, members of the Algonquin tribe.
They named the land Sint Sink, meaning a “place of many stones.”
After Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609, the Dutch occupied the region. Dutch names from those early days are still present in street names and neighborhoods in and near Port, i.e., Bogart, Monfort, Hegeman, Bayard and Onderdonk.
When small parties of English came to the area they had to negotiate with the Dutch by paying a tax in order to establish their own little self-governing community. The largest landowner was Richard Cornwall, who received a land patent from the Crown for 1,500 acres in 1674. The Cornwall family’s burying ground is in a protected area on Soundview Drive.
Other English settlers whose names are familiar to many are Mitchell, Hyde, Willets, Sands and Mackey.
The settlers used the land to graze their cattle and the territory became known as Cow Neck. Manhasset Bay was called Cow Bay.
Some of the houses from those days are still in existence, namely the Sands Willets House, now the site of the Cow Neck Peninsular Historical Society, the Thomas Dodge House, built in 1721, and the 1743 Baxter House on Shore Road. The Sands Willets house was occupied from 1733 to 1843 by the Sands family and by the Willets from 1845 until 1967, when the society purchased it from Miss Eliza Willets.
Several members of the Sands family fought against the British during the Revolution. The Willets, who were Quakers, were active in the abolition movement prior to the Civil War.
Residents on the North Shore supported the Revolution. Beacon lights were placed on a local hill to watch for British ships entering Hempstead Harbor, hence Beacon Hill. Residents in the southern region were principally loyalists.
After General Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Long Island—fought in Brooklyn in 1776—the British occupied Cow Neck. Hessian troops were quartered in the Dodge and Baxter houses.
After the war, in 1783, the northern and southern regions severed all ties and in 1784, the New York State Legislature officially created the Town of North Hempstead.
The citizens of Cow Neck, desiring a more dignified name for their community, renamed it Port Washington in honor of the first president.
Most of the early residents were farmers, fishermen or crafts people, but in 1832 seed oysters were planted in Manhasset Bay. By the middle of the 19th century shell fishing was a thriving business. Some Port residents still refer to themselves as “clam diggers.”
In 1865, a new industry arrived which changed the physical characteristics as well as the ethnic composition of the community. You guessed it: sand mining. The sand was so highly prized by developers of Manhattan’s buildings and sidewalks that they specified “Cow Bay Sand” in their building contracts. Miners vital to the industry came mostly from Europe, especially Italy and Poland.
The Sandminers Monument Park is a beautiful and informative exhibit on West Shore Road where the main mining operations took place.
The Soundview area also was extensively mined.
The beauty of this port-side community attracted many of the rich and famous, such as the Guggenheims, the Astors, William Randolf Hearst and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who built huge estates in Sands Point.
After a trestle bridge was constructed at the southern end of Manhasset Bay trains were able to reach Port by 1898. Affluent commuters began coming to Port where they built impressive homes in Beacon Hill and Baxter Estates. Hotels and restaurants catering to visitors were established.
Seaplanes took off from the wide runways of Manhasset Bay and aircraft manufacturing plans were built on Manhasset Isle employing thousands. More and more city folk came here after the Second World War seeking a suburban lifestyle. In recent years people have come from all parts of the world to make Port their home. It is truly a melting pot.