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Abraham Woodhull

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Robert Townsend was one of the main spies of the Culper Spy Ring that received help from auxiliary spies who lived on Long Island and in Manhattan. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly Tyler

General George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, based in Setauket, with spies operating in Manhattan, on Long Island and in many other locations in the theater of the Revolutionary War, was unusual for a number of reasons. These were the only spies to have an organization specifically organized by Washington and the only long-term operation provided with a specific purpose — to keep Washington informed on British activities in the city and on Long Island.

Members of the Culper Spy Ring were also the only spies with an extensive code list, a specific invisible ink formula and procedures for their use outlined by Washington and the head of the spy ring in Setauket Abraham Woodhull.

The Culper Spy Ring, a name that was given to the group’s operations because the two main spies, farmer Abraham Woodhull in Setauket and shop owner Robert Townsend in New York City, were given the identities Samuel Culper Sr. and Samuel Culper Jr. Townsend gathered intelligence in New York City and sent it to Woodhull in Setauket who coordinated the efforts of the other members of the spy ring.

Austin Roe, a Setauket tavern owner, was the courier who traveled to Manhattan on a regular basis to order supplies for his tavern and brought back written and verbal intelligence he delivered to Woodhull. Captain Caleb Brewster then carried the spy information across Long Island Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut.

The grave of spy Abraham Woodhull can be found in the cemetery of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo by Beverly Tyler

Since Woodhull could not meet openly with Brewster, it fell to Anna Smith Strong to let him know where Brewster was hiding with his whaleboats and crews. This was the group of spies known as the Culper Spy Ring; however, they did not operate without a large number of auxiliary spies, both in New York City and on Long Island, who provided them with intelligence as well as information that supported their efforts and helped to keep them safe.

Spies in New York City who assisted the Culper Spy Ring included James Rivington, a New York City businessman and editor of Rivington’s Royalist Gazette, and Amos and Mary Underhill, who ran a boarding house in Manhattan where Abraham Woodhull stayed on his trips to New York to gather intelligence.

Mary was Woodhull’s sister and her husband Amos was from Oyster Bay. He was also a second cousin to Robert Townsend.

Hercules Mulligan ran a New York City tailoring business and was a good friend of Alexander Hamilton. He was an effective spy for Washington and communicated intelligence through Robert Townsend.

Cato was an African American slave and spy courier for Hercules Mulligan, while Haym Salomon was a New York City shop owner and spy who was a suspected Patriot.

Hugh Mulligan, brother of Hercules, ran Kortright & Co. that had contracts with the British Army. He provided valuable intelligence.

Daniel Bissell was a spy for Washington who infiltrated into New York City and joined Benedict Arnold’s American Legion to provide intelligence on their movements and to seek a way to bring Arnold to justice.

Lewis Costigin worked as a spy for Washington in New York City in 1778 and 1779.

There was also Abraham Patten who unfortunately was hung as a spy in New York City in 1777, before the Culper Spy Ring was organized.

Nathan Hale was the Continental Army captain who was the best friend of Benjamin Tallmadge at Yale. They both graduated in 1773 and became school teachers in Connecticut. As a member of Knowlton’s Rangers in 1776, Hale volunteered to go to Long Island for Washington, as a spy, to find out British plans for attacking and capturing Manhattan. He was unfortunately captured before he could complete his mission. He was hanged in Manhattan as a spy. His death and the words attributed to him, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” inspired many to join the Patriot cause and others to remain in the Continental Army.

In October, 1780, intelligence chief Benjamin Tallmadge wrote to Washington concerning the former Continental Army general and then traitor Benedict Arnold who had joined the British in New York City and was rounding up suspected Patriots to locate the members of the Culper Spy Ring. “The conduct of Arnold, since his arrival at N.Y. has been such, that though he know not a single link in the chain of my correspondence, still those who have assisted us in this way, are at present too apprehensive of danger to give their immediate useful intelligence. I hope as the tumult subsides matters will go on in their old channels.”

Austin Roe was the courier who traveled to Manhattan to order supplies for his tavern and bring back written and verbal intelligence. Photo from Beverly Tyler

Spies on Long Island who assisted the Culper Spy Ring included Joshua Davis, known in spy letter correspondence as J.D., was Brewster’s deputy, and Captain Nathan Woodhull, a second cousin of Abraham Woodhull, who provided intelligence to his cousin in Setauket and to Brewster from his location in Old Man’s (Mount Sinai).

Nathaniel Ruggles was placed at Old Man’s by Benjamin Tallmadge to gather intelligence and was saved from exposure as a spy by the efforts of Selah Strong, husband of Culper spy Anna Smith Strong.

Nathaniel Roe and Phillips Roe were both cousins of Culper Spy Ring courier Austin Roe. They provided intelligence through Culper spy Brewster from their home in Drowned Meadow (now Port Jefferson).

Samuel Townsend, the father of Robert Townsend and an Oyster Bay town leader, was often in conflict with the other town leaders of Oyster Bay who suspected him of Patriot leaning. 

George Smith, a resident of Smithtown, was noted in spy letters and correspondence as S.G. Selah Strong, a Brookhaven Town leader and husband of Culper spy Anna Smith Strong, is listed as executor of the will of Nathaniel Ruggles and as having saved Ruggles’ life by his effort he, “hath snatched me from the jaws of my adversaries and befriended me in every difficulty as far as was consistant with his duty as an honest man.” Strong was also a good friend and cousin of both Abraham Woodhull and Brewster.

Isaac Thompson remained at his home and estate during the Revolutionary War. His home (now Sagtikos Manor) was visited by President Washington in April, 1790, and was one of four places Washington stayed to thank the Culper spies for their help. Thompson’s mother was Abraham Woodhull’s aunt. He grew up in Setauket and both his father and brother were active as captains in the Long Island militias and all three served with Selah Strong on the Brookhaven Town Board at one time or another.

Benjamin Havens was an innkeeper in Center Moriches who married Selah Strong’s sister Abigail in 1754. Another sister, Submit, married Phillips Roe of Drowned Meadow, and yet another sister, Zipporah, married Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge, father of Washington’s Chief of Intelligence Benjamin Tallmadge.

There are many other family connections. Haven’s was also a member of the Patriot Committee of Safety in Brookhaven together with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket and his cousin General Nathaniel Woodhull of Mastic. In addition, Rivington’s Royalist Gazette reported in July 1779, “Last week a party of Rebels had a feast at the home of Benj. Havens at Moriches (a most pernicious caitiff), and several of the inhabitants attended at this frolic. Wm. Phillips, Benajah Strong and  Brewster gave this entertainment.” Havens is also believed to have provided intelligence to Major Benjamin Tallmadge that assisted his successful raid on Fort St. George in Mastic in November of 1780.

Lieutenant Henry Scudder, a resident of Crab Meadow (Northport area), was a spy for the Continental Army. Scudder often penetrated enemy lines sending back important information on troop movements. Scudder and Bryant Scidmore drew a plan of Fort Slongo, which led to a successful attack on the fort.

Beverly Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Members of the Rocky Point Historical Society with Culper Spy Abraham Woodhull (historian Beverly C. Tyler ) at the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery. Photo by Carol Calabro

On Saturday, June 3, Setauket historian Beverly C. Tyler led members and friends of the Rocky Point Historical Society on a journey back in time to the days of the Culper Spy Ring. The story has been made famous with the television series “Turn.”

The tour began at the headquarters of the Three Village Historical Society where Tyler, wearing 18th-century clothing, took on the personality and true story of Abraham Woodhull, and continued on to the site of the birthplace and farm of Woodhull, to the burial grounds at St. George’s Manor Cemetery and the Setauket Presbyterian Cemetery.

Born in Setauket, Abraham Woodhull (1750 –1826) was a leading member of the Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Setauket during the American Revolution using the alias Samuel Culper, Sr., a play on Culpeper County, Virginia. The ring provided Washington with valuable information on the British Army headquartered in and operating out of New York, from October 1778 until the end of the American Revolutionary War. After the United States gained independence, Woodhull served as the first judge in Suffolk County. Other local residents who took part in the spy ring were Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster and Anna Smith Strong.

For more information on the Three Village Historical Society’s upcoming historical walking tours, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

One of the 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Rita J. Egan

George Washington and the Long Island Culper Spy Ring continue to make history on the North Shore.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. One of the signs, unveiled at the end of the event, is located in front of the Brewster property.

A press conference was held May 18 on the lawn of the Brewster House in East Setauket after the installation of 26 signs along the Route 25A corridor from Port Jefferson To Great Neck, which now designate Route 25A as the Washington Spy Trail. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The installation of signage and the designation comes after almost two decades of work on the part of the North Shore Promotional Alliance. The state road was chosen because President George Washington once traveled it to thank the patriots for helping him win the Revolutionary War, and it was also a route that spy Austin Roe used to pick up and deliver secret messages to military officer and spy Benjamin Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Gloria Rocchio, President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and North Shore Promotional Alliance, said that during the days of the Culper Spy Ring in the 1700s the Brewster House was one of only a few homes, and at the time of the American Revolution, the area was occupied by 300 British troops.

“Our community was divided between Loyalist and Patriots who supported the revolution in secret,” she said. “This history is the very history of America. Our efforts over the past 17 years have been to shine a light on our American Revolution and to encourage people to visit those important sites on the North Shore where history was made — the George Washington Spy Trail, Route 25A.

In addition to thanking her fellow members of the NSPA and others for their work, Rochhio acknowledged State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for introducing a legislative resolution in both the New York State Senate and Assembly that recognizes the dedication of the trail as well as the service of the spy ring members. On the same day, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were presenting a similar resolution in congress.

Flanagan thanked those who gave up their free time to dedicate themselves to the project. The senator said he and the other local legislatures who were on hand for the event are proud of their towns.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright and Supervisor Ed Romaine present a proclamation to President of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Gloria Rocchio, making May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“We brag about the places that we come from,” he said. “We like telling people about these types of things.”

Flanagan said he hopes that residents, as well as those who travel to the area will take advantage of the educational experiences the signs call out along the way.

When Englebright stepped up to the podium, he asked State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) to join him and said he appreciated the partnership with his neighboring assemblyman as well as Flanagan when it came to the legislative resolution that recognizes the area’s historical significance.

“This is a special place,” Englebright said. “Patriots lived here. People put their lives on the line as the first espionage ring for service to our nation.”

Englebright echoed Rocchio’s sentiments of the importance of the signs that pay tribute to the area’s history.

“The memorialization of that through this signage that Gloria referred to, is a chance for us to celebrate that reality, that wonderful beginning of our nation, the role that we played in it,” the assemblyman said. “It’s also important to give a sense of place and sense of context for this and future generations.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) presented a proclamation to Rocchio, which made May 18 North Shore Promotion Alliance Day in Brookhaven. Romaine also reflected on the historical importance of the day.

Local politicians following the enveiling of the Washington Spy Trail sign along 25A. Photo by Rita J. Egan

“Today we remember our history,” he said. “Today we remember ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who were called upon to do extraordinary things.”

John Tsunis, Chairman and CEO of Gold Coast Bank and owner of Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook, introduced Harry Janson, Sr., who was wounded in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart, a medal that originated from Washington’s Badge of Military Merit. Janson, who is on the board of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, said he believed the members of the Culper Spy Ring — Tallmadge, Roe, Robert Townsend, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Anna Smith Strong — were worthy of the award as well.

“The difference is the example of their bravery,” Janson said. “They performed their bravery in covert, and they took their secrets to their graves.”

Before unveiling the Washington Spy Trail sign in front of the Brewster House, Janson had the same wish as others who worked on the installation of the signage.

“We hope that many of you drive the trail and learn about these brave men and women, and what they did for our country,” Janson said.

Additional Washington Spy Trail signs include ones located on the westbound side of Route 25A at West Broadway in Port Jefferson, by the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, before the Smithtown Bull in Smithtown and at Lawrence Hill Road in Huntington Station.

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.

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New York Royal Governor Tyron, on a white horse, visiting the Setauket Village Green in 1776 to have all men in Setauket sign a pledge of loyalty to the king. Loyalist Benjamin Floyd is pictured left foreground. Photo of 1951 mural by Vance Locke

By Beverly C. Tyler

During the Revolutionary War, a newspaper was published in New York City for the purpose of providing both news and gossip to British troops and American Loyalists. If such a paper existed in Setauket during the war, it might very well be called Setauket’s Loyalist Gazette and contain the following snippets of news.

Tavern keeper Austin Roe has been seen riding from Brooklyn to Setauket. It is such a long ride that he has been observed standing up in the saddle. He needs to be careful; he could fall off and break a leg.

Anna Smith Strong is raising six children by herself on Little Neck, now called Seaton’s Neck, while her husband Selah is in Connecticut. He is known to have Patriot leanings so he is smart to stay away. We don’t need any Washington rabble here on Long Island. When, and if, he does come home, he will find his wife has been doing just fine as a good Loyalist with British officers in her home (St. George’s Manor).

Abraham Woodhull is still a bachelor at age 28 in Setauket. At present [1778] he doesn’t seem to have any love interests at all. One wonders why he travels to New York City so often with Anna Smith Strong, his first cousin’s wife. They are both avid Loyalists, quite strange for Presbyterians. Maybe we should keep an eye on them as well as on all Presbyterians. And why not!

During the Battle of Setauket on Aug. 22, 1777, some of the Patriot troops had a bit of fun firing at the bell in the Anglican Caroline Church tower. The sound of the musket balls hitting the bell was quite loud. Let’s hope our Loyalist troops recover all of the lead bullets as they are now a bit short of ammunition. Get the lead out!

Loyalist Colonel Richard Hewlett has not been seen in Setauket since the fort was closed in the autumn of 1777. In the spring of ‘77, his troops barricaded the grounds around the church, tearing up and breaking off gravestones to use on the barricade. Now Rev. Tallmadge is trying to clean up the church sanctuary where the British stabled their horses. At least there is plenty of manure for Rev. Tallmadge’s garden.

Captain Caleb Brewster, a Continental Army officer, was noticed leaving Long Island’s shore near Setauket. He was obviously here with his whaleboat and crew to spy on British and Loyalist positions. Rumor has it that he has a number of Patriot contacts in Setauket and Old Mans [present-day Mount Sinai], and we do know that he is related to the Woodhulls, Strongs and Smiths in the area. Vigilance is the byword!

Benjamin Floyd, a vestryman at Caroline Church is a Loyalist lieutenant colonel and an all-around great guy. He is also now supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven [1777]. The town board is now solidly Loyalist. Floyd has been supplying vegetables and other farm products to all Setauket residents in need. Let’s hope they are all loyal Tories. Be careful Benjamin! What a guy!

Richard Woodhull, father of Loyalist farmer Abraham Woodhull, was recently attacked and beaten in his home by British soldiers looking for Abraham, who they expected to find at home working on his farm. According to the British soldiers, they really don’t like any Americans; so beating up a defenseless old man because he wouldn’t tell them where his son was is really no big deal.

A British foraging detail recently took all the cows, grain, hay, cordwood and tools from the farm of Setauket resident Jonathan Thompson and his son Samuel Thompson. The Thompsons had fled to Connecticut in 1776, following the glorious British victory at the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn. Thompson received a chit, tacked to his door, promising payment when the British finally win.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

The Culper Spy Ring has gained much attention over the last 10 years from the publishing of two books and  AMC airing the television series TURN. On June 20, the Three Villages will be sharing its famous story with a day-long event, Culper Spy Day — Our Revolutionary Story. Join them to learn the real history behind the Culper Spy Ring, America’s first. Many historic locations dating as far back as 1655 will open their doors to the public and a local restaurant will offer a spy-themed lunch menu.

Sponsored by Tri-Spy Tours, the Three Village Historical Society, the Long Island Museum and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the event will coincide with the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau Path Through History Weekend. The event is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

1. Three Village Historical Society, 93 N. Country Road, Setauket. Located in the c. 1800’s Ebenezer Bayles/Stephen Swezey house, the Three Village Historical Society is home to the interactive Culper SPIES! exhibit and the Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time exhibit. Stop by and meet a visiting friend from Oyster Bay, Robert Townsend, aka Samuel Culper Jr. The gift shop will also be open.
— A one-hour Tri-Spy Walking Tour will be held at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Walk your way through the history of the Revolutionary War’s Culper Spy Ring. Visit Woodhull’s Farm, the Setauket Village Green, Grist Mill, Patriot’s Rock and historic grave sites. Meet at the entrance of Frank Melville Memorial Park.
— A historic district walking tour as it pertains to the Revolutionary War will depart from the entrance of Frank Melville Memorial Park at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Visit Patriot’s Rock, the cemetery where the leader of the Setauket Spy Ring is buried and the homes of early residents. 631-751-3730.

2. Thompson House Medicinal Garden, 91 N. Country Road, Setauket. Self-guided tour. Doctor Samuel Thompson was a colonial era doctor and farmer. According to his diaries, members of the Culper Spy Ring, including Abraham Woodhull and Austin Roe, were among his patients. 631-751-2244.

3. Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. Docents will lead a tour of this church and its adjoining cemetery. Built in 1729, it is the oldest continuously operating Episcopal Church in the United States. The cemetery holds the graves of early settlers of the town, Revolutionary War heroes, ship captains and industry leaders. 631-941-4245.

4. Setauket Presbyterian Church, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket. Docents will lead a tour of the historic church, circa 1812, and its adjoining cemetery, which dates back to the 1600s. Abraham Woodhull of George Washington’s Spy Ring, genre artist William Sidney Mount and early settler Richard Floyd, grandfather of William Floyd, are buried here. 631-941-4271.

5. Setauket Village Green, Main Street, Setauket. A replica of a Dutch 1768 single-sail boat will be on display here. During the Revolutionary War, the Village Green was the location of the Battle of Setauket, a skirmish between Tory and Patriot troops that took place on Aug. 22, 1777. Prior to the battle, it was called Meeting House Green where meetings were held during the early settlement period of the mid to late 1600s.

6. Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, 120 Main St., Setauket. Circa 1892. The library will present a demo of its interactive Spy Ring Tour, and materials and databases related to the Culper Spy Ring will be on the library lawn. Military paraphernalia will be on display in the Library lobby. Stop by and meet Anna Smith Strong and her “magic clothesline.” 631-941-4080.

7. Joseph Brewster House, Route 25A, Setauket. Circa 1655, it is considered to be the oldest home in the Town of Brookhaven. During the Revolutionary War, the house was owned by Joseph Brewster, first cousin of Culper Spy Caleb Brewster and neighbor of the ring’s founder, Benjamin Tallmadge. In order to preserve his home and property from confiscation, Joseph Brewster operated a tavern out of the home, hosting the occupying British forces. A colonial cooking demonstration will take place on the grounds. 631-751-2244.

8. Country House Restaurant, 1175 N. Country Road, Stony Brook. Built in 1710, the restaurant is dedicated to serving the finest food and spirits in one of Long Island’s most historic homes. The restaurant will serve a special Spy-themed menu from noon to 4 p.m.  Adult meals will range from $10 to $16 and children’s meals are $8.95, which includes a soft drink. For reservations, please call 631-751-3332.

9. Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. Tour the museum’s galleries as well as the outbuildings. The Nassakeag Schoolhouse, circa 1895, will be open with a docent. Two of the museum’s horse-drawn vehicles were owned by Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort, grandfather of author Herman Melville. 631-751-0066.

10. Stony Brook Grist Mill, 100 Harbor Road, Stony Brook. A miller will be on hand for grinding demonstrations. Long Island’s most completely equipped and working mill, the mill, circa 1751, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the Revolutionary War, occupying British forces confiscated much of the grain to provision their own troops. 631-689-3238.

11. Stony Brook Village Center, 111 Main St., Stony Brook. Docents will guide visitors on a walking tour of historic Main Street. Points of interest will include the Stony Brook Village Center, Hercules and the Educational Center. Tours will depart on the hour from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. 631-751-2244.

Tickets are $20 each (children under 12 free) and can be purchased at the following locations:
• Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket. 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.
• The Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. 631-751-0066  or visit www.longislandmuseum.org.
• The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, 111 Main Street, Stony Brook. 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

Historian Beverly C. Tyler and Donna Smith, Education Director of the Three Village Historical Society, stand next to the grave of Abraham Woodhull at the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Barbara Russell

“By the 29th inst I expect to hear further from C_; his Dispatches shall be duly forwarded I would take the liberty to observe that a safe conveyance may be had, by the bearer, for the ink which your Excellency proposed sending to C_”

The writer was Setauket native Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, and the letter was sent to General George Washington July 25, 1779. Tallmadge is assuring the general that he is expecting information soon from C_, alias Samuel Culper, alias Abraham Woodhull, and is referring to an invisible ink provided by Washington to be used by members of the Culper Spy Ring.

Born in Setauket in 1754, Benjamin Tallmadge left Setauket as a teenager to enter Yale College, became a school teacher after graduation, and subsequently joined the Patriot forces. He served as the chief intelligence officer for General George Washington and relied on his childhood friends from Setauket for the intelligence reports so vital to Washington’s success.

The Culper Spy Ring is not a tale but a real and factual account of spying during the American Revolution. Its epicenter was nestled right here in Setauket. Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe and Caleb Brewster all lived here and knew each other growing up. Tallmadge leaned on his trusted friends to create the web that brought information from New York City out to Long Island and across the Long Island Sound to him in Connecticut. From there, it was transmitted to General Washington.

Spying is very risky, and every person involved knew it. All but Caleb Brewster used fictitious names; invisible ink was provided; a dictionary of code words invented; and success depended on trusting that each person was committed to the fullest. The Culper Spy Ring operated from 1778 through 1783, with additional agents beyond the Setauket friends. One known agent was Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay, who had a business in New York City, allowing him to pick up information on British troop strengths and movements and then pass it on to either Austin Roe, an innkeeper, or Abraham Woodhull, a farmer and business operator. Both traveled to New York City in the course of their businesses.

The residents of Brookhaven attempted to carry on with their lives, while British soldiers were assigned to the Setauket area, following the disastrous Battle of Long Island in August 1776. Town board minutes of the time do not refer to the war but to the general running of a municipality with tax collecting, electing officials, land ownership, and responsibility for the indigent. Newspapers of the time did report unpleasant raids and indignities imposed on the residents. In December 1776, William Tryon, provincial governor of New York, traveled to Setauket to secure the support of Brookhaven residents for his majesty’s government.

Eight hundred one men pledged their support for the British Crown on the Setauket Village Green, then Brookhaven’s central meeting place. Among the signers was Abraham Woodhull, perhaps a move that would reduce suspicion for his intelligence work. Some residents, who feared for their safety, did flee to Connecticut, and remained for the duration of the war. Those who stayed were subjected to British occupation, often having soldiers billeted in their homes, and their livestock and crops seized for use by the British.

Woodhull and Roe continued to live in Setauket throughout the war years, settling into their occupations and carrying on their intelligence work, probably not without fear of being discovered. Brewster, a determined and fearless man, made many trips across Long Island Sound to support the Patriot cause but never returned to Setauket to live.  Tallmadge owed the success of his intelligence work to his friends and likely to others whose names are still unknown or unconfirmed.

Although the information about the Culpers was publicized over 80 years ago by former Suffolk County historian, Morton Pennypacker, it has received national attention in the last 10 years. Its rightful place among the history of the American Revolution was aided by the publication of “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by Alexander Rose in 2006, “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger in 2013 and the AMC series “TURN,” now in its second season. And it all happened here.

Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and cherishes it for years. Margo Arceri first heard the Culper Spy Ring story from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong in the 1970s.

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-grandaughter, originally told me this story as a child when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong lll,” said Arceri. “She wrote for The Long Island Forum ‘The True Tales of the Early Days on Long Island.’ One of her stories was about Nancy [Anna Smith Strong’s nickname} and her magic clothesline. That’s where I first heard about the Spy Ring and my love grew from there.”

Today Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours to share her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution. Her perseverance has inspired the upcoming Culper Spy Day — Our Revolutionary Story, on Saturday, June 20.

Barbara Russell is the Town of Brookhaven’s historian.

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