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Austin Roe

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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Mayor Margot Garant discusses the new historic letter mounted on the wall at the Drowned House Cottage museum in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley

It was such a well-kept secret, it took more than 200 years to come to light.

Port Jefferson Village officials unveiled the newest historic addition to the Drowned Meadow Cottage museum last week: a letter that links Port Jefferson’s Roe brothers to then-Gen. George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which covertly worked to advance the rebel cause during the Revolutionary War.

Loyalist soldier Nehemiah Marks wrote the letter on Dec. 21, 1780, to inform his comrades that Phillips and Nathaniel Roe, among others, helped supply Setauket-based spy Caleb Brewster with information to pass on to the Patriots.

A historic letter detailing the involvement of Port Jefferson brothers in George Washington's Culper Spy Ring is on display at the Drowned Meadow Cottage. Photo by Giselle Barkley
A historic letter detailing the involvement of Port Jefferson brothers in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring is on display at the Drowned Meadow Cottage. Photo by Giselle Barkley

According to Mayor Margot Garant, a former Port Jefferson high school student found the letter two years ago while researching the Revolutionary spy ring at the University of Michigan and contacted the mayor. The next step was getting the letter authenticated.

“The authentication for this letter is so critical,” Garant said in an interview before last week’s event at the cottage, the former home of Phillips Roe. Villagers had long had suspicions that he and his brother were important “not only to village history but to the history of the Revolutionary War, and instrumental in the spy ring. That was kicked around as a rumor for many years and never authenticated.”

The Roe brothers came from modest means, according to Georgette Grier-Key, a historical consultant who authenticated the letter and designed its exhibit at the cottage. Their father, John Roe, was a shoemaker, but Phillips was more successful: He owned a wood business, as well as a ship. He used those resources to help to discreetly pass along information in the Culper Spy Ring.

But before the letter, some people doubted the area’s extensive involvement.

“There was some … organizations that didn’t really believe Port Jefferson had a claim to being part of the spy ring,” Grier-Key said. “Now we have [a] primary document source that says otherwise from a Loyalist perspective.”

The letter also links another North Shore neighborhood to the spy ring: Mount Sinai. Old Man’s Road is among the locations listed in the message, after a Patriot informant named James Smith was spotted receiving information there.

Many attend the unveiling of a historic exhibit at the Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Many attend the unveiling of a historic exhibit at the Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley

During a ribbon cutting and open house ceremony at the museum last week, Grier-Key said it is possible that towns farther east of Port Jefferson and Mount Sinai could have been a part of the ring too. For now, Garant said, the letter officially puts Port Jefferson and hamlets like Mount Sinai “on the map” for their involvement in the ring and their contribution to the war.

That recognition is reaching across Long Island — Michael Goudket, a program instructor from Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay attended the event to show his support for the Drowned Meadow Cottage museum, saying there is a new sense of appreciation for the Island’s involvement in the Revolutionary War.

“People are starting to appreciate that even though Long Island doesn’t make the history books with big battles … we have the most interesting spy stories,” Goudket said.

The historic letter is on display at the museum alongside other documents, like Phillips Roe’s last will and testament and a list of individuals who still owed him money upon his death in 1792.

Those who were involved in the letter’s discovery and authentication hope to uncover more information about the spy ring.

This version corrects the exact date of Nehemiah Marks’ letter.

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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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