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Culper Spy Ring

Many residents know about the Culper spies that operated along the North Shore of Long Island and gave invaluable intelligence about British troop movements and plans to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But perhaps not so many know that two of Washington’s letters to his chief spymaster Major Benjamin Tallmadge, of Setauket, are on display locally and are available for viewing by the public. They are part of the Special Collections & University Archives of Stony Brook University Libraries, and how we got them is itself a story, as was told by Kristen Nyitray, SBU’s Special Collections director, at the Three Village Historical Society meeting Monday night.

The letters, written by Washington in 1779 and 1780, were part of the estate of Malcolm Forbes, the publishing magnate, and were put up for auction by Christie’s at two separate times. Forbes was proud of the fact that he had collected artifacts from each American president. Where those letters were for some 200 years before he got them is a deep mystery, but they are here now, thanks to the alacrity of local history-minded leaders, like state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), members of the historical society and philanthropist Henry Laufer.

On May 24, 2006, Frank Turano, then president of the historical society, Nyitray and Englebright took the train to New York City for the auction. Armed with a modest amount of money, given how much historical memorabilia sold for, they hoped to purchase the first letter and return it to the place where history happened. Nyitray was the paddle wielder, indicating a willing purchaser at the auctioneer’s bidding, and the three nervously awaited the sale of Lot 31, the first coveted letter. As parts of the estate sold ahead of the desired letter for much more than the resources of the triumvirate, they became increasingly nervous. Paddles were waving and telephones ringing with high bids all around them. Finally the letter, in Washington’s elegant hand, written from West Point on Sept. 24, 1779, and arriving in Setauket Sept. 26, was offered and miraculously the phones fell silent and the paddles went down. Only Nyitray’s was visible and, unchallenged, she won the bid.

The winning price was $80,000. Add in the commission for the auction house and other incidentals, and the final cost for the precious letter was almost $100,000. They had enough money.

The three were ecstatic. They were going to bring that letter back to Setauket where “The Father of our Country” had originally sent it. Within the month, after paperwork was completed, they were able to carry their treasure back to SBU in a brown shopping bag.

Once safely ensconced, the letter had to be cleaned and preserved by experts, and framed and mounted for suitable viewing. That proved to be an arduous and lengthy series of tasks. The group returned to Christie’s for the second letter written Sept. 16, 1780, on Feb. 12, 2009, which coincidentally is the same day as Lincoln’s birthdate. The quality of paper on which the letters were written was good rag paper, but the ink was made from oak gall, which was high in tannic acid, and was corrosive. The ink had to be treated to preserve the letters.

The initial viewing for the first letter was in October 2006, and the letters have done some traveling since, having been seen in Southampton and by people in Florida, California and Minnesota. They are accessible to all.

The 1779 letter deals with advice on how “Culper Junr.” — who was Robert Townsend — could go about his business as a freelance writer and merchant and also function as a spy. Washington gives specific instructions on how Townsend should write secret information among the leaves of a pamphlet or even between the lines of a newsy letter to a friend with special invisible ink. We know that ink was fabricated by Founding Father John Jay’s elder brother, James, who was a physician, and was referred to by the spies as “medicine.”

The letter is signed, “I am Sir Your most obedient and humble servt. Go. Washington.” What a thrill.

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Sunday was a magical night. After a full year of work, we offered you, our readers and viewers, the initial screening of “One Life to Give.” Our first full-length film, the story is set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War more than 200 years ago, and is about Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington and the events leading up to the founding of the Culper Spy Ring. The location for this screening was the 1,000-seat Staller Center off Nicholls Road within Stony Brook University, and to my amazement and delight, we filled the auditorium to the point where our general manager had trouble finding a seat just before curtain time. This full house by itself is a most gratifying testimony to your regard and to the pulling power of our newspapers and digital media, especially competing as we were with graduation day at the local high school.

It’s also a lot more. In these chaotic and divided times, I believe we yearn to understand our common origin as a nation and the history that we share. History after all is glue that holds us together and, to the surprise of many students who hate social studies in school, is also the series of fascinating stories about people, personalities and events that help define who we are today. And since our film is focused on local people and events, we share a pride of place. Our area has been dubbed the “cradle of history” because of its brutal occupation by the British, the activities of the spy ring and the military skirmishes during the war. Long Island, in fact, endured the longest occupation of any part of the colonies because its farms and forests, livestock and fish made up the unwilling breadbasket for the major British garrison in New York City.

So viewers came to see the history and the authentic local scenes and events, and the familiar faces of many residents as they served as extras on screen. Also some were simply curious. And by the time the movie was over, I believe there was an enriched sense of community among those in the room. As much as we want to know where we came from, we also enjoy a sense of belonging to a community. One viewer from farther away came up to me at the end and said he wished for that pride in his city. That particularly pleased me because we as publishers of the hometown paper have always sought to strengthen those ties. Strong communities can be a powerful force for good. They also want to get the latest local news by reading the local papers, which is not so bad for us.

Making a film was a new experience. My eldest grandson, Benji, the director of “One Life to Give,” aspires to be a professional filmmaker as his career progresses, and as we saw he has already acquired many filmmaking skills in college, where he is now a senior. He also brought to us for this venture a remarkable hardworking and talented crew of young professionals in front of and behind the camera. Thanks to our local connections, which included local historical societies and carefully preserved sites, we were able to put together an authentic venue for the shoot. The weather was wondrously cooperative, and actors and historic re-enactors of considerable skill joined the team. Local restaurants, costume outfitters, dry cleaners, scenery designers, makeup and special effects people and SBU, among others, made in-kind contributions. Muskets and cannons were procured and brought to the filming site, often among hilarious circumstances. One rule became obvious: No day would go exactly as planned.

A number of generous local businesses helped us meet costs by agreeing to be sponsors, and for their help they received credits before and after the film. Their names will be seen near and far as a number of groups have asked to show the film.

My major contribution was offering my house for the 15 young people and their equipment throughout the shoot. I can tell you there was not a clear view of floor or rug during those 16 days. It was great fun with high excitement but on their next film, the shooting of which starts in two weeks’ time for release next year, they will definitely stay in a hotel.

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A 1780 map depicts Long Island during Revolutionary War times. Image from the Library of Congress

By Beverly C. Tyler

As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, July 4, it is fitting to reflect on the actions of some of the men and women who helped win our independence.

The Revolutionary War had a great effect on the residents of Long Island. After the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776, many Long Islanders, especially in Suffolk County, received it enthusiastically. Their enthusiasm was short-lived, however, for on Aug. 27, 1776, the British took possession of New York City, following the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn, and with its possession of all of Long Island. The residents were to be under British control for the next seven years.

“Since my arrival at camp I have had as large an allowance of fighting as I could, in a serious mood, wish for.”

— Benjamin Tallmadge

A large number of Long Island Patriots fled to Connecticut and became refugees, giving up their lands, homes and most of their possessions. Those who stayed lived under often harsh, military rule. The residents were forced to provide whatever His Majesty’s forces needed. Cattle, feed, grains, food, wagons and horses, especially cordwood for fuel was taken, and in most cases, not paid for. Long Island was virtually stripped of its mature trees during the first three to five years of the war to supply lumber and fuel for New York City.

In addition to suffering at the hands of the British, many Long Islanders were also considered fair game by their former friends and neighbors in Connecticut who would cross the Sound to harass the British, steal supplies, destroy material the British might use and take captives. The captives were often taken in exchange for the Patriots captured by the British.

Benjamin Tallmadge, Gen. George Washington’s chief of intelligence from the summer of 1778 until the end of the Revolutionary War, was born and spent his youth in Setauket, Long Island. Following four years at Yale College in New Haven and a year teaching in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Tallmadge joined the Continental Army. He took an active part in the Battle of Brooklyn and progressed rapidly in rank. As a captain in the 2nd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons — Washington’s first fast attack force mounted on horses — Tallmadge came under Washington’s notice. By December of 1776, Washington had asked Tallmadge, in addition to his dragoon responsibilities, to gather intelligence from various spies on Long Island. In 1777 Tallmadge coordinated and received intelligence from individual spies on Long Island. (See History Close at Hand article published in The Village Times Herald May 10 edition.)

To memorialize one of the Culper spies, a polychrome statue of Benjamin Tallmadge sits on the peak of the Setauket School gymnasium. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Tallmadge was promoted to the rank of major April 7, 1777. In June Tallmadge’s troop, composed entirely of dapple gray horses, left their base at Litchfield, Connecticut, and proceeded to New Jersey where Washington reviewed the detachment and complimented Tallmadge on the appearance of his horsemen.

Washington gave the troops of the 2nd Regiment little chance to rest after they came to headquarters, and Tallmadge wrote, “Since my arrival at camp I have had as large an allowance of fighting as I could, in a serious mood, wish for.”

In September and October, Tallmadge took part in the Battle of Germantown. In November of 1777, when the American army finally went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Tallmadge was ordered, “with a respectable detachment of dragoons,” to act as an advance corps of observation.

During these maneuvers into the no-mans-land area between the American and British lines around Philadelphia, Tallmadge again engaged in obtaining intelligence of the enemy’s movements and plans.

In January of 1778, the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons was ordered to Trenton, New Jersey, where the other cavalry regiments were assembling to spend the winter. Throughout the spring, Tallmadge waited for action. In June the 2nd Regiment was assigned to take up a position in advance of the American lines near Dobbs Ferry. In July Washington returned to the Hudson Valley with most of his army. With the arrival of the French fleet under Count d’Estaing in July, the pressing need for organized military intelligence could no longer be avoided. Officers, and especially dragoon officers, were encouraged to find intelligent correspondents who could furnish reliable information to American headquarters.

During the summer of 1778, Tallmadge was able to establish, with Washington’s approval, a chain of American spies on Long Island and in New York, the now recognized Culper Spy Ring, feeding information through Setauket, across Long Island Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and by mounted dragoon to Washington’s headquarters. Despite Tallmadge’s important role in the formation of the spying operation, his duties as field officer of the 2nd Regiment took most of his time during the summer and fall of 1778. The men and women who made the spy ring function lived in constant danger in both British and Patriot territory. We owe them the greatest respect and honor we can offer, especially on July 4.

Beverly C. 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.

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Continental Army officer Benjamin Tallmadge, from a pencil sketch by Col. John Trumbull, assistant to Gen. George Washington. From the Three Village Historical Society collection

By Beverly C. Tyler

Benjamin Tallmadge was the organizer and leader of the Revolutionary War Setauket Culper Spy Ring. Tallmadge, the son of a minister of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, was born in Setauket Feb. 25, 1754.

Tallmadge grew up in Setauket, attended school here with his close friend Abraham Woodhull and, like many residents of Suffolk County, he grew to have a healthy distrust for British authorities in New York. Tallmadge, a college classmate of the Hale brothers, Enoch and Nathan, graduated from Yale in 1773 and, like Nathan Hale, taught school for a time in Connecticut.

A statue of Benjamin Tallmadge at Setauket Elementary School. File photo

Following the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, on May 9, 1775, Tallmadge wrote to Hale. “Brother Nathan … America, my friend, at the present period sees such times as She never saw before … everything bids fair for a change … How soon a great, flourishing, and powerful state may arise from that now stigmatized by the Name of Rebels, God only knows. The prospect however for the same seems to be great.”

Tallmadge’s commission as a Continental Army lieutenant was dated June 20, 1776, and he was assigned to Col. John Chester’s Connecticut regiment. He became a regimental adjutant July 22, 1776. His regiment was among those transferred to Brooklyn in time to take part in the Battle of Long Island Aug. 27, 1776. It was the first time Tallmadge took part in any engagement.

Tallmadge wrote a graphic account of the retreat after the battle. “On the evening of the 29th, by 10 o’clock the troops began to retire from the line in such a manner that no chasm was made in the lines … General Washington took his station at the ferry, and superintended the embarkation of the troops. It was one of the most anxious, busy nights that I ever recollect, and being the third in which hardly any of us had closed our eyes in sleep, we were all greatly fatigued … When I stepped into one of the last boats … I left my horse tied to a post at the ferry …The troops having now all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing as thick as ever, I began to think of my favorite horse, and requested leave to return and bring him off. Having obtained permission, I called for a crew of volunteers to go with me, and guiding the boat myself, I obtained my horse and got off some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn. As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces; but we returned in safety.”

By the time Gen. George Washington was driven north from Manhattan Island in 1776, he was already working on creating a spy network that would provide intelligence on British activities in New York City and on Long Island. Deprived of heavily fortified positions to defend, and with depleted numbers of men and supplies, Washington found it necessary to enable his army to become a moving target, to strike his enemy when and where least expected, and to base his decisions on information gathered from reliable undercover sources. One of the first to operate as a spy on Long lsland was Major John Clark.

“How soon a great, flourishing, and powerful state may arise from that now stigmatized by the Name of Rebels, God only knows.”

— Benjamin Tallmadge

As 1776 came to an end and enlistments expired, Tallmadge was offered a captain’s rank in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoon Regiment commanded by Col. Elisha Sheldon. The new captain accepted his appointment with a feeling of pride, for these commands were subject to Washington’s approval.

By February of 1777, Washington’s first strategic spy network was in place with civilian intelligence expert Nathaniel Sackett conducting covert operations. In addition to his duties as a Dragoon officer, Washington had Tallmadge working with Sackett. Tallmadge, from his position near Fairfield, Connecticut, began receiving intelligence from Major John Clark and Selah Strong on Long Island. The intelligence was most likely brought to him across Long Island Sound by Caleb Brewster, a Continental Army officer, expert seaman and boyhood friend from Setauket.

In a letter to Sackett dated Feb. 25, 1777, Tallmadge wrote that he had “received Intelligence from Long Island by one John Clark that there were no troops at Setauket, but part of two Companies at Huntington and one Company at Oyster Bay . . . That the Militia of Suffolk County was ordered to Meet on the 16th Febry. In order to be drafted for the Ministerial Service but that they were determined not to serve . . . That there are but few who are not friendly to the Cause — that they had beat up four deserters in the western part of the County but that only three had enlisted.”

Clark and Strong stopped spying for Washington on Long Island about September or October 1777 when their work was discovered by Loyalist Lt. Col Richard Hewlett. So, by the time Tallmadge was ready to take over as Washington’s intelligence chief in 1778, he already had a part of the Culper Spy route established with Brewster feeding him information he was gathering from his friends, relatives and other contacts on Long Island. All that needed to be added was a connection from Manhattan to Setauket.

Beverly C. 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.

Margo Arceri, right, creator of Culper Spy Day, poses with Diane Schwindt, dressed as an 18th-century cook at the 2017 event. Photo from Mari Irizarry

By Rita J. Egan

With the help of those who appreciate history, events of the past have a chance to live on. Margo Arceri is one of those history lovers, and her passion has inspired others to learn more about their local landscape.

Arceri didn’t need the AMC series “TURN” to discover how instrumental the members of the Culper Spy Ring were in the Colonies winning the American Revolutionary War. While growing up in Strong’s Neck, she learned about the Setauket spies directly from Kate. W. Strong herself. The great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong would tell stories of the patriot who used her clothesline to send messages to her fellow spies, and through those tales, Arceri developed a deep curiosity for history and the local intelligence group.

Three Village Historical Society historian Beverly Tyler said Arceri’s passion is so strong her car features “Culper” license plates.

“She loves the Revolutionary War,” Tyler said. “She loves Anna Smith Strong, and the whole idea of the spy ring.”

A few years ago, Arceri, a former vice president and past secretary of the Three Village Historical Society, created Tri-Spy Tours, where participants follow the footsteps of the spies by walking, biking and/or kayaking through the area.

Steven Hintze was the president of the society when Arceri came to him with the idea of the tours. He said he liked the concept and discussed it with the board members.

Hintze said it was while conducting Tri-Spy Tours that Arceri realized there was more to share about local history, so she developed Culper Spy Day, an annual event that sponsors a self-guided tour where attendees visit various structures and museums in the area to learn how the Setauket spies assisted President George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hintze said the day, which marked its third year in September, has greatly grown in popularity, attracting history lovers from all over the tristate area. According to historical society records, the event attracted twice as many people in 2017 than it did the year prior.

Hintze said he isn’t surprised how popular it has become through Arceri.

“She’s one of those people who has a great personality, she’s friends with everybody,” Hintze said. “She knows a lot of people, and she knows how to put them together.”

Margo Arceri, standing left, with volunteers Janet McCauley, standing right, and Barbara Lynch at the 2017 Culper Spy Day. Photo from Mari Irizarry

Tyler agrees that Arceri has done a wonderful job, especially in getting various organizations involved in Culper Spy Day. Arceri reached out to local groups such as The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson, which once was owned by the Roe family, members of the ring. The happening has also grown to include organizations outside of the Three Village area, such as Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay and Ketcham Inn in Center Moriches. Tyler said Arceri is working with a historical society in Fairfield, Connecticut, to take part next year.

“I think it’s very important to the area,” the historian said. “It’s starting to bring in people.”

Steve Healy, the Three Village Historical Society’s current president, said when it comes to questions he may have about local history, in addition to Tyler and Town of Brookhaven historian Barbara Russell, he considers Arceri one of his go-to people.

“It’s difficult in today’s environment to dedicate time to history, and she seems to have found a good mix with history and with [her] work,” he said.

Arceri has a knack for getting people to think about history, Healy added, saying it’s apparent during both the Tri-Spy Tours and Culper Spy Day. He said the history buff connects with people by allowing them to ask questions and have a dialogue. She’s known for asking participants: “What do you think happened? What do you think are the elements that drove this situation?” because she doesn’t see historical events in black and white.

“Margo likes to engage people, and that’s one of her strong points, too,” Healy said. “She has many, but one of them is to engage people in a situation where they can have an honest, educated discussion.”

Healy believes the future looks bright for Arceri and her Culper spy ventures.

“I think she’s found a great niche where she can introduce local history to people and grow that further, because she’s always looking to grow,” Healy said. “That’s one of the things that I really like about her. She’ll have a conversation with me and say: ‘Steve, I want to expand. I want to get more people involved in this. I want to teach more people to let them know what happened here.’”

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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.

Artwork of Selah Strong’s St. George’s Manor, published in the October 1792 issue of New York Magazine. Photo from the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities

by Beverly C. Tyler

Second in a two-part series.

In mid-1775, while British forces, headquartered in Boston, were facing General George Washington and the Continental Army for the first time, Patriot regiments on Long Island were gearing up to defend the island from Great Britain’s large, well-trained army. Colonel Josiah Smith’s Brookhaven Regiment of 12 companies included Captain Selah Strong’s 7th Company with First Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, seven additional officers and 59 nonrated soldiers.

In the spring of 1776, after forcing the British Army to abandon Boston, Washington moved his army to New York City. The British army and naval forces followed soon after and entered New York Harbor at the end of June with 40 warships, supply ships and troop ships with more than 7,000 British and Hessian soldiers. Washington split his army, placing half on Long Island at Brooklyn Heights as he did not know if the British intended to attack Manhattan or Long Island.

By the end of August, when they attacked Washington’s Continental Army on Long Island, British forces had swelled to more than 20,000 troops. It was to be the largest battle of the Revolutionary War and a major defeat for Washington who lost more than a thousand troops killed or captured.

In early August Smith’s regiment was ordered to join the Continental Army defending Long Island. The regiment, including Strong’s 7th Company marched west to General Nathanael Greene’s camp in Flatbush. In his diary, during the battle, Smith wrote, “August ye 27 we wors alarmed aboute 2 in the morning, and we had many scurmishes and thay atemted to forse our Lines & they kild 1 of my men & we Suppose that we kild a number of them & we Drove them Back & Laie in the trenches all nite.”

It rained all day and night on Aug. 28 and Smith noted, “… thar wors a continual fire kep up between us and the Regulars (British)…” The next day, with continuous rain, thunder and lightning they crossed onto Manhattan. Smith with some members of the regiment marched into Connecticut and finally back onto Long Island at Smithtown. At this point the officers and soldiers with Smith dispersed and went home, many moving their families to Connecticut and the rest, including Strong staying on Long Island.

Strong could easily have moved to Connecticut as he owned land in Middletown, but he stayed and even attended, as a trustee, meetings of the Brookhaven Town Board. Strong was one of many Long Islanders to own property in Middletown or to move there as refugees. One refugee who owned property and spent time in Middletown was William Floyd of Mastic, Long Island’s signer of the Declaration of Independence. Floyd’s first wife died in 1781. Three years later he married Joanna Strong, Strong’s paternal first cousin. Joanna’s brother Benajah served as a captain in Colonel William Floyd’s regiment in 1776 and participated in Benjamin Tallmadge’s successful raid on Fort St. George in Mastic in 1780.

After his imprisonment in New York City in 1778 and his subsequent release, Strong became a refugee in Connecticut, probably based in Middletown. In 1780, following his election as president of the Brookhaven town trustees, a position equal to today’s town supervisor, Strong returned to Long Island, despite the continued presence of British and Loyalist troops, and joined his wife on Little Neck, her family’s ancestral home in Setauket (now Strong’s Neck).

Living on Little Neck with British forces still in control of Long Island, Strong had to be aware of the dangers. Kate Wheeler Strong wrote that, during this period her great-great-grandfather, Strong, saved the life of a British officer. “Not that he was fond of the British, but he had a good reason for saving this man’s life. While walking one day with Caleb Brewster … on the neck on which I now live, they saw a British officer on the shore below. Brewster aimed his gun, but my ancestor stopped him, explaining that while Caleb could flee in his boat, he himself lived here and would have to bear the brunt of the shooting. So Brewster lowered his gun, and the British officer passed on safely …”

Strong wrote a will in 1775, which he later voided, when the war was becoming more certain and he needed to put something, at least temporarily on paper. Kate Strong wrote, “He evidently thought in the event of his death it would not be safe for his wife and children to remain there for he ordered all his land to be sold including tracts on the south side of the island. His wife was to have any furniture she desired …”

His wife was made executrix, and with the help of three other executors, she was to manage the estate until their eldest son Thomas became 21. The names of his executors were Benjamin Havens, Phillips Roe and Samuel Thompson.

The historic Terrill-Havens-Terry-Ketcham Inn during the Revolutionary War was the home and tavern of Benjamin Havens, a spy for the Culper Spy Ring. He married Abigail Strong of Setauket, sister of Strong and related to Abraham Woodhull through their mother, Suzanna Thompson, sister of Jonathan Thompson and aunt of Samuel Thompson. Abigail’s sister Submit married Phillips Roe of Port Jefferson. In April, 1776, both Benjamin Havens and Abraham Woodhull were members of the Committee of Safety, the purpose of which was to keep an eye on Tories in the town. Other members included William Smith (Manor of St. George, Mastic), William Floyd (signer of the Declaration of Independence), Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull (Floyd’s brother-in-law and second cousin of Abraham Woodhull), Strong (husband of Anna Smith Strong and brother-in-law of Benjamin Havens), Phillips Roe (Abigail Haven’s brother-in-law) and Phillip’s brother Nathaniel.

In June, 1779, Abraham Woodhull, writing as Samuel Culper, reported that all but two mills in Suffolk County served the needs of the British. Benjamin Havens operated one of those two mills. The same month Rivington’s Royal Gazette reported on a plundering party feast at the house of Benjamin Havens at Moriches that included three Long Island refugees, William Phillips, Benajah Strong, and Caleb Brewster.

These extended family members and Brookhaven town leaders were also Patriot spies. The Culper Spy Ring was more than just five names on Benjamin Tallmadge’s code list, it was a large number of Patriots willing to risk their lives to rid Long Island and America from Great Britain’s continuing presence.

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.

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Copy of drawing of the Strong house in Mount Misery. This house, circa 1796, replaced the original house, which burned. Photo from Long Island Forum

By Beverly Tyler

First in a two-part series.

May 1, 1790, Selah Strong of Setauket shared his Patriot views with Robert Heaton of London.

“Almost every one is partial in favour of their own government, and perhaps you will charge me with being prejudiced in favour of ours, but it is my opinion, that this government is much better calculated for the enjoyment of our Civil Rights, than the Constitution of Great Britain.”

Strong was born Dec. 25, 1737, in a house built by his father Thomas at Mount Misery, now Belle Terre, Long Island. His mother Susannah was the daughter of Samuel Thompson, a family connection that extended from the community of Setauket to the Town of Brookhaven where Jonathan Thompson and his sons Samuel and Isaac, and Selah Strong served as town trustees before and after the Revolutionary War. Strong was elected a trustee of the Town of Brookhaven each year from 1767 to 1777, and as a representative to the first Provincial Congress of New York in 1775.

Samuel and Susannah Thompson’s son Jonathan and his son Dr. Samuel Thompson served in Long Island militia companies in 1775, and most likely as captains in the Continental Army in Connecticut during the Revolutionary War, as they were refugees to Connecticut following the British occupation of Long Island in August 1776. Strong was a captain in Colonel Josiah Smith’s regiment in 1775 and Captain of the Brookhaven minutemen in 1776. A refugee as well, Strong also most likely served as a captain in the Continental Army in Connecticut.

Jonathan Thompson was married to Mary Woodhull, Revolutionary war spy Abraham Woodhull’s aunt. To add more intrigue to the extended family lines, Jonathan Thompson’s second son Isaac, who lived in what is now Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore, remained on Long Island during the war and is believed to have been a spy for the Culper Spy Ring in Setauket. President George Washington spent the second night of his Long Island trip in 1790, at “the home of Squire Thompson,” to thank the spies who had provided much needed intelligence during the war.

In 1760, Strong married Anna Smith, great-granddaughter of the Lord of the Manor William “Tangier” Smith. The Smith homestead was on Little Neck, now Strong’s Neck, in Setauket. After the British took control of Long Island in 1776, many Long Island patriots became refugees in Connecticut. The couple remained on Long Island with their five children, probably at Strong’s family home at Mount Misery. Strong was still a town trustee. However, in the election of 1777 he and Jonathan Thompson were replaced by more Loyalist-leaning Brookhaven Town residents.

In January of 1778, Strong was arrested and imprisoned in a sugarhouse prison in Manhattan “for surreptitious correspondence with the enemy.” Strong’s position as a Patriot captain and outspoken town leader probably made it easy for someone, possibly a Loyalist Brookhaven town trustee, to suggest that Strong might be a person of interest to the British authorities. At some point his wife Anna, known to her family and friends as “Nancy,” obtained his release by appealing to her Loyalist relative in Manhattan. Strong did not then return to his home on Long Island but became a refugee in Connecticut and probably a great help to the soon to be developed Culper Spy Ring in Setauket.

It is easy to connect Strong with the Culper Spy Ring as one of the known spies was Nathaniel Ruggles. Ruggles was placed as a spy at Old Man’s (Mt. Sinai) by Benjamin Tallmadge, General Washington’s chief of intelligence.

Long Island Historian Kate Wheeler Strong, great-great-granddaughter of Anna Smith Strong, wrote the following article in her 1941 “True Tales,” published by the Long Island Forum. “It is evident that my great-great-grandfather (Selah Strong) must have helped Nathaniel Ruggles, one of Washington’s Spies. This is shown by an abstract from a will of Ruggles dated 1793, left in my great-great-grandfather’s keeping. In appointing him one of his executors Ruggles wrote: ‘I appoint my worthy patron Selah Strong Esq. Late judge of the COUNTY of Suffolk who 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.’”

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.

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