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History Close at Hand

A parade of tall ships into Galveston, Texas, includes the Picton Castle, left, and the Oosterschelde, based in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

In “Two Years Before the Mast,” R.H. Dana Jr. wrote in 1840, “However much I was affected by the beauty of the sea, the bright stars, and the clouds driven swiftly over them, I could not but remember that I was separating myself from all the social and intellectual enjoyments of life.”

Sail handling aloft the Picton Castle is accomplished by its experienced sailors. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

I spent a week this April as a crew member on the training barque Picton Castle. This square-rigged sailing ship is similar in size and function to the Mary and Louisa that my great-grand-aunt Mary Swift Jones sailed on to China and Japan in 1858.

I wanted to experience, in a small way, what my Aunt Mary experienced and observed as the wife of Captain Benjamin Jones on their three-year voyage. I know, of course, that a week on the Picton Castle is not really comparable to an almost round-the-world voyage, but I also knew that it would have to do. I came away from the experience with a new understanding of life aboard one of the many tall ships that travel the world today with crews learning sail handling and working together to achieve the goal of maintaining a historic ship under sail.

Having visited the Picton Castle in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia; Auckland, New Zealand; and Greenport, Long Island, between 2011 and 2015, I felt the romance of the old sailing ship and hoped I would have a chance to sail on her. I thought that seeing and feeling her with full sails moving almost silently through the water would be the part I would enjoy the most.

After a week on board, handling lines under close supervision and doing all the necessary chores that keep this tall ship functioning, I came away with an appreciation of the crew members with whom I worked. This is a hard-working and dedicated group from the officers and lead seamen to the advanced trainees who together instructed the new trainees in the basics of safety, line and sail handling and the myriad of jobs that have to be done every day. One I became fairly good at — whipping the bitter ends of lines to finish them off and prevent unraveling.

John the sailmaker works every day to maintain Picton Castle’s inventory of sail and teaches sailmaking to some crew members. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

My first days on duty I shadowed one of the trainees who had been on the Picton Castle for a year, including a winter trip through the North Atlantic when ice covered much of the running rigging, making it very difficult to move the lines through the blocks that control the sails. There were no beginning trainees on this leg of the voyages to and from Lunenburg, the home and training port for most of the regular crew, as they had to function quickly and decisively under severe conditions.

I asked my instructor why he chose this type of work. He told me that he had been boating along the Atlantic coast with his grandfather since he was a child and growing up had done all the things that were expected of him — an education, a degree and a resulting steady job. By the time he was 30, he realized he needed a change and the sea was calling him back. He said he has found what he wants to do with his life — he loves to be at sea and he knows he is good at it. He has picked up the routine and the skills quickly and is proud of the work he is doing on Picton Castle, working the deck and teaching new trainees.

On watch we worked lookout and helm together as well as working lines from the complicated array of gear — lines and equipment — that controls the spars and sails. We were fortunate to have our watch group of 11 assigned to the 4 to 8 watch, both a.m. and p.m., on the trip from Galveston, Texas, to Pensacola, Florida. My instructor noted that this was the best watch this time of year since we are on duty for both sunrise and sunset. On the first 4 to 8 a.m. watch after two days of rain, wind and 4- to 6-foot seas, we were in the Gulf of Mexico 60 miles from the nearest land.

During his trip learning how to be a ship crew member, historian Beverly Tyler experienced two days of rough seas. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The sky was clear, and the stars were brighter than any sky I had seen since crossing the Atlantic in the U.S. Navy in the late 1950s. The Milky Way shone brightly, and there were so many stars it would be difficult to add more stars between the ones I could see. It made me realize how important the sky was to the ancient civilizations who observed it every night that was not overcast. All the various constellations were easily identified along with the planets.

After a week on the Picton Castle, I had to reevaluate what I had gained from the experience. The most important to me was the people I met, especially the officers and crew who spend countless hours instructing and reinstructing us no matter how long it took and how many times they had to go over the same information. My fellow new trainees, many of whom became friends for a week, were dedicated to learning and the hard work that went with it. Next in lasting importance and wonder was the night sky and the changeover from dusk to dawn in the morning as the crescent moon rose followed by the sun. Next was this beautiful sailing ship itself that inspired all of us with its abilities, functionality and beauty.

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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A postcard of a family canal boat on the Erie Canal being pulled by mules. Image from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The changes in transportation that began in the early 1800s were dramatic and far-reaching. They made it possible to lower costs of food and fuel, expand settlements, open western New York and the Midwest and provide employment for thousands of immigrants. Before steam power, transportation on land was limited to walking, riding horses and going by horse and wagon. On the water there were sloops, schooners and larger ships that traveled around the world. All of these were dependent on organic modes of transportation: wind, current, animals and feet.

By the 1850s and 1860s schooners, barks and full-rigged ships were setting speed records on the China trade route and around Cape Horn to the California coast. Sloops and schooners brought goods to and from Long Island, carried cordwood into New York City and eventually carried coal from Jersey City and Newark to communities on Long Island.

Because it was so difficult and time consuming to sail upstream, great American rivers such as the Hudson in New York and the Connecticut River remained underutilized. It was realized that the steam engine applied to a boat would allow for on-demand propulsion for the first time in human history. In the first decade of the 1800s, New York State offered a prize, the exclusive commercial route up the Hudson River, for the first steamboat to travel the route at an average of 4 mph.

May 1895 the schooner Commerce, loaded with 91 tons of eggs and stove coal, left Perth Amboy and sailed with the cargo to New London, Connecticut. Painting by Ron Druett; photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Robert Fulton, an artist in Paris and a self-styled engineer, with financing by Robert R. Livingston, realized that a large paddlewheel, attached to the side of the vessel, rather than a screw propeller at the stern, was the answer to go upstream. In August 1807, Fulton’s North River Steamboat achieved 5 mph from Manhattan to Albany, and he received the prize.

DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York and former U.S. senator, was elected governor in 1816. He began construction of the Erie Canal from Lake Erie to the Hudson River with state and private funding on July 4, 1817. The canal opened in sections and every section became proof of the canal’s value as a propeller of commerce. Completed in 1825, the canal quickly exceeded all expectations. Goods from Cleveland got to Manhattan within days. Chicago was easily accessible from New York. The Erie Canal was the first large commercial canal in America.

By 1862, the canal had a depth of 7 feet and could handle boats carrying 240 tons. In 1882, the canal was made free. It had earned $42 million above the original cost and the expenses of enlargement, maintenance and operation. The success of the Erie Canal set off canal mania in other states: the Ohio and Erie Canal from Cleveland to the Ohio River 350 miles south and the Miami and Erie Canal from Toledo to Cincinnati. By 1830, the population in the Northwest (now the Midwest) doubled to 1.6 million and by 1840 doubled again to 3.3 million. Canals had opened what is now known as the Midwest. By 1850, the two major American ports were New York and New Orleans.

Now areas near the Great Lakes — from the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh and the Monongahela to the Ohio to the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico — were commercially more connected to the American south than to the Atlantic coast with its population in the millions. The Wabash and Erie Canal was a shipping canal that linked the Great Lakes to the Ohio River via an artificial waterway. The canal provided traders with access from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Over 460 miles long, it was the longest canal ever built in North America. Due to canal mania in the north, the railroads were slow in starting, lacking investment and behind the British in the manufacture of iron. By 1837, there were only 1,500 miles of track in America. Track construction accelerated right after the panic of 1837. By 1840, Cornelius Vanderbilt had bought and sold enough steamships and steamship routes to amass a fortune. Running through Long Island Sound, Vanderbilt had the fastest boats from Manhattan to Providence to Boston. Canals and steamboats made long-distance transportation viable, but canals were a temporary solution. The railroads would soon become the vehicle that united America with steam power.

In the next History Close at Hand article, railroads, specifically the Long Island Rail Road, will be explored. 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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A close-up of the peace wall in the Shankill Road area of Belfast. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

After two weeks in the Republic of Ireland, my wife and I arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a tour around the city. For the next two and a half hours we looked at, photographed and listened to our tour guide tell us about Belfast sights including the memorials, statues and paintings on walls in both the Catholic and Protestant areas of Belfast.

It is easy to judge from the murals painted on the walls in both Catholic and Protestant areas that little has changed in attitudes and positions concerning the divisions that existed before the peace (in 2007) that stopped most of the violence. However, there are examples of new murals calling for harmony and brotherhood in both sectarian areas that are replacing the many militant murals that have, for a long time, promoted hate, distrust and fear. There are also a number of memorial gardens commemorating those killed during the Troubles, as the fighting in Northern Ireland for more than three decades is identified.

The peace wall of Belfast where messages of unity are shared. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The fences and gates dividing the two sides are still there, but there are no restrictions on driving through any area except that some gates between Catholic and Protestant areas are still closed at night, according to our tour guide and confirmed by many reports and websites. In the Shankill Road area, a so-called peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities, originally constructed to keep the peace between factions, now contains many thousands of personal messages of goodwill and unity. The wall is topped by corrugated steel panels, which in turn are topped by steel screens or fence that appear to be about 40 feet high. Erected during the Troubles, there is no indication that these walls, dividing the population of Belfast both physically and culturally, are to be removed any time soon.

Belfast, as well as much of Ireland, both north and south, has an economy based in large part on tourism. After experiencing the sectarian divide in Belfast, our tour took us to the Titanic Quarter. An area that was once a thriving shipbuilding area and then a deteriorating industrial site is now an area of high-rise condos, an entertainment center and the impressive Titanic Experience, opened in 2012, inside the area known as Titanic Belfast.

Before our tour, we were given personal multimedia electronic guides with headsets that help guide visitors through the four floors of Titanic Experience. The tour starts with the history of Belfast especially detailing the rise of the linen industry through factory work and the history of shipbuilding in Belfast that culminates in the building of the Titanic.

The Titanic Experience has a total of nine interpretive and interactive galleries that expose you to the sights, sounds, smells and stories of the RMS Titanic from its building to its launching and fitting out. It continues as you move from floor to floor with Titanic’s shakedown cruise in 1912, picking up and discharging passengers in two ports and heading across the Atlantic. The experience gets more dramatic as the ship hits the iceberg, and we hear the official messages transmitted and received as well as the oral histories of surviving passengers.

Visitors to the Titanic Belfast can experience what it was like to be on the ship. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

As we explored the twists and turns of the galleries, we reached the gallery where we saw the ship sinking and the efforts of the crew and passengers to get off the ship. We were provided a number of stories of individuals on the ship including the captain, the ship’s designer and stories of first-, second- and third-class passengers. Then we saw the reactions of media and officials, the boards of inquiry and in brief detail the many movies made about the Titanic, mostly showing how they had romanticized the tragic events. Another section detailed the graveyards in places like Halifax, Nova Scotia, where many of the recovered bodies are buried.

The last part of the Titanic Experience, on a theater-sized screen, is the story of the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 by Robert Ballard and his team. We watched their dramatic film of the two separated sections of the Titanic 12,000 feet below the surface and the debris field that trailed out behind the ship. It was this debris field that provided Ballard with the ability to locate the Titanic.

The last experience, below the giant screen, under a glass floor, is film taken from above the Titanic. You see the Titanic below as you stand on the glass floor and watch as the sunken ship passes beneath your feet.

Outside the Titanic Experience, the building itself is a dramatic creation of both the Titanic’s massive hull and the iceberg that ended its life and the lives of its many passengers and crew. Within the area covered by Titanic Belfast are the Titanic’s Dock and Pump House, the SS Nomadic — the last remaining White Star vessel, and a Discovery Tour that includes the drawing offices where Titanic was created and the slipways where she was built.

We left Belfast for our afternoon ride to Dublin, Republic of Ireland, and our next morning departure. Goodbye, Northern Ireland, sláinte!

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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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.

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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.

While going through items in his mother’s house Three Village historian Beverly Tyler discovers more about his family’s history, which included ownership of Tyler General Store circa 1890. Photo from Beverly Tyler

Beverly Tyler

Growing up in Setauket, first in my grandmother’s house and post office and then in the family home that dates to about 1740, I was aware that my ancestors had lived there for four generations. However, I was not conscious of the details of those families, nor did I realize that the material collection of those four generations was still in the house, packed, in most cases, carefully away in trunks, chests, barrels, boxes, tins and other assorted containers.

My mom died in August of last year, and my family members and I began the process of preparing for an estate sale of the contents of the house. We didn’t have to concern ourselves with the house itself as Mom made a wonderful deal with the Three Village Community Trust, which will eventually take ownership of the house and three acres.

While going through items in his mother’s house, above circa 1900, Three Village historian Beverly Tyler discovers more about his family’s history. Photo from Beverly Tyler

As we began opening trunks, boxes and closets, we discovered clothing, china, glassware, photographs and many other objects dating from the 19th century and even a few items dating to the 18th century. One of the discoveries was music composed and written by my great-grandfather, George Washington Hale Griffin, who worked at various times with both Christy’s and Hooley’s Minstrels in New York City and Chicago. I even discovered at least one piece of church music he wrote.

While I was growing up, I learned, through her letters home, about my great aunt, Mary Swift Jones, who voyaged to China and Japan from 1858 to 1861, in a 150-foot bark built in East Setauket Harbor by her Uncle William Bacon, whose father left England in 1796 to come to Long Island to work in the Blue Point Iron Works. His journal entries were among family papers I researched, even traveling to his hometown in Derbyshire, England, to discover where he came from and why he left. Many of these archival papers and artifacts, dating to the last three centuries, have been given to various Long Island museums and historical societies, while others are to be included in the estate sale.

What I didn’t realize was that the first two generations to live in the house were direct ancestors of my wife Barbara and that the original part of the house had just three bedrooms, which was home to families that each had five children.

When the house and farm were sold to my ancestors in the first decade of the 19th century, it became home to two generations of nine children, still in a home with three bedrooms. It was not until 1879 that an addition was added with two additional bedrooms upstairs, well after my grandfather and six of his eight siblings had married and moved on.

When the house and farm were sold to my ancestors in the first decade of the 19th century, it became home to two generations of nine children, still in a home with three bedrooms.”

I knew from an early age that my great-grandfather, Charles B. Tyler, and my two unmarried great aunts, Annie and Corinne, had remained in the house their entire lives. My family ran a general store for about 100 years in front of our house on the corner of Main Street and Old Field Road. After Charles died in 1899, Annie ran the post office, except for two terms of the President Cleveland administration when the postmaster position was given to party loyalists, and Corinne ran the general store. In the 1930s they closed the store and donated the building to the local American Legion post. The legion moved the building up Main Street where it sits today near the Setauket Methodist Church.

I treasure the knowledge that my ancestors left so many records of their existence. However, many of the individual photographs and photo albums, especially those dating to the 19th century, are of people I do not recognize and are, for the most part, unidentified. Only their clothing, hair styles and poses give hints to their time period and possibly their identity. Everyone I meet who has come face to face with family material from the past says the same thing, “I wish I had asked more questions when I had the opportunity.”

There are many avenues to explore to discover more about the people we love and the ancestors we know so little about. Take the time to learn more about your heritage and the history of the community where you live and label your photographs. The Three Village Historical Society and the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library are both good places to start, with helpful people who have the time, the talent and the desire to help you discover the links to your family and community history.

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

Claire Belllerjeau presents a lecture at the Setauket Neighborhood House. Photo by Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

“Spies” Nest: Major John André’s Activities at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, was the featured program for the Three Village Historical Society’s free lecture series at the Setauket Neighborhood House Feb. 27.

Historian Claire Bellerjeau presented her famed lecture on the British Revolutionary War spymaster John André to an eager audience of historians, history buffs, society members and the general public. Bellerjeau began her dramatic presentation by reminding the audience that there has been a great deal of misinformation written and presented as fact about the people and events of the Revolutionary War over the past two-and-a-half centuries. Many of the stories and tales surrounding the activities of British officers and their relationships with the Townsend family in Oyster Bay have grown with the telling and were perpetuated by writer after writer using the same undocumented sources that became the justification around which a dramatic story was created.

Bellerjeau, presently an historian for the Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, the ancestral home of General George Washington’s Culper Spy Robert Townsend, traveled to the archives of the New York Historical Society, the William L. Clements Library in Michigan and to Toronto, Canada to research the Revolutionary War era documents that tell a more accurate, and no less dramatic story of the events surrounding the life and death of Major John André, the chief of British intelligence in New York City who worked secretly to assist Continental Army General Benedict Arnold in his effort to turn the American fortress at West Point over to the British.

André visited the British headquarters of British Major John Graves Simcoe at the Townsend home, now Raynham Hall, in Oyster Bay a number of times as the two British officers were friends who corresponded with each other regularly. However, the story of Sally Townsend overhearing a conversation about General Benedict Arnold between the two officers and informing her brother Robert Townsend­­—­alias Samuel Culper Jr. of the Culper Spy Ring­—is just that, a story, as the facts uncovered by Bellerjeau definitely place them in other locations at that critical time.

Bellerjeau’s enthusiastic presentation featured the actual documentary evidence she uncovered which also included material by Long Island historian Benjamin Franklin Thompson of Setauket and other historians, as well as original documentary evidence in the archival collection of the East Hampton Library.

For additional information on the Setauket-based Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring and the role of British spy Major John André, visit the Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay and the SPIES! Exhibit at the Three Village Historical Society History Center on North Country Road in Setauket.

The next Three Village Historical Society lecture series presentation will be a pot luck supper and lecture “The Witchcraft of Goody Garlick” presented by Tata Rider at the Setauket Neighborhood House Monday, April 17 at 7:00 p.m. The public is invited to this free program, just bring a covered-dish entree that serves six. A wine and cheese reception at 6:00 p.m. will precede the supper and program. Sponsored jointly by the society and the Setauket Neighborhood House Association.            

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

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The stark beauty of Glen Coe complete with a piper. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Scotland is a wonderful, wild and surprising place to visit.

A part of the United Kingdom, Scotland demonstrates an independent spirit, single malt whisky and haggis, a traditional food that defies categorization. Scotland has many wonderful heroes, and movies have been made about some of them.

Scotland also raised poets, writers and scientists as well as a number of kings, queens, lords and ladies, some of whom literally lost their heads. Growing up, I was thrilled by the adventures of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Abbotsford, his home and gardens are an hour south of Edinburgh.

My wife, Barbara, and I have wanted to visit Scotland for a number of years, and this June we spent a week exploring some of the Scottish Highlands and the Trossachs National Park around Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine.

We drove a rental car from Manchester Airport to Edinburgh, where we spent the first three nights. We started the first day in Edinburgh by taking a one-day, 12-hour small-group bus tour to Glen Coe, Loch Ness and the Scottish Highlands.

It was a wonderful introduction to Scotland and we had a very knowledgeable and good-natured driver and guide.

We stopped at Glen Coe, where we took in the stark beauty and listened to a Scot playing the bagpipes. There, a most tragic and moving story was played out in 1692, when 38 men of the Clan MacDonald were massacred by the Campbells who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary. Another 40 women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned.

At Fort Augustus, we watched boats going through the three locks between Loch Ness and the canal that took them to the next lock. Loch Ness, reputed home of the mythical monster, and Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, are both scenes of landscape beauty. The weather adds to the overall effect.

In contrast, the next day, we toured The Royal Yacht Britannia, which was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. It is now permanently berthed in Edinburgh and the self-guided audio tour was the best organized. In the tea and lunchroom, we were treated like royalty and the story of the ship, the royals who lived on it and the men and women who worked on it was clear, informative and enlightening.

We walked the Royal Mile in Edinburgh from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. We especially enjoyed The Scotch Whisky Experience tour and learned a lot about single malt scotch.

We also enjoyed the gigantic Museum of Childhood and the John Knox House. We learned a lot about Knox, his life and his turbulent relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots. We also toured St. Giles’ Cathedral where Knox preached reform leading to the abdication of Mary.

We learned about regional differences in scotch whisky as well as a great deal about the relationships of the people of Scotland to each other and to the English. It is a turbulent history of a strong, self-reliant people.

The next three days we headed north and west into the area of the Trossachs National Park. This is one of the most beautiful areas of Scotland. We drove first to the tiny village of Balquhidder and along its narrow roads, often sharing them with bike riders. We then drove farther north to Killin, which is known for the falls that flow through the town and at one time provided milling power. Here and throughout Scotland and England are walking trails that go along lochs (lakes in England) and through fields, farms and villages. It was a delight for the eye and refreshing beauty for the soul. To be continued.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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North Shore-based Founder’s Day Committee opens fourth-graders up to Setauket’s original settlement

Students with guide Donna Smith at the Amos Smith house (circa 1740). Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

The goals of the Founder’s Day Committee are to introduce the Vance Locke murals on the early history of the Town of Brookhaven to all the 4th grade students in the Three Village school district, and to introduce the students to Brookhaven’s Original Settlement in Setauket.

The Town of Brookhaven was founded in Setauket on April 14, 1655. In 2006, following the successful 350th Town of Brookhaven anniversary celebration in 2005, a group of local residents, Setauket PTA members and the Setauket School principal met and decided to invite fourth grade students from all Three Village Schools to spend a day at the Setauket School to see the recently restored murals and learn about their history.

The murals, in the Setauket School auditorium, were painted in 1951 by artist Vance Locke.

From 2006 through 2013, fourth- grade students from Three Village schools came to the Setauket School auditorium, learned about the murals and the history they portray, and viewed artifacts connected with the murals and their various themes.

Students were also treated to monologues by Setauket School sixth-grade students, dressed in period costumes, about the murals and the people in them.

In 2014, a change was made to provide students with a more direct and hands-on experience. Three Village fourth-graders were introduced to the murals and their history and then taken on a walking tour of the Setauket Original Settlement area. In 2015, the walking tour was improved, providing each class with a guide and adding visual details to the tour.

Evaluations by teachers have led to various improvements in the student experience. To date, teachers have been enthusiastic about the tour and the changes and improvements made over the years.

The mural talk and tour, on April 29 and 30, guided 20 fourth grade classes around the Town of Brookhaven Original Settlement area. The days were perfect, weather-wise, and the sight of more than 400 students learning about the history of the area brought it to life.

The Founder’s Day Committee, Barbara Russell, Brookhaven Town Historian; Donna Smith, Three Village historical Society director of education; Katherine Downs Reuter, Three Village Community Trust; and Beverly Tyler, who works as Three Village Historical Society historian.

Washington, D.C., trip ties pieces of nation’s past to North Shore, including famed Culper Spy Ring

A panda enjoys bamboo at the National Zoo. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

What do spy codes, a Setauket officer’s saber, cherry blossoms, pandas and a postal museum have in common?

This past weekend my family, including eight grandchildren, traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit our nation’s capital together and discover new things. The trip began with a visit to the National Cryptologic Museum about 30 minutes north of Washington.

Here, the story of the secret world of intelligence is detailed with interactive displays and cipher technology from the 16th century to today. One section details the activity of spies during the Revolutionary War, especially General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, and allows visitors, especially children, to “Create Your Own Secret Cipher,” “Hidden Message,” “Invisible Ink Secrets” and “Make a Secret Code with a Dictionary.”

There is also a “CrypoKids Challenge,” with messages to decode throughout the museum. There is, of course, much more to see here, including captured German and Japanese code machines.

Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler
Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Photo from Beverly Tyler

The recently renovated Smithsonian National History Museum along the National Mall includes the exhibit “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.”

Covering the period from the French and Indian War to the present, “exploring ways in which wars have been defining episodes in American history,” the exhibit includes a stunning array of artifacts, including a dragoon saber belonging to our own Major Benjamin Tallmadge, General Washington’s chief of intelligence and son of the Setauket Presbyterian Church minister.

A late spring provided an April 11 blooming for the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial. More than one million people attended the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C., however we all went to the National Zoo to watch the pandas play and eat bamboo. A great choice considering the crowds and we did get wonderful pictures of the blossoms the day before.

We spent one morning at the National Postal Museum across the street from Union Station. This may be the best museum in D.C.; it is definitely the most interactive Smithsonian museum.

Visitors can sort mail in a postal train car, ride in a postal truck, select routes to deliver mail across the country and follow a new mail route from New York City to Boston in the 17th century, which became the Boston Post Road decades later. Other activities include letters written home during the many wars and conflicts of the past three centuries and the opportunity to follow these letters as they travel from place to place.

In one simulation of a post office, people come up to the postal window and interact with the clerk. One young girl came up to the window and asked that the Christmas list she was carrying be sent to Santa at the South Pole.

The clerk responded that Santa was actually at the North Pole. The young girl said, “Oh, that’s all right, this is my brother’s list.”

There are many other wonderful stories in the postal museum, including poignant letters written home during the Civil War. There are also real stories about mail fraud, letter bombs and how the security system of the United States Post Office Department dealt with crime.

And not to ignore the Hollywood approach, there are stories about all the movies made about every postal subject from the Pony Express to prohibition.

All in all, it was an experience for visitors of all ages.

In four days, we also visited the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and walked around the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial. All the Smithsonian museums belong to all Americans and admission is free.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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