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American Revolution

Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history at Brown University. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirke from Wikimedia Commons

This week marks the 247th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since this formative moment in American history, much has changed, with an uncertainty of the country’s long-term future.

Gordon Wood, professor emeritus of history at Brown University and 1993 Pulitzer Prize recipient for his book, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” remains optimistic that America’s future is bright. 

In an exclusive phone interview, he detailed why the American Revolution is relevant today, dismissing apocalyptic predictions. 

Revolutionary relevance

Wood contends that despite prolonged separation from the American Revolution, this cause remains highly relevant today.

“It is the most important event in our history, bar none,” he said. “It not only legally created the United States, but it infused into our culture everything we believe.”

Wood maintains that America is “not a nation in the usual sense of the term.” By this, he means Americans are not bound by any common ancestry. Instead, the United States represents a particular set of ideas to which Americans subscribe.

“Someone once said that to be an American is not to be somebody but to believe in something,” Wood noted. “And what do we believe in? We believe in those things that came out of the Revolution: equality, liberty and so on.”

“There’s no other adhesive to hold us together, so I think we need to emphasize that,” he said.

American stability

Within contemporary national discourse, some have expressed fears that America is a declining democracy. Even the nonprofit think tank Freedom House, which measures the strength of democracy in countries around the world, has scored the United States incrementally lower in recent years.

Wood characterized some recent historical developments as “destabilizing,” though he maintained these concerns are often overblown.

“We’re still the greatest power the world has ever known,” the Brown professor emeritus said. “I think that we’re very stable, and I certainly think we’re at the height of our powers.”

Assessing the current geopolitical landscape, Wood acknowledged China is a rising global power. However, he maintained that America’s long-term outlook remains promising.

“I don’t see any evidence that China is going to replace us,” he said. “I think it would be unfortunate if we got into a war with China over this fear of being displaced, but it’s just not in the cards.”

He added that fears of American decline have been pervasive throughout the nation’s history, with concerns about China just the latest iteration of this long historical pattern.

“We have a lot of apocalyptic thinking that goes on, and that’s not new,” Wood said. “We’ve always done that. There are always people saying that we’re going to fall apart.”

Triumph of the future

Wood suggested Americans have an unusual relationship with their national history. “I don’t think we have ever been a historically minded people compared to other nations,” he said. “I think it was President James Polk [1845-49] who said the United States is the only country in the world that has its history in the future.”

Since the Revolution, Americans have always been a “future-oriented people,” according to Wood. Yet the ideas articulated by the Founding Fathers have been passed down to subsequent generations of Americans, and those values are still practiced today.

Americans “know about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ and ‘all men are created equal,’” Wood said. “Those are phrases that are very potent and available to most people, but I don’t think there’s much real interest in history as such among Americans.”

But, he added, “I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing. We’re future-oriented. We think the future is going to be better than the present.”

Wood concluded by saying that America’s faith in the future has long attracted new immigrants. Despite the numerous complications throughout its history, America still draws in people from all around the world. 

Wood indicated that this attraction demonstrates how the American Dream lives to this day.

“Immigrants still want to come here because they can get a better life here than they can where they came from,” he said. “It’s an optimistic view.”

The Village of Port Jefferson reignited a time-honored tradition last weekend during its 26th annual Charles Dickens Festival.

Hundreds of community members, visitors, business groups and local organizations participated in the festivities from Friday, Dec. 2, to Sunday, Dec. 4. 

The show went on despite hard rains and gusting winds throughout the morning and early afternoon Saturday. Mayor Margot Garant, decked out in traditional Dickensian garb, commented on the turnout in the face of these conditions. 

“To me, it just shows how important this festival is to not just this community but kids coming from St. James and beyond who are coming to see Santa,” she said. “It’s just magic, and rain or shine we’re going to be doing Dickens.”

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden concurred with this positive outlook, regarding the festival as another means for community-building. “It’s heartwarming to see everybody still supporting this festival,” she said. 

Trustee Stan Loucks commented on the uniqueness of the opportunities afforded through the festival and the steady growth of the events over its nearly three decades in existence.

“It’s grown every single year, and it’s just the most festive time of the year,” he said, adding, “I love the whole atmosphere, the village center. It’s a very special place, and I look forward to this every year.”

The program across all three days was loaded with special events featuring the various elements that formulate this distinct village’s character. The heart of Port Jeff was on full display, from its downtown business sector to its local history, public institutions and more.

At the Bayles Boat Shop, local shipbuilders showcased their ongoing work to construct a 25-foot whaleboat honoring the village’s Revolutionary War heritage. 

John Janicek, treasurer of the boat shop’s nonprofit arm, the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center, detailed how the whaleboat ties together various threads of Port Jeff’s historical roots.

“It not only ties in the historical aspect that Caleb Brewster performed here during the Revolutionary War and [the role] Port Jefferson played, but it also ties in our shipbuilding aspect, too,” Janicek said. “We’re getting a lot of support from the village on this. They see this as something the whole village can get their arms around and embrace, similar to the Dickens Festival.”

Over at the Drowned Meadow Cottage on the corner of West Broadway and Barnum, local historians greeted visitors with guided tours detailing Port Jefferson’s strategic position during the Revolutionary War. They shared stories of local patriots whose involvement in the Culper Spy Ring helped advance the cause of American independence.

Village historian Chris Ryon discussed how the Dickens Festival offers a platform to promote local history to residents and visitors alike.

“We take the people from Dickens and tell them how Port Jefferson was involved in the Culper Spy Ring,” he said. “It’s another group of people that we can bring in.”

Mark Sternberg, Culper Spy Ring historian at the Drowned Meadow Cottage, offered a unique take on Dickens. He remarked upon the intersection of the Dickensian and Revolutionary periods and how people today can relive tradition and rehear the lore of the past.

He said, referring to the American spies, “A lot of these people survived into the 1800s, and the stories of the American Revolution were told during the 1800s. For us to tell stories about the American Revolution as part of the Dickens Festival, it’s what they would have done.”

The historian added, “It’s keeping with the tradition of telling a story about the founding of our nation, even in later periods. Now Charles Dickens may not have talked about it because he was British, but here in America during the Victorian era, we would have.”

Along with stories of the past, the village exhibited the musical talents of local students. At the Port Jefferson Free Library, the Edna Louise Spear Elementary School chamber orchestra delivered moving string performances, filling the library with festive tunes.

Their music teacher, Christian Neubert, summarized this Dickens custom. “For a number of years now, we’ve been coming to perform here at the library during the Dickens Festival,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to get our students out for a performance and to get the community involved with our music program.”

Jessica Schmettan, superintendent of schools for Port Jefferson School District, was among the dozens of audience members at the library. She expressed pride in seeing the students perform before their fellow community members.

“It’s just amazing that our students can be performing in the village in which they live,” she said, adding that the festival “gives them a different avenue to perform in, not just the auditorium or the classroom but in front of a real audience.”

At Suffolk Lodge No. 60 on Main Street, the oldest Masonic lodge on Long Island, brothers treated guests to magic shows and a dance festival. Downstairs, they served freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate.

Chris Connolly, master of the lodge, said the lodge dates back to the late 18th century. He expressed delight at seeing this historic organization maintain an active community presence through Dickens.

“Being a part of the community is a big part of who we are and helping others,” Connolly said.

Jason Intardonato, senior deacon of Suffolk Lodge No. 60, discussed Dickens as a means of strengthening local connections and a time for selflessness.

“The Dickens Festival provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to interact with our neighbors here and with the community in Port Jefferson and to allow them into our space, entertain them for a while during the holidays, and give back,” he said.

Farther along Main, Jeffrey Sanzel’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at Theatre Three is an active reminder of the historical background to the Dickens Festival.

The festival also provided a platform for some to communicate their message on a larger stage. For the second month in a row, protesters from the farmworkers union Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW gathered outside the Pindar wine shop in yet another call of action to negotiate a contract. The dispute is part of more than a year of negotiations between the union and Pindar Vineyards, the wine store’s parent company. 

John Durso, president of Local 338, joined the picketers on Main Street during the festival. “We knew that today was the Dickens Festival,” he said. “We knew that there would be a lot more people around, so we decided to … bring attention to the fact that these workers, like everybody else, are entitled to the same dignity and respect that all workers should have.”

Coordinating the annual festival is a monumental task for the village and the various stakeholders involved in its planning. Kevin Wood, the village’s director of economic development, parking administrator and communications committee head, thanked the sponsors who supported the festival and commented on the event’s success despite the inclement weather conditions.

“Because this has been [going on for] 26 years, people understand that this is one of the most unique events on Long Island, so they’re going to fight the rain to be here,” Wood said. “To support the production and the infrastructure, there are so many volunteers but there are also so many people staffing to make it work.”

Snaden concluded by offering how the Dickens Festival advances some of the village’s highest aims. She said the community uncovers its sense of place through an event such as this.

“It really goes to the sense of community that we all have,” she said. “All the work that goes into this festival and how everybody comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Port Jeff village historian Chris Ryon, above, poses with a Revolutionary War era whaleboat. The planned “Resolution“ will be similar in style and scale to the above vessel. Photo courtesy Ryon

American history and local tradition are on a collision course here in the Village of Port Jefferson.

Last month, public officials announced that the village government would partner with the Port Jeff-based Bayles Boat Shop to recreate a whaleboat from the American Revolution era. The boat shop is an offshoot of the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center, also known as LISEC, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of maritime history on Long Island. 

Mayor Margot Garant said the village government entered into conversations with LISEC because it sought a way to promote the story of Port Jefferson’s role in the Culper Spy Ring.

“We would have never considered it without having LISEC as a partner,” Garant said. “They just absolutely loved the concept. We brought it to them for the historical component and for helping us tell the story about Port Jefferson’s instrumental role — and the Roe family’s role, in particular — in the spy ring.” She added, “We felt the whaleboat would be a unique way of embracing the history, telling the story and engaging the community.”

In an interview, LISEC president Len Carolan indicated that the buildout would last for up to two years or so. “The boat will be a little bit longer than 25 feet, 6 feet wide, and it will weigh up to a ton,” Carolan said. He added that a project of this scale will also require additional steps: “This is the first time we’re going to be using a lofting platform.”

Lofting is a practice in wooden shipbuilding that enables designers to produce full-scale drawings used as templates. These renderings will help the builders to cut wood pieces with precision and to create a vessel that is as true to the source as possible.

The designers even hope to use the same building materials as the original whaleboats. “Typically, the boats then were built with white oak and white cedar,” Carolan said. “We have access to white oak because that grows here on Long Island. The white cedar, though, is no longer available here, so we’ll have to go a little further north to get the kind of wood we need.”

The term “whaleboat” is a misnomer, denoting the style of the vessel rather than its intended function. Carolan stressed that the operators of the original whaleboats did not use them for hunting whales.

“It’s similar to the design of the boats used to hunt whales, but those boats were much bigger — they were like 32 to 36 feet long,” he said. However, the boat’s design likely offered the patriots certain tactical advantages at sea. “It was easy to maneuver and row, and they were able to raid British ships and get away quickly using these whaleboats.”

Local historian Mark Sternberg is among the key figures involved in this project. Sternberg said he cultivated an interest in local history while growing up in the Port Jefferson School District. Back then, the stories of local patriots left an early impression upon him, inspiring him to pursue the subject more deeply.

“I’m from Port Jefferson … and grew up surrounded by the history here,” he said. “There is a lot of stuff here in Port Jeff that hasn’t been well documented. We have barely even started to scratch the surface of what we know about the spy ring.”

Sternberg foresees the whaleboat serving an array of educational purposes. An operational whaleboat makes possible various historical reenactments, such as Valentine Rider’s misguided plundering of the Roes — whom he had falsely believed were loyalists — and scenes of the numerous whaleboat battles fought in the Long Island Sound.

Sternberg added the whaleboat would help to tell the story of Caleb Brewster, a Setauket native who assisted the American war effort through his participation in the spy ring. Brewster also joined in the famous whaleboat fighting on the Sound. 

Though the name of Brewster’s whaleboat is lost to history, Sternberg recommends naming it “Resolution.” He said this title could still honor the Brewster legacy.

“My recommendation is to call the boat Resolution,” he said in an email. “This was the name of Valentine Rider’s whaleboat; [he was] a patriot privateer who launched from Connecticut to harass perceived loyalists on Long Island. It will work for plundering reenactments, as Valentine Rider and his men plundered the families of Nathaniel and Phillips Roe in May 1781 — the Roes were portraying themselves as loyalists as part of their roles in the Culper Spy Ring.” He added, “The name will also work if we ever try to reenact the intense whaleboat fight of 1782, as Valentine Rider fought alongside Caleb Brewster in that battle.”

Port Jeff village historian Chris Ryon also supports the whaleboat project. He sees the whaleboat as a unique opportunity to showcase two previously distinct strands of local history, connecting the village’s shipbuilding roots to its contributions to the Revolutionary cause.

The whaleboat “pulls it all together,” Ryon said. “It’s one of the earliest histories we have and pulls our Revolutionary War history in with our maritime history.”

Carolan expressed similar enthusiasm for the project. He said he hopes for the public to be able to follow the various stages of the buildout, from the construction of the lofting platform to the completion of the whaleboat. 

He also holds that the whaleboat could be a precursor to similar projects down the road, generating momentum and boosting confidence among those working on it. “We are hoping that it becomes a visible sign to students and local school districts,” the LISEC president said. “And that the entire build from beginning to end is open for the public to see the progress.” 

Carolan added that he hopes the build is the first of many large undertakings for the Bayles Boat Shop and added, “I think it’s going to give us so much more exposure.”

For Garant, sharing the local history of Port Jefferson is essential. By educating locals about their historical origins, she believes residents can better understand who they are, where they come from and their place within that history.

“I think the history is key to who we are,” the mayor said. “I feel one of the responsibilities of local government is to not only embrace that history, but to enrich and save it and work with the community to celebrate it and talk about it.”

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Battle of Long Island engraving, 1874, from painting by Alonzo Chappel on display at Three Village Historical Society exhibit SPIES!

By Beverly C. Tyler

“The first major battle in the American Revolution following the Declaration of Independence was fought [beginning on August 27th] 1776 on the western part of Long Island in Brooklyn. This proved to be the largest battle of the entire war. It resulted in a devastating loss for General Washington. His army was vastly outnumbered. Many of his farmer-soldiers had no bayonets, little ammunition, and almost no training. They were fighting the most experienced, strongest and best-equipped army in the world.” (Three Village Historical Society exhibit SPIES!)

The British attack on American forces was described by Sir William Howe, British commander. “ … the British, with Colonel Donop’s corps of Chasseurs and Hessian Grenadiers, disembarked near Utrecht on Long Island without opposition, the whole being landed, with 40 pieces of cannon, in two hours and a half, under the direction of Commodore Hotham-Lieutenant-General Clinton commanding the first division of troops. … The general learning … that the Rebels had not occupied the [Jamaica] pass, detached a battalion of Light-infantry to secure it; and advancing with his corps … possessed [Brooklyn] Heights … the attack … by the main body of the Army … was commenced by the Light-infantry and Light-Dragoons upon large bodies of the Rebels … had they been permitted to go on, it is my opinion they would have carried the redoubt; but … I would not risk the loss that might have been sustained in the assault, and ordered them back.” (Long Island as America, A Documentary History — pages 75-78)

The next day British and Hessian troops pressed the attack on American lines and won the day. As detailed by Sir William Howe, “The force of the enemy … was not less, from the best account I have had, than ten thousand men … Their loss is computed at about three thousand three hundred killed, wounded, prisoners, and drowned, with five field-pieces and one howizer taken. In the evening of the 27th, the Army encamped in front of the enemy’s works. On the 28th, at night, broke ground six hundred yards from a redoubt upon their left, and on the 29th, at night, the Rebels evacuated their entrenchments … with the utmost silence … At daybreak on the 30th, their flight was discovered.”

General Howe’s estimate of American killed, wounded and captured is more than double the current estimate. By not pressing the attack, General Howe allowed time for the retreating American troops to regroup and eventually escape back to Manhattan. During the attack, General Washington sent additional troops from Manhattan to Brooklyn, including 15-year-old Private Joseph Plumb Martin, a native of Connecticut who would, years later, write a detailed story of his seven years in the army. Martin’s account is the singular most important recollection by an ordinary soldier telling the story of the Revolutionary War from the bottom up. Martin was in New York City with his regiment in June of 1776. In August, following the British attack, he wrote, 

“… the regiment was ordered to Long-Island, the British having landed in force there. . . We soon landed in Brooklyn … marched up the ascent from the ferry, to the plain. We now began to meet the wounded men, another sight I was unacquainted with, some with broken arms, some with broken legs, and some with broken heads. The sight of these a little daunted me, and made me think of home, but the sight and thought vanished together.” During the following day, Martin noted that the battles were often fought within sight of his unengaged regiment. The next day, as he wrote, “We were soon called upon to fall in and proceed … Just at dusk, I, with one or two others of our company, went off to a barn, about half a mile distant, with intent to get some straw to lodge upon, the ground and leaves being drenched in water, and we as wet as they … When I arrived [back at the regiment] the men were all paraded to march off the ground … We were strictly enjoined not to speak, or even cough, while on the march. All orders were given from officer to officer, and communicated to the men in whispers. What such secrecy could mean we could not devine. We marched on, however, until we arrived at the ferry, where we immediately embarked on board the batteaux, and were conveyed safely to New-York.” Memoir — Joseph Plumb Martin

Thus began Washington’s miraculous escape, the evacuation of troops from Long Island under the very noses of the British. It continued all night and into the next morning when a thick fog gave cover as the last of the soldiers were transported across the East River to Manhattan. Setauket’s Benjamin Tallmadge, also in his first engagement with the British, wrote in his autobiography 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.” 

Much of the Battle of Brooklyn was fought across what is now Green-Wood Cemetery’s grounds. For years, the Old Stone House, as pictured in Alonzo Chappel’s painting, has partnered with Green-Wood to commemorate this important historic event on their grounds. For more information, see the list of events for Battle Week Aug. 20 through Aug. 28 at: theoldstonehouse.org/event/battle-week-8-20-8-28/2022-08-20/.

Beverly C. Tyler is a 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.

This Fourth of July, Long Islanders continue to grapple with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Pixabay photo

Independence Day is upon us. 

As we prepare for Fourth of July festivities, it is important that we keep in mind what this day celebrates: The signing of the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, whose legacy continually evolves. 

Jefferson was born April 13, 1743, in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia into a privileged family supported by the labor of slaves. 

His father was a planter and a surveyor. Jefferson later inherited his father’s land and slaves and began a lifelong project to construct his well-known estate, Monticello. But Jefferson was destined for a higher calling and was thrust into public life, where he would shape the course of American history.

The American revolutionary penman 

Jefferson was a tall young man, but also awkward and reserved. He demonstrated, however, an early penchant for writing, a skill that served him well as he climbed the ranks of the Virginia House of Burgesses and later the Continental Congress. 

Colonial leaders quickly grasped Jefferson’s compositional brilliance, but also observed he said very little. John Adams, who had worked closely with Jefferson in the Continental Congress, once said, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” Jefferson was a man of the written — not spoken — word.

While serving in Congress in 1776, Jefferson captured the spirit of his era and produced the Declaration of Independence, a radical pronouncement of America’s uniqueness from the rest of the world, justifying why it was necessary for the 13 American colonies to break off from Great Britain. 

Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Millennia of human conflict and conquest had emphasized man’s separateness in the eyes of his fellow man. America is the only society in history predicated on the notion of human equality, the only place on Earth that had the audacity to proclaim that humans can harmoniously coexist regardless of their religion or race or ethnic background or any other criterion.

While Jefferson presented Americans this challenge, it is worth noting that he did not embody the ideals of the Declaration in his own life. Jefferson was a slaveholder, his place in society secured by the labor of slaves. 

As we reflect upon the Declaration, it is questionable whether its author even believed in its principles. Despite the conflict between his head and his heart, Jefferson’s words impact us to this day.

Inspiring generations on Long Island

Jefferson’s patriotic fervor was felt undoubtedly here on Long Island. Most notably, the great Long Island patriot William Floyd had joined the revolutionary cause, becoming the only Suffolk County resident to sign the Declaration of Independence. Floyd served in the Suffolk County Militia and was a representative to the Continental Congress. He risked his life and property to resist British authority. 

Setauket native Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge is another local hero of the American Revolution. Tallmadge is best known for his reconnaissance efforts, collecting information from the Setauket Culper Spy Ring. 

During a daring raid in 1780, Tallmadge landed near Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai with a contingent of American soldiers. Undetected, they marched to Smith’s Point, attacked, and took this British supply base at Carmans River and the Great South Bay. Under orders from Gen. George Washington, Tallmadge destroyed large quantities of hay that was stored in Coram.

Floyd and Tallmadge are just two of the many local examples of service and sacrifice that occurred on Long Island during the revolutionary period. These figures fought to form a new nation, a nation that was first articulated by Jefferson.

Tour of Long Island

The first administration of the United States was headquartered in New York City, not far from Long Island. For this reason Jefferson, Washington and James Madison all visited the local area, a place that had sacrificed much and contributed greatly to the independence movement.

Jefferson and Madison traveled extensively throughout New York state and New England, eager to meet their new countrymen. Both leaders stayed in Center Moriches, where they met with Floyd near his estate. All his life, Jefferson had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Intrigued by the various Native American dialects and cultures, he met with several tribes in eastern Long Island. 

Jefferson notably encountered the Unkechaug [Patchogue] Indian Nation. Because most of this tribe spoke English, Jefferson successfully transcribed many parts of their language. His research has helped keep alive cultural studies into one of the two remaining Native American groups here on Long Island today.

From Drowned Meadow to Port Jefferson

Jefferson’s influence can also be felt through the history of Port Jefferson, formerly known as Drowned Meadow. This now-bustling village was first settled in 1682, located within the heart of Suffolk County and the Town of Brookhaven. In 1836, the people of Drowned Meadow renamed their community in Jefferson’s honor.

During his address to Congress in 1806, Jefferson highlighted the importance of connecting the United States through infrastructure programs. He said that “new channels of communication will be opened between the States; the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties.” 

Port Jefferson has always been known for the industriousness of its people, as a productive and forward-looking community. Look no further than its shipbuilding history or The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry to see how infrastructure investments from the past keep us connected to this day. 

Port Jefferson is one of 30 towns and counties across the United States that have been named in Jefferson’s honor. Jefferson surely appreciated Long Island — its natural beauty, its indigenous cultures and the local patriots who provided necessary intelligence to gain tactical advantages over the British forces. 

This Fourth of July, as residents and visitors enjoy fireworks shooting above Port Jefferson Harbor, they should remember their own place in history and the figure in history whose name their community bears today. 

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

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Servicemen and women salute the American Flag in Northport on Memorial Day. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Do you ever stop and think what the Fourth of July is really all about?

While we were enjoying our BBQs, lounging at the beach, sipping on a drink or lighting fireworks this Independence Day, we realized the meaning of this holiday, like many others, can be forgotten when we’re busy trying to have a good time.

Our nation’s founders fought for our freedom.

Following the American Revolution, the 13 American colonies regarded themselves as a new nation, and with that, came a string of unalienable rights that we now mark with patriotic displays on July 4, to symbolize our pride and celebration of this freedom.

Reflecting on what it means, and why we’re honored to live in this country, several things came to mind.

Freedom of speech is something that Americans can take for granted. The ability to express opinions, either as an individual or as part of the media, is essential to the backbone of our country.

Two in our editorial department have backgrounds that extend beyond our borders.

One, a first-generation American, was raised with a particular appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy. Both her parents emigrated from Eastern Europe as children in the 1920s and were raised in New York. They faced challenges including learning a new language and adapting to American ways, but in America there was no tsar, conscripting male heads of households or, in retrospect, no dictator on the rise who would eventually annihilate most of the Jews left behind in Eastern Europe. The American Dream became a reality for her parents.

Another editorial staffer’s father moved to this country from Colombia when he was in his 20s. Hearing about his background, she loves that he was able to prosper in this country — not just survive — but pursue his dream job of teaching and find a career where he is still excited to go to work and see his students 30 years later. As the daughter of an immigrant, she’s proud to be a part of the country that welcomed her dad and let him follow his dream.

While we look back on what we were founded on, and why this country is unique in the freedoms it gives us, we can also look ahead, to what we want it to be. We can be thankful for what we have, and for what America stands for, but also strive to continue to make this country an even better place than it was when we became a new nation on Independence Day.

Jo-Ann Raia holds a map from the 1880s in the archives. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

There has been a steady hand at the helm of Huntington Town Hall for the past 30 plus years.

Jo-Ann Raia, Huntington Town clerk, was elected for the first time in 1981, and ever since then, she has not stopped bringing positive improvements to the town.

Raia has been a Huntington resident since 1958, but spent summers on the Island as child. She has worked under five supervisors and has served as secretary to the town board and board of trustees, among many other duties.

She has devoted much of her time in office to creating a state of the art facility for Huntington’s archives, and a successful records management program.

Raia said when town government moved into what is now Town Hall, in 1979, the archives were being stored in the old gymnasium, as the building used to be a high school.

“I was told that these were my records, as I am the legal custodian for Huntington,” she said in a phone interview. “I went to as many seminars as I could [on record keeping], I lobbied the state for funding and received state grants.”

She said the road was not easy to get a proper archive system in place, as she had to convince many people to give her the funds and resources required.

 Jo-Ann Raia displays one of the many old town records inside the town archive room. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.
Jo-Ann Raia displays one of the many old town records inside the town archive room. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

“When the town spends money on a baseball field, everyone can see it, but to put money into an area that’s restricted and no one will see it is a different story,” she said. “That’s why I had to convince and beg.”

The archives officially opened in October 1991 and ever since then, researchers and students from throughout Long Island have visited.

Through learning so much for the Huntington archives, Raia herself became well-versed in the topic, and has since spoke at conferences and panels on records management.

“We were the pioneers, and now [Huntington archives] runs like clockwork,” she said.

Some of the items in the archives that stand out to Raia are the Revolutionary War claims, the manumission of slaves and the Duke’s Laws.

Raia said she refers to the Revolutionary War claims as an I.O.U. book, with records of all of the things British soldiers borrowed from colonials living in Huntington in the mid 1770s, like oxen and wagons.

The manumission of slaves is a record of all the slaves freed from a former town supervisor who lived on Park Avenue in Huntington, and according to Raia, used to have African Americans enter through his back door as slaves, and leave through his front door as free citizens.

The Duke’s Laws, published in 1665, covered all the laws of colonial life, like no traveling on Sunday. Raia said Huntington is one of the few local governments to still have an original copy of them.

Aside from her many other duties as town clerk, Raia particularly enjoys the marriage marathon she performs every Valentine’s Day, where she marries multiple couples in a row throughout a day’s time.

In 1989, Raia was appointed marriage officer, and starting in 1995, decided to create a special event as marriage officer.

“I wanted to make it something special, so I researched other ceremonies, and found a special poem that I now recite that has sort of become my trademark,” she said.

The event has blossomed over the years, with merchants from all over town donating baked goods, flowers and gifts for the event. Raia personally donates all the paper goods and decorations.

Raia has presided over large and small ceremonies, and has even seen a ceremonial pick and axe procession performed by a local fire department.

“I never know what I’m going to see,” she said.

Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford's horse on Nov. 9
Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford's horse on Nov. 9
Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford’s horse on Nov. 9

By Alex Petroski

The Revolutionary War leapt from the textbooks and onto the fields of Northport Middle School during an afternoon performance on Monday.

The school’s seventh-graders were treated to a day of fresh air and visual demonstrations by Boots and Saddles Productions, a Freeport-based group that specializes in “living history.”

Principal Tim Hoss said about 250 students attended the “in-house field trip.”

“What better way to learn then being immersed in it?” Hoss said.

Dixie Francis works with a spinning wheel in front of students on Nov. 9
Dixie Francis works with a spinning wheel in front of students on Nov. 9

The students were split into groups and spent time at the five different stations set up by re-enactors.

Gen. George Washington, rebels and British soldiers greeted the students with tales of betrayal to the throne and last ditch pleas to join the Redcoats. A female re-enactor taught kids about the role of women during the Revolution.

The students had the opportunity to ask questions of the re-enactors, pass around props and hear deafening blasts from prop guns.

“They’re actually interacting with us and they’re showing us, not just reading out of a textbook, so we get to hear from them how it was,” Griffin Crafa said. “Now I can actually see it. I heard it, so it’s in my mind, whereas in the textbook you have to just copy notes down and … it doesn’t really stay in your mind.”

Meghan Sheridan said she had fun and Cami Tyrer, referencing the loud musket shots that echoed across the Northport Middle School playing fields, said, “It was a blast, and we learned so much.”

Social studies teacher Barbara Falcone, who organized the event for the second consecutive year, was happy with how the day turned out.

“This is what real learning should be like,” Falcone said. “They’re getting out from behind those dusty computer screens. They’re being outside and they’re seeing from all of these people what real life was like during that period.”

Falcone said the students will remember this event for many years.

Re-enactor Joe Bilardello expressed a similar sentiment: “Out here it’s like we jumped from the history books.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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