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Benjamin Tallmadge

Culper Spy Day. Photo by North Island Photography

By Heidi Sutton

Mark your calendars! Culper Spy Day returns on Saturday, Sept. 9 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  (rain date is Sept. 10). Presented by the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS) and Tri-Spy Tours in collaboration with more than 30 local historical and cultural organizations, the day will feature activities related to the Culper Spy Ring which was founded by Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington’s chief intelligence officer during the Revolutionary War.

Now in its 9th year, the annual event is the brainchild of Margo Arceri, who first heard about Washington’s Setauket spies (including her favorite spy Anna Smith Strong) from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. 

“My love of history grew from there,” said Arceri who today runs Tri-Spy Tours offering walking, bike and kayak tours of the Setauket area. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and I would really love to put that on the forefront of people’s minds. History is constantly evolving and new information is being discovered everyday. We don’t know what is waiting to be unearthed next and that fills me with excitement.”

Participants will have the opportunity to visit 9 locations in Setauket, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson (see list below) to learn about Long Island’s brave Patriot spy ring. Admission to all locations, with the exception of the Sherwood-Jayne House tour and the Spies! exhibit tour at the TVHS, is free.

“Guests at Culper Spy Day can expect to learn about American Revolutionary history in their own backyard. The hometown heroes who risked their lives and turned the tide of the war lived here on Long Island, working with George Washington right under the noses of their British neighbors. Through re-enactors, storytellers, demonstrations, and self-guided and docent-led tours, visitors at Culper Spy Day will enjoy information and inspiration at all of our historic sites,” said Mari Irizarry, Director at the TVHS.

According to Irizarry, several new exciting events have been added to the roster this year. “We’re proud to host George Washington, Martha Washington and their Squire in his field tent / oval office on the grounds of the historical society; we have partnered with Preservation Long Island to create a deluxe scavenger hunt across all sites for excited clue seekers to learn along the way; and Drowned Meadow Cottage Museum will present their new exhibit, Privateers: Pirates with Permission with guided tours, privateers re-enacting the plundering of the Roe family and colonial-themed storytelling for children.” 

Colonial cooking demonstrations by Diane Schwindt from the Ketcham Inn will feature an authentic recipe from Mary Floyd Tallmadge, who was the wife of Benjamin Tallmadge and daughter to William Floyd, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Visitors may sample the food and take home the recipe.

In addition, The Long Island Museum will have the recently discovered Culper Spy letter on display throughout the day. “The handwritten letter dated November 8, 1779 from Benjamin Tallmadge (using his alias, John Bolton) to Robert Townsend (alias, Samuel Culper Jr.) is the only known surviving letter between the two,” said Arceri.

The event also marks the launch of the Three Village Historical Society’s brand new 1776 Augmented Reality app through the generous donation of the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation.

If you don’t have time to visit all the locations, Arceri recommends visiting the Sherwood Jayne Farm and the Drowned Meadow Cottage as they are not open to the public very frequently “so it is a treat to step back in time and visit these sites” as well as the Caroline Church of Brookhaven and the Setauket Presbyterian Church and their historical cemeteries.

Arceri is looking forward to welcoming new visitors to Culper Spy Day. “Last year was such a huge success — we had over 1100 people visit ‘Culper Country’ and we expect to have those numbers grow as more and more of the mainstream are getting Culper fever,” she said. “Setauket has really become a tourist destination and Culper Spy Day is certainly a highlight for these visitors as they are able to see many of the sites and visit with many of the organizations that make up our Revolutionary story.”

Irizarry agrees and is committed to continuing this event for years to come.

“At the Three Village Historical Society, our mission is to preserve our shared history. The Culper Spy Ring is an essential part of how we won the Revolutionary War and became a country — that’s a history we can ALL share! Culper Spy Day is a celebration like no other, and we love seeing history come to life year after year. As more sites and organizations get involved, this incredible event gets better and better.”

The 9th annual Culper Spy Day is made possible by the generous support of Heritage Spy Ring Golf Club. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.culperspyday.com

Visit the grave of Culper Spy Abraham Woodhull in the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery. Photo by Heidi Sutton
PARTICIPATING LOCATIONS:

1. THREE VILLAGE HISTORICAL SOCIETY, 93 North Country Road, Setauket. Located in the circa 1800 Bayles-Swezey House. Here you can take part in outdoor events from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. including “building” a timber frame house with Abraham Woodhull; children’s story hour; colonial crafts; an invisible ink demonstration;; Culper Spy-themed authors and book signings; Anna Smith Strong’s famed clothesline, a colonial cooking demonstration; 23rd Regiment of Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers in America) and Huntington Militia encampment; and much more. Docent led tours of the Spies! exhibit will be held every 30 minutes at $10 per person. Food trucks will be on site. 631-751-3730.

2. SETAUKET NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE, 95 Main St., Setauket. The original part of the house, where the central chimney is located, was built in the early 1700s. In 1820 it was moved to its present location from its original site on Setauket (Conscience) Bay by Dr. John Elderkin. The building has served as an inn, and has housed a general store, post office, bank and a Franklin Library. Docents will give tours of the historic home from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 631-751-6208.

3. PATRIOTS ROCK HISTORIC SITE, Main Street, Setauket (across from the Setauket Post Office). This glacial erratic boulder is said to be the location of the Battle of Setauket on Aug. 22, 1777. Stop here between 10 a.m. and  2 p.m. to meet representatives from the Three Village Community Trust who will discuss the importance of Patriots Rock and its local and environmental history. 631-689-0225.

4. CAROLINE CHURCH AND CEMETERY, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. Built in 1729, this timber frame building has maintained its Colonial appearance. Now an Episcopal church, during the Revolutionary War the Caroline Church was Anglican and a Colonial extension of the Church of England. The graveyard contains the remains of six Patriot soldiers as well as soldiers from World War I and II. The inside of the church will be open for guided tours from noon to 4 p.m. and tour the cemetery your leisure with a docent present for questions.  631-941-4245. 

5. SETAUKET PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AND CEMETERY, 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket. The previous church (1714–1811) was a part of British fortifications during 1777. The fort was under the command of Loyalist commander Col. Richard Hewlett. The present building dates from 1812. Come tour the interior of the church from 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and then tour the cemetery with the grave of Abraham Woodhull of  Washington’s spy ring at your leisure. 631-941-4271

6. EMMA S. CLARK MEMORIAL LIBRARY, 120 Main St., Setauket. The library (circa 1892) will display Revolutionary War soldiers’ equipment in the lobby, enjoy live music from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and kids can enjoy an outdoor craft from noon to 3 p.m. 631-941-4080 

7. SHERWOOD-JAYNE HOUSE, 55 Old Post Road, East Setauket. Originally built around 1730 as a lean-to saltbox dwelling, the house and farm were maintained as an operational farmstead for over 150 years by members of the Jayne family. Visit with Big Bill the Tory aka William Jayne III, who will explain the noble intentions and virtuosities of King George III and tells you the TRUTH about Washington’s pesky band of renegade spies! Tours run continuously from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. $5 per person. 631-692-4664

8. THE LONG ISLAND MUSEUM, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook. The museum is a Smithsonian Affiliate with permanent and changing exhibitions on American history and art, along with the finest collection of horse-drawn carriages in the country, some of which belonged to Revolutionary War heroes. Visit the History Museum between noon and 5 p.m. to view the newly uncovered Culper Spy Ring letter by Benjamin Tallmadge to Robert Townsend. Tour the museum’s galleries and grounds for free. 631-751-0066

9. DROWNED MEADOW COTTAGE MUSEUM, corner of West Broadway and Barnum Avenue, Port Jefferson. The Revolutionary War-era Roe House was originally constructed circa 1755 and Phillips Roe, a member of the Culper Spy Ring along with his brother Nathaniel and cousin Austin, was known to have lived there. Visit the Revolutionary War-era Roe House between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. with a new exhibit, Privateers: Pirates with Permission, tours, privateers re-enacting the plundering of the Roe family and colonial-themed storytelling for children. 631-473-4724

* Please note: Public restrooms are located in the Setauket Neighborhood House and Emma S. Clark Memorial Library.

 

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.

'Traitor'

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Last week, we took our first major film, “One Life to Give,” to an out-of-town showing. An audience of more than 100 history lovers and friends in Philadelphia watched the dramatic story of the friendship of Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge and the beginning of the Culper Spy Ring. We were impressed by how interested the Philadelphians were in a tale of George Washington’s intelligence service centered in Setauket, Long Island. This is, of course, an authentic narrative of the Revolutionary War and of the founding of America, so I guess we needn’t have been surprised at its broad appeal.

In addition, we screened for the first time the almost completed sequel, “Traitor.” This story picks up some five years later, in 1780, and tells of the capture of John André, British spymaster, by the Patriots, and his fate at the hands of, ironically, Tallmadge. He is now a major in the Continental Army and has been tortured with guilt during the past four years since his Yale buddy, Hale, was caught and hanged as a spy. It was Tallmadge who so earnestly persuaded Hale to join the war effort, and we know of Hale’s end at the hands of the British.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.

André has been caught with detailed maps of West Point, the fort that the British are lusting to capture so as to have free rein in the Hudson River, dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. The fort is under the command of Patriot general, Benedict Arnold, who is about to become a turncoat, hence his dealings with André. 

The sequel is, if anything, even better than the original film. And mine is not the only such verdict. Here are some comments emailed to us by the members of the audience after the screening of both films in succession:

• “Thank you so much for including me in the extraordinary film screening last night. … I was not expecting to see something so professional and polished on every level: script, acting, photography, sound, production and, yes, gory makeup! It is also wonderful to see what an incredible family [my grandson, Benji, is the director] and community production this has been — pulling in all sorts of expertise, including [Bev Tyler, historian of the Three Village Historical Society, who accompanied us to Philadelphia]. … Congratulations to Benji [Michael Tessler, Andrew Stavis and the rest of the team]. … Please let them know how much I enjoyed it. And we’ll all be able to say, ‘We knew [them] when … .’”

• “Wow, what a great night. The films were great, great turnout.”

• “What a joy to be there, we really learned from the movie.”

• “Wonderful event! You should be proud. The movies were great. I learned a lot. I’m excited to share new stuff with my students.”

• “What a treat to attend the viewing … last night. Thank you for including us.”

• “HUGE congratulations from me! Wow, I really enjoyed the movies.”

• “Thanks for including us in the movie viewing. An impressive undertaking with fantastic results!”

• “Had a great time at the movies. We were really impressed!”

And this from an old friend who has followed Benji’s development: 

• “Thanks for inviting me to witness [this] fabulous work. … [Benji’s] enthusiasm of his early years with a camera is super matched by his gifts of eye, mind and devotion to story and characters. It’s a little humbling to think that simply giving him a theater with a screen in his early years [he directed films as a teenager] encouraged him to continue creating worlds in film.”

• “I was so impressed with the level of sophistication given that [they] are young filmmaker[s].”

As you can tell, it was a successful and fun evening. We look forward to screening the two films, one right after the other, here in late spring. All will be welcome. Please stay tuned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Heidi Sutton

The 1,000-seat theater at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center was filled to capacity last Sunday night as the community came out in droves to celebrate the first screening of TBR News Media’s feature-length film, “One Life to Give.” And what a celebration it was.

“I have to say this exceeds our highest expectations. We are so thrilled,” said TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, scanning the packed house as she welcomed the audience to “what has been a year’s adventure.”

“I am privileged to be the publisher of six hometown papers, a website, a Facebook page and, now, executive producer of a movie,” she beamed.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief addresses the audience.

Dunaief set the stage for what would be a wonderful evening. “I’m inviting you now to leave behind politics and current affairs and come with me back in time more than two centuries to the earliest days of the beginning of our country — the start of the American Revolution.”

“We live in the cradle of history and I hope that when you leave tonight you will feel an immense pride in coming from this area,” she continued. “The people who lived here some 240 years ago were people just like us. They were looking to have a good life, they were looking to raise their children.” Instead, according to Dunaief, they found themselves occupied by the British under King George III for the longest period of time.

Filmed entirely on location on the North Shore in 16 days, the film tells the story of schoolteacher turned spy Nathan Hale and how his capture and ultimate death by hanging in 1776 at the age of 21 led to the development of an elaborate spy ring in Setauket — the Culper spies — in an effort to help Gen. George Washington win the Revolutionary War.

Scenes were shot on location at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, the William Miller House in Miller Place, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Thompson House and Caroline Church of Brookhaven  in Setauket and East Beach in Port Jefferson with many local actors and extras, period costumes by Nan Guzzetta, props from “TURN” and a wonderful score by Mark Orton.

The film screening was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes documentary and was followed by a Q&A with Dunaief, producer and writer Michael Tessler and director and writer Benji Dunaief along with several key actors in the film — Dave Morrissey Jr. (Benjamin Tallmadge), Hans Paul Hendrickson (Nathan Hale), Jonathan Rabeno (John Chester) and David Gianopoulos (Gen. George Washington).

“It says quite a bit about our community that we could pack the Staller Center for a story that took place over two hundred years ago,” said Tessler, who grew up in Port Jefferson. “I hope everyone leaves the theater today thinking about these heroes — these ordinary residents of our community who went on to do some extraordinary things and made it so that we all have the luxury to sit here today and enjoy this show and the many freedoms that come with being an American.”

Director Benji Dunaief thanked the cast, crew and entire community for all their support. “In the beginning of this project I did not think we would be able to do a feature film, let alone a period piece. They say it takes a village, but I guess it actually takes three.”

From left, Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos, Hans Paul Hendrickson and Dave Morrissey Jr. field questions from the audience at the Q&A.

“Our cast … threw themselves 100 percent into trying to embody these characters, they learned as much as they could and were open to everything that was thrown at them — I’m blown away by this cast. They are just incredible,” he added.

“The positivity that was brought to the set every day made you really want to be in that environment,” said Rabeno, who said he was humbled to be there, and he was quick to thank all of the reenactors who helped the actors with their roles.

One of the more famous actors on the stage, Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) was so impressed with the way the production was handled and often stopped by on his day off just to observe the camera shots. “I really enjoyed just watching and being an observer,” he said, adding “It was just such an honor [to be a part of the film] and to come back to Stony Brook and Setauket where I used to run around as a little kid and then to bring this story to life is just amazing.”

According to the director, the film has been making the rounds and was recently nominated for three awards at Emerson College’s prestigious Film Festival, the EVVY Awards, including Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Single Camera Direction and won for the last category. 

Reached after the screening, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the film was the essence of a sense of place. “I thought it was spectacular. I thought that it was one of the highlights of all of the years that I have lived in this community.”

He continued, “It all came together with local people and local places talking about our local history that changed the world and the fact that it was on the Staller Stage here at a public university that was made possible by the heroics of the people who were in the film both as actors today and the people that they portrayed.”

For those who missed last Sunday’s screening, the film will be shown again at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore on July 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Filming for a sequel, tentatively titled “Traitor,” the story of John André who was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, will begin in two weeks.

Special thanks to Gold Coast Bank, Holiday Inn Express, Island Federal Savings Bank and Stony Brook University for making the evening’s screening possible.

Photos by Heidi Sutton and Rita J. Egan

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

By Beverly C. Tyler

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

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

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

— Benjamin Tallmadge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Beverly C. Tyler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Benjamin Tallmadge

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

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

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

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

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

On Dec. 3, legends and spies from history such as Culper Spy Ring members Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster, prominent shipbuilder Jonas Smith and philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville joined Stony Brook and neighboring residents to ring in the holiday season.

The village’s 38th annual holiday festival featured the historic characters in giant puppet form, created by Processional Arts Workshop, during the event’s Puppets Processional led by The Jazz Loft owner Tom Manuel and his band. Santa was on hand to hear all the children’s’ wishes and take photos. Additional activities at the event organized by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization included live music with WALK Radio; a performance by Roseland School of Dance; carolers; a holiday train display at the Cultural Center; and Wiggs Optician’s holiday windows.

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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.

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The saying, “It takes a village,” certainly applies to us here on the North Shore of Long Island. Elsewhere in today’s newspaper, you can read the article about our making a full-length historical movie (page B11). It was a fantastic adventure and something of a wild ride. From the first rushes, before color and sound correction with the addition of music, the final product looks really good.

The film, “One Life to Give,” delves into the relationship between Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale against the tense background of the Battle of Long Island and the formation of the Culper Spy network in Setauket. So much of history seems to pivot on a single turning point or a particular event, and the Revolutionary War is no exception. Because of these two men, George Washington embedded his spies behind the enemy lines and the outcome of the war took a decided turn for the better.

Speaking of turns, many of you probably watched the TURN series on AMC, about the Setauket spies, whose fourth and final year is showing on cable television presently. Though based on the scent of real events, those episodes are largely fiction, although they are nonetheless riveting. Our movie, made authentic through the attention and help of local historical societies, is as factual as the history that has come down to us through more than two centuries.

Which is to say, this is the real story and no less intense for being accurate. This film can, and we trust, will be shown to children in the schools as part of the state mandate for teaching local history. But its making would not have been possible without the help of our North Shore “village.” So many organizations, businesses and individuals teamed up to bring our local history to life.

Let me explain. There were three parts to our filming, kind of like a trifecta. First we needed the script, which was researched and written largely by TBR’s Director of Media Productions Michael Tessler and Emerson College junior Benjamin Dunaief, with help from Port Jeff alum and Brooklyn College student Dominick Famularo. Part of that first win was to bring the script to life, for which we needed a competent crew behind the camera. These dozen hard workers were brought in by my grandson Benji, who knew their work from previous film shoots. We also needed high level equipment, some of which came with the crew and the rest we rented.

The second part was to secure the historic locations, also the actors in front of the camera. Here is where the “village” came into play. The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, SPLIA (Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities), Three Village Historical Society, Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society, Three Village Community Trust, LISEC boat builders and Benner’s Farm provided the settings and encouragement.

Then casting calls along with connections brought us the talented actors, who included among many others, Jeff Sanzel, Dave Morrissey Jr. (from New York City, soon to be an equity member), Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos (who was Agent Johnson in the 1997 movie “Air Force One”) and Hans Paul Hendrickson, who played Hale.

The third win was the unending assistance and support from individuals like the inexhaustible John Worrell, Tim Glynn, Margo Arceri, Fred Bryant, Charlie Lefkowitz, Michael Ardolino, Peter Moloney, Andy Pollen, the Connell family, Virginia Cash, the many battle re-enactors who traveled from near and far, and the contributions of Stony Brook University. Then there are the many local restaurants who helped us feed everybody on set like Setauket Gourmet deli, Setauket Village Diner, Via Pizza, Pasta Pasta and Eastern Pavilion.

There are many more to thank and we will do so in a more formal way, but this is just a spontaneous outburst of gratitude to all those who, with willing hands across the community, make our lives so rich.