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Culper Spies

The two recently acquired books are on display at the Three Village Historical Society headquarters for a limited time. Photo by Kimberly Phyfe, Development Coordinator at the TVHS

By Scott Ferrara

There’s no doubt that Long Island played a major role in the success of the American Revolution. In fact, Setauket was home to numerous people who comprised a network of clandestine intelligence operatives known as the Culper Spy Ring. 

One of those Setauket spies was Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826). Woodhull, known for his alias Samuel Culper Sr., resided in British-Occupied Setauket during the war and used invisible ink to send encoded messages of enemy troop movement to General George Washington. 

Unfortunately, few artifacts and personal belongings of Woodhull’s survived, both through the passage of time as well as the 1931 fire that razed his former home. 

On July 26th, 2023, the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS) acquired two books at auction that belonged to the Woodhull family, one of the books bearing Abraham Woodhull’s signature. These books hold promise as a cultural resource for the community, and for their research potential of Three Village history and the history of our nation. 

The third page of The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge contains Abraham Woodhull’s signature. Photo by Kimberly Phyfe, Development Coordinator at the TVHS

The first book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge, was signed by Abraham Woodhull prior to both the American Revolution (1775-1784) and activities of the Culper Spy Ring (1778-1783). Abraham wrote his name on the first page of the book as well as a brief description of where he was at the time, Newfoundland. 

We know he was only 23 years old at the time, had not yet married or taken over the family farm and estate. His youthful decisions had found him aboard the ship the Dolphin during a very tense moment in American history. After all, Abraham had conveniently provided us the date of his travel, Aug. 27, 1773. 

This date provides clues as to the social environment Abraham was reading this book in. August of 1773 was a very tense summer in our nation’s history. Only three months earlier, in May of 1773, King George signed into effect the Tea Act which undercut colonial merchants, who had been prospering in maritime trade, and increased the power and influence of the British East India Company. This discriminatory act angered American colonists and sparked resentment that would eventually lead to war. 

These tensions would eventually boil over in December of that same year when the Sons of Liberty threw bricks of tea into the Boston harbor in an act of protest and defiance of the British King; an event known today as the Boston Tea Party. What was Abraham doing so far away from home during such a kinetic social time? Who or what was in Newfoundland that would draw him away from his family? These, among many more questions, have yet to be answered. 

Abraham, later in life, gifted this book to his second wife, Lidia, shortly before Christmas in their wedding year of 1824. We know this because she had inscribed her name and a brief note on the page following her husband’s earlier signature. Abraham passed away two years later.

The book moved through many hands over time until the departure of its most recent owner in Islip last year. The book, along with the rest of their estate, was inventoried and listed at private auction where it was identified by friends of the TVHS.

The inside cover of The Holy War by John Bunyan bears the signatures of Charity and William Woodhull. Photo by Kimberly Phyfe, Development Coordinator at the TVHS

A second book was also included in the auction lot. This book bears the signatures of Charity Woodhull and William Woodhull, likely niece and nephew of the patriot spy, Abraham. This book is titled The Holy War by John Bunyan (1682). The Holy War is a fiction book with Christian themes that tells the story of a mighty king who is overthrown by evil rebels and must fight to reclaim his throne. 

The acquisition of these books is exciting for the Three Village community. The TVHS can now appropriately curate them, while making these artifacts accessible to scholars. In fact, these books have incredible research potential both historically and genealogically.

The Three Village Historical Society is currently exhibiting the Woodhull books for a limited time. These books can be viewed at TVHS headquarters located at 93 N Country Road in East Setauket.

Guests are welcomed to visit TVHS.org to book a docent- or self-guided tour of the historical society’s museum or a walking tour throughout the Three Village community (operated by Tri-Spy Tours). The TVHS’s Spies! exhibit also features interactive software, hands-on learning activities, and the original Abraham Woodhull costume worn by actor Jamie Bell in the TURN: Washington’s spies television series. The society also welcomes researchers who wish to study their  collections for academic or independent research projects. 

Acknowledgments: Acquisition of these historical items would not have been possible without the combined efforts of the Three Village Historical Society’s staff and trustees. Specifically, the Collections Committee comprised of Christina Tortora Ph.D., Brian Bennett and Judi Wallace, as well as Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, Three Village Historian Beverly C. Tyler, the Society’s director Mari Irizarry, and President of the Board of Trustees, Jeff Schnee.

Author Scott Ferrara is the Exhibits & Collections Coordinator at the Three Village Historical Society.

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

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.


Three Village Historical Society’s Director of Education Donna Smith and historian Beverly C. Tyler. Photo from TVHS

The Three Village Historical Society has been awarded a $125,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. The grant will be used to create and install Digital Tapestry, an augmented reality experience created by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation. Digital Tapestry will focus on core members of the Setauket based Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution and will incorporate technology that can be experienced through an app utilized on smartphones.

The exhibit is scheduled to open late Spring 2022 at The Three Village Historical Society History Center in Setauket. Digital Tapestry is an innovative, interactive, virtual experience that will use archival imagery that will guide the user through the exhibit. While using the app inside the exhibit, guests will meet key members of the Culper Spy Ring, who lived and operated out of the Setauket area, including Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge and Anna Smith Strong, to name a few of the narrators.

For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Three Village Historical Society’s new president Jeff Schnee, right, with his wife, Jeri-Ann, center, and son Dan. Photo from Jeff Schnee

As a new year began and the Three Village Historical Society looked toward the future, a new board was sworn in, including new president Jeff Schnee.

Photo from Three Village Historical Society

Previously co-vice president of the society, Schnee takes over the position that Stephen Healy has held for the past five years.

The new society president said he grew up in Queens, and when he arrived in the Three Village area to attend Stony Brook University in the mid-1970s, he never looked back. After graduating, he lived by the historical society headquarters on Main Street in Setauket for eight years and now resides in Old Field.

A few years ago, Schnee said when he joined the society’s board, it wasn’t necessarily a love for history that brought him to become a member of the historical society but a desire to help the community, something that he has aimed to do since his college days when he helped to start SBU’s dorm patrol walk service and to bring a student cafe to the university’s Gershwin building.

“I was always interested in community service,” he said. “I think it’s something everyone should do.”

The Dominick-Crawford Barn also drew him to the society. The pre-Civil War barn once sat across the street from his home in Old Field. Due to lack of upkeep and exposure to the elements, it was in poor condition.

When the historical society approached the Old Field board of trustees about moving the barn to the field adjoining its headquarters, Schnee said it was the right move. With talks going on about the barn, he decided to join the historical society six years ago.

As for the future of the barn, which will be repaired and used for a museum and education center, the new president said he’s excited. When the weather gets warmer, there will be a groundbreaking and work will begin with plans for an archives center on the second floor. The hope is that the barn will be completed within the year, Schnee said.

With an archives space, residents will be able to come to the barn and work with the archives, and the museum will provide opportunities for school trips.

“What we try to do is to make the local community aware of the history here,” he said.

TVHS is also aiming to begin the digitalization of its archives to make them more accessible to the public. For two months this spring, a group will come in and archive the society’s painting collection, according to Schnee. Then a plan will be developed to figure out what platform to use to digitize all of the archives, a process which can take a few years.

Schnee makes it clear to everyone that he’s not an expert on local history but feels he brings a lot to the table due to his education and career background that covers the fields of technology, finances, IT and business.

“I’m not a historian, history was never my thing,” he said. “I’m an operations guy.”

Throughout his career, Schnee has worked with human resources professionals and facility departments which have enhanced his skill set.

“I’m a new tool in the toolbox for the Three Village Historical Society,” he said.

“I’m not a historian, history was never my thing. I’m an operations guy.”

— Jeff Schnee

Since he became co-vice president two years ago, the historical society has had to face the challenges that arrived with COVID-19. The society couldn’t hold events at the height of the pandemic and wasn’t able to recruit new board members. The society members turned to Zoom to conduct meetings as well as for lectures and educational programs.

Technology also came in handy as staff members switched to working from home instead of the office, Schnee said, with the society switching from relying on a server and to using a cloud-based product.

With COVID-19 mandates being lifted, the organization is looking to get back into action. Last summer and fall, the society was able to host its farmers and artisans market. Schnee said as the society began to recruit new board members once again, they looked for people with experience in archiving, human resources and grant writing.

Another new goal is to work with other local organizations, he said, such as museums and other art and historical organizations.

“We shall be working together, because a patron who comes to the Three Village Historical Society — they’re interested in educating themselves — and it could either be the Culper Spy Ring or it could be for the Chicken Hill exhibit, to talk about a community that existed here in the past, or as simple as to find out the history of their home,” he said, adding that the society has the archives to help people learn about their home or street where they live.

“So, once they finish our tours, they’re going to go and look somewhere else and half the time they ask us for what else is in the area to do?”

He said relationships can be cultivated during the society’s annual Candlelight House Tour and the farmers market. This year the Reboli Center for Art & History was a stop for the tour and where participants were able to pick up their event tickets. The feedback from the center was that many people told them they didn’t realize the center existed. He said the historical society working with Gallery North on events has also been beneficial.

As for sharing local history, Schnee is excited about a new app called Tapestry. With a $125,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the historical society will be working with a company to develop an augmented reality experience and will be only one of five museums to have AR added to one of its exhibits. Preliminary work has been done, and the hope is that the TVHS will be able to launch it in early spring.

Visitors will be able to use their smartphones at the Spies! exhibit at the society’s headquarters to download the app and then point at different pictures and artifacts which will bring up additional educational content.

“When you finish the tour, you will then take your smartphone, and it’ll guide you throughout the community to a few historically significant sites of the Culper Spy Ring, and then you hold the phone up, point at some different landmarks, and you’ll see how things were in the past.”

Schnee said when he attended Stony Brook University, he didn’t realize the rich history of the area.

“Honestly, I didn’t know the George Washington spies were in Setauket,” he said. “I didn’t know about Chicken Hill. I didn’t know that existed.”

With the appreciation of local history he’s developed over the years — even though he said he can only give the 5 cent tour — he’s ready for the future of TVHS.


Above, Three Village Historical Society’s new president Jeff Schnee, right, with his wife, Jeri-Ann, center, and son Dan. Below, Schnee at Culper Spy Day last September.  Photo from Jeff Schnee

By Cayla Rosenhagen

Cayla Rosenhagen

After British General Charles Cornwallis famously surrounded during the Battle of Yorktown — the last battle of the American Revolution — he returned home to England. During a dinner party in London, he was questioned about the significant defeat.

“General Washington did not out-battle us,” he replied to the inquiry, “He out-spied us.”

The spies which he referred to were almost certainly the Culper Spy Ring, a network of daring Patriots, many of whom lived here in Setauket, who supplied the Continental Army with invaluable intelligence. Some of its members included Abraham Woodhull, Anna Smith Strong, Caleb Brewster, and Robert Townsend.

The Three Village Historical Society’s Graveyard Tour enveloped me in our community’s rich history as I listened to the heroic tales of these brave spirits and others. On the crisp, autumn evening of October 23, volunteers Rick Melidosian, Pat Galaskas, and Nikkeya Bell led our group of 20 through the cemeteries of the Presbyterian Church of Setauket and the Caroline Church to visit some of the historic figures buried there. 

The lantern-lit tour began at dusk as a cool breeze swept through the village. Vibrant autumn foliage and a fleeting shower contributed to the alluring old-world ambiance of the darkening churchyard.

Our guides recounted the extraordinary stories of many Patriot heroes, including the tavern owner and spy, Austin Roe, Long Island’s Paul Revere. During the war, he was a courier who made the 110-mile journey from Setauket to New York City and back on horseback in order to deliver intelligence once a week. The journey was a dangerous one, as the roads he took were full of highwaymen and patrolling British redcoats who would stop and question him. Using the cover of buying supplies for his tavern to dismiss prying questions about his frequent travels, Roe successfully transmitted intelligence from Robert Townsend and passed it along to Abraham Woodhull.

Anecdotes of the courageous Anna Smith Strong captivated the audience as well. She utilized a secret code by hanging petticoats and handkerchiefs on a clothesline to relay vital information from Woodhull to their fellow spy and whaleboat captain Caleb Brewster. Brewster then made the treacherous journey across the Long Island Sound, at the time also known as the Devil’s Belt, to provide intel to General Washington himself.  Anna lived in the family manor on Strong’s Neck, only minutes from where the tour was held that evening. In fact, centuries later, her descendants still reside there, guide Pat Galaskas explained.

As the fundraiser came to a close, I spoke with some of the individuals who volunteer with the Three Village Historical Society. Author and TVHS historian Bev Tyler shared what it was like working with the Society for over 45 years. He said the two things he most enjoys about being their historian are “…people who ask lots of questions and are very enthusiastic, and the research.” Tour guide and TVHS volunteer for over 15 years Rick Melidosian most enjoys getting to share his knowledge about history with others.

The Three Village Historical Society is currently looking for volunteer help for various positions, including docents, costumed actors, and guides. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please contact TVHS Creative Services Manager, Mari Irizarry, at [email protected]. See their Facebook or Instagram pages or visit tvhs.org to find out more about upcoming events and experiencing their museum which recently opened its doors to the public for tours during the week.

Cayla Rosenhagen is a local high school student who enjoys capturing the unique charm of the community through photography and journalism. She serves on the board of directors for the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Brookhaven’s Youth Board, and is the founder and coordinator of Beach Bucket Brigade, a community outreach program dedicated to environmental awareness, engagement, and education. She is also an avid birder, hiker, and artist who is concurrently enrolled in college, pursuing a degree in teaching.

Three Village Historical Society’s Director of Education Donna Smith and historian Beverly C. Tyler. Photo from TVHS

Join the Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket for a special event – Spy Stories on the Porch – with TVHS Historian Bev Tyler and TVHS Education Director Donna Smith on Thursday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. (rescheduled from Aug. 4 due to weather). Stories include Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale at Yale at 6 p.m.; Selah Strong and Caleb Brewster on Strong’s Neck cliff at 6:30 p.m.; Benjamin Floyd, Loyalist and friend of Abraham Woodhull at 7 p.m.; and Austin Roe Rides to meet President George Washington at 7:30 p.m. Free. Bring seating. This event will be live streamed on the TVHS Facebook page as well.  For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

*This post was updated Aug. 4.

'The Mount House', 1854 by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), The Long Island Museum of American Art, History, & Carriages. Bequest of Ward Melville, 1977.

By Corey Geske

“When Gen. George Washington was passing through Stony Brook . . . Mother was at that time a little school girl, and stood and courtesyed [curtsied] to him while he raised his hat to her salutation — at the same time, her companions ran away.” 

— William Sidney Mount, 1859

American genre painter William Sidney Mount and English born watercolorist Alexander George Milne preserved the earliest known visual and recorded perspectives near their homes of what is today known as the Culper Spy Trail, the route followed in April 1790 by America’s first president George Washington on what was ostensibly a ‘victory tour’ of Long Island. Today, circumstantial evidence begs two questions: did Mount know the victory tour was a ‘cover story’ for thanking Long Island spies who helped win the American Revolution; and did Mount know his grandfather Jonas Hawkins was a spy?

When General Washington acknowledged the salutation of Julia Ann Hawkins (1782-1841), Mount’s future mother, on an April day in Stony Brook, he was, in effect and likely without knowing it, thanking the daughter of one of his spies. About eight years old at the time, Julia exhibited courageous respect while her “companions ran away.” She personified the courage of her father, Major Jonas Hawkins (1752-1817). Although not yet achieving military rank, Hawkins risked his life from December 1778 through mid-August 1779 as a courier in Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which gathered and relayed intelligence from British occupied Long Island to the General’s headquarters during the war. 

In 1854, when William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) painted his ancestral family home, The Mount House, he chose the location where Julia may have seen Washington and the artist recorded the perspective Washington could have had from his carriage when he doffed his hat to Julia as she curtsied. Mount’s view includes a young girl seated on the roadside wall, a seeming leader of two boys who, in a visual counterpoint to his mother’s runaway companions, direct their attention toward her, while a gentleman wearing a Peter Stuyvesant-type coat surveys the scene from afar, as a distant reminder of the Hawkins family that helped found (1655) the Town of Brookhaven.

A few miles to the south in Smithtown, Alexander George Milne (1801-1865), an émigré from England c. 1834-1836, recorded, on at least four occasions, the route west in the direction Washington traveled, careful to focus on the architectural lines of the Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern where Washington stopped about an hour after passing the Hawkins’ home. Milne’s expansive view of Smithtown, Long Island was completed in watercolors, c. 1857, three years after The Mount House. The Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern is seen to the far right. In front of it, Milne detailed a sapling tree. Fenced for protection from roving farmstock, it was one of the nearly sixty ship-mast locust trees planted by Judge J. Lawrence Smith and Joseph Howell along Smithtown’s main thoroughfare, from April 17 to 22, 1855 and 1856, coincidentally, the April anniversaries of Washington’s tour, for the two years following Mount’s 1854 painting.

Milne’s inclusion of a sleigh with two horses halted before the Blydenburgh Tavern was a reminder of the four grey horses drawing Washington’s coach painted with his coat of arms and allegorical scenes of the four seasons by Florentine artist Giovanni Battista Cipriani. The President recorded the day in his diary: “Friday 23d. About 8 Oclock we left Roes [Tavern, East Setauket], and baited the Horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blidenbergs [Blydenburgh]–a decent House 10 Miles from Setalkat [Setauket]–thence 15 Miles to Huntington where we dined . . .”

Mother’s courage, grandfather’s daring as Culper Spy, breathe life into Mount’s painting 

Mount’s memory of his mother’s story was prefaced, “Good introduction to my sketch –,” which suggests this was an idea for what appears to have been a painting of Washington that was never done. Mount did, however, represent Washington in a finished work that offers a psychological clue to a conjectural Mount family view linking Washington’s 1790 visit to the espionage ring his grandfather Jonas Hawkins supported. 

‘Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution – A Portrait of Rev. Zachariah Greene’, 1852, by William Sidney Mount.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mount’s 1852 portrait of Great-Grand-Father’s Tale of the Revolution includes a Jean-Antoine Houdon-inspired bust of the General indicated by the extended hand of the 94-year-old friend of Washington, the Rev. Zachariah Greene (1760-1858) of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. 

Mount portrays Greene seated at a table reminiscing to his three great-grandchildren in a pose similar to that of Washington, c. 1789-1796, in The Washington Family (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) by Edward Savage whose work was popularized and even reversed by later artists in an oval format that echoed Mount’s portrait of Greene. The last sitting for the President’s portrait by Savage was April 6, 1790, just before Washington’s tour, with perhaps the very same hat tipped to Julia Hawkins, placed at Washington’s extended hand upon the table where a plan for the new capital city of Washington was studied by the family. Mount translated the General’s hat as Greene’s upturned hat on a nearby chair. 

In his younger days, Greene had helped pull down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green after a reading of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776; then served as a corporal for Massachusetts and Connecticut in the American Revolution, being twice wounded at the battle of White Marsh, near Philadelphia, and at White Plains. He’d later become ‘a soldier of the cross’ and preach at Setauket Presbyterian Church for 52 years, according to Mount’s notes. (WSM 1852 in Frankenstein, 32). Years after Washington’s tour, fragments of his coach were made into walking sticks, possibly like the one held by Rev. Greene. 

‘Washington Family’, c. 1865 after Edward Savage; by Frederic B. Schell; engraved by A.B. Walter. Once hung in Danford’s Inn (buildings from 1870) reception area before renovations. Private Collection.

Mount’s choice of an openbacked bust approximating a mask allows the viewer to see the reflections of the vase beyond it, the whole of which, vaguely reminiscent of anthropomorphic composte portraits by artists of 16th Century Italy, hints not only of the shared reflections of Greene and Washington, but also Mount’s mother. 

Greene bore the same Christian name as Mount’s ancestor Zachariah Hawkins, an early settler of Setauket, thereby offering the artist a parallel perspective of the great-grandchildren around Greene in the personas of ‘Mount’s mother’ relating her memory of Washington to ‘her son’ writing down and sketching her story. 

The mask-like bust of Washington serves as an allegorical reminder of the ‘masks’ that were the cover stories, donned by spies in the field to conceal their intelligence-work. Though likely unknown to Mount, but in keeping with his allusion to the Mount family story, spycraft called ‘masks’ employed by British General Sir Henry Clinton against the Culpers, used a cut paper silhouette to delineate specific words on a piece of correspondence to create a message within an otherwise harmless ‘cover story.’ 

Ironically, in 1856, Mount was asked to paint a mural for the Senate chamber’s eastern staircase in the nation’s Capitol building, picturing the death of Clinton’s spymaster Major John André. Dressed as a civilian behind American lines, André was searched and the documents found wedged in his boot, together with intelligence from the Culper Spy Ring, revealed Benedict Arnold’s plans to betray West Point in 1780. Andre’s capture and fate by hanging as a spy was the daily risk of members of the Culper Spy Ring under British occupation

Two artists’ legacy today

Milne, who provided the earliest known views of Smithtown, rests today with his family in the churchyard of the Hauppauge United Methodist Church (1806), the oldest church building in the township of Smithtown. 

The church and cemetery were recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places (2020); and Milne’s work, once collected by Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, is preserved in private collections. His work is also at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts in The Horace P. Wright Collection; The Long Island Museum, Stony Brook; and the Smithtown Historical Society.

‘Smithtown, Long Island’, c. 1857 attributed to Alexander George Milne. Courtesy of Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. The Horace P. Wright Collection. JohnPolakPhotography.com.

Looking west in his painting, not one of the buildings Milne depicts in Smithtown that Washington would have seen, still stands in situ. Washington’s carriage would have travelled around the corner where the Presbyterian church (built in 1827 after the tour) stands today, to head west to Huntington and New York City where the first capital of the new nation was then located.

Farther west on Main Street, the Arthur House (1752), eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is the only 18th century building in Smithtown, located where it stood when Washington passed it in 1790. It was the home of Mary Woodhull Arthur (1794-1853), daughter of Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Senior, Washington’s chief spy. 

Owned by the Smithtown Central School District, it has been vacant for years, diagonally across from Town Hall. My calls for restoration and a recent request that its name be officially changed to the ‘Mary Woodhull Arthur House,’ to recognize Culper, Senior’s daughter, a true Daughter of the American Revolution, have received no response.

The Blydenburgh Tavern (c. 1688) was demolished in 1907; and to the near left of it in Milne’s view, the two-story Epenetus Smith Tavern was moved twice, the first time thanks to the preservation efforts of Mary Miller, mother of Captain James Ely Miller (1883-1918), the first American aviator killed in combat over France in World War I. In 2017, Captain Miller posthumously received the first Distinguished Flying Cross presented to a WWI recipient. The Miller Home (built before 1873), once located across from the Smith Tavern, was demolished in the 1960s.

In 2017, the North Shore Promotion Alliance and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization were instrumental in getting Spy Trail signs installed, commemorating the importance of the Culper Ring along the route of Washington’s tour. A focal point on that trail, the William Sidney Mount House is a National Historic Landmark. The scene is set for Mount’s painting that never was.

Mount’s idea for a work commemorating Washington’s 1790 tour and the courage of Julia Hawkins would be an excellent reason for North Shore artists to open their sketchbooks and step up to their easels in a salute to the traditional autumnal ‘Spy Days’ sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown was researching a book on Alexander George Milne when area historic preservation became a priority following demolition (2016) of the Jonas Hawkins, Jr. home (before 1858) called Sedgemere at Head of the Harbor, Town of Smithtown. In 2016, she proposed recognition of the New York Avenue School as an historic structure and restoration of the Arthur House in situ, proposing their inclusion in a National Register Historic District in downtown Smithtown. She prepared the report resulting in the determination of the Smithtown Bull as Eligible for the National Register (2018); wrote the nomination for the Byzantine Catholic Church (1929) by McGill and Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred Wagner Residence (1912) by Gustav Stickley, that were placed on the National Register (2019); and worked with church Trustees to nominate the Hauppauge United Methodist Church and Cemetery to the National Register (2020).


Beverly C. Tyler and Donna Smith at the grave of Culper Spy Abraham Woodhull. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The Three Village Historical Society presents a virtual lecture via Zoom titled SPIES!  How a Group of Long Island Patriots helped George Washington Win the Revolution on Monday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. Join historian Bev Tyler and educator Donna Smith as they guide you through the Society’s SPIES! exhibit and bring to life the dramatic stories of Long Island’s Culper Spy Ring through photographs, maps and original documents. A Q&A will follow. $5 suggested donation. Free for TVHS members. To register, visit www.tvhs.org.

Three Village Historical Society’s Director of Education Donna Smith and historian Beverly C. Tyler. Photo from TVHS

Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong.

“Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.

Seven years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.

Today, Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said.  “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries ‘Turn’ because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs.

It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day, a day to honor the members of Long Island’s brave Patriot spy ring who helped change the course of history and helped Washington win the Revolutionary War.

“Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which was built in the 1700s,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Villages and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”

After a successful five-year run, plans were underway for the sixth annual Culper Spy Day when the pandemic hit. At first the event was canceled out an abundance of caution but now has been reinvented and will be presented virtually on Facebook Live on Sept. 12 and 13 to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home.

The Three Village area is full of hidden intrigue and stories of how America’s first spy ring came together secretly to provide General George Washington the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution.

Over the course of the weekend, you will have the chance to visit many of the cultural organizations from years past who will share their story, including the Three Village Historical Society, Tri-Spy Tours, Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University, Preservation Long Island, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Drowned Meadow Cottage, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Ketcham Inn Foundation and more in a virtual format.

Join Margo Arceri from Tri-Spy Tours live from the Village Green on Saturday at 9 a.m.

Meet Big Bill the Tory live at the Sherwood-Jayne House.

Take a Virtual Spies! exhibit tour with TVHS historian Bev Tyler.

Visit the famous Brewster House with Ward Melville Heritage Organization Education Director Deborah Boudreau.

View a resource guide to everything Culper Spy Day courtesy of Emma Clark Library.

Watch a short film on Long Island’s South Shore from the Ketcham Inn Foundation.

Make your very own periscope with Gallery North.

Read up on the Revolutionary War History from the Caroline Church of Brookhaven.

Look back at the festivities from 2016 Culper Spy Day.

Don’t miss the five part virtual spy tour series with historian Bev Tyler.

Listen to the lecture “Spies in the Archive: A history of two George Washington Culper Spy Ring letters presented by Kristen Nyitray Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries.

Learn about SBU’s two Culper Spy Ring letters and access images and transcripts Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries

Dive into George Washington & the Culper Spy Ring A comprehensive research and study guide Special Collections, Stony Brook University Libraries

Find out who Agent 355 was from historian Bev Tyler.

Listen to the story of Nancy’s Magic Clothesline, written by Kate Wheeler Strong, and told by Margo Arceri.

No registration is necessary. For more information, visit www.tvhs.org/virtualculperday.

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Bev Tyler stands behind his daughters and wife, Barbara, before a bicentennial celebration in 1976. Photo from the Three Village Historical Society

Sometimes even a historian gets to enjoy a historic moment in his own life.

Historian Bev Tyler celebrates his 80th birthday at the Three Village Historical Society. Photo by Sandy White

Members of the Three Village Historical Society celebrated Beverly Tyler’s 80th birthday Aug. 15, a milestone the historian reached four days before. The society’s main office was fittingly the setting for the celebration as the organization has been a part of Tyler’s life for more than half of his 80 years.

In 1974, when he began to organize a local bicentennial committee in anticipation of July 4, 1976, Tyler said he joined the Three Village Historical Society. He asked Bill Minuse, the society’s president at the time, for seed money, and the members agreed to donate $1,000. During the two years of the committee’s existence, the members worked on projects that included planting Bradford pear trees along Route 25A from the Stony Brook train station to the memorial park in East Setauket and placing a memorial stone in front of St. James R.C. Church. The committee also published the “Three Village Guidebook” written by Howard Klein and illustrated by Patricia Windrow, which provided a summary of the historic neighborhoods in the area.

It was during this bicentennial year that Tyler first wrote for this newspaper, when it was known as The Village Times, to promote the committee. Later, he wrote biweekly history articles for once competitor The Three Village Herald, and after the two papers merged, he became the history columnist in 2002 for The Village Times Herald, as he is to this day.

During his decades with the historical society, Tyler said he has served in many capacities including president, chairman and newsletter editor. He became historian in 2003, when he began working with historical society education director Donna Smith.

“Bev has been instrumental in bringing local history to our students in Three Village through his program Founder’s Day and his field trips for students across Long Island about the Culper spies,” Smith said. “He relates so well to the students, from fourth grade to high school.”

A love for local history was instilled early in Tyler’s life — a passion he credits to his family and living in Setauket.

“This was always a community where history was right there in the forefront,” he said.

Bev Tyler in the early 1950s. Photo from the Three Village Historical Society

While the historian’s family tree has deep roots in the Three Village area, Tyler was born in Brooklyn at Methodist Episcopal Hospital in 1938. He said his parents moved back to their family home in Setauket when he was a year old. His father, a violinist, had moved to the city in hopes of finding work as a musician. When his father couldn’t find enough work, the family moved back, and they lived with Tyler’s grandmother until he was 11.

The historian said they soon moved to the family’s house on Main Street across from the post office where his mother lived until her passing in 2016 at 102 years old. After graduating from Setauket Elementary School, when it was open to students from kindergarten through ninth grade, he attended Stony Brook Boys School. He said his grandmother had written a letter to the school administrators when he was 3 or 4 asking them to hold a spot open for him. However, he said he didn’t like the school and then attended Port Jefferson High School for a year. The historian, who has written a number of books, admitted he was a lousy student, who didn’t even like history class because he said it felt like it was just about wars and dates.

“I wasn’t interested in school because it was too easy,” he said. “So, I read. I read voraciously.”

During his brief stint at Port Jefferson High School, he played in the school band with his now wife, Barbara, but he said they didn’t know each other well.

“She played the saxophone, and I played trumpet,” he said. “She didn’t like trumpet players because we always sat behind the saxophones.”

Tyler said he eventually attended and graduated from the military school Admiral Farragut Academy in Pine Beach, New Jersey, on the banks of the Toms River in 1957. He started dating Barbara in 1960 after they met once again at the Port Jefferson Yacht Club, where Tyler was running the club’s launch.

Tyler’s military education came into play when he joined the Navy. He served for two years and was a reservist for eight. The quartermaster, who worked on the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, said he fell in love with travel while in the armed forces.

 Bev Tyler with Donna Smith, left, and Lindsey Steward, right, in the Nassakeag Schoolhouse on the grounds of the Long Island Museum in 2016. Photo by Heidi Sutton

“I took advantage of every single chance I could get,” he said. “I went to Rome, Paris, Venice, Lake Como, Barcelona, Madrid, Greece.”

His time on the high seas though would soon be replaced with a career in the air. After he graduated from SUNY Farmingdale with an associate degree in photographic technology, and a short stint as a photo chemist for a photography manufacturing company, he decided to get his private and commercial pilot licenses. Tyler said he worked at MacArthur Airport for an air service, and about a year or two later he applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to be an air traffic controller — a job he held from 1968 until he retired Jan. 3, 2002.

Tyler and his wife have two daughters — Jen, who now lives in North Carolina with her husband, and Amy, who runs Amy Tyler School of Dance and Harbor Ballet Theater in Port Jefferson. They also have eight grandchildren.

The historian said he is currently focusing his research on the shipbuilding era, 1844–1880, and the Revolutionary War, especially the Setauket Culper spies. When it comes to his favorite spy, the historian said it’s Caleb Brewster, who carried messages from Benjamin Tallmadge in New York City to the spies on Long Island.

“[Brewster] is self-starting and a risk-taker, and he is fearless and a proven leader who takes care of his men and follows orders well,” Tyler said.

When it comes to reaching the milestone of 80, Tyler has simple advice for those who want to follow in his footsteps.

“Do things you enjoy and enjoy things you do,” he said.