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George Washington

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.

 

'The Capture of John Andre' by John Toole. Wikimedia Commons

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

But for the fact that three militia men were playing cards and having lunch in the bushes alongside the Albany Post Road south of the West Point fort in 1780, we might be speaking English with a British accent. 

It was down this road that British Major John Andre came galloping, and when the three stopped him near Tarrytown, N. Y. to ascertain his business, they searched him and found detailed maps in one of his boots. It was key information about the fort, and the men realized the rider was a spy, trying to get behind the British lines in New York City.

As it turned out, Andre was coming from a meeting with Benedict Arnold, the commander at West Point, who was about to turn over the fortification to the British and join them in the Revolutionary War. The fort was a most important installation, blocking the British garrisons from moving up the Hudson, splitting New England from the rest of the colonies and connecting with their troops in Canada. This strategy could well have ended the war. 

The British troops had tried to overwhelm the fort but failed. There was a British ship moored in the Hudson, and when Arnold got word that Andre had been captured, he boarded the ship and crossed over to the other side of the river where the British were camped, making his escape and marking him for all of history as a traitor to his country.

The Fidelity Medal

Andre was recognized as an important figure and turned out to be head of British intelligence. The Colonists questioned him in detail. The map and information he carried would have allowed the British to enter and capture West Point. Andre confessed his role and ultimately was hanged as a spy, much as Nathan Hale had been four years earlier.

During the time Andre was held prisoner, he succeeded in charming his captors. A well educated man, of keen wit and culture, he was appealing to the upper-class American officers, including Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, of the Colonial Army for his patriotism to his country. Ironically, we have heard of “Poor” Andre and Benedict Arnold, but most of us have never heard of John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart, the three who captured the Brit. That is, until now.

Van Wart and the other two were farmers in their early twenties and were part of a local militia attempting to protect the much harassed residents sandwiched between Washington’s forces in the Hudson Highlands and the British army in Manhattan. That is why the three were stationed along the dirt road. Andre tried to bribe the men to release him, but they handed him over to American forces. 

The men “were recognized by the Continental Congress with hand-wrought, silver military medals, now considered to be the first ever awarded to American soldiers,” according to a New York Times article in last Saturday’s issue. And while two of the three medals were stolen from the New York Historical Society in 1975 and never found, the third was held by the Van Wart family for over two hundred years and has now been donated to the New York State Museum in Albany, where it can be seen starting in the fall.

The three men met with Washington, were given the medals, and each a plot of land and a lifetime annual pension of $200, which was then a “princely sum.”

Van Wart died in 1828, and the medal was passed down through the generations of his family until it reached Rae Faith Van Wart Robinson in White Plains. She was inordinately proud of her ancestor and kept the medal in a shoe box under her bed, taking it out to display at historical events. She never married, had no children or siblings, and when she died in 2020, she instructed that the medal be given to a museum where it could always be viewed and the story told. The front of the medal prominently bears one word: “Fidelity.”

Fresh Bing Cherry Upside-Down Cake

By Heidi Sutton

The month of February has a few important events to celebrate. In the United States, one such event is Presidents’ Day, which this year will be observed on Monday, February 20. Presidents’ Day honors both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two influential presidents who were born in February.

Some may recall a legend about George Washington and a cherry tree, as it’s one of the most popular tales tied to the nation’s first president. 

The original story has a young George receiving a hatchet as a gift when he is six years old. Young George ends up using it to cut into his father’s cherry tree. After discovering the damage, George’s father confronts him. Rather than lie, George admits to his wrongdoing. George’s father commends him for his honesty, indicating that honesty has more value than a cherry tree.

While no one is suggesting to cut down a cherry tree this month in honor of George Washington, the value of this tale and lesson can be celebrated symbolically with this tasty recipe for “Fresh Bing Cherry Upside-Down Cake” courtesy of The California Cherry Board.

Fresh Bing Cherry Upside-Down Cake

YIELD: Serves 8

INGREDIENTS:

Fruit Layer:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

3⁄4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 tablespoons pineapple juice

1⁄2 pound (about 2 cups) Bing cherries, rinsed, pitted and halved

1⁄4 fresh pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (you will need 8-10)

Cake:

1⁄2 cup (1 cube) unsalted butter, softened

3⁄4 cup sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

11⁄2 cups flour

2  teaspoons baking powder

1⁄4 teaspoon salt

2⁄3 cup whole milk

Whipped cream topping (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter or spray with non-stick spray, a 9-inch standard round cake pan.

For the fruit layer, melt the butter in a wide skillet, add the sugar, and stir until it is melted and begins to bubble. Whisk in the pineapple juice, stirring until smooth. Pour this mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan.

In the bottom of the prepared cake pan, arrange the cherries cut side down in a circle, pressing down lightly to adhere. Add a second circle of cherries inside of the first ring. Place pineapple chunks in a circle inside of the cherry rings and another circle of pineapple chunks, if there is room. Place a cherry half (or halves) to fill in the center of the cake.

For the cake, beat the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla until smooth. Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt. Add the flour alternately with the milk, mixing until just combined. Pour batter over fruit and spread evenly.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until golden brown, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand 5 minutes and invert onto a sheet pan. Drizzle any lingering caramel over top. Cut into slices and serve topped with whipped cream, if desired. 

Cherry Coffee Cake

The month of February has a few important events to celebrate. One such event is Presidents’ Day, which this year will be observed on February 15. Presidents’ Day honors both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two influential presidents who were born in February. 

Some may recall a legend about George Washington and a cherry tree, as it’s one of the most popular tales tied to the nation’s first president. The original story has a young George receiving a hatchet as a gift when he is six years old. Young George ends up using it to cut into his father’s cherry tree. After discovering the damage, George’s father confronts him. Rather than lie, George admits to his wrongdoing. George’s father commends him for his honesty, indicating that honesty has more value than a cherry tree.

While no one is suggesting to cut down a cherry tree in February in honor of George Washington, the value of this tale and lesson can be celebrated symbolically with these two tasty recipes, a Cherry Coffee Cake and Martha Washington’s Cherry and Butter Bread Pudding.

Cherry Coffee Cake

Add some sweetness to your breakfast routine with this delicious and easy-to-make morning snack.

YIELD: Makes 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

Nonstick cooking spray

1 can (12.4 ounces) refrigerated cinnamon rolls with icing

1 1/2 cups (21-ounce can) cherry pie filling

1/2 cup slivered almonds or pecans (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oven to 375 F. Spray 9-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. 

Separate cinnamon roll dough into eight rolls; cut each roll into quarters. Place dough rounded-side down in pan. Spoon pie filling over rolls. Sprinkle almond slivers or pecans over cherry filling, if desired. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Invert onto plate or cutting board. Invert again onto serving plate. Remove lid from icing. Microwave 3 to 10 seconds. Stir icing and drizzle over warm coffee cake before serving.

Martha Washington’s Cherry and Butter Bread Pudding

This recipe is rumored to be our first First Lady’s favorite dessert to make. A firm bread like Pepperidge Farm or Arnold is recommended, and while cherry preserves are used for this recipe, any type of fruit preserve may be substituted. 

YIELD: Makes 6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

12 slices white bread

Butter or margarine

Cinnamon

10-oz. cherry preserves

4 eggs

2 and 2/3 cups milk

2 tablespoons of sugar

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter an 8 by 8 inch baking dish. Cut crusts from 12 slices white bread. Spread butter on one side of each slice. Arrange 4 slices bread in bottom of dish and sprinkle each lightly with cinnamon. Spread a spoonful of cherry preserves on each slice. Repeat, making two more layers. Beat eggs in a medium mixing bowl. Add milk and sugar and stir until well mixed. Pour over bread and bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until top is golden brown and the custard is set. Serve warm from the oven. 

This article first appeared in TBR News Media’s Prime Times supplement on Jan. 28, 2021 under Recipe Corner.

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

By Corey Geske

Two hundred thirty years ago, George Washington planned a tour of Long Island during the third week of April 1790 to thank the members of the Culper Spy Ring of Setauket, whose courage and resourcefulness played a significant role in helping to win the American Revolution. 

The First President chose to begin his tour on April 19, the 15th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military encounters of that war, when thirteen colonies fought to become independent from the British empire. Washington’s Long Island tour marked that day, which since 1894 has been known as Patriots’ Day. More recently, in 2017, the work of the Culper Spy Ring was recognized by the New York State Legislature and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Washington planned to set out from New York City, then the capital of the young American nation, on Monday April 19, 1790, but weather delayed him for a day. After touring the South Shore, he headed north to the Coram area and then west to Setauket, arriving on April 22, nearly nine years to the day (April 23, 1781) when his chief spy Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Sr., of Setauket, wrote to him that his spy ring faced imminent danger. 

Washington’s itinerary demonstrates a keen sense of place timed to show his personal appreciation for how important the intelligence from Setauket was to the winning of the war, information that helped save West Point in 1780 and the French navy at Newport, RI, so it could sail south for the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, VA. 

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

On April 22, 1790, Washington recorded in his diary “. . . thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect.[decent] with obliging people in it.” He arrived at Roe Tavern with an entourage led by Selah Strong, a Patriot imprisoned by the British during the Revolution, the grandson of the builder of the 1703 home that became part of the tavern; and husband of Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, a key member of the Culper Ring. 

The President slept at Roe Tavern run by Captain Austin Roe, a critical courier and messenger for the ring, who frequently rode from Setauket to New York City to deliver information vital to Washington. It is a tribute to Roe and the Setauket-based ring, that Washington mapped his Long Island tour from the South to North Shore to travel from Setauket west to New York, as Roe had done.

On Friday morning, April 23, 1790, Washington “left Roes, and baited the horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blydenbergs – a decent House 10 Miles from Setalket . . .” The stone doorstep, which still exists, of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern, may well have supported Washington’s footsteps and serves as a reminder of Jonathan Harrington of Lexington, who, fatally shot by the British, crawled back to the doorstep of his home fronting the common to die at the feet of his wife.

The Arthur House in Smithtown

Washington’s carriage passed by what is now known as the Arthur House, circa 1752, on West Main Street, Smithtown, the future home of Mary Woodhull Arthur, daughter of Abraham Woodhull, the critical correspondent in the spy network set up by Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Born in Setauket, Tallmadge relied upon his boyhood friends to supply intelligence at great risk and was Washington’s spymaster and director of military intelligence.

In 1781, Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay and New York City, code name Culper Junior, could not trust to writing the news of the ring’s probable discovery by the British and risked the journey from New York City to personally inform Woodhull in Setauket. Immediately thereafter, Woodhull wrote Washington on April 23, 1781: “I had a visit from C. Junr. and am sorry to inform you that he will not write any more on any account whatever.” 

In this darkest of moments, the Culper Spy Ring faced the ultimate challenge of surviving and finding another way to convey information to Washington knowing that  British spy William Heron, code name ‘Hiram the Spy,’ had already reported to British General Sir Henry Clinton that “Private dispatches are frequently sent from New York to the Chieftain here (George Washington) by some traitors. They come by the way of Setalket, where a certain Brewster receives them at, or near, a certain womans,” that is to say Anna Strong signaled Woodhull, via the arrangement of clothes on her clothesline, when Captain Caleb Brewster arrived in his whaleboat to carry messages across Long Island Sound.

The stone doorstep of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Inn in Smithtown

In 1789 during his first year as the unanimously elected First President, Washington decided he would visit each state to determine their feelings about the new United States as a nation; and traveled to New England from New York City through Connecticut to New Hampshire. He completed his mission with a Southern Tour in 1791. 

During a pandemic, as we mark the 245th anniversary of Patriots’ Day and the 230th anniversary of Washington’s 1790 tour of Long Island, let us remember the future First President was said to have been seen on his knees at Valley Forge praying as the American army, outnumbered by the enemy, starved, froze and faced the scourge of smallpox, a devastating virus that thinned the ranks of his army and put Boston into lockdown.

Facing a situation akin to what we face today, Washington established isolation hospitals in New York to control the epidemic – while the ‘cordon sanitaire’ that worked in Europe against the plague was reinstated in North America to control the smallpox virus. 

During the British occupation of New York, nearly 11,000 American patriots died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard, many succumbing to the disease. These ‘martyrs’ included the woman who historian Morton Pennypacker believed to be the mother of Robert Townsend’s son. It is a staggering number brought home by this past month’s coronavirus losses. 

Historic preservation is important: it reminds us that others, too, have faced crises, and that there were many challenges to overcome to win the American Revolution.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

Photos courtesy of Corey Geske

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Museum collection artifact has mysterious provenance

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, that is part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives. Visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can see a facsimile of the letter on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room through Feb. 26 from noon to 4 p.m. They also can view an oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It will be displayed in the Portuguese Sitting Room.

President Lincoln wrote the letter to Mayor Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War, which began on April 12 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms. (Wood’s brother, Benjamin Wood, publisher and editor of the New York Daily News, also served three terms in Congress.) Fernando Wood sent a letter to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you – Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant A. Lincoln

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.” The value of the letter is unknown, Gress said.

In 2008, a representative of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a grant-funded project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, visited the Vanderbilt archives to scan the letter for inclusion in its database. At the time, the representative noted that few letters have the original envelope in Lincoln’s hand, which makes the Vanderbilt’s document an exceptional Lincoln artifact. The Vanderbilt Museum is listed as a repository on the project’s website, www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org.

The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington is believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered to be one of America’s foremost portrait artists. He produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.

In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the Board of Trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. The museum and planetarium are open for Presidents’ Week daily from noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the mansion are conducted at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. General admission is $7 adults, $6 students with ID and seniors (62 and older) and $3 for children 12 and under. For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

File photo

By Kevin Redding

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, local elected officials weighed in on the occupants of the Oval Office who inspired them to do what they do.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) – Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush

“It would have to be Ronald Reagan. He was the first president that I became familiar with as a young adult, in terms of my interest in politics. He had such a unique ability to communicate a conservative message to the country in a way that wasn’t divisive, in a way that was inspiring and uplifting, and so I really admire him for that and so many other things.

And, of course, George H.W. Bush, who took over the Oval Office after Reagan. He was the first politician I ever helped campaign for and that was during his re-election effort in which he lost to Bill Clinton. That same year Rick Lazio ran for Congress against Thomas Downey and I got pretty heavily involved in volunteering. If it hadn’t been for that, honestly, I would not be sitting here today.

From that experience, I met a former county legislator I ended up working for for a short period of time and he introduced me to county government and lots of different folks in the party, so I would say: purely from an inspirational point of view, it would be Reagan and in terms of the one president that really motivated me to get actively involved in politics, it was George H.W. Bush.”:

Legislator Al Krupski (D) – George Washington

“I think he was someone that really believed in a cause. In his case, the cause was an independent America and he was willing to sacrifice his time and his family’s time to make that happen. He certainly took great personal risks as a general and, again, as president, he sacrificed his time and the rest of his life was dedicated towards the country.

The way he was able to handle power was admirable. The rest of the world thought he was going to become a dictator, and he could’ve, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to be the dictator. He wanted America to be a democracy; he believed in that. I’ve always liked history and I’ve always read about history and been [fascinated] by him pretty much my whole life. If you look at his cabinet, he surrounded himself with people with diverse backgrounds and ideologies and I’ve always listened to people with different viewpoints. I think that kind of mentality as a leader is important: to not just have a bunch of “yes men” but being able to listen to people with different viewpoints.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) John F. Kennedy

“Kennedy had a sense of humor, had a sense of history, and he learned from his mistakes. His mistake early in the administration was to follow through with Eisenhower’s decision that he did not execute well, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and he learned from that. I think that’s why he was so successful thereafter when, in 1962, a year and a half after, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was able to diffuse that despite the urging that we invade or bomb Cuba. He avoided that and avoided a crisis and potentially a World War.

I was also extremely impressed with his June 1963 speech at American University about how we all live on one planet and talked about peace being a much nobler goal while we were in the middle of the Cold War and he could see beyond that, so I think he had vision.

Obviously as a person, he had a lot of shortcomings, which a lot of people have dwelled on since the time of his death, but I think as a man and as a leader, people wanted to follow him and I think he was a good president. I knew if he had lived, we would not have been in the Vietnam War. He spoke against getting involved. It was sad to see him go, because in going, the policies changed dramatically, and when we changed leaders, we committed an entire generation to war and turned a lot of people into cynics against their government.

[Inspired by him], I try not to rush to judgment, I try to step back and put things in context and have a sense of history. As someone who has all my degrees in history, I try to put things in context and that helps a lot.”

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) – Barack Obama

“I’ve been in the Legislature for six years, and got elected in 2011, which was then-president Obama’s third year in office. I had been a physician and I was a big participant in getting involved in the hope and change … Obama being the first Black American president was inspirational for me as one of the few Black American elected officials.

I appreciated the fact that he started out working in the community, was someone that had all the education and training, and was a community organizer. I believe he exhibited the qualities of service and compassion for our fellow man and for those who have the smallest voice, and I believe in hard work and education as well. He had a very clear message that resonated and it got a lot of people involved, and I think that was transformative.

I don’t want it to appear that just because he was black, he encouraged me because I’m black. That had some significance but what I appreciated most was his character. He was a slow and steady hand and he brought qualities of dignity and respect … I also admired the way he conducted himself personally with his family.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson) – Barack Obama

“I think Obama, who was a law school professor, intimately understood how to use the law to help others and he actually worked his way up through government, so he took all the steps and is a bottom-up leader. Obama being an activist and community organizer really impressed me. I think it’s important that we [as elected officials] are in the community, and talk to people face-to-face about their issues. I think that he is, arguably, the most eloquent, dignified, and diplomatic president of my time and I try to emulate his qualities.”

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) – Ronald Reagan

“He was a fiscally conservative guy who was socially moderate; he would try to save money and have less government … and keep government out of things. That’s what I believe: we shouldn’t be involved in a lot of these things.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) – Harry S. Truman

“Harry Truman’s my favorite president. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things and demonstrated that you can reach the highest levels of our government while maintaining your integrity. More than 20 years ago, I read David McCullough’s book “Truman” and it was one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read. When I served on active duty in the U.S. Army, I was based in Missouri — which is the home state of Truman — and I visited his home and library in Independence.

What was inspiring to me, and it really represents what our country is about, was that anyone can be president and that you can reach the highest levels of our government and really maintain your integrity. Truman’s honesty really impressed me.”

Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) – Abraham Lincoln

“If you were in my office, whether in Albany or here in the district, you would see lots of pictures of Abraham Lincoln. When you’re growing up and you’re reading about different presidents, the idea of Lincoln being kind of a frontiersman and the way he grew up and the stories about him are very exciting. As you get older and you start looking into Lincoln’s life, you see the kind of person that he is. He cared very deeply about people and if you look at photos of Lincoln, you could see the deep lines, as some people call “worry lines,” because he cared so much. During the Civil War, he visited wounded soldiers and was very touched by their lives.

I have great concern for people and try to be very helpful to people, and I think Lincoln certainly reinforces those goals.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) – Ronald Reagan

“Reagan was the president I admired most. When you’re an elected official, I think you have to have two great traits: good decision-making skills and the ability to articulate the message you want to get across to people in an effective, understandable and inspiring way, [which he had]. Reagan came into office in 1981, a point in our country’s history where, internationally, we were in the middle of the Cold War, just got done with the Iranian hostage situation, and the economy wasn’t doing well and the morale in the country was at an all-time low — so he had a lot that he was getting ready to take on. He lowered taxes, attacked the problems we had, deregulated the government and opened up the economy, which triggered a boom throughout the decade. He stood up and brought pride back into being American.”

Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) – Abraham Lincoln

“First of all, he was honest, he truly preserved the unity of our nation and he freed the slaves. He was brought into office during what was probably one of our nation’s first economic crises, and he dealt with the Civil War, dealt with issues of taxation and imports and exports, and handled it in a thoughtful, intellectual way. Those were difficult times and he made our nation what it is.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) – John F. Kennedy

“His presidency changed America. I think so many presidents bring so many different skillsets, and Kennedy believed in America, was passionate about America, put people to work, held the line on taxes, and was a compassionate person. Then there’s the whole history of Kennedy and how he was raised and groomed, and how his life was tragically cut short, and I think that adds an air to his [legacy] as well.”

 

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This might sound peculiar since I am in the news business, but for over the past weekend I disconnected myself from all news reports. I was unplugged, you might say. Now this is a confession from an ultra news junkie. I’m normally so addicted that if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll switch on the bedside radio to catch up on what has happened since I went to sleep. But the past week, with the excruciating racist events and senseless killings, here and abroad, were more than I could process.

So I just turned off, or rather I didn’t turn anything on — not my radio, not the television, not the news apps on my cellphone. I didn’t even talk about the news with friends and neighbors.

What a luxury to be able to withdraw from global events for a couple of days.

I have a further antidote for all that has been happening in the world, and it’s even great fun to pursue. This Saturday is Culper Spy Day in Setauket, and it is the work of a number of local organizations committed to bringing history to life. The Culper spies, as you may know, were a small band of close friends who provided George Washington and the colonists with critically important information throughout the Revolutionary War at great risk to their lives. So engaging were their exploits, and so valuable to the eventual outcome of the war, that AMC has a cable TV drama, “Turn,” which has been drawing large audiences for three seasons to date. The series is what we call historical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction loosely — very loosely — based on real events. Those events belong to us because they are part of our local history and are a source of community pride.

This Saturday, July 23, you will be able to walk or bike or drive a designated route that offers views of key locations in the Culper story. There will be “colonists” in costume and signs along the way, helping the stories come alive. And we at Times Beacon Record have produced a multimedia map to enhance your experience. I refer to the newly released Three Village Map, complete with local roads and information from our business community. On this map is a QR code and also a link that, if you click on it with your mobile phone, will open up onto our website to seven different dramatizations of Culper stories — that we promise are historically accurate. In fact, the truth, we think, is more riveting than fiction, as we watch the dangerous exploits of these American heroes and heroines.

The actors in these episodes may be recognizable to you, and they do a fine job of conveying the gist of the story. We have used the services of a professional film crew, who shot the local scenes over the past several months. Community leaders introduce each film segment to set the scene. And in between episodes, if you are walking the route with your family, there are fun arcade-like games to play on your smartphone or laptop. The games, like the scenes, are our original creations and lots of fun. I predict your children — and you — will return to them many times to improve your score. I have.

Special thanks go to the participating organizations and their members for the vision to mount such an ambitious event and the enormous amount of time and effort that went into making history come alive. These include the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and The Long Island Museum.

The Times Beacon Record has put together a special pullout within this week’s Arts & Lifestyles section with additional information about Culper Spy Day. Copies will be distributed for free in the historical society parking lot; our multimedia map is $3. Tickets for the more-than 16 attractions, including battle reenactments and colonial cooking demonstrations, are $25, with children under 12 free, from the historical society, WMHO Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook village and The Long Island Museum.

Have yourselves a worry free and wonderful day!