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Revolutionary War

'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).

 

By Heidi Sutton

This past Saturday, members of the community gathered at St. George’s Manor Cemetery in Setauket to pay tribute to Judge Selah Strong with the unveiling of a commemorative graveside plaque. Margo Arceri, owner of Tri-Spy Tours, dedicated the bronze marker which honors the judge’s contributions to the local community, 205 years after his death.

“Strong was one of the first patriots in the community. He was best friends with Culper Spy Caleb Brewster … During the  Battle of Long Island, he was arrested by the British for assisting the Continental Army. After the war, he had a long and illustrious career in public service. The Strong family wanted him to be recognized for his efforts during the Revolutionary War and after. It was a great honor to place the marker for them,” said Arceri after the ceremony. “This is an important moment in our community’s history and for the Strong family.”

The event was attended by representatives of the Three Village Historical Society including President Steve Healy, Director of Education Donna Smith and historian Beverly C. Tyler; members of the Anna Smith Strong chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution; and several descendants of Selah Strong. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, and Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara M. Russell were also in attendance.

Selah Strong is buried in a family plot next to his first wife, Anna Smith Strong, the only female member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, known for her famed clothesline.

“It’s always been a bit of a shame that not too many people payed attention to Selah because they were so interested in Anna and her story, but actually he did an awful lot,” said John (Jack) Temple Strong Jr., Selah Strong’s great-great-great grandson, who had the honor of unveiling the plaque.

Supervisor Romaine agreed. “Born on Christmas Day, 1737, died on the Fourth of July, 1815, he packed into his life things … we see of a man who was dedicated to his community, someone that at the tender age of 26 was elected Town Trustee and would wind up spending 35 years in office, most of them, certainly from 1780 on, as President of the Trustees, which is the equivalent of Supervisor,” he said.

Selah Strong also served as Suffolk County Treasurer, judge for the Court of Common Pleas, and was a New York State Senator for four years. “This is a man who served his community … I am here to pay my respects to someone that paved the way because as we look around today, a lot of what we have over the last 200 years would not be here if not for men of this caliber,” added Supervisor Romaine.

“When we think about patriotism we think about Selah Strong, Anna Smith Strong and the personal sacrifice, the amount of risks that they took for their country — true patriots,” said Raymond Brewster Strong III, Selah Strong’s 6th generation grandson who made the trip from Houston, Texas, to attend the ceremony. “[George] Washington’s motto was ‘deeds, not words’ and when you think about Selah Strong’s [accomplishments], those are true deeds, not words.”

“The Strong family continues as tradition bearers, and Tri-Spy Tours and the Three Village Historical Society are also important parts of passing to the next generation a sense of place and a sense of continuum,” said Assemblyman Englebright. “I am just honored to be here to bear witness to this wonderful occasion. This is altogether a respectful moment that should be remembered, as Selah Strong should be remembered.”

*Editors note — St. George’s Manor Cemetery is a private cemetery still owned by the Strong family.

All photos by Heidi Sutton

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Gravestone and marker for Zophar Hawkins and veteran replacement gravestone for Arthur Smith are located in Setauket family graveyards. Photos by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

In a Setauket family graveyard set on a hill above an ancient colonial home is buried a young man, Arthur Smith, a patriot who was killed by British soldiers probably in the fall of 1776 simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In a South Setauket graveyard along Pond Path is the grave of Zophar Hawkins, a Revolutionary War patriot and friend of Smith whose adventures included a number of brushes with death.

Smith, born about 1740, was the grandson of Benjamin Smith who is thought to be the builder of the circa 1685 home along Main Street in Setauket where Arthur Smith was born. The home just to the north of the Smith homestead was the Tyler Tavern, where Smith was killed.

Hawkins grew up in and eventually inherited his father’s home near the intersection of Pond Path and Lower Sheep Pasture Road in Nassakeag (South Setauket). Earlier in his life, during the Revolutionary War, Hawkins at about the age of 20 was involved in an incident at the Tyler Tavern. This piece of family folklore was recorded by Kate Strong in her “True Tales from the Early Days of Long Island”:

“It was after the beginning of the Revolutionary War and after the Battle of Setauket that word was brought to South Setauket that there were exciting doings down by Setauket Pond. Zophar Hawkins (who perhaps found life a bit quiet after his earlier adventures) and his friend Arthur Smith decided to go down and see what was going on. They found a small party of British soldiers, after having landed from a small whaleboat, had marched to Tyler’s Tavern in search of deserters. This inn … used to stand near the road [at the intersection of Main Street and Christian Ave.] It was later moved [back up the hill] and still shows the bullet holes.

“As the soldiers entered the building, Redfern, a school teacher, rushed upstairs and called to two girls sleeping there that they were safer in bed. He had only returned four steps downstairs when a stray bullet from the British muskets struck and killed him. Two other men were killed and a third escaped by climbing up the great chimney.

“Zophar and Arthur were hanging around outside; the British catching sight of them fired and killed Arthur, and as they thought, Zophar. But Zophar had dropped as they fired and lay as though he were dead, an Indian trick. It is said that when the soldiers had gone, Zophar jumped to his feet and ran so fast for home you couldn’t see his heels for dust.”

Hawkins served as a soldier in the Patriot cause during the Revolution and returned home after the war uninjured. Like his father Samuel, Hawkins was a farmer. However, he did not get married and start a family of his own until he was 43 years old. As recorded by Samuel Thompson in his diary for April 16, 1800, “Zophar Hawkins married to Julianner Bayles last night.” When they were married Julianner was 25 years old. They had six children between 1804 and 1816. Their first child Moses died at the age of two. Their third and fourth children Sarah and Ruth were twins. Sarah died the day of her birth and Ruth died unmarried at the age of 24. The other three children Mary, Elizabeth and Samuel had long lives.

In 1851, Hawkins’ estate was listed on the Town of Brookhaven assessment rolls as 70 acres, with a total worth of $2,200. The estate paid a tax for the year of $5.06. The same year Hawkins’ son Samuel, who inherited his father’s home and farm, was assessed for 300 acres.

Julianner Hawkins died on October 8, 1842 at the age of 67. Zophar Hawkins died on October 26, 1847 at the age of 90. They are both buried in the Hawkins cemetery along Pond Path. On Hawkins’ tombstone is written, “He served his country faithfully in the Revolution, and was a captive among the Indians 3 years. He lived a quiet and peaceful life, Was happy and resign’d in death.”

Hawkins’ son Samuel Hawkins did not marry. He died on May 6, 1879 and the farm passed out of the Hawkins family. It was later known as the Nassakeag Farm.

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.

Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Art Billadello) gives visitors a brief history about the Culper Spy Ring at a previous event.

On Saturday, Sept. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., The Long Island Museum and The Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook and the Three Village Historical Society and Tri-Spy Tours in Setauket will host a day of spy-related tours and activities for the 4th annual Culper Spy Day. 

The event is named for the Culper Spy Ring founded by Benjamin Tallmadge of Setauket, which provided Gen. George Washington with the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution.

The Setauket Presbyterian Church will be open for tours during the event.

Visitors can learn what really happened while enjoying docent-led tours of historic homes, churches and cemeteries, Colonial cooking and blacksmithing demonstrations, reenactments, walking and bicycle tours, Anna Smith Strong’s famed clothesline, invisible ink demonstrations, a children’s book signing, time period music, military drills, a TURN memorabilia live auction and sale, mill grinding demonstrations and many more family-friendly activities in the Three Villages and along the North Shore.

In addition, Revolutionary War artifacts, including George Washington’s original letters to members of his spy ring will be on display in the Stony Brook University Library Special Collections. Ticket holders will have a chance to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Samuel Culper Sr. and Anna Smith Strong as well.  

The Three Village Inn in Stony Brook will feature a spy breakfast (cost is $10 per person plus tax and tip and reservations are required)  and the Country House Restaurant, also in Stony Brook, will serve up a spy-themed lunch (not included in Spy Day ticket price). Call 631-751-0555 for breakfast and 631-751-3332 for lunch reservations. The Three Village Historical Society will also be offering snacks and lunch at its Tavern on the Field. 

Build your own Revolutionary War story and see history come to life at this fun-filled event. 

Tickets, which may be purchased at www.tvhs.org, are $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under the age of 6 and veterans will receive free admission. Wristbands for entry and maps with the event listings and a schedule of activities can be picked up at the Three Village Historical Society at 93 North Country Road in Setauket from Sept. 10 through Sept. 15. Tickets are good for admission to most participating organizations for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15 and 16, and at The Long Island Museum through Sept. 23.

For more information, please visit www.culperspyday.com.

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.

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The mural at Setauket Elementary School shows the American cannon set by Patriot’s rock to fire on the fortifications around the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Early in 1777, Queens County Loyalist troops, under the command of Loyalist Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett, took possession of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. They turned the church into a barrack and fortified the area around the building with an earthwork topped with sharpened wooden poles. They placed bundles of branches along the top of the fortification as protection from musket fire and more sharpened poles facing outward along the earthwork to repel a frontal attack. They also set swivel guns in the window openings to fire down on attackers. The resultant fort in the middle of the small settlement of Setauket was then ready to provide protection and safety for the small force of Tory troops.

The stationing of troops in Setauket was part of a British plan to provide a series of observation points on Long Island, which would keep an eye peeled for any movement of rebel troops from Connecticut that might threaten British positions on Long Island and in New York City.

On Aug. 16, 1777, Brigadier General Samuel Parsons was ordered by General Israel Putnam, to gather Continental Army troops in Connecticut, procure boats, “and such small armed or other vessels as you find necessary and proper … You are to make a descent on Long Island and deplete and destroy such parties of the enemy as are found at Huntington and Setauket.”

Parsons, born in Lyme Connecticut in 1737 and educated at Harvard, was by 1777 a veteran of two major battles. As an effective strategist under General George Washington, Parsons was familiar with the conditions on Long Island and with the plight of both the refugees who fled to Connecticut and the Americans who remained on Long Island under the rule of the British military governor.

On Aug. 21, the day before his troops were to attack the Loyalists at Setauket, Parsons issued the following order. “On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords, but from the noble and generous principle of maintaining the right of humanity and vindicating the liberties of freemen. The officers and soldiers are therefore most earnestly exhorted and strictly commanded to forbear all violation of personal property; not the least article is to be taken but by orders; we are to convince our enemies we despise their practices and scorn to follow their example. But should any person be so lost to all virtue and honor as to infringe this order, he or they may depend on the most exemplary punishment … and the greatest silence on the march is to be observed.”

“On the present expedition … ‘tis not to distress the helpless women or honest citizen we draw our swords.”

—General Samuel Parsons

The expedition left Fairfield Harbor that night under cover of darkness. Parsons knew that the success of the mission depended on surprise. Care was taken to avoid detection, but it was to no avail. The force was spotted from shore as it crossed the Sound and landed at Crane Neck Bend early in the morning.

The alarm was quickly spread and the Loyalist officers and men assembled at the fort. Hewlett was staying at the home of Benjamin Floyd. He arrived at the fort just ahead of the Americans. The element of surprise was gone and with it any chance of capturing the fort.

Parsons set up his cannon behind the large rock on what was then part of the Village Green. He sent a message to Hewlett demanding the surrender of the fort. Hewlett asked for a half hour to consult with his officers. Parsons said he would give them ten minutes. The reply came back, “Colonel Hewlett’s compliments to General Parsons, and is determined to defend the fort while he has a man left.”

The artillery officer was Continental Army Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, a refugee from Setauket. Parsons knew that a frontal attack would be suicide so he attempted to breach the walls of the fort with cannon fire. The two sides fired at each other for about four hours with little effect. Then Parsons, fearing that British warships on the Sound would cut off his return route to Connecticut, broke off the attack and headed back to the vessels at Crane Neck. The Patriot troops took with them some horses, blankets and other supplies belonging to the loyalists.

The attack had failed to accomplish its primary purpose, but the residents in Setauket now knew that Washington and the Continental Army had not forgotten the plight of the Patriots in enemy territory on Long Island. However, this is not the end of the story, which continues next with Hewlett, Parsons, Brewster and the Culper Spy Ring.

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.

The 265-year-old Arthur House, located on the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street, has historic ties to Long Island’s Culper Spy Ring. Photo by Kevin Redding

A neglected, pre-Revolutionary War house on the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street in Smithtown and other historically significant structures in the area could help boost the town’s future, according to a Smithtown historian.

Smithtown scholar Corey Victoria Geske urged for Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R) and town council members to draft a resolution to start a Town Hall National Register Historic District in the downtown area at the Aug. 8 town board meeting, which, according to her, would serve to benefit the region’s economy. 

She asked the resolution be expedited by the Town Planning Department in cooperation with the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities as well as the community.

The proposed historic district, which Geske first proposed to the board about eight months ago, would center on the town hall building — built in 1912 by St. James architect Lawrence Smith Butler — and include the 106-year-old Trinity AME Church on New York Avenue, the 105-year-old Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection on Juniper Avenue and the 265-year-old Arthur House.

The Arthur House is located at the corner of New York Avenue and Main Street in Smithtown. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Arthur House is the only Revolutionary War-era house on the Route 25A Spy Trail, Geske said, and currently sits on the grounds of the Smithtown Central School District. It’s a property she has pushed in the past to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Geske informed the board that the house, built in 1752, was once inhabited by Mary Woodhull Arthur, the daughter of Abraham Woodhull — better known as Samuel Culper Sr. — George Washington’s chief operative during the famous spy ring. The intelligence he provided helped win the American Revolution.

Her recent call for the historic district coincided with the July 27 bipartisan legislation introduced by Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) designating the Washington Spy Ring National Historic Trail. The trail runs through towns and villages in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Smithtown along Route 25A.

“Let Smithtown lead the way in a big way by capitalizing on its own special history and world-class architecture added to the heritage now being recognized at the state and national levels for all towns along the Route 25A Washington Spy Trail from Great Neck to Port Jefferson,” Geske said at the board meeting. “The Washington Spy Trail wouldn’t exist if not for the father of Mary Woodhull Arthur of Smithtown, a true daughter of the American Revolution.”

She also noted The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and North Shore Promotion Alliance were granted funds from the state to install signs along the trail in May.

The Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities has listed the Arthur House as endangered for more than 10 years. Photo by Kevin Redding

Geske said registering the Arthur House would be beneficial to the town as it could bring about possible grants from the state for the restoration and stabilization of old properties and promote more tourism in that area.

“The Arthur House was on the SPLIA’s endangered list over 10 years ago and it’s a building that’s been proposed for demolition,” she said. “These are the buildings that have been cast off in the past. [But] they actually could become the cornerstone for revitalizing downtown Smithtown. The history can actually bring to life a new future for downtown, it would be amazing.”

Sarah Kautz, director of preservation for SPLIA, said she hopes the town will involve its vast history into the downtown revitalization efforts. The town’s comprehensive revitalization plans came to the conclusion its historic buildings were an important component, according to Kautz, but did not provide concrete plans to address them.

“The town has never really incorporated preservation in a systematic way that would bring it into the wider plan for revitalization,” Kautz said. “The Arthur House is important because it’s an early property and is part of Smithtown’s really interesting early history going back into the 18th century. We would love to see a real clear approach for how those historic properties are going to fit into the revitalization and there’s a great potential for them to do so.”

The town board is in the process of evaluating Geske’s proposal, according to Councilman Tom McCarthy (R).

“We’ve asked the planning department to see how feasible it is … we’ll have to look at the pluses and minuses, do due diligence, but it could be a benefit to the township as a whole,” McCarthy said. “We have so much history [and] it’s very important to preserve it but now we have to look at everything surrounding it. We don’t want to shoot from the hip.”

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These days, with the chaos in politics, it is no wonder that many people are showing a renewed interest in our history and the goals of our Founding Fathers some 240 years ago that define who we want to be today. Many residents seem surprised by the significant role our Long Island area played in the Revolutionary War and are delighted to learn about the Culper Spy Ring that was centered in Setauket and led by Benjamin Tallmadge, a resident. “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” the AMC cable series now in its fourth and final year, has done much to popularize the spy story, speaking to our past.

All of which serves to bring history to the fore. This is a good result because history is part of the glue that defines a community and strengthens its roots. Since we at the newspaper believe this, we run regular columns by local historians telling our history, and we have now just finished a full-length film, “One Life to Give,” as I have previously mentioned, about how the Culper Spy Ring started. Its premiere is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Now there is more good news to make us proud of the place in which we live. In a refreshing show of bipartisanship, two of our congressmen, Democrat Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove and Lee Zeldin, Republican of Shirley, have introduced legislation in the House to bestow upon the George Washington Spy Trail national historic status.

The spy trail is essentially Route 25A, the road that was used by the spies during the war to travel behind enemy lines between Long Island and New York City, gaining vital intelligence about the British and their troop movements and strategy. Long Island was an occupied territory, the breadbasket of food and supplies for the British, who were headquartered in New York City. All along the trail’s about 50-mile route was the high-wire danger for the spies of being discovered and hung. Indeed, the British trapped Nathan Hale, whose purported last words were about his one regret being that he had but one life to give for his country.

Washington well knew the enormous debt he owed to the spies, and to honor them he traveled in an elegant coach along the 25A route after the war in slow, celebratory fashion from Great Neck to Port Jefferson — then known as Drowned Meadow — staying at the inn owned by one of the spies, Austin Roe of Setauket.

But at that time the purpose of his trip was known only to the tiny band of spies. Spies were then thought of as lowly deceivers by the people and not at all cloaked in the glamour of James Bond.

So these courageous, remarkable men — and women, like Anna Strong — took their secret to their graves for fear of being ostracized by their countrymen. And Washington kept their secret. Only in the middle of the last century were papers discovered by historians that revealed the bravery of the Culper Spies. Today, there are original letters written by Washington to the spies, with an addition on one by Benjamin Tallmadge, that can be viewed at the library of Stony Brook University. They were bought by Old Field resident Henry Laufer and donated to the university for that purpose.

The spy trail is the result of an intense effort over some 20 years by Gloria Rocchio of Stony Brook and the North Shore Promotion Alliance to bring awareness of this historic road and its role in American history. A total of 26 signs, which they secured and installed, depict Washington’s coach and line his route.

A national historic designation, under the auspices of the National Park Service, would not only honor these heroes but also perhaps bring federal grant money, and not insignificantly promote tourism to help our economy.

So the Culper Spies live on and continue to serve.

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Kate Strong sits on her front porch on Strong’s Neck in December 1899. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Kate Wheeler Strong was born in Setauket March 21, 1879. She was the daughter of Judge Selah Strong and a descendant of Revolutionary War spy Anna Smith Strong, as well as of Setauket settler William “Tangier” Smith. As Dr. Percy Bailey wrote in October, 1977, “As a historian, ‘Miss Kate’ has probably done more than any other in popularizing and humanizing the history of this beautiful Long Island which she loved.”

Kate Strong wrote local history articles for the Long Island Forum from 1939 through 1976. Most of these articles she had published in small booklets which she sold or gave away to friends over the years. These booklets, called “True Tales,” have provided a special look into the past for many generations of Three Village residents. Kate Strong died at her home The Cedars on Strong’s Neck July 22, 1977. In 1992, William B. Minuse (1908-2002) wrote about Kate Strong in the 1992 Three Village Historian:

A photo of Strong taken in May of 1897. Photo from Bev Tyler.

“Miss Kate Wheeler Strong was one of the most remarkable persons I have ever known … Miss Kate loved young people. For many years, she told stories to groups of children at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library. When the Stony Brook School opened, she organized a stamp club there.

“Her chief interest over the years was local and family history … She wrote extensively, most of her articles being based on family papers and information gathered from older residents … Even after she lost her sight she persisted. We will always be in her debt for the wonderful anecdotes and the invaluable accounts she left us of our Long Island communities and people.

“From time to time she gave me artifacts for the Three Village Historical Society. Among them were a pair of snow shoes her father had used during the blizzard of ‘88.

“Toward the end of her life her neighbors celebrated each of her birthdays, and I was always invited. I shall always remember her most fondly. She was kind and generous.”

After Kate Strong’s death, her personal papers and her family papers going back to her second-great-grandfather were donated to the Three Village Historical Society. The Strong collection contains more than 3,000 papers of the Strong family of Setauket, dating from 1703 to 1977. Included in the collection are deeds, diaries, 224 handwritten pages of court cases by State Supreme Court Justice Selah Strong, letters about their daily lives, politics, travels, farm matters, business records, school records, payments, receipts, Setauket Presbyterian Church records and weather bureau records. There are approximately 2,250 photographs of families, friends, relatives, places
and scenes.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, I was the editor for yearly publications of The Three Village Historian: Journal of the Three Village Historical Society. The issue of 1992 included nine of Kate Wheeler Strong’s “True Tales,” and a complete listing of the 38 years of “True Tales” booklets she produced between 1940 and 1976. This 24-page publication is still available for $1 at the Three Village Historical Society History Center and Gift Shop.

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