By Cayla Rosenhagen
After British General Charles Cornwallis famously surrounded during the Battle of Yorktown — the last battle of the American Revolution — he returned home to England. During a dinner party in London, he was questioned about the significant defeat.
“General Washington did not out-battle us,” he replied to the inquiry, “He out-spied us.”
The spies which he referred to were almost certainly the Culper Spy Ring, a network of daring Patriots, many of whom lived here in Setauket, who supplied the Continental Army with invaluable intelligence. Some of its members included Abraham Woodhull, Anna Smith Strong, Caleb Brewster, and Robert Townsend.
The Three Village Historical Society’s Graveyard Tour enveloped me in our community’s rich history as I listened to the heroic tales of these brave spirits and others. On the crisp, autumn evening of October 23, volunteers Rick Melidosian, Pat Galaskas, and Nikkeya Bell led our group of 20 through the cemeteries of the Presbyterian Church of Setauket and the Caroline Church to visit some of the historic figures buried there.
The lantern-lit tour began at dusk as a cool breeze swept through the village. Vibrant autumn foliage and a fleeting shower contributed to the alluring old-world ambiance of the darkening churchyard.
Our guides recounted the extraordinary stories of many Patriot heroes, including the tavern owner and spy, Austin Roe, Long Island’s Paul Revere. During the war, he was a courier who made the 110-mile journey from Setauket to New York City and back on horseback in order to deliver intelligence once a week. The journey was a dangerous one, as the roads he took were full of highwaymen and patrolling British redcoats who would stop and question him. Using the cover of buying supplies for his tavern to dismiss prying questions about his frequent travels, Roe successfully transmitted intelligence from Robert Townsend and passed it along to Abraham Woodhull.
Anecdotes of the courageous Anna Smith Strong captivated the audience as well. She utilized a secret code by hanging petticoats and handkerchiefs on a clothesline to relay vital information from Woodhull to their fellow spy and whaleboat captain Caleb Brewster. Brewster then made the treacherous journey across the Long Island Sound, at the time also known as the Devil’s Belt, to provide intel to General Washington himself. Anna lived in the family manor on Strong’s Neck, only minutes from where the tour was held that evening. In fact, centuries later, her descendants still reside there, guide Pat Galaskas explained.
As the fundraiser came to a close, I spoke with some of the individuals who volunteer with the Three Village Historical Society. Author and TVHS historian Bev Tyler shared what it was like working with the Society for over 45 years. He said the two things he most enjoys about being their historian are “…people who ask lots of questions and are very enthusiastic, and the research.” Tour guide and TVHS volunteer for over 15 years Rick Melidosian most enjoys getting to share his knowledge about history with others.
The Three Village Historical Society is currently looking for volunteer help for various positions, including docents, costumed actors, and guides. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please contact TVHS Creative Services Manager, Mari Irizarry, at [email protected]. See their Facebook or Instagram pages or visit tvhs.org to find out more about upcoming events and experiencing their museum which recently opened its doors to the public for tours during the week.
Cayla Rosenhagen is a local high school student who enjoys capturing the unique charm of the community through photography and journalism. She serves on the board of directors for the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Brookhaven’s Youth Board, and is the founder and coordinator of Beach Bucket Brigade, a community outreach program dedicated to environmental awareness, engagement, and education. She is also an avid birder, hiker, and artist who is concurrently enrolled in college, pursuing a degree in teaching.