Spies on Long Island!

A school master, a soldier, a rural farmer, a city merchant, a tavern keeper, a whaleboat captain. What could they possibly have in common? They were all involved in espionage for George Washington during the American Revolution….and it took place right here on Long Island!  Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring details the intrigues, the personalities and the danger involved in the secret missions. It is a fascinating book.

Nathan Hale, the school teacher, was captured and hanged not long after he began his career. His friend, Benjamin Tallmadge, soon recruited Abraham Woodhull (the farmer) who lived in Setauket and Robert Townsend (the merchant) who worked in New York City. Austin Roe (the tavern keeper) used the excuse of needing supplies to travel between Setauket and NYC. There he picked up not only provisions for his tavern but also intelligence about British troops that Townsend gathered. Woodhull then would deliver the messages to Caleb Brewster (the whale boat captain) who ferried the information to Tallmadge in Connecticut. He then passed it along to George Washington.

That’s the quick summary. If you are intrigued by this local group known as the Culper Spy Ring, you might want to take advantage of an auto/ audio tour developed by the Long Island North Shore Heritage Area. You can drive along LI’s north shore from Oyster Bay, location of Townsend’s family home at Raynham Hall, to the Setauket area where Woodhull lived and Roe had his tavern. At each stop a call to 631-498-4740 explains the significance of the stop. A nice addition to this trip is the exhibit Spies! at the Three Village Historical Society.  At the exhibit you can learn about invisible ink used by the group or try to decipher letters using Tallmadge’s code.

If you want to read more about the topic try M. William Phelps’ Nathan Hale: the Life and Death of America’s First Spy, George O’Toole’s Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage, Jay Nash’s Spies:  A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Tricks & Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today and the classic by Morton Pennypacker General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and New York. You can also consult the Syosset Public Library‘s biography and history online databases: Biography in Context and US History in Context.

– posted by Brenda, Reference Services


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