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Friday, April 20, 2018

A Deal Gone Sour: How A Henry Clay – Nativist Alliance Nearly Stopped the Civil War

©2018 All rights reserved by the author.


The Election of 1844 pitted Democrat James K. Polk against Whig elder statesman Henry Clay. Polk triumphed, but by the slimmest of margins. In an election that saw over 2.7 million people vote, merely 38,000 votes separated the candidates. While the 170-105 margin in the Electoral College seems a comfortable one, minor shifts of voters in several states (New York most notable among them) erase Clay’s deficit. The closeness of this election has justifiably attracted the attention of historians who, for over one hundred years, have speculated the reasons for Polk’s victory. Almost exclusively, historians tend to steer the conversation towards a discussion of issues, such as Texas annexation, that caused Clay to lose the election. The semantics are important; claiming Clay lostthe electionimplies that absent any mishandling of issues, Clay stood to win. This assumption is not supported by the historical record. Mid-nineteenth century voters held intense partisan attachments, perhaps even more so than today and the independent swing vote so critical to modern elections had yet to crystalize. Also, in 1844 slavery had yet begun ripping apart partisan alliances as it would in the 1850’s — this election boiled down to raw voter numbers and what party could more successfully rally their rank and file to the polls. The pool of unattached voters was extremely limited so issues served the purpose of arousing already partisan voters, not attracting unaffiliated ones. In other words, the large majority of people who voted in 1844 did so according to deep rooted partisan identification regardless of where the candidates stood on the issues. Charles Sellers illustrated this point when assessing the role of Texas on the outcome of the election, claiming that “more voters favored annexation because they were Democrats than voted Democratic because they favored annexation.” Due to surges in the heavily Democratic immigrant vote, Polk held the advantage in 1844 despite the benefit of his opponent’s name recognition. Therefore, Clay’s only chance of victory rested on his ability to attract the votes of the admittedly small number of those not already attached to Polk through party affiliation. By focusing on issues that cost Clay votes that were not his to lose, historians have often overlooked a key bloc of generally unaffiliated voters that Clay nearly rode to the presidency — the American Republican Nativist voters of New York City. Contrary to historians who have criticized the Whigs for courting the Nativist vote in New York as well as some Whig contemporaries who did so in their lamentations over the 1844 defeat, the Whigs had no choice but to forge an alliance with Nativist voters in New York City and had the Nativists fully adhered to the promise of alliance, Henry Clay would have won the election of 1844. Before exploring the basis of such a claim however, a discussion of how a Clay presidency could have changed the course of American history is in order, for if no marked change would have occurred under Clay’s administration, an examination of his defeat is far less compelling.[1]

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roller Skating Craze and the Freedom to Participate

By Richard White
©Copyright 2018. 
All rights reserved by the author.

In the 1880’s, a roller skating craze prompted the openings of rinks in central New York for recreational skating for the public as well as exhibitions by professional skaters. According to NYS’s civil rights statute of 1873, all races were guaranteed equal access to public venues. In fact, depriving equal admission was a misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine. Yet in 1884, this law faced racism’s challenges at skating rinks in Norwich and Owego. African Americans in those villages were determined to defend their freedom and equality that resulted in two divergent legal outcomes.

In Norwich on Friday, June 13, residents were anxious to attend the new roller rink’s grand opening at the Wilson Opera House. In spite of the law, co-proprietor Calvin King left instructions at the ticket booth to bar admission of blacks. Excluded were George Breed, William Wycoff, Charles Robbins, and others—a few accounts also name Hannibal Molson and Thomas Randall, two of the region’s leading civil rights activists. The New Berlin Gazette succinctly summarized the next act in this racial drama. On June 16, there was a widely attended “indignation meeting” at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which was chaired by Rev. Loren (1) T. Rogers whose words captured the assemblage’s emotions and anger. He declared that not since “darkest days of slavery no such outrage had been perpetrated in Norwich.” Wycoff and Robbins were appointed secretaries. Molson then inspired the audience with a reading of the 1873 law. Finally, the group adopted resolutions including one that contended that they appointment “a committee to consider the propriety of instituting legal proceedings against the management.”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Wright Brothers of Rome

by Lawrence S. Freund
© 2018 All rights reserved by the author.

The American Civil War split both the nation and many of the nation’s families, none more so than two descendants of one of the pioneer families of Rome in upstate New York. Theirs was a political and social division that exemplified the countervailing attitudes of North and South as well as the values and pathways that led to the conflict.

The Wright family arrived in what would become Rome, New York, from Connecticut in 1789, staking out land still known today as Wright Settlement. Joseph Wright, a descendant of the founders, fathered six children with his first wife, Martha, three with his second wife, Fanny. Phineas Camp Wright, born in 1816, was the oldest surviving son of Joseph and Martha. Phineas was raised in Rome, studied and practiced law, and in 1844 married Rosina Martin, a Virginia-born widow with a young son.[1] They soon moved south to New Orleans, to which Wright was drawn by the extended litigation of the Myra Clark Gaines case, a multi-year lawsuit in which a woman of uncertain ancestry sought to establish her inheritance rights.[2] It was a lawyer’s dream. For Wright, according to some sources,[3] the legal arguments and the documents he discovered led to an ambitious reverie, the creation of a semi-secret organization, the Order of American Knights, which would attach itself to the increasingly bellicose states rights sentiments of the South. [4]

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Ghost of American Patriot Colonel Jacob Griffin Haunts Hopewell Junction, New York

by Michael Mauro DeBonis
©Copyright 2017. 
All rights reserved by the author.

He is one of the great patriots of the American Revolution, and he is barely known outside of his native Dutchess County, New York. Born in the Fishkills area of the State of New York circa 1729-1730 (sources vary), Jacob Griffin was a staunch Yankee Presbyterian, who wanted a clear and a complete parting of the ways with King George III of England and the rest of Empire of Great Britain. From the mid to the late 18th century the Thirteen Colonies of British North America experienced one huge wave of social upheaval after the other… the reasons of these societal changes being many and very subtly related to the other.

The political and philosophical fervor of this time period called The Enlightenment (or, also The Age of Reason) was to set the entire century of the 1700’s ablaze with new thinking that debunked superstition, religion and monarchical government and focused itself instead on rationalism, science and free and independent thinking. John Locke and Isaac Newton’s mathematical and logical ideas of looking at the world were quickly replacing “archaic” philosophies of the late Renaissance. Locke and Newton spearheaded England’s intellectual departure from older intellectual doctrines and were joined by other influential European thinkers such as the French Descartes, Voltaire and Rousseau.

In America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson pined for personal liberty and socio-economic equality with an unmatched and definitive eloquence and wit. But with this new freethinking came radical notions that sought to overturn and (finally dump) the feudal system of mediaeval Western Europe and to replace it with an authentic remodeling of classical Greek and Roman democratic ideals. These defined themselves by a total doing away with kings and queens and entailed re-modifying parliaments with congresses. America had been caught up in this philosophical firestorm.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Decades in the Life of a Village as seen through its Historical Documents: Cherry Creek NY 1893 to 2017

By Sharon Howe Sweeting©Copyright 2017. 
All rights reserved by the author.


Preface and context:

The New York State government has endeavored to assist lower levels of government in reducing layers of political entities. Several villages in Western New York have voted to dissolve including the Village of Cherry Creek in view of high taxes and diminishing population. The vote occurred in February 2017 and the dissolution is to be complete by December 31, 2017. The Town Historian was asked to prepare a history of the Village as it dissolves.
___________

The Village, within the Town of Cherry Creek which dates from the early 1800s, was incorporated on May 20, 1893, held its first election on June 17, 1893 and selected C.A. Mount president; I.S. Benton, W.R. Shepardson, and H. Clinton Mount as Trustees. Other officials included G. LeRoy Martin, clerk; G.W. Brown, treasurer and H.E. Safford as collector. “For many years lumbering was the principal business until the greater part of the neighboring forest had been cut down. But there has never been a lack of useful and profitable industries. Cherry Creek has never gone to sleep, or lost the active impetus given by the first enterprising settlers.”

“Among the progressive men of Cherry Creek, there stands no more prominent figure than that of Cyrus A. Mount. He is a descendent of an eminent family who were early settlers here. He was born here April 4, 1849, and laid the foundation of his early education in his native town and later graduated from the Forestville Free Academy. In early life he developed those qualities of mind and character which have since given him success in politics, in business and in social life.” He served as Postmaster (1874-1886); Justice of the Peace from 1872 for many years; president of the Business Man’s Association; president of the Board of Education and was Deputy Sheriff for several years. From: Historical and Biographical Sketch of Cherry Creek, Chautauqua County, New York by Chas. J. Shults, 1900.

The decade of the 1900s is represented by Poll Lists, official documents identifying dates, subjects of election and enumeration of the voters and endorsement by local officials. On March 15, 1904 23 votes were cast for Charles L. Wheeler, village president; Ernst Dye and C. LeRoy Edwards as trustees; Charles L. Frost, treasurer and Lewis E. Master collector. Verification signed by: A.H. Curtiss, president; Erwin and Champlain as trustees. On March 19, 1907 20 votes were cast for President Edson Skiff and Trustee William Bartlett. Chas L. Frost was elected treasurer and Clifford T. Skiff as collector. Election endorsed by President C.A. Mount, Trustees Rood and Gillett and Clerk Holcomb. On March 17, 1908 61 votes were cast for President Hiram Haskin, Trustee Geo. O Wilcox, Treasurer C.L. Frost and Collector C.T. Skiff. All Questions were declined related to Village Hall, Fire Chem. Engine, reimbursement of Hess and pay master (no further details mentioned). On August 23, 1910 a Special election was held for the purpose of raising $5000.00 extra for completing water works system in accordance to lowest bid. Passed 41 to 32.



The decade of the 1910s is represented by the Statement of Enumeration. Each town and village in New York was responsible for counting their inhabitants. On January 24, 1914, the village counted 654 inhabitants; 451 over 21 years of age and 203 under 21 years of age. No further census type information, such as address and occupation was listed. A prior Enumeration dated January 16, 1906 listed 691 inhabitants, 466 over 21 and 225 under 21. The 1914 statement was signed by President H.A. Damon and Trustees Annis and Butter.

Village Board Minutes were reviewed to track events in the 1920s which witnessed the nomenclature change of the leader of the village from President to Mayor. In 1920 H.A. Damon was the Mayor and Fowler served as Trustee. Guy E. Cooper served as Clerk followed by G.W. Lapham. In 1923, Georgia Drummer sued for alleged damages caused by defective sidewalks. On July 30, 1923 a Motor vehicle Ordinance was adopted related to speed (not to exceed 15 mph) and suitable mufflers. Motor cycle policeman Quaint was appointed. In 1924 the Office of Street Commissioner was placed on the ballot; E.H. Pease served. That same year the Cherry Creek Hose Company elected the following officers: Harry Hodges, Chief; Mark Dye, Asst. Fire Chief; Seneca LeBarron, lst Asst. foreman; Clayton Peters, 2nd and W.F. Henderson served as 3rd.. Fire Wardens were G.W. Lapham and Henry Reed. On September 1, 1925 Fred W. Young was engaged to installed 51 Street lights. A Special Election was called on May 5, 1926 to propose a meter water system: 36 yes to 9 nos. That same year a temporary loan of $27,500.00 was secured from the 1st National Bank of Jamestown to widen Main Street for a distance of 1515 feet. The Annual Report of 1927-28 showed receipts in General Fund as $9344.56 with distributions the same; while water fund receipts were $4562.91 with the same amount in disbursements. In 1929, the leadership passed from President H.A. Damon to Mayor G.S. Frost.

Mayoral Letter dated January 29, 1931 from Mayor G.S. Frost of Frost’s building supply, writes a succinct and powerful letter to the Executive Engineer, Division of Water Power and Control in Albany “Regarding Auxiliary Source of Water Supply, Village of Cherry Creek” after receiving literature from Mr. Suter on the Rules and Regulations governing water supply applications. Mayor Frost writes “in a very frank and brief manner, the actual conditions now existing in our Village…” “First; our Village water supply and system as installed in 1911 at a total cost of $30,000. We have and are paying on this bonded indebtedness $1,000.00 per year, together with the Interest; thus leaving us at the present time with a $10,000. debt remaining on our Village water system. I might also state that the present source of our water, which is the same as at the time of installation is from springs. Now during the past several years, these springs have suffered from drought, and have caused our Village Trustees to forbid the use of water for sprinkling purposes, etc… “

‘Thus, we of the Village have been hard put to figure out ways and means of not only securing additional water supply, but of the best quality. During the past twenty years that our water system has been in vogue, we have accumulated $1700.00 over and above our bonded indebtedness and running expenses. This amount is on interest account in the Cherry Creek National Bank.”

“Now before proceeding further in what we hope to do, I want to give you some other facts pertaining to our Village. The Village of Cherry Creek is what is termed a Village of 4th class, having a population of but 536. This being the exact number as per the last census of 1930. In the year 1925 our population was 619. In the year 1920 it was 527. In the year 1915 is was 720. I merely mention this that you might note the growth of our back-sliding over the term of fifteen years, and from this information you have a partial guess toward our future progress. Our Village also has at the present time a bonded indebtedness of $47,000 for a new school building erected in 1928. It also has a bonded indebtedness of $18,000 for the widening of our State Road through our Main Street. This was done in year 1926. Thus you may see that our small Village is carrying at the present time and will carry for years to come a large burden. Our only source of revenue other than yearly taxation is the sale of our water, and it’s that which we both want and must increase. We must increase it to retain our standard of living and increase it with pure quality.”

“Our Village has no manufacturers whatever. The only sales and users of our water, other than residential purposes is a Milk Plant and the Erie Rail Road Co. No doubt you are asking yourself, what has the Village, and why have they taken on so much with so small a population and little to do with”? My only answer could be, that we are in a rural district, surrounded by a splendid Dairy section. Our Village population consists and has long consisted of nearly all retired farmers. After selling or handing down to their kin their farms, they move into our Village, spend the remainder of their lives and earnings in what to them may be termed “solid comfort”. Thus our water, our schools, our good roads, our beautiful Village lying beneath the hills of our Chautauqua County afford them what they want. It’s home to them, and they are the ones, who over the term of years have brought it all about.”

He goes on to say that with the $1700.00 on deposit we plan to drill a well that will pump at least 50 gallons per minute which will not be in use at all times but only when the springs do not produce enough in quantity. He also mentions that the Village will not deposit $1000.00 with Mr. Suter’s office for a Surety Bond as required by the Rules and Regulations.

“Assuring you that any assistance and advise (sic) relative to our increasing or maintaining our Water System in a healthful and plentiful manner will be appreciated.” Signed: Mayor, Village of Cherry Creek (Letter is archived in the files of the Cherry Creek Town Museum)

1943/44 Field Book for Town Assessors: Another document related to the history of the village provides an alpha list of Property owners, location (street or road), names or surrounding properties (NESW), character of the Property (Res/Shop/Agri/Bank/Tool shed/ Res/cemetery), Quantity of Land or Linear dimensions, Full value of Real Property exclusive of Buildings and including buildings. Example: Hodges, Ellsworth, Main St. West side; surrounded by Wheeler(N), Street (E ) Delameter (S) and Merrill (W). Garage/Restaurant; land: 1/8; Values: exclusive of buildings $100.00 and with $5000.00. A 1946 Proposition by Mayor Irwin Milspaw: No 1: Shall Village Board appropriate a sum not to exceed $400.00 for Band Concerts, provided an equal amount be raised by subscription for the same purpose? Passed. No. 2: Shall Water Department raise about $4000.00 to extend a 4”water main on the Leon road 1200’ to Ruttenbur and Young properties? Failed.

1946 and 1950s are represented by several official Ordinances. “Lodgings deemed unfit for human habitation are to be vacated” : Signed by Mayor Irwin Milspaw and Trustees Floyd Buell and William Silleman (29 March 1946); Contract to Purchase Fire Truck Model 1 ½ ton Red Chevrolet Truck from Cherry Creek Motor Sales for $2673.00 (6 Jan 1950); Board Resolution authorizing an addition to the reconstruction of existing Water System at an estimated cost of $15,000.00; bonds to be issued (6 March 1950); Resolution that rent of Village hall to Town Board continue to be $100.00 per year (2 Jan 1951). Contract for lighting streets and public places by NYS Electric and Gas Corp. is authorized and empowered (5 Feb 1951).

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s seem to represent a period of lawlessness if the Oaths of Office are any indication. Deputies, Deputy Constables, Assistant Constables and Halloween Constables were all engaged; those who served in various capacities were: J. Colburn, Sr., Lawrence Miller, Emory J. Rose, Allan Steward, Clinton Brumagin, Jr. Robert LeBarron and William Lachut. In the 1970s the Fire Police were composed of: Emory Rose, Allan Steward, Paul Crooks, Lawrence E. Miller, G.W. VanWormer, Richard Madison, Charles Colvin, Patsy Monico, John Schweiger, Raymond Sheldon, Sr., James LaMotto, Clinton Brumagin, Jr., Robert Cooper, Paul Green, Donald M. Aaberg, Philip Gross, Chauncey W. Park, Jr., James W. Kriel, Dean Mount, Leo Belote, Robert Wm Cooper, Sr., Lawrence Duckwall, George L. Hodges, Jr., Richard A. North, Thomas R. Waag, James E. Rose, Allen Lachut, Richarde A. North, Edmund Sarno, Donald Casey, Dale Snyder and Elton Merchant. During the same period Oaths of Office were administered to: Mayor Monico; Trustee’s Wayland Dye, Allan Steward, David R. McCord, Richard H. Madison, Paul L. Peters, Robert F. Smith, Leonie L. Newcomb; Clerk/Treasurer Lottie Ingersoll and Election Inspectors: Arthusa Waite, Clara Hall, Gertrude Richardson, Mildred W. Fairbanks, Genevieve Champlin, Etole Ericsson, and Norma Brunswick.

1980s Village Board Minutes: These minutes are very precise and detailed listing all in attendance, their roles and the time they arrived for each meeting. On February 7, 1980, Mayor Edmund Sarno signed a Bond Anticipation Note for $5,000.00 @ 8 1.2.% interest to the 1st National Bank in Jamestown to pay “part of the cost of the purchase of a fire truck." Resolution offered by Robert Smith and Betty Milspaw and signed by Faye Colvin, Village Clerk. Charles E. Hunt elected mayor in 1981. On October 7, 1982, Ed Sarno was reappointed mayor after Robert Smith resigned due to moving away from the Village. In December 1985 Betty Milspaw was serving as Mayor. In 1986 the Village Board was asked by residents on how they expected to pay the debt for the sewer system. Appointments for the 1988-89 were Deputy Mayor Karl Miller and Clerk/Treasurer Brenda Gross. On May 5, 1988, the Board issued a letter to Residents to clean-up their properties.

1990s Village Board Minutes: Mayor B. Milspaw; Trustees Howe-Conklin, Pattyson and Karl Miller as Deputy and Fire Chief Ray Sheldon. Rob Frost attended as Supervisor ; Frost discussed Town Business, fire contract, youth program and the Transfer Station. 1990 also saw a Public Hearing on Recycling Law. March 12, 1991 a public hearing was held on Cable TV. In 1993 Mayor Karl Miller reported that the annual inspection from Chautauqua Department of Health that the water supply was being operated satisfactorily. Funding was requested for the 100th (1893-1993) Centennial celebrations. The first of several celebrations was held from June 12-13, 1993. Linda Toomey reported in the Post Journal on June 14th that the “Cherry Creek Centennial Ends with a Big Bang:” fireworks rekindle the dormant Cherry Creek spirit. Mayor Miller resigned on April 6, 1993 and Dean Mount was appointed. Trustee B. Hendricks and Mendle Johnson joined in the re-organization meeting. The re-finance of the wastewater treatment facility for $475,000 was complete in May 1994. In November of the same year Rick Young joined the Village as DPW. On Jan 10, 1995 an estimate to make the Village Hall ADA accessible was quoted at $90,000.00. In September 1995, Attorney Jerry Hyde led the discussion on the sewer loan payment schedule for 1996 to 2000 as: $33,000. for principal, interest of $4756.00 for a grand total of $37, 756. Board Members included Mayor Mount, Trustees: Betty Milspaw, Helen Howe, Bruce Hendricks and Mendle Johnson; Jody Farnham served as clerk-treasurer. September 7,1997 saw a brief discussion of dissolving the Village; all were opposed. And in January 1998 there was more discussion on the dissolution and a meeting was held at the school on March 31, 1998.

The decade of 2000 was dominated by squabbles between Mayor Dean Mount and Code Enforcement Officer Frank Watson over the demolition of the old school building. Post Journal news reporter Robert Rizzuto wrote on Feb. 14, 2008 that the project had been halted by the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation over whether proper permits had been issued. The questions mostly related to asbestos abatement. Demolition was begun before the Code Enforcement Officer had signed off. He was subsequently fired in a “closed door” session apparently in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law. A 2010 invoice from the Village Archives shows a Lakewood company receiving payment for 50% of the demolition and asbestos abatement for $49,500.00. A misunderstanding with the County forced the Village to repay the remainder after only two years of County assistance. The tension was temporarily abated with the 2004 Sesqui-Centennial celebration headed by Historian Joyce Chase and Patty Frost. Events included a Memorial Day parade ending around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the old Highland Cemetery, a fashion show, parade, publication called “Century Old Buildings in Cherry Creek” and a church service.

Oral History: The 2010s highlighted tourism, history and cooperation between the town and the village in spite of the village dissolution vote in February 2017. Three trails focus on Cherry Creek: the Amish, the snowmobile and the Equestrian; each promotes local businesses. The 2015 Bicentennial celebration, managed by the Cherry Creek Community Association (CCCA), honored our first settler Joseph Kent’s arrival in 1815. Telephone pole flags were funded by a County-wide grant program. An elaborate historical parade was unfortunately rained out but the spirit was not diminished when several floats paraded before an old fashioned Town Picnic, the second since 1902, was held at the Cherry Creek Inn or George Nelson Frost’s farm. The Community Association, including villagers, townies and businesses worked together to rebuild the old ballpark bandstand, the playground, the mini park at the corner of Main and Center Streets, the summer concert series and memorial trees at Christmas. The horrific fire at the Trillium Lodge Restaurant on May 1, 2017 only increased the cooperation among locales with pleas to County officials to help with the rebuilding. The pending sale of Cockaigne Ski Resort and the wind power project producing green energy are two more boosts to the area.

We are looking forward to many more decades of life in a small rural area which I call the last frontier at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.




About the author: Sharon Howe Sweeting is the Cherry Creek Town Historian.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    innkeeper@cherrycreekinn.net

Jacob Griffin and the Tavern of Time

By Michael Mauro DeBonis 
11-02-17


“I sat down and drank here, two hundred years ago,
the moon was young and silver, while fallen on the snow.

Green flames full with fire,
(freed from holy hearth)
lit my blue attire,
stained red by bloody earth.

This was the chair I sat in
during war with old King George.
Cold could get this cabin,
with no beer to gulp and gorge.

But these walls were strong and sturdy,
upon our Yankee ground.
Now what’s left is dirty,
and piles itself around.

The roof has crumbled into dust
long ages and ages ago…
the sun returned and brightly burned,
and smoked away the snow.
What has made my memory bust?

Freedom and liberty I do sing,
whether winter, or light of spring.
This is the place my dreams were born,
as my soul climbed up, and was moved by morn.

Mark these ruins not a grave,
but a cradle to an immortal cause.
Is a man’s living is all he will have?
While alive, does he deserve applause?

In being in our very own bones,
we walk far from graven stones.
Yet, within these windows,
I saw my best.
And it’s here my mind
has come to rest.”




About the poet: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Busting Buckles: How Captain Caleb Brewster Broke The Devil’s Beltand Mariner By Moonlight

By Michael M. DeBonis

The greatest patriots of the Revolutionary War are innumerable and nameless. Most were soldiers and some were statesmen and diplomats. But to students of the American War for Independence, one name stands out as an undisputed paladin in the Yankee cause for liberty. His name is Caleb Brewster. Brewster was truly a jack-of-all-trades, as well as the proverbial master of many. A native Long Islander and a highly talented sailor and soldier, Caleb Brewster confronted Death countless times to bring success to the infant nation he was helping to create. Mister Brewster did such on land and sea. And more to the point, this outstanding member of Washington’s Continental Army was part of the most secret component of the American war machine against their British enemies. Caleb Brewster was a spy and he has a tale to be told.

Caleb Brewster was born in the month of September (1747) at Setauket, NY (Rose, 82). On the north shore of Long Island, and positioned on the Sound, Setauket was (and, to a large extent, still is) a small fishing and agricultural community, belonging to the Township of Brookhaven. Brewster was descended from a family who emigrated from England to the Colonies in the 1660’s (Rose, 79). The Brewster clan had been living in the village of Setauket for many generations, prior to the birth of Caleb (Rose, 79).

And it was to the sea that the young Caleb Brewster took to early in his youth (Flockerzi, 1). Dulled by farming life, Brewster enlisted as a sailor on a whaler, bound for Greenland, when he was just nineteen years of age (Rose, 82). Within a few years of becoming a whaleboatman, Caleb Brewster, already accustomed to a harsh life at sea, joined on a merchantman, which was headed for the English capitol (London). He gained further significant maritime expertise in his role aboard this vessel as mate (Rose, 82). Adding to Brewster’s nautical insights, this experience of his on the high seas would become very useful for Caleb later on. This was especially the case when Brewster was steering through the stark black evening skies and waters of the Long Island Sound to ferry (fellow Culper spy) Abraham Woodhull’s intelligence reports (intended for Benjamin Tallmadge and General George Washington) to and fro Setauket and the Connecticut coast.


By Caleb Brewster’s early twenties he was a “bull of man of man…physically huge and imposing,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55) “and was using his…tremendous athletic skill,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55) to “nuisance the British,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55). This meant that Brewster (a staunch American patriot early on) stoically and courageously breached the so-called “Devil’s Belt,” a.k.a. the Long Island Sound, and he smuggled goods across those heavily patrolled British (and coincidentally American) waters…carefully and effectively…avoiding prying redcoat eyes and attention. Brewster did so by utilizing his own unique brand of stealth and skulking (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55). Brewster’s hidden and mischievous conduct was a genuinely risky business. Likewise, Brewster’s clandestine behavior was spawned from an authentically strong desire to hurt any and all British military operations in the Long Island-Connecticut area, as well as to facilitate his own sincere wishes to assist his Yankee colonial comrades in separating from the English mother country.

Brewster was back in New York Colony in May 1775 (Rose, 83). He had then brazenly signed two official public documents formally backing the Continental Congress (Rose, 80 and 83) the first one being in May, and the other being in June. Brewster’s “quick wit and ribald sense of humor,” (Rose, 67) will embarrass, thwart and frustrate the British Army on more than one occasion. Yet, in spite of Caleb Brewster’s incredible defiance towards the dicey odds stacked against him, and the remainder of the Continental Army, it was his incessant and overwhelming presence of mind that kept Brewster out of British clutches throughout the war. The British Army and its Imperial Navy were better trained, funded and supplied than their American counterparts. It is this pervasive and concrete reality that will dictate Washington’s successful Fabian strategy, which he will use against the Crown. It was also this same fact, which acted as a major catalyst in the creation of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, that prods Caleb Brewster into the murky and mired world of espionage.

In was in this same year (December) of 1775 that Caleb Brewster enlisted in the Suffolk County Militia “as second lieutenant,” (Rose, 83) but was subsequently advanced to a full lieutenant by Captain Selah Strong, “in the spring of 1776,” (Rose, 83). But after the disastrous Battle of New York (autumn of 1776), Caleb Brewster fled to Connecticut and Rhode Island, to attach himself to the Continentals there and he resumed his fight against the British (Rose, 83).

Brewster’s initial efforts against the British hence escalated from smuggler and soldier, and then (by necessity) to spy. Both aforementioned offences were punishable under British law by imprisonment (no mean experience in the 18th century)…but spying itself was purely and contemptuously regarded (by both the French and the English) as a hanging offense. This meant that one caught practicing the “dark arts,” as they are called, was considered guilty of a capital crime. Espionage was thought by European powers (at this time, specifically) as something worse than treason, as opposed to simply being only treason.

Brewster’s seemingly unlimited courage literally had no bounds. After the fall of New York City in late 1776, Caleb Brewster took part in no less than three significant skirmishes on Long Island against the redcoats, and was each time on the winning side of things (Rose, 83). Brewster “in early 1777…had transferred to the 2nd Continental Artillery, stationed in Connecticut…there…he remained until August 1778, when…[Brewster] wrote his first letter to General Washington,” (Rose, 83). As Washington had totally lost control and possession of Manhattan Island and all of Long Island to General Howe and the British Army the year before (1776), there existed for the great American General a gaping hole in his intelligence availability, precisely concerning NYC and Long Island.

As Manhattan, Staten Island and Long Island were all the British Army’s main centers of operation during the War for Independence against the Continental Army, Washington needed a vital network of scouts and spies to discover how the British were planning to undo him. Finding out these secret facts: troops numbers and positions, docked ships and ship types, fort locations, etc., would allow General Washington to see ahead of time British war strategies and tactics being used against him. These pertinent details would permit the Continentals to avoid defeat at the hands of their British enemies, by allowing the Americans to successfully counter every move made opposing them, in advance. And the spy ring that was to come from Washington and his subordinates (Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster amongst them) would become known today as Culper (Rose, 75).

Brewster was a perfect candidate to serve in the Culper Ring from its very inception. Courageous, cagy and supremely reliable Brewster was, thought the more sagacious and capable Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Washington’s new head of Army Intelligence). Caleb was a most splendid choice for utilization. The rugged Long Islander could be trusted in almost any and all circumstances to do his duty…and well Brewster would do it. As it so happened, Brewster was the second party to be included into the Culper Ring, with his childhood friend Abraham Woodhull being the first (Rose, 75). And it was with Tallmadge who was tasked (by Washington himself) to design and to oversee the Ring (Tallmadge, 29).

General George Washington met with Major Tallmadge on August 25th 1778 to discuss the specifics of the Culper Spy Ring’s operation (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 52-53) at White Plains, New York. Subsequently, the Culper Ring would begin functioning for the first time, with farmer Abraham Woodhull and housewife Anna Smith Strong, both of Setauket, Long Island, playing key roles within it. Woodhull would be the chief spy in the field…journeying 55 miles west into Manhattan to probe the British military situations there. Anna Smith Strong (from her seaside home) would act as the Ring’s signal person, carefully and subtly alerting the oceangoing Caleb Brewster, as to which cove to properly park his whaleboat. Anna Strong accomplished this by hanging her laundry from her clotheslines in unique, but nonchalant ways, as to which way to direct Brewster. This allowed Caleb to secretly and safely retrieve Woodhull’s intelligence reports from Culper dead drops…thus evading British patrols along Long Island’s (and Setauket’s) north shore.

And yet, Brewster (like Tallmadge, Woodhull and Strong) would be playing multiple roles within Culper’s overall schemata: messenger, raider, spy and soldier. Brewster’s knowledge and recollection of New York State’s and New England’s coastlines, coves and beaches was truly encyclopedic and photographic. Brewster’s prior history of being an expert seaman made him the optimum selection to carry messages back and forth across the Long Island Sound (The Devil’s Belt). Washington’s flow of information would always be secure (at least on Brewster’s end). Brewster was a sort of aquatic prairie dog, while seemingly dodging into one cove or inlet, he would miraculously reappear in an altogether different seaside spot, to the absolute amazement and anger of his British adversaries (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55).

Brewster’s slick and quick disposition was matched only by his feistiness and loyalty. Every member of the Culper Ring had a friend in him, from Agent 711 (George Washington) right on down the line to Anna Strong, Abe Woodhull and all the rest. By early 1777, Brewster was once more a lieutenant in the Continental Army, though he was not in a New York unit…but was part of a Connecticut one (Rose, 83). And by 1778 (August) he initiated a correspondence with General Washington (Rose, 83).

Brewster had been communicating with Washington to inform the General “…on the state of the British warships in New York Harbor, as well as troop movements and naval preparations around Long Island,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 56). Brewster’s accounts to Washington were of mixed importance to the General, since the time it took to return Brewster’s intelligence dispatches to the American high command was slightly sluggish (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 56). Yet Brewster’s efforts for Washington revealed three major character traits of Caleb’s that were to impress the Commander-in-Chief: fidelity, daring and effectiveness. George Washington hence considered Brewster as a very valuable asset, specifically for purposes of espionage and the Culper Ring, which was subsequently to begin operating (Rose, 87).

Caleb Brewster’s close friend and fellow Setauket native Abraham Woodhull was the one who first prodded Benjamin Tallmadge to include Brewster into the Culper Spy Ring (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 55). The historical record is clear on two main facts concerning Captain Brewster: the first is, that in all of Brewster’s raids and forays from the shores of Connect to those of Long Island, he was never caught a single time…and the second is that Caleb Brewster visited Long Island (at least from 1778-1783) on hundreds of occasions. This was no mean feat of freakish magic or luck, but it was positive proof of Caleb Brewster’s severe skills of stealth, cleverness and undeniable competence.

During the Revolutionary War, the Devil’s Belt was heavily patrolled by the British in the south (Long Island) and the Americans in the north (Connecticut and Rhode Island). Britain took every tactical measure at its disposal to fortify Long Island, by strategically placing a chain of forts along the Island’s north shore from Brooklyn in the west, to Suffolk County in the east (See Map of Long Island in Rose’s Washington’s Spies). Fort Franklin at Suffolk’s Lloyd’s Neck was (by far) one of the most heavily manned, supplied and best designed of these strongholds (Rose, 235, and Tallmadge, 32 and 43). And other British outposts and supply depots existed elsewhere on Long Island. These included those at: Huntington, Northport, Smithtown, Setauket, Coram, Mastic and Southold (to name just a few).

This meant that (for the patriots) penetrating northern Long Island (by sea and land both) was extremely dangerous and almost impossible. But Brewster was an exceptional soldier and sailor. It was he who was successful in his early raid on Setauket (in 1776). Brewster was then (again) victorious in more successful raids (further bolstered personally by Major Tallmadge) at Lloyd’s Neck in 1779, at Fort Saint George (in Mastic) and at King George III’s supply magazine at Coram, both together, in November of 1780. Caleb’s final raid was at Fort Slango (Salonga) in late 1781(Tallmadge, 46).

The Devil’s Belt, being, “…110 miles long...,” (Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 17, 736) and (on average) “…10 to 25 miles wide,” (Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 17, 736) was, thus, a formidable geographic and geological obstacle in this sense: the Continentals, whether by whaleboat or sailboat, could almost never avoid being obvious when traversing it. The Long Island Sound’s relatively small size was the primary cause for this easy detection. The British, too, shared this problem. One could only hope (if a spy, soldier or even a smuggler) that cover of night or of a good fog were either present, should the necessity exist for one’s crossing. Brewster showed very good discrimination whenever confronted with this dilemma.

But, although Captain Caleb Brewster was brave and brilliant in his military pursuits, he was neither invincible nor perfect. “Setauket’s Caleb Brewster was perhaps the most bold and daring of the Revolutionary War spies, a boldness that occasionally put other patriots in danger,” (Tyler, 3). This is so (partially) because Brewster, “…was the only one of the Culper Spy Ring that the British eventually identified as a spy,” (Tyler, 3). As it turned out, during Brewster’s entire tenure with the Culpers, he was the only principal of the Spy Ring never to use his code name of 725 (Rose, 121) in formal Culper documents…because “…Being a bluff and reckless fellow willing to take his chances, he always insisted on scrawling his real name, on all of his correspondence,” (Rose, 75). This was (at least strategically) a real-life blunder. Speaking blatantly and factually, in the world of espionage, an ironclad alias is much more useful to a spy than a loaded weapon is. It shields a secret agent from not only detection by the agent’s enemies, but an effective alias helps to procure insulation from torture and criminal prosecution by the agent’s adversaries on behalf of the agent, additionally.

Brewster was, thus, committing a big no-no here with respect to other members of the Culper Ring. By his indiscretion in this specific capacity, Caleb Brewster jeopardized the entire covert integrity of the Spy Ring. This is so, because while his sly, evasive and ever-cautious personality successfully kept him out of Britain’s grasp for all the expanse of the American Revolution, the British could still strike Brewster by targeting those in Setauket, relatives and friends (e. g.), who were close to Caleb. That the British did not attack Captain Brewster in this way is much more a very good stroke of good luck, as opposed to him practicing sound and secure intelligence procedure.

A particular incident happened at Strong’s Neck (in Setauket) sometime during the war when Judge Selah Strong (husband of Culper spy Anna Smith Strong) and Captain Brewster were “walking one day…[and] they saw a British officer on the shore below. Brewster aimed his gun, but my ancestor stopped him, explaining that while Caleb could flee in his boat, he himself [Judge Strong] still lived here and would have to bear the brunt of the shooting,” (Tyler, 3). This tale (there is no reason to doubt its historic authenticity) was related by Anna and Selah Strong’s direct descendant, Kate W. Strong, in her July 1955 article, “Bits of Long Island History,” (Tyler, 6). This intercession of Judge Selah Strong on behalf of the unnamed British soldier indirectly saved the Culper Spy Ring from undue scrutiny by the occupying British authorities. If Caleb Brewster would have neutralized his British target, retribution could very well have been doled out by English redcoats stationed in Setauket, against the Strong family. This likely would have removed (unintentionally) Anna Smith Strong from the Culper Ring altogether, and hence hurt Washington’s intelligence efforts against those of King George III.

But in most other circumstances, Caleb Brewster was discreet, quick-witted and certainly cunning. Sometime during August of 1780 (Rose, 336…endnote 65), Brewster was at Strong’s Neck (once again) to recover another of Abraham Woodhull’s (and also Robert Townsend’s) intelligence reports to Washington. Hiding in Anna and Selah Strong’s “back garden,” (Rose, 234) Brewster, who was “…waiting for Woodhull,” (Rose, 234) had another unexpected British visitor come near the Strong’s home (Rose, 234). The British man was an officer of His Majesty’s 17th Royal Army Regiment, a lieutenant to be precise (Rose, 234).

The Army lieutenant “was out hunting,” (Rose, 234) very near to Brewster’s hiding spot (a coincidence). Brewster and his company removed the British soldier from off his horse’s saddle (Rose, 234) and they tried to take him [the British lieutenant] to Connecticut (as a prisoner). But Brewster smartly hesitated, knowing that the close proximity to Strong’s residence would prove exceptionally problematic (Rose, 234) to the Ring, and would unnecessarily draw local British and Tory focus to the Culpers, especially to Anna Strong. Brewster and his men released the redcoat officer, who “…would assume his assailants were thieves who chanced upon him rather than whaleboatmen on a more sensitive mission,” (Rose, 234). Caleb Brewster saved the Culper Ring in this instance to continue their fight for American freedom and autonomy.

As the Revolutionary War was winding down in December, 1782, Brewster was pursuing with his fleet of whaleboats some British naval vessels on the Long Island Sound (a.k.a. the Devil’s Belt), when he was wounded seriously in a firefight by enemy guns (Tallmadge, 48). “Capt. Brewster received a [musket] ball in his breast, which passed through his body (Tallmadge, 48), “…yet he recovered, and lived to be nearly 80 years old,” (Tallmadge, 49). Brewster’s physical and mental vigor were indeed superb and they would last him to his very end.

General Washington’s great victory over British General Lord Charles Cornwallis (at Yorktown, Virginia) the previous year (autumn 1781) had virtually brought the Yankee conflict with King George III and the British motherland to a total end. American independence had been finally achieved after eight years of very brutal, bloody and arduous battle. The impossible being brought to fruition, the Culper Spy Ring’s days were coming to an end. When the last of the British military and government departed American soil (from New York City, ironically) on November 25, 1783 (Tallmadge, 62) the need for the Culper Spy Ring no longer existed. All of the Spy Ring’s constituents returned to their peaceful civilian lives, minus Captain Caleb Brewster. It was Brewster who remained “…as an officer in the Revenue Cutter Service…” (Flockerzi, 3), an ancestor to the U. S. Coastguard. After some sixteen years of faithful participation in the Cutter Service and while earning a captain’s commission in 1801, Caleb Brewster left military life shortly following the end of the War of 1812 (Flockerzi, 3). Life at sea was always important to Caleb Brewster, whether it was fighting smugglers from aboard his Revenue Cutter’s vessel Active or making vital and vicious raids against redcoats and their strongholds on Long Island. Brewster was a successful blacksmith, ferryman, farmer, whaler, soldier and patriot throughout his long and prosperous life.

He died at Black Rock, Connecticut (at his farm) in the year 1827, with an esteemed and a very well founded reputation as “a hero,” (Flockerzi, 3). Yet his activity as one America’s and General George Washington’s most effective and valuable spies was not widely known until the 1939 publication of General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York, by noted Americanist and New York historian Morton Pennypacker. The Culper Spy Ring had finally had gotten the respect of their nation (on the eve of WW II) after initially receiving it from an eternally grateful (but singular) Washington. It was Pennypacker (of Easthampton, Long Island) who was the first to skillfully and (historically speaking) to accurately cast the light on Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. This was a badly needed ray of sunshine that Morton Pennypacker blazed in opening up a piece of history to the American public which was not popularly or properly recognized. Caleb Brewster and all the remaining Culper spies had truly garnered a determined and a thorough historical researcher in Pennypacker, who made their obscure and long-forgotten tale breathe life once more. And it was the blood, bravery and brawn of Captain Caleb Brewster that broke the Devil’s Belt and shamed the British enemies that fought against him, time and time again. In this process, the country of the United States of America went from being a sublime political notion to becoming a concrete historical reality.

About the author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York.
 


Works Cited: 

1)   “Long Island Sound,” Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 17, New York, NY, USA: The Americana Corporation, copyright 1970.
2)   USCG Petty Officer Alissa Flockerzi. “Caleb Brewster: Revolutionary War Hero,” Coast Guard Compass, USA, 9th of July 2014.
3)   Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger.  George Washington’s Secret Six.  New York, NY: Sentinel and Penguin Books, 2013-2014.
4)   Alexander Rose.  Washington’s Spies.  New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006.
5)   Benjamin Tallmadge.  Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge.  London, England:  Forgotten Books, 2015.
6)   Beverly Tyler.  “A Case for Anna Smith Strong:  Her Relationship with the Setauket-Based Culper Spy Ring,” The Historian, vol. 52, Issue 1, East Setauket, NY, Winter 2015.

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Mariner By Moonlight


                                    “I am a whisper, in wind and word.  Shadows are my shrouds.
                                    Ferrying phrases, I’m a midnight bird…
                                    an owl-eyed echo, deep in clouds.
                                    Black-skinned waters, white with fog,
                                    my oars roll through secrets, sea and bog.
                                    Stars are fixed in skies they roam:
                                    I beach my boat from off the foam.
                                    I flitter my form across the breeze
                                    to carry some voices over some seas.
                                    Quick am I to snatch my snare,
                                    I leave not a wrinkle in the air.
                                    I move as a moth through brush and trees,         
                                    I flip and dip and I tuck my knees.
                                    Behind some rock, I’ll set down on the ground…
                                    never I’ll make any sort of sound.
                                    My eyes are moving for ghosts and guests,
                                    for a spy in motion is not one who rests.
                                    I am here for notes, to grab and grip…
                                    from my hands, they’ll never slip.
                                    They tell of British soldier and ship.
                                    Words are pellucid, so none can read
                                    invisible thoughts, by specters made.
                                    I’m a squid in some water, in an ink-poured puff.
                                    But I have all my booty.  So, I leave off.” 

                                    --- Michael Mauro DeBonis, June 9, 2017.