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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Kindred Spirits: Camaraderie, Influence, and Inspiration
Among Artists and Writers in Bohemian New York

By Deborah C. Pollack
Copyright © 2018 All rights reserved by the author.

Augustus Toedteberg, Ada Clare—
died March 4, 1874, drawing, 
Houghton Library, Harvard University, 
Call Number: B MS Thr 158.1.

Greenwich Village’s first wave of bohemian writers of poetry and prose enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with several well-known and obscure artists from roughly 1850–65. The visual arts also affected philosophies and motivations of Bohemia’s leaders. Rivalries and attractions permeated the coterie of enormous talent; yet during this tumultuous period in history they were together—each inspiring the other and bringing out the best of their work, and usually having remarkable fun while accomplishing this.

Manhattan in the mid 1850s was an easily manageable urban environment with a population of just over 500,000, and no high-rises. An abundance of culture in the city thrived, well before the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York Public Library. This stimulating milieu could be found on Lower Broadway, the center for the lively and fine arts. Culture lovers could listen to a concert or see plays at Niblo’s Garden at Broadway and Prince Street, or attend theater at Wallack’s Theater on Broadway near Broome, as well as P. T. Barnum’s American Museum at Broadway and Anne Street. One could also view fine paintings at the National Academy of Design on Broadway and Leonard Streets, the Art Union at 289 Broadway, and the Düsseldorf Gallery on Broadway between Spring and Prince Streets.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Mayday Messenger: Austin Roe

The Mayday Messenger: Austin Roe

“Highwaymen, smugglers and redcoats too
roam our roads for targets true.
Predator or prey, which one am I?
Traveling trails, I’m a harmless passerby…
this is why my messages come through.
A phantasm on a horse is what I will be…
looking on my face, they know not what they see.
If I am found out, I’ll hang from a tree.
But my journeys’ ends are worth their rides…
freedom must live where tyranny abides.
And though my death may come at any time,
the path I choose is forever mine.”

---Michael Mauro DeBonis, October 6, 2017.

About the Poet: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the New York History Review and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York. and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.

Austin Roe: The Tale of the Mayday Messenger

Copyright ©2108. All rights reserved by the author.

Our story begins in late April 1790.  A former general and spymaster par excellence is traveling a dusty and remote country road, that leads through the sparsely settled Long Island wilderness, to a small seaside fishing village called Setauket. The former military man and espionage leader was the highest-ranking officer in the Continental Army. He travels with a small retinue of armed soldiers and cavalry officers. No harm must come to the first President of the newly formed United States of America.  For should any peril befall George Washington, political and social unrest (of the worst and most violent sort) would certainly ensue. As the chief magistrate of his government, President Washington is too important to his nation and his people to let go into enemy hands.  

Washington need not worry. He is trotting through lower New York State in a well-protected coach, and an army of belligerent foreigners no longer occupies the territory where he is moving about. The arduous and nasty war he fought to evacuate his British opponents is over and Washington and his fellow Americans are the unquestioned victors.  Even if hostile, unknown agents were around the Island, to hurt Washington, the former general is amongst the most cunning and mentally sharp men ever to have lived... hence British Major George Beckwith’s comment, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 216). The President was called by his spies in the fieldAgent 711 (Rose, 121) and the ever-cautious Commander-in-Chief refuses to be separated from his mission. The Virginian’s steel-willed disposition prevents him from being deterred, no matter what his circumstances are.

But though the American President is engaged in serious business, his business is not of a military nature. “Washington made a tour of Long Island to meet the people and to examine the damage done to land and property during the British occupation,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 205). Washington had arrived in town also to visit the anonymous members of his secret Culper Spy Ring, and to pay the Ring’s constituents tribute (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 205) for their intrepid and faithful service.  “…on April 22, 1790, “ (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 206) Washington knocked on tavern keeper and Culper Spy Ring courier Austin Roe’s front door to spend “…a night…,” (Rose, 277) which he (Washington) “…found tolerably decent with obliging people in it,” (Rose, 277). Roe was in such a state of enthusiasm to see Washington that “…he fell off his horse and broke his leg,” (Rose, 277).

Washington’s meeting with Roe and other members of his Culper Spy Ring is one of the Spy Ring’s greatest mysteries because Washington never mentioned the encounter’s exact nature in any of his journals (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 206). Whether or not some participants of the Culper Ring were there, while others were not, historians and posterity will never know for sure. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s head of military intelligence during the Revolution and lead spy for the Culpers, omits Washington’s gathering at Setauket altogether in his factually thorough and superbly written Memoir.  It is also noteworthy that none of the other Culper spies, including Abraham Woodhull, Anna Smith Strong and Caleb Brewster (as well Robert Townsend) ever decided on leaving any written accounts of their fortuitous rendezvous with their Commander-in-Chief.

Yet we, as competent students of history, are left only to speculate as to what precisely occurred at Austin Roe’s tavern on the night of April 22. After all, George Washington did spend one night there…did any prospect of Culper ever surface in the President’s conversations with his fellow Setauket spies? The odds are that it definitely did. Washington, in visiting the very hometown and base of operations of the prevailing majority of Culper’s players (Tallmadge, Woodhull, Brewster, Roe and Strong) was doing something historically more pertinent than just greeting Brookhaven Town’s general populace or congratulating “Captain” Roe (then a member of Suffolk County’s and New York State’s militia) on the fine furnishings taking up space at his inn. 

We can be very confident that the countless trees, shrubs and grasses that abound everywhere on Long Island were just then bursting forth with springtime greenery.  If Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge both crossed Long Island Sound, south from Connecticut, to Suffolk County and the Island’s north shore, there is no record. All the Culpers had celebrated their American victory over the British back in early December of 1783, shortly after the British forces departed from New York City on November 25 of the same year (Tallmadge, 62-65). Yet, on this very singular April 22 congregation of friends, we (as readers and scrutinizers of history) should not blind ourselves to the very possible actualities of this event…despite a partial absence of evidence. For the two former Culper spies and transplanted Connecticut residents (Tallmadge and Brewster) to have both left their New England homes to step ashore at Setauket, would not have been a bother for any of them. This is so, especially because of Connecticut’s close geographic proximity to Long Island: but there are other reasons.

Culper was such an expensive enterprise for Washington and the U. S. Government to fund that, “Over the course of the War, Washington spent about 1,982 pounds on gaining secret intelligence; that fully a quarter of his budget was devoted to the Culper Ring testifies to its importance,” (Rose, 264). Culper was (in all truth) an effective instrument for the Americans to use in ousting the British military machine from their homeland…and, hence for advancing U. S. public interests. Culper’s secrecy, which was never critically violated, (Brewster could be viewed as its weakest link) was one of two principal reasons for its immense success. The other prime factor was Culper’s superbly loyal and dependable members. Washington could unquestionably lean on them all with him not stumbling over to get his goals accomplished.

For all the Culpers to converge in the presence of Washington (for the one and only time) to celebrate their astonishing and total success at the expense of British failure was not an engagement to be missed. Aside from Brewster and Tallmadge, the Culper Ring’s members were already where they needed to be to join in the celebration.  What would it mean for Washington and Austin Roe to dismiss the Spy Ring’s non-members, in order to secure privacy?  Not much. It was Roe’s tavern after all, and with Brewster and Tallmadge likely on hand to rid the scene of any possible interlopers, it would not have required any great effort.  Both men were still young enough and adequately skilled in the arts of fighting to sufficiently remove whatever unwanted parties, that may have been present, from Roe’s home and place of business. 

Austin Roe’s role in the Culper Ring was an essentially significant one. Roe was inducted into the Culper Spy Ring between late December of 1778-early January 1779 (Rose, 102) at the mutual behest of Tallmadge, Brewster and Woodhull (Rose, 102). Austin was “…born in 1749…of an old Setauket family,” (Rose, 102) and his “…jovial and spirited…” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 56) personality made him an excellent choice to be included in the Culper Ring. Roe was easily “blended” in with the rest of the Culpers because of his consistently calm and cool demeanor. It was Roe’s distinctly pleasant disposition and conspicuous ability to get along with the others that prompted his being put into Culper’s corpus, and like spymate Caleb Brewster, he was loyal and trustworthy to a fault.  Roe would never betray his friends or their purpose…and being blessed with better street smarts than fellow Culper team member Jonas Hawkins, Roe would make for an effective field agent.  Never quick to panic in sketchy or fierce circumstances, Roe had no difficulty concealing his abundant lack of respect for the British and George III.  He had blatantly signed his name on Brookhaven Town’s 1775 List of Associators, along with Woodhull and Brewster, (Rose, 102). Roe assumed the role of Culper courier and “Despite initial concerns, Roe was pleased by the mission and eager to offer his service in any way he could,” (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 57). 

Austin was catalogued in Major Benjamin Tallmadge’s famed Culper codebook as Agent 724 (Rose, 121) and after September 1779, when co-messenger Jonas Hawkins, always antsy and over-cautious, ceased his activities with the Culpers, he left Austin Roe as the Spy Ring’s sole, full-time mailman (Rose, 172). On those few occasions when Roe was unable or unavailable to make the perilous fifty-five mile trip on horseback from Setauket to Manhattan (there were highwaymen and soldiers preying upon Yankees all over Long Island) to retrieve the all-too essential dispatches from Culper, Jr. (Robert Townsend) to General Washington (711) Woodhull bravely and unhesitatingly filled the job and kept the vital Culpers going (Rose, 172 and 194).

Roe’s innumerable journeys through the rustics of Long Island, westward, to New York City, were engagements of the most lethal kind. Once the American forces were driven out of New York City and Long Island in the fall of 1776, by General Lord William Howe and his redcoats, law and order on Long Island went from being a living and breathing thing, to an undeniable ghost of yesteryear.   “Instead of being treated as liberated territory, much of the island (Paumanok) became a military camp, and the sovereign’s loyal subjects placed under martial law.  Corruption became rampant among military administrators, and abuses against persons (civilians, specifically) and property, commonly perpetuated,” (Rose, 159).

Thieves, madcap Tory sympathizers and roving British patrols freely wandered Nassau and Suffolk Counties, searching for prey and plunder.   Shortly before he had left the Culper Ring in September of 1779, messenger Jonas Hawkins, also of Setauket, was aggressively searched by redcoats while doing Culper business (Rose, 172) and he narrowly missed British detection and (hence) compromising his security (Rose, 172).  Abraham Woodhull in the spring of 1779 was robbed of all his money by highwaymen while he also was busy doing Culper work (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 65) but the pickpockets had failed to do a thorough search of Woodhull’s clothes, and they carelessly missed grabbing the secret documents Abraham had on him (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 65). Woodhull was happy (although penniless) to still be alive (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 65). The British suspected a spy network was being run from Long Island and they were now turning up the heat and pressure on their Yankee enemies to find it out.

 Hawkins’ jumpy emotional state was justified. Woodhull (like Hawkins) was also chronically jittery and preoccupied.  But unlike Hawkins, Abe Woodhull never let his emotions get the better of him.  All the spies operating during Culper and the Revolution risked the gallows, including Roe. None of Washington’s spies wanted to wind up like their martyred kinsman, Nathan Hale, who gallantly risked his life in the autumn of 1776, to secure intelligence for the Continentals, but was rudely discovered by Robert Rogers, and subsequently found dead (by British hands) hanging from a tree.  The fear of all the Culpers getting caught and executed by the redcoats was a perpetual and terrifying one.  It never left their minds, but it did manage to keep all of them alive, alert and safe.

Long Island and all of the City of New York had been Washington and the Continental Army’s great blind spot, since the untimely and tragic demise of Nathan Hale.  The Culpers’ goal for Washington had always been for them to see through the British miasma and mire that surrounded NYC and Long Island, and to accurately and expeditiously report back all they witnessed to the American Commander-in-Chief. Austin Roe would make sure that the Culpers’ lines of communication would run unimpeded and in secret, especially when Culper Junior’s dispatches from Manhattan were in his (Roe’s) own grasp.

When Roe entered into the American Secret Service (a. k. a. the Culpers) the Culper Spy Ring was in a very fragile and vulnerable state.  Woodhull, Roe and Hawkins (as well as Anna Smith Strong) were unproven and inexperienced “investments,” whereas Major Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster were tried and true “assets.”  But what was unmistakable at this particular point of Culpers’ history was that the inclusion of the four novices into the Ring made the Ring work soundly. Washington was to get well-rewarded for all the Culpers’ efforts…and Austin Roe played a huge role in Culpers’ success.  Roe was never arrested or discovered by the British once during his duties with the Culper Spy Ring, and it was Roe who risked his neck many times over.

Like Caleb Brewster (also a Culper courier) Roe would incessantly jeopardize his life by exposing it to the harm of the numerous Tory and British cutthroats that victimized travelers on Long Island and New York City roads.  Similar thieves and opportunists thrived in and skulked about Long Island waters and coves (especially in the Sound).  Brewster was a superbly able seaman who could always dust them off (and when that did not work, he simply outfought them).  And Roe, like Brewster, was not easily bullied or ensnared. 

Tavern-keeper Austin Roe was truly a well-placed resource. Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Culper cell-leader Abraham Woodhull sagely chose Roe as an ally in their shadowy and clandestine efforts to thwart the British military initiative, early on. Unlike, Woodhull, whose repeated trips from Setauket, Long Island to Manhattan Island, would draw too much suspicion from redcoat soldiers (Woodhull was a farmer, who did not require extended sojourns to New York City to sell his produce) Roe, on the other hand, was a different sort of merchant. Roe’s hotel business did in fact necessitate many sequential excursions to NYC for him to purchase the supplies he needed to run his tavern.  Roe was thus an ideal postman for Culper selection. Any attention Roe attracted to himself would be passed off by British authorities as principally innocuous and unimportant. Culper letters and communications would consistently be in safe hands while going along their circuits from point A (Manhattan) to point B (Setauket) and from there, to point C (Connecticut, and also Brewster’s leg of the Culper route).  Brewster and Tallmadge then would have a dragoon officer (at General Washington’s behest) express ride all Culper dispatches directly to the Commander-in-Chief (Rose, 102).  Agent 711 (and his camp) was therefore the terminus of the Culper communication route (and point D).

Austin Roe was given money by Anna Smith Strong, also of Setauket, to purchase various pricy goods for the Long Island matriarch, goods that Mrs. Strong would not be able to buy for herself (Tyler, 4). This then gave Roe an additional impetus to go into “York Island,” for doing his message pick-ups (Tyler, 4). So Austin’s cover story was never simplyjust a cover story…it was one habitually supported by fact.  Mr. Roe would hence have less to worry about than Abe Woodhull, whose reasons for traveling into Manhattan (from Suffolk County) were very limited. 

Roe’s espionage efforts were mainly confined to message transports. Culper Senior (Abe Woodhull) in Setauket and Culper Junior (Robert Townsend) at Manhattan filled the roles of secret observers better than did Agent 724.  Washington and Ben Tallmadge required more than simply sharp minds and sharp eyes prying about enemy camps…they needed two men who could see even more keenly beneath any British veneer of military circumstance than a good man like Roe could. Woodhull and Townsend accomplished these tasks perfectly…but unlike them both…(as a spy) Austin Roe had the proverbial “nerves of steel.” 

Austin Roe’s story is one that is still being written.  In the fall of 2015, Long Island historians came across a letter written by one Nehemiah Marks, a Tory sympathizer and Loyalist soldier (Leuzzi, 1).  The letter was written during the Revolution and was discovered by film maker Mark Sternberg, who then forwarded it to Village of Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant (Leuzzi, 2).  Garant and Long Island historian Georgette Grier-Key designed and promoted a public exhibit at Port Jefferson, to celebrate the letter’s historical significance.

Marks addressed his letter to then Head of British Army Intelligence Major Oliver De Lancey (Leuzzi, 1) who was Major John Andre’s successor in that position. In the letter, Marks accuses Roe family members at Drowned Meadow (Port Jefferson) Nathaniel Roe and Phillips Roe of providing aid (intelligence and supplies) to Culper spy Caleb Brewster (Leuzzi, 1). The letter is important because it connotes actual historical suspicions on Austin Roe’s family being involved in anti-British activities, and that the British were fully aware that Washington was operating a spy ring on Long Island.

But it should be noted that the letter is not conclusive evidence that the Culpers used Roe’s family as operatives or anything else.  For if the British were certain of the Roes of Drowned Meadow helping the Culpers in any way, Nathaniel and Phillips Roe would have been promptly captured, arrested and executed by King George III’s authorities and hung from trees as enemy agents.  Nathaniel and Phillips Roe evaded detection of any alleged spycraft and escaped British scrutiny successfully.  Nathaniel Roe died in 1789 and was the first cousin of Austin Roe.

That Roe recruited his family to assist in Culper activities is very far from the impossible, for it was Roe who inducted Jonas Hawkins into the Spy Ring in 1778 (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 60). By Austin reaching out to his trusted and valuable family members to ensure the Culper Spy Ring’s success only further adds esteem to Roe in terms of his diligence and reliability to Culper’s framework and purpose.  Austin functioned in a world where he was not going to be intimidated by anyone. Yet, there is nothing in the Roe family archives (as yet known to historians) to definitively to reinforce this strictly hypothetical link. To rule its validity totally out would be both academically premature and historically unthorough. Historians should view the Marks letter as vital circumstantial evidence establishing a connection from Roe’s extended family to facilitating his Culper allies Brewster and Tallmadge.  More on this topic is likely to surface from further historical research.

Although Roe did occasionally add to Culper intelligence reports (Rose, 132) he was principally a very effective and valued Culper courier.  It was Roe who had brought back news (via Samuel Culper Junior) that the British Navy was planning an ambush of the French fleet’s intended anchoring at Rhode Island in July, 1780 (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 123). Abraham Woodhull (knowing the great significance of Roe’s dispatch) marked out Major (and soon to be Colonel) Tallmadge’s name, and promptly turned the message over to Caleb Brewster.  Brewster then expedited its delivery directly to Colonel Alexander Hamilton, via an unnamed dragoon officer, who road at breakneck speed to Washington’s headquarters, giving the very pertinent papers to the great General (Rose, 190-191).

Washington, after careful ruminating on the matter, then acted on it. Agent 711 swiftly called together a council of war and he decided to give up on a much-wanted assault on Manhattan, in favor of staging a better, much more productive ruse against the British (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 124-125).  Washington instantly wrote up phony American battle plans to seize New York City and he had a secret aid of his quickly and nonchalantly leave them behind enemy lines. British forces rapidly discovered the counterfeit U. S. attack schemes, and, thinking them valid, made no haste in turning them over to the British Army’s high command (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 125). British General (and Commander-in-Chief) Henry Clinton’s aids recalled him to NYC, to prepare for Washington’s reputed onslaught upon the redcoats (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 125). 

Clinton was in an armed flotilla and sea-bound for Rhode Island (Newport, specifically), to attack Count Rochambeau’s fleet, which was landing six thousand French troops there (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 125). Seeing British signal flares from Manhattan light up the sky, General Clinton recalled his attack force to New York County, to muster an effective counter-offensive versus the Yankees, who were never to come or to show themselves (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 125-126).  Rochambeau’s forces safely evacuated their boats and set foot on American shores…Washington’s ploy against the British had worked well, indeed, and the United States now had a very powerful military friend to aid them in their epic plight to trounce King George III’s army, from the thirteen colonies (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 126).  Austin Roe and the rest of the Culpers gave the Continentals and Washington the necessary momentum the Americans needed to bring the French into the Revolution, without casualties of any kind.  The Culper Spy Ring may have had its finest hour, here, during this particular point in time.  

Austin Roe, after the American Rebellion against Great Britain concluded in the autumn of 1783, resumed the operating of his Setauket tavern. Gone were the despised presences of annoying Tories or the insatiable and cutthroat redcoats, who both had stayed in Setauket (unwelcomed) during the War for Independence. Six and a half years later came his highly esteemed meeting with Washington.  In 1798, Roe moved his wife and eight children to Patchogue, on Long Island’s south shore, where he opened another hotel, and prospered even further (Kilmeade and Yaeger, 211).

Roe was said to tell his guests (unlike the other Culpers) of his Revolutionary espionage activities…but with very careful forethought, so as not to bring harm upon them (Kilmeade and Yeager, 211).  Roe became a captain in the Suffolk County militia in 1787, in the same year when the American Constitution was created and adopted (Rose, 277). He lived a full and enduring life, dying at his south shore home in 1830, at eighty-one years of age (Rose, 277).  Roe was then one of Suffolk County’s most prominent citizens, and his many descendants flourished after his death, through the nineteenth century, till the present day.  

The Roe’s are justifiably very proud of their great forebear, Austin. It was Roe who gathered insurmountable courage, when many of his American neighbors were inexplicably sympathizing with the enemy English, or, (even more oddly) when still others became apathetic to both sides.  Austin Roe was an authentic patriot, who lived his life as he had sought to live it…in his own way and by his own toil.  Willing to risk his life at every twist and turn of a Long Island road or of a New York City street, to advance individual freedom and universal liberty, Austin did just that.  What footpaths would you walk over or what grounds would you cover, to gain such a trophy?  

About the Poet: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the New York History Review and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York. and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.


1)   Michael Mauro DeBonis.  Long Island Surnames.Com, genealogical probing of Austin Roe’s family in Brookhaven, NY, on November 3rd, 2017.

2)   Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger.  George Washington’s Secret Six.  New York, NY: Sentinel and Penguin Books, 2013-2014.

3)   Linda Leuzzi. “A Letter of Significance,” The Long Island Advance: Patchogue, NY (October 22nd,2015).

4)   Alexander Rose. Washington’s Spies.  New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006.

5)   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. 

Private Kenneth O. Nelson

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

“Colored Boy, Argonne Hero, Buried Sunday.” 

 On September 24, 1921, this was Binghamton’s Morning Sun’s title for its article about the next day’s military funeral in Endicott for a young, local African American soldier who was killed in action during the First World War.

The deceased, Private Kenneth Oliver Nelson, enlisted in the Army in Binghamton on April 19, 1918, and sailed to Europe in June after basic training as a member of the 368th Colored Infantry Regiment. Why he enlisted remains unknown, although many black soldiers identified military service as an opportunity to prove their patriotism, and worthiness for equal treatment. In any case, The Endicott Bulletin said that “he saw active service through the Summer and Fall” against German forces. He was wounded fatally on September 28 during the Allies’ attack on enemy positions in the Argonne region of France, a short few weeks before the Armistice was signed on November 11.

But Private Nelson’s reburial three years after his death needs explanation. On occasion during the War, the deceased were buried quickly in marked graves with the intention of transporting the remains back home, and this was the case for him. While he had family members in Waverly, his wife resided with her parents in the Town of Union. The Binghamton Press reported that Nelson’ remains were transported by rail with “soldier escort,” and upon arrival in Endicott, was taken to a local funeral home.

The funeral service with full military honors was held at Private Nelson’s in-laws’ house under the auspices of the Union-Endicott Post 82 of the American Legion. In fact, its members marched from their clubhouse to the service in honor of the fallen soldier. At the service’s conclusion, a firing squad saluted him, and the Post’s bugler sounded taps. He was the only black soldier from Broome County to be killed in action during World War I out of the many others who enlisted.

Private Nelson was buried in Riverside Cemetery, but his legacy lived on in a honored way. Other black veterans—who could not join local military associations due to the color line—initiated the formation of the Kenneth Nelson Post 1310 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars which held meetings at the Colored Citizens Club in Binghamton until the 1930’s.

100 years ago, Private Nelson personified the American spirit of service, and illustrated African American participation in our wars since the American Revolution. While his Regiment’s combat record at the Argonne was belittled by some critics, Secretary of War Newton D Baker dismissed the critic’s comments as examples of racial prejudice, which was absent at his burial.

As the First World War drew to a close, Private Nelson became a hero by combated the enemy in the Argonne region whose service deserves to be remembered.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

History and Genealogy: There Are Always Two Brothers
The Cushing Cousins of Western New York

by Joanne Polizzi Mansfield 
Copyright @ 2018. All rights reserved by the author.

There are always two brothers. I always encounter two when researching genealogy and family histories. It can be exciting or frustrating. It can lead to greater discoveries or to not quite breaking down that brick wall of finding the perfect ancestors.

There are always two brothers. You start off knowing there is a famous or notorious ancestor in this family tree and of course you think he or she must be connected to the line you are researching!

Carefully, you peel away the layers, search records, find sources and uncover the family. Of course and inevitably, the connection to the famous/notorious line you are looking for is not what you find. You are researching his brother. So the relationship is established, but not as a direct ancestor/descendant. They are always cousins and never the acclaimed relative.

There are always two brothers. In the case of my husband’s family, there is Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Yale University founders, people that towns and cities are named for. All these people considered famous/notorious are descended from the BROTHER of my husband’s ancestor. We are cousins.

Then there is the Cushing Family. In my role as genealogy researcher for our County Historical Society, I am asked to research the families or relationships in our collections. This project included Civil War era letters owned by a descendant of John Cushing Page.

My fellow trustee, Dr. David Brown, is our Civil War historian. In transcribing letters from that era, he is always seeking the identity of the writer, recipient, and people mentioned in context. A recent collection of letters had so many characters weaving throughout, he wondered about their relationships. Who are all these people? Are they related to the owner of the letters, the author or each other, or the locations and historic events of the era? He asked me to try to find answers.

There are always two brothers. And in this case, sisters- who are descended from OUR brother. (Meaning not the famous one.)

The central letters’ author is John Cushing Page, from Sherman, New York. In 1863, he is a member of the 112th NY Infantry, Co E, writing to and from Kate, his wife. He also writes to cousins Alcander Morse of Illinois 37th Infantry, Co I, and Sherman Williams of NY 49th Infantry, Co G. The mothers of John, Alcander and of Sherman are sisters, daughters of John and Lucy Sherman Cushing. The men of the letters are first cousins.

Other letter writers include Charles Carroll Lewis of the 112th Infantry, Co F, and his brother Fernando, a member of NY 21st Infantry, Co D, and Theodore Skinner, NY 112th, Co E. All were found to be related through family or marriage.

With the help of local records and, we sorted the mothers, the sons, wives, cousins, and extras. And then we found descendants of the three cousins across the United States - descendants who have family trees and Civil War interests and history, as well as relatives and cousins of their own in Western New York. This was a huge step in breathing life into the characters in our letters. We have a story!

And then there is the other Cushing Family. There are always two brothers. Western New York knows the Cushing name. In 2014 Alonzo H. Cushing, born in Wisconsin in 1841 and raised in Fredonia, New York, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for battlefield bravery at Gettysburg. He was the son of Milton Buckingham and Mary Barker Cushing. The villages of Fredonia, home of Alonzo, and Sherman, the home of our Cushings, are in the same county, and not too distant from each other. Is it possible these families may somehow be related?

Our research confirmed a relationship! Alonzo H Cushing, (the famous one), and John Cushing Page, (our letter writer), Alcander and Sherman), are fifth cousins. They are all descended from Daniel and Lydia Clark Gilman Cushing.

Of course, Daniel had two sons, Jeremiah and Theophilus. Of course, Alonzo is the son of Jeremiah and Hannah Loring Cushing. John is the son of Theophilus and Mary Jacob Thaxter Cushing. Of course, two brothers!

All of the cousins of the letters are descended from our brother Theophilus Cushing. We do have a story, and we find the family we are researching is amazing and important. It is a story of bravery and heartbreak, of the sons and families that endured the hardships of war and separation.

The story is told, in part, through the correspondence and relationships of cousins. They write of missing family, daily activities, war maneuvers, and more family. Alonzo, descendant of Jeremiah, and cousin to our letter writers, shared the same hardships, with a sad ending, dying at Gettysburg. I wonder if the families shared news, letters of grief and sent condolences. As families do.

They are cousins from the same family, through all the generations. Their story is meaningful and heartfelt. The agonies of war do not discriminate between the brothers, famous or not.

There are always two brothers. It always means family.

About the author: Joanne Polizzi Mansfield is a trustee and genealogy researcher for the Chautauqua County Historical Society. She is a retired educator addicted to genealogy puzzles.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

John Bolton: The Mark of a Spy

Michael Mauro DeBonis

John Bolton: The Mark of a Spy

Good reader, what is the mark of a spy?
Is it a lightning bolt breathing,
in the back of your eye?
Or is it your shadow seething,
under daylight’s canopy?
Perhaps a spy is a gentle breeze,
lying in wait, 
to tumble down trees?
A spy can be a snake,
wearing a subtle mask…
It will use whatever bait
to bring you to task…
what you prize, a spy will take…
Your secret thoughts are theirs to rake.
But when about spies, please keep mum…
Converse with water, as opposed to rum.
Put some spectacles, over your eyes,
that you may see cats
at their opportunities.
But, when viewing prey,
be not witnessed in your looking.
In light of the day,
seem as the sun, in midst of cooking.
In the eve, watch for bats,
hanging over your head.
They eavesdrop at night,
and it’s gossip they’ll spread.
Though spies love news of any kind…
words are weighed for their worth of wind.
And when you are done, catching your prize,
you may remove the spectacles, covering your eyes.

---Michael Mauro DeBonis, 08-09-18. 

About the Poet: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY. A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers. Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the New York History Review and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York. and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.


Curse of the Black Letter: The Document that could have destroyed the Culper Spy Ring

Part 1: The Introduction
When researching historical people and subjects, one may be said to be entering unfamiliar places and landscapes, where none should be expected.  And at this same time the would-be historian(s) very likely will encounter in these regions unknown and foreign persons and peoples.  This is precisely what occurred to one expert mariner Christopher Columbus, when he sailed for Spain in 1492(on a trading expedition to the Far East), and he landed (instead) in the Caribbean.  Columbus erroneously thought he had reached distant India, when in fact the Italian explorer had found the outskirts of North America…a locale foreign and unknown to Europeans at that time.

Unlike Columbus, the legendary Theseus (of classical Greek mythology) had a ball of string with him when he entered the strange and foreboding Labyrinth of the Minotaur to use as an effective guide back to civilization (in case he got lost).  Many times historians, in midst of exploring one trail of investigation, wind up on altogether different roads of study.  Such an instance recently happened to me. 

I was researching any and all biographical data on the patriot and Dutchess County Militia Colonel of the Revolutionary War, Jacob Griffin.  I was having a hard time of it.  By sheer accident I came upon an old historical text entitled New York in the Revolution, as Colony and State: Supplement.  The book was compiled and written during the years 1895-1901, by a former New York State comptroller Erastus C. Knight (and others).  This digest is an incredibly detailed and historically factual account of the New York State Assembly’s and Militia’s legal, financial and military policies, procedures and activities during the outset of the Revolution in 1774, through its conclusion, in late 1783.

Striking out on most leads of historical probing into Colonel Griffin’s origins, I was becoming intensely frustrated and despondent. Thoughts of quitting this enterprise began echoing and re-echoing in my mind.  More importantly, thoughts of escalating my investigative business crowded out the lesser important ones.  It was here that I (luckily) found some success at last.  

Jacob Griffin was becoming more tangible to me as a historic person, whereas before hand, he seemed to me like an obsolescent New York monolith.  I was finding out (while going through Knight’s book) much more valuable information about New York during the American Revolution, than I had previously anticipated.  And my prior study of General George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring would serve me well as an excellent roadmap, specifically for navigating the “exotic” wilderness of Jacob Griffin. 

I started referencing Colonel Jacob Griffin’s name in Mr. Knight’s index, placed at the back of his comprehensive, 337-paged text.  When I reached pages 194-196, a historical revelation came to me.  It was an extensive inventory of New York patriot names (from May of 1780), and a literal who’s who of the Revolutionary Movement in our State.  Illustrious names included are future NYS senator Isaac Roosevelt (formerly of Manhattan, but then living in Poughkeepsie), Abraham Brinckerhoff, future “lieutenant colonel commandant” of the Dutchess County Militia and a future NYS legislator (see page 67, of the Military Minutes of the Council of Appointment of New York State).  Isaac Roosevelt was a distant cousin to President Theodore Roosevelt and he was a direct ancestor to his descendant President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Like Abraham Brinckerhoff, he was a stellar patriot and a member of the famed “Council of 100,” a New York Colonial group which strove valiantly, during the early years of the Revolution, to remove British authority and presence in America.

Other members on this expansive list of names were the (then) Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Griffin, of the Dutchess County Militia, Judge Selah Strong of Setauket, (Suffolk County) Long Island and the duly noted Culper Ring spymaster Abraham Woodhull, also of Setauket, NY.  No historian is surprised is glean Jacob Griffin’s name on this list, but the names of Culper spy Abraham Woodhull and auxiliary fellow Culper spy Selah Strong strike one’s eyes as particularly unusual and, one may say, spectacularly odd.

Part 2: Let the Spying Games Begin

Jacob Griffin was an unabashed and dogged New York patriot from the get-go of the American rebellion.  His name is noted in several major legal documents from the Revolutionary period, with each one seeking to smack the British off of the American map.  But the inclusion of Woodhull and Strong’s names on this list (and at this very specific time) is very disturbing.  And this is why:

Abraham Woodhull, in being a spy, and, by residing in enemy-occupied territory (Long Island), was literally gambling with his own life.  Spycraft was considered by the British Crown (during the 18thand the 19th)centuries as an exclusively capital offense. And it was so by the French and the Spanish Crowns as well at this time.  People practicing espionage and found guilty of it were hence executed. European countries did not waver in their strict and consistent enforcing of this law.  America regarded spying exactly like their European counterparts, and it employed the death penalty (most notably against the British spymaster Major John Andre) whenever it felt necessary.  All sides, therefore, despised spies during the colonial days, and anyone participating in “the black arts” was undoubtedly walking a very fine line. 

General George Washington had recruited Woodhull, of Setauket, in the fall of 1778, to secretly “get the jump” on British troop numbers, strategies and positions in New York City and on Long Island. Abraham’s voluntary decision to spy for the Continental Army would prove very advantageous for the Americans.  Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s brilliant new head of Army Intelligence, had been the one to facilitate Woodhull (and Caleb Brewster’s) inclusions into what was swiftly becoming the clandestine and intrepid Culper Spy Ring. 

Tallmadge would carefully and competently direct the entire Ring, but Woodhull would act as his second in command (in the field).  This is to say that Woodhull would direct signal person Anna Smith Strong (wife of part-time Culper spy Judge Selah Strong), couriers Austin Roe and Jonas Hawkins, as well as fellow spy and intelligence-gatherer Robert Townsend, in carrying out all their spying duties.  

Caleb Brewster (as an active duty Continental Army officer) was outside Abe Woodhull’s authority and he would take his orders directly from Tallmadge and Washington only.  Brewster, Tallmadge, Woodhull and Strong all got along exceptionally well.  Each of them had a common enemy in England, and none of them would waste any time squabbling amongst themselves while trying to rid the American homeland of their snooty and tyrannical British cousins. The Culpers also all shared a common history and friendship, with each being born and raised in Setauket.  The Culper Ring was truly a close-knit group (with the exception of shy and erudite Robert Townsend, who was of Oyster Bay, and not of Brookhaven Town, like the other Culpers).  

Each of the Culper spies were hence putting their heads in the proverbial lion’s mouth, with each engaging in espionage against British redcoats and self-serving Loyalist Tories.  If caught, every one of them would fatally hang from the gallows, as did fellow patriot Nathan Hale, in the autumn of 1776.

The Culpers’ job was to attack the British Army’s nerve center in New York City (York Island, precisely) and report (covertly) back all they saw to Washington and his aids.  This would then permit the Continentals to always stay one step ahead of their British adversaries.  From their inception in late 1778, through their end in late 1783, the Culpers were mainly successful and they constantly provided Washington with valuable data on the King’s forces.  But the Culpers themselves experienced their fair share of close calls. 

Jonas Hawkins was soundly searched by redcoats, while attempting to enter New York City in the summer of 1779.  The almost-always antsy Hawkins left the Culper Ring that same September. In the spring of 1779, some lowly Long Island highwaymen robbed the ever-wary Abraham Woodhull of all of his money during one of his many forays to Manhattan, from suburban and rural Setauket. This horrible experience badly disturbed Woodhull, who was nearly found out (about his spying) in his travels, but he subsequently resumed his hidden and subtle efforts to oust the British from Yankee soil.

Caleb Brewster and Abe Woodhull did in fact sign the Brookhaven Town’s List of (pro-patriot) Associators in May of 1775.  This document sought to give full authority to the relatively nascent Continental Congress, while also attempting to undermine British power in the Colony of New York.  Benjamin Tallmadge could not sign his name to this list, as he was then living in Connecticut and no longer residing in Setauket.

But Woodhull, in late October of 1778, swore an oath of loyalty to British monarch King George III, shortly after joining the Culpers.  He dwelt deep inside British-controlled domains, and to seem a Washington sympathizer would have proven quite hazardous to his health and his well-being.  This conviction was logically reinforced, as a British garrison was stationed at Setauket from late 1776-November of 1783.  Yet under the cover of being a Tory…Woodhull would be able to do ample damage to his British masters.  And during his tenure as Culper cell-leader, Abraham Woodhull would, in fact, give the British forces much harm and grief.  However, if Woodhull or any of his fellow (Culper) spies did anything to expose themselves to needless attention, or unwanted scrutiny, eagle-eyed redcoats would be willing and able to swoop in for the kill, swiftly and mercilessly. Their spy ring would collapse like bunch of imperiled dominos, bringing the Culpers to certain doom.

In 1776, Judge Selah Strong of Setauket became a Suffolk County, NYS militia officer, one year after fighting first commenced between patriots and British forces, in 1775.  Shortly before the War, Strong was also a Suffolk County delegate to the New York provincial Congress, serving as an undaunted and dedicated Whig.  By the end of 1778, Selah was jailed by the Crown as an anti-British troublemaker, serving his sentence aboard a rat-infested British prison-ship, which was docked in New York City.   Anna Smith Strong, his wife and full-time Culper Spy, directed a successful release of her husband from his miserable bondage by shrewdly and effectively “reaching out” to some of her influential friends.  By 1780, the newly freed Selah Strong (“Esquire,” as Caleb Brewster referred to him) was elected as President of the Town of Brookhaven (from Connecticut soil, ironically) and he was quietly living back home with his wife, at Strong’s Neck (Setauket).   

Part 3: The Culper Ring in 1780

The War for American Independence in 1780 was one for which the British and their Yankee enemies were trapped in a vicious and a long-enduring stalemate. Adding further to growing American worries as to when and if their joyless and bloody conflict with England would ever end, their Continental currency’s worth was non-existent. Soldiers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey mutinied against Congress and Washington, between late December of 1780-January of 1781.  The American Commander-in-Chief would swiftly and keenly put these “in-house” insurrections down.  But two things were clear: American soldiers were unhappy about getting paid with valueless notes and the infant nation was (as a whole) barely getting by, during their savage and sanguine war for freedom.

Woodhull had to be paid in British currency, as Alexander Rose notes between pages 98-99, in his book Washington’s Spies.  If Abe Woodhull was paid in Continental dollars by Washington, while living well within British lines, Woodhull’s spying would be instantly rendered useless…and Abraham would have much to explain to Tory and Crown forces. Washington hence paid his confidential informant in British coins, allowing Woodhull to do his spycraft as he should do it, under the radar and in more of a mitigated degree of safety. The always-thrifty Woodhull (who paid for his spying activities many times out of his own pocket) was generally appreciative to his great General.

Despite the dire circumstances America and the Continental Army faced in 1780, the Culper Spy Ring would not let up their close inspection of Sir Henry Clinton and the rest of Britain’s army.  It was intelligence snatched up from the keenly thinking and always-elusive Samuel Culper, Jr. (Robert Townsend) in Manhattan (at James Rivington’s coffeehouse) that allowed Washington and the Continental Congress to learn of a massive British forging operation going on, in early 1780. British Governor of New York, William Tryon, was running the counterfeiting ploy.  And it was in New York City that the British were attempting to devalue American dollars.  

The Culpers expedited this news to the General, who then instantly informed every Continental delegate.  Congress promptly recalled and voided all its paper-issued currency, thereby saving itself totally from (financial) ruin.  This successful legislative action was carried out on March 18th, 1780. American economic confidence was nearly shattered, but Yankee grit held the fledgling nation together.  Loans and subsidies from France and Holland, given by those governments the next year, to the United States, would fund the Continentals’ war efforts in the interim.   

More Culper “victories” followed in 1780.  In July, Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief, decided to launch an offensive against the French naval fleet, then anchored in Rhode Island waters.  This British action would have ambushed the French forces, even before they had any opportunity to land any substancial troop numbers, on American soil.  The Culpers, who again, secretly warned General Washington immediately, stopped the action.  While General Clinton was en-route to Rhode Island, via the Long Island Sound, Washington and his Continentals feinted an attack on the City of New York. Clinton was prematurely stopped on the water by his subordinates, to stop a Yankee invasion that would never come. The American ruse allowed the French forces to effectively land all their forces on rebel soil, allowing the Franco-American alliance to come to fruition.  

In spite of these huge gains over the British, by Washington and his Culper spies, the British kept applying severe pressure on all fronts to subvert and to end American resistance.  In September (1780) British Major John Andre (Head of British Military Intelligence and Benjamin Tallmadge’s enemy counterpart) effectually turned American Major General (and Commander of Fort West Point) Benedict Arnold to Britain’s side. Arnold’s insatiable appetite for coin and self-adulation were the main causes for his vulgar and unexpected defection.

John Andre was captured by Americans, shortly after his meeting with Arnold, to turn over blueprints for West Point. He had been captured traveling incognito through Westchester County’s countryside, while returning to Clinton’s headquarters at New York.  With the damning evidence in his boots being discovered, Andre could only offer bogus excuses to Continental Army officers interrogating him.  Spying, as said earlier, was (and still is) a very perilous and dirty business.  Major Benjamin Tallmadge could not be fooled: neither could Washington.  Tallmadge noticed Andre’s military gait as he paced to and fro in his temporary quarters, awaiting his fate.  This Andre failed to conceal.  Beagle-like Benjamin was not duped and he noted this in his Memoirs, on page 36.  Andre, under protest, was subsequently tried and hanged as a British spy (which, in fact, he was).  

Though West Point had been thoroughly safeguarded by the Continentals, Arnold’s treachery had far-reaching affects.  American morale, which was teeter tottering before his defection, had plummeted.  This was transitory, however.  Andre’s capture and his execution slowly hardened Continental resolve.  In late November 1780, Culper spies Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge launched a daring raid against Fort St. George (at Mastic, Long Island)…a British garrison situated on the Great South Bay, near modern-day Smith’s Point. The attack was conducted from southern Connecticut (under cover of darkness) and its ambush was perfectly carried out, despite horribly bad weather conditions.  To top off this success, Tallmadge and Brewster (as part of the same military operation) hustled over to King George 3rd’s magazine of hay and forage at Coram. There they again ambushed the redcoats guarding the magazine’s stores and they set over 300 tons of hay ablaze. This ungodly inferno forced Sir Henry Clinton to remain in New York City, marooned with his cavalry and army for the entire winter.

Clinton could not feed his horses, even if had wanted to, for the commitment of any possible anti-American military operations.  Tallmadge and Brewster had deprived him of the means to do so. And the Continentals’ success had been bolstered by accurate intelligence reports mainly gathered by Culper, Sr. (Abe Woodhull) but also by William Booth, an alleged Tory and the superintendent of Fort Saint George, who gave to Tallmadge and Brewster secret info. (British and Tory troop numbers and the structural layout of the Fort, etc.)…The Culpers came across for Washington, this final time, in 1780.  They would have more success in 1781, as well.

Part 4: The Nature of The Black Letter   

The “Black Letter” is not simply a list of prominent New York State patriot names. It is an exacting legal and financial document of record and an open petition issued by the NYS Assembly to request from each of its signers a loan to the Continental Congress of five hundred (Continental) dollars each, to be used by the Continental Army, specifically to aid in the French military intervention, on behalf of America, in its own Revolution.  The monies (therefore) garnered by the petition of the Black Letter would be used (by the Continental Congress) to pay for the Continental soldiers in assisting the French Navy’s landing at Rhode Island, as well as all other future Franco-American combined military operations against Great Britain.

The lenders (all signers, or co-signers of the Black Letter) are promised to be re-paid by New York State and the Continental Congress, within six months, at an inclusion of interest on their loans of “six percent per annum and secured against a further depreciation.”  Hence every signer of this list was not only supporting New York State against the British Crown, but also more importantly, was supporting the Thirteen American States as a whole, against England and all of her dominions.  The goal and substance of The Black Letterwas made further subversive and traitorous by a compact created by America to be assisted by a foreign power (France) in America’s crusade to kick King George III from her shores.  

Every American patriot petitioner on the Black Letter’s list was thus committing treason against England.  If found out at all by British authorities, any and all would face fierce and mortal punishment by redcoats and Tories.  But this statement, though entirely factual, is a proverbial overstatement of the obvious.  This is why:

Part Five: Truth and Consequences

Signatories and endorsers of the Black Letter’s list, did by the nature of their autographs and the content of their petition, bring certain peril upon themselves, their families and their homes and property.  But most of these signers committed this act of treason firmly outside of British lines, with any possible danger rising at them being severely mitigated.  William Floyd (also a signer of the Declaration of Independence) owned a vast estate at Mastic, Suffolk County.  Yet, at the time of the Black Letter’s execution, Floyd inhabited Connecticut, and not Long Island.  He and the rest of the Floyds were relatively safe from any potential British harm directed at them.  The same could be said of Jacob Griffin, Isaac Roosevelt and Abraham Brinckerhoff, each living entirely within American-held territory.  

This was clearly not the case for declarants Abraham Woodhull and Judge Selah Strong.  Both, living in Setauket in 1780, were living in strongly gripped British turf.  And with Woodhull especially, as spy Culper Senior, had simply upped the odds of any possible hurt coming his way, at British hands.  Selah, who had already personally felt the pain and anguish of the Crown’s spite and ill-temper, was also increasing any and all potential dangers he could face, from British and Tory agents.  If discovered by the British, Woodhull and Strong would have been promptly executed. Their homes and money would all have been confiscated and their families would have definitely been displaced, or very likely imprisoned.

One of Washington’s sharpest tools (the Culper Spy Ring) he used to cut Britain’s puppet strings over the American people would have been instantaneously rendered visible and useless.  With Culper Sr. and Selah Strong out of Britain’s way, Anna Smith Strong (Selah’s wife and Culper Ring signal person) would also have been removed permanently from the Culper Spy Network.  And without Anna Strong included in the Ring, fellow Culpers Austin Roe and Robert Townsend (Culper Junior) would have swiftly abandoned all of their espionage efforts for Washington.  It would have been a British intelligence coup of undeniable significance and it was have easily and dreadfully eclipsed Nathan Hale’s discovery and undoing from 1776. The Culpers would have become extinct overnight and (then) Major Benjamin Tallmadge would have had to drastically reform and re-strategize his espionage plans.  If the Culper Ring had ever fallen, the Ring’s demise would have certainly done tremendous damage to the Continental Army’s morale.  George Washington’s esteem also would have taken a big hit.  And the discovery of the Black Letter would all have been to blame for it. 

Luckily, the document never fell into enemy hands.  But whose responsibility was it to guard New York State’s security-sensitive information during the Revolutionary War?  New York State Assembly officials most definitely had their precious documents guarded by the State’s militias during the War for Independence.  The State’s government could have never convened on Long Island or New York City, as British forces, from late 1776-late 1783, occupied these two locales.  The NY State Assembly was thus conducted between Albany and Poughkeepsie, during these aforementioned years, because the central Hudson Valley was properly and safely guarded by American forces.  The NY State Assembly was relatively unimpeded to carry out its manifold duties as a result.  Did Colonel Jacob Griffin and his Dutchess County Militia safeguard New York’s “top secret” legal and financial documents as part of performing their many military tasks?  We may never know for sure, but it is very likely they did so.

According the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index, $500.00 (U. S. currency) in 1780 would be worth roughly $8, 400.00 dollars in 2016 (U. S.) monetary value.  But this figure cannot be relied on at all, since (again) the Continental dollar was significantly deflated and devalued at the precise point in American history. What is worth its weight in gold is that Culper spymaster Abraham Woodhull and fellow (part-time) Culper spy Selah Strong’s massive sacrifice to support the Continental Army, in addition to both spying and enduring very horrible living conditions at Setauket during the years 1776-1783, when British soldiers occupied their small seaside town (and pilfered from it, oftentimes) at an extra risk of their own lives, is solidly tangible and ubiquitously truthful.

The two Culpers made their donations only in British currency and not in the almost worthless Continental dollars.  If they did so the other way around, it would have brought needless scrutiny on them (or worse) by the British right away, since Woodhull and Strong both lived in an American town manned by a British and Tory garrison.  If caught at any time with Continental money (again) trouble would have quickly ensued for both, by the British.  How did they make their gifts available to the New York Assembly?  In secret of course, and it is undoubtedly Caleb Brewster (mariner, smuggler and soldier par excellence) who was to do the job.  Brewster’s unstoppable bravery and huge skills of stealth would guarantee a successful delivery to the NY State Assembly in the Hudson Valley, by Brewster journeying from across the Long Island Sound at Setauket (Suffolk County). Brewster would first land at Connecticut after leaving Setauket.  From there, Brewster would pass into Dutchess County (NY).  Austin Roe would never make such an land-based errand on horseback, as the route would have been much too long, dangerous and susceptible to roving enemy (redcoat) patrols and wandering cutthroat highwaymen, that freely abounded everywhere on Long Island at this time and haunted the Island’s many rural roads.

The Black Letter was a particularly damning document, which directly incriminated Abraham Woodhull and Selah Strong with funding and encouraging American anti-British and pro-French military operations in their theatre of the War. Woodhull as assistant spymaster to John Bolton (Major Benjamin Tallmadge) was markedly putting his life in perilous circumstances (as they were already previously due to Abraham’s spying). This put the entire Culper Spy Ring in further jeopardy…but it simultaneously emboldened and enhanced the American war effort against the British.  That Culper Senior’s benefaction to the Continental Congress involved Selah Strong is irrelevant.  Strong was a man with a vital sense of mind, body and person, who was not bullied into doing anything he was not formerly willing to do by himself. In this capacity, Judge Selah Strong was as Abe Woodhull and Jacob Griffin were, fearless, feisty and unrelentingly patriotic.  That the rest of the Culper Spy Ring did not fall in this process is not only remarkable, it is concrete proof of Abe Woodhull’s superb (spying) skills of cunning, deception and his iron-willed desire to remove from America the British parasites that were then thriving on Long Island at the expense of all Long Island patriots.

And yet despite any counter-arguments that may seemto suggest otherwise (many signers of the Black Letter were given NYS government jobs after the War) the signers not only did put their money where their mouths were, they all put their lives on the line as well, at a legitimate threat to themselves.  During this time the signers of the Black Letter no longer took a gamble on Great Britain and its monarch (King George 3rd), but they all proudly took their chances on the revolutionary idea of America.  242 years later, the democracy they founded is still here, and Americans are still struggling to define who they are and what their country still is…and as long as we do, democracy will thrive.

***Author’s Note: At the close of the American Revolution, an estimated 60, 000-100,000 Loyalists were expelled by the Continental Congress from American shores.  Many had no time to pack all of their belongings or to take all of their money. 

Most of these Loyalists relocated to Canada, after the Revolution. But many wound up going to Great Britain and the British West Indies, in the Caribbean.  As a result, their vast real estate holdings in all thirteen original colonies, horses, cattle and other livestock were used to compensate Continental soldiers and various state militiamen for their service to the United States against Britain in the Revolution.  This is precisely how Colonel Jacob Griffin of Fishkills, NY and other members of his 6thDutchess County Regiment were rewarded for their honorable sacrifices to liberty (even apart from the financial requests made by the NYS Assembly in the Black Letter).  

The Continental Congress and the NYS Assembly thus had ample funds and other resources to pay back Mr. Griffin, Abraham Woodhull, Judge Selah Strong and Abraham Brinckerhoff, once the Revolution was over.  There is absolutely no historical record stating that the NYS and the Federal governments did not make these reparations to soldiers and minutemen.  As far as we know, historians can trace through NY State militia and Continental pension records, which men were paid and which ones were not.

I called the Black Letter, as such, not for the black ink of the document’s typography, but rather for the document’s direct implications of Culper spies Abraham Woodhull and Selah Strong, in supporting America’s Revolutionary War effort, apart from their roles as agents of espionage…efforts, which obviously, could have endangered the very productive and secret Culper Spy Ring. 

About the Author:  Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, NY.  A graduate of both SUNY Stony Brook (B.A. English) and Suffolk County Community College, Mr. DeBonis’ first work appeared in The Village Beacon Record and The Brookhaven Times Newspapers.  Michael’s latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in the New York History Review and The New York History Blog (prose only). Mr. DeBonis is dedicated to studying and to learning the history of the great State of New York.