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Friday, December 29, 2023

Historian from New York State Sheds Much Light on Long Island’s Dark, Revolutionary Past

By Michael Mauro DeBonis
Copyright ©2023. All rights reserved by the author

Part 1: History as Background…

In late August 1776, the newly minted American nation was fighting for survival against a determined, resourceful, and deadly British enemy. The American War for Independence had started in New England before brutally careening southward to New York Colony, of which New York City and Long Island were to become the focal point in Britain’s clandestine and savage military efforts to oust the Continental Army and General George Washington from their very existence. If English King George III and his huge and well-trained army of redcoats could successfully destroy Washington and his impoverished ragtag army in the field, then the Yankee Continental Congress would surely fade away, leaving North America freely in British hands.

On August 27, 1776, British General Lord William Howe landed on the south coast of Long Island, in Brooklyn, along with an overwhelming fighting force of approximately 25,000-30,000 British regulars, perfectly taught and equipped to commit murder on the battlefield. Howe was aiming to avenge his embarrassing expulsion from Boston, where Washington had cleverly bluffed his way into making the wary British Army think they were outgunned and outmanned. Howe and the Crown’s forces were skillfully manipulated into giving up Boston to the recently created bluecoat Continental Army.

In the wake of the Thirteen Colonies’ failed (1775) diplomatic efforts to try to heal the steadily increasing and hostile rift between them and their English monarch, George III, the Continentals chose Virginian George Washington to lead their army. Washington was a man of moderate military experience. However, the Virginian gentleman planter and surveyor was a brilliant leader of men, and his courage to fight against severely superior odds was without equal in all of British Colonial America. Whereas most American military men would surrender or sue for peace while confronting a fiercely advantaged foe, Washington, the general, would never capitulate to British authorities. Washington was truly trustworthy in this respect and equally sincere and dedicated to promoting American liberty while bitterly fighting for it on American soil.

Washington and his Continental fighting force were in dire straights while campaigning against their British enemies, who outnumbered them by approximately 15,000-20,000 men. The 1776 Battles of Brooklyn and New York City quickly became one-sided and bloody defeats for Washington and his poorly trained and equipped bluecoat commandos. In the ensuing months after the late summer of 1776, Washington would rally his men to small but significant victories against British and Hessian armies stationed at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, between late December 1776 and early January 1777. General Washington had indeed proven two things: the British and their German allies were neither invincible nor were the Americans pre-destined to lose. Yankee determination would be the primary deciding factor in gaining an American victory in their Revolution against Great Britain, with Washington and his sparse American devotees acting as catalysts for U. S. independence from the English Crown.

Although clear-cut, the American victories at Trenton and Princeton were far from absolute in removing the British from American territory. The War for Independence would painfully linger on, in one form or another, until the British Army wildly evacuated New York City (their principal headquarters in British North America, from 1776 onward) until late November 1783. The toll the British presence had on the inhabitants of Long Island and in New York City exacted the harshest consequences possible, with the British Army confiscating and utilizing many of the American farms, pastures, orchards, and cattle for fueling the British military machine, stationed in Manhattan and the rural Long Island countryside.

American feelings (in lower New York) quickly became belligerent and resentful towards their British overlords. And a murky and carnal history would follow British-occupied Long Island from late 1776 through late 1783 when the British finally decided to pack up and leave America for their English homeland. British criminal activity swiftly took root on Long Island, perpetuating long-term graft on both sides of the Revolution, including in NYC, for seven lengthy years. Long Island and New York City were the only regions in the entire Thirteen Colonies under total British control for almost the whole duration of the Revolutionary War. Not many personal accounts exist from these long-ago days, but the few and far-between records that do exist do not paint a flattering picture of the British military living on and near Long Island. Long Island historian David M. Griffin of Rocky Point, NY, has recently and carefully plumbed this arcane and poorly studied time of the history of lower New York State.

Courtesy of Author

With impeccable thoroughness and superlative historical scholarship, author David Griffin shrewdly and factually notes (in his 2023 book Chronicles of the British Occupation of Long Island) the harsh and savage times of the overwhelming British military presence on Long Island and in NYC during the Revolutionary War. Mr. Griffin does so in 106 pages of very compelling and eloquent prose. It was a time of great turbulent, violent, and historical conflict, resulting in the era we presently refer to as the American Revolutionary War. The Revolutionary War was, in fact, a very vicious civil war, which brutishly amputated parents from their children, siblings from each other, and friend from friend alike. The Revolutionary War was a time in human history in which the direct heirs of the British Empire no longer identified themselves as Welsh, Scottish, or English. It was the time in human history when children of the British Empire first called themselves Americans, with the adjective American precisely meaning those citizens who were of a newly independent and wholly free country called America.

Between the British onslaught on Manhattan in the fall of 1776 and the concurrent American withdrawal from “York Island” (as both sides called it then), about half of New York City (Manhattan Island that was settled in those days) was mysteriously burned to the ground, during the intensive fighting taking place amongst redcoats and Continentals. The side that caused the great inferno is still unknown to this day. However, its motive was almost certainly accidental, as both the British and American sides did not benefit from living in a city devoid of habitable infrastructure. However, the substantial blaze left much of the city’s native population homeless and impoverished.

New York City (nonetheless) became the British Army’s principal center of operation during the Revolutionary War, specifically from 1776 to 1783. While NYC served as Britain’s main hub of military and administrative operations in the Thirteen Colonies, its adjacent rural territory of Long Island (which Britain dominated with its prolonged military presence) served in a threefold capacity. The first function of Britain’s occupation of Long Island (and NYC) was to use Long Island’s many rich farms and orchards as the chief breadbasket to feed the British Army stationed in NYC. Long Island had some of the most fertile topsoil in British North America, and it was more than up to the task of accomplishing such a job. The great supplies of hay needed to feed George III’s cavalry were also taken directly from Long Island farms and farmers.

The second purpose of Britain’s occupation of New York City and Long Island was to form a strategically (and geographically) advantageous military buffer zone between American-controlled New England to the Island’s north and the British-controlled colonies of the south, which included Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The southern colonies were positioned well below the Middle Atlantic region. By Britain taking and keeping control of New York City, Long Island, the South, and Canada, the British Crown (ideally) was thought to be able to squeeze the Continentals out of New England (the cradle of American troublemaking, according to the British, then) and also mainland New York Colony. Such a vivacious plan of action (attempted by the British regularly throughout The War for Independence) would have worked.

However, British losses at several key battles prevented redcoat Generals Howe and Clinton from achieving their grand opportunities to do so. These American victories were the 1776-1777 Battles of Trenton and Princeton (in New Jersey), the 1777 Battles of Saratoga (in upstate New York), and the 1778 American rout of the British Army at Monmouth, also in New Jersey. Other key American victories belonging to this same esteemed lot include the 1780 Battle of King’s Mountain and the 1781 Battle of Cowpens (both conflicts taking place in South Carolina). Yet, as the British erected numerous military fortifications on Long Island (and in NYC, alike), precisely along Long Island’s north shore, the Brits successfully (and infamously) launched several destructive raids upon southern and coastal New England. These raids took place specifically at New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk, Connecticut, where Colonel William Tryon and his 70th Regiment of Foot violently employed scorched earth policy in those places, burning most of these evacuated towns to the ground. These attacks were launched from Fort Franklin (at Lloyd’s Neck, in Huntington, Long Island) in 1779. The main (and third) function of these British attacks in southern Connecticut was to terrorize the local patriots into supporting Crown law and policy, as well as to draw out Washington’s main force of bluecoat warriors (from the Hudson Valley, in New York) into an open pitched field battle. Both motivations badly backfired on Tryon and his barbaric horde of recoats. Washington and his Continentals never took the bait.

Such British military incursions by Tryon prompted American General George Washington and his Head of Continental Army Intelligence. Major Benjamin Tallmadge, to strike back at British military strongholds on Long Island to subvert, curb, and even eliminate Great Britain’s military presence in Long Island’s vast Suffolk County. Washington’s famed and very arcane Culper Spy Ring covertly organized Tallmadge’s secret assaults, both on Long Island’s north and south shores. Culper Spy Ring cell leader Abraham Woodhull (under Tallmadge’s careful guidance) successfully and shrewdly inspected British Forts Franklin and Saint George (at Huntington and Mastic, respectively, in Suffolk County) and provided (in advance) valuable inside information on those forts’ troop numbers, layouts and weaponry. Tallmadge and his Culper Spy Ring associate, whale-boatman Caleb Brewster, then proceeded to badly maul and imprison Fort Franklin’s garrison and attack boats in 1779 at Lloyd’s Neck, taking many redcoats and Tory militiamen hostage and burning all of Fort Franklin’s barracks to the ground. However, the Americans' fearsome onslaught could not destroy the main fort of Franklin’s garrison. Tallmadge’s first great amphibious raid against the British on Long Island resulted in no American casualties, and it was entirely facilitated by Brewster’s very skilled band of whaleboat mariners. Caleb Brewster was the most skilled sailor of this esteemed lot of whalers. Brewster’s men cleverly and stealthily navigated the dangerously British-patrolled waters of the fearsome Devil’s Belt (the Long Island Sound) repeatedly throughout the American Revolution to steal military supplies from British allies and boats on or situated near Long Island while also striking back against British-manned army forts.

Major Benjamin Tallmadge, c 1778

Tallmadge led an even more successful (second) amphibious assault against British Fort Saint George in the autumn of 1780 at Mastic in southern Brookhaven Town. This he carried out again with the help of Brewster’s Sea Raiders and again with his own revered and very effective Second Continental Light Dragoons, from southern Connecticut, as the American task force’s place of origin. Major Benjamin Tallmadge’s sting operation against Fort Saint George netted some fifty redcoat prisoners, vast supplies of British food and money, and spices, as well. Tallmadge and his approximately eighty-man crew of destroyers right to cinders, including several British supply ships anchored in the nearby Great South Bay, burned the imposing and well-designed Fort Saint George. Tallmadge (as part of this exact raid) then proceeded to destroy Britain’s entire stock of hay at Coram (also at Brookhaven, in Suffolk County), incinerating 300 tons or more of British cavalry fuel in the process. This latter maneuver by Tallmadge left England’s General Henry Clinton and his legions of British infantrymen and horses entirely marooned in NYC for the whole winter of 1780-1781 by depriving the British Army of any means to march outside New York City and Long Island. It also tremendously damaged British morale in lower New York State (or Colony, depending on how you look at Revolutionary War history). This expedition by the Americans against the British was also carried out with minimal loss of American life.

Major Benjamin Tallmadge and his Second Continental Light Dragoons, along with Brewster’s Sea Raiders, would make another victorious (and third) amphibious attack (in October 1781) against the redcoats at British Fort Slongo (also called Salonga) near present-day Northport, New York, in Smithtown, Long Island. Fort Slongo was located on Long Island’s north shore. The small thirty-man British garrison there was defeated in battle by their American foes, and their Fort Slongo was destroyed by Tallmadge and his men. This operation (against the British) was carried out again without any loss of American lives. The whole British Army garrison was taken prisoner and (as in the successful American assault on Fort Saint George the previous autumn) dragged in shackles back to southern Connecticut. This American victory versus the British, carried out by both Tallmadge and Brewster, resulted from a well-coordinated surprise attack. British morale in NYC and on Long Island plummeted even further by the loss of Fort Slongo (a minor defeat against the British forces), which was even more bolstered by Britain’s catastrophic (and concurrent) loss to Washington and the Continentals at Yorktown, Virginia. Britain’s days of ruling and occupying its thirteen North American colonies were swiftly ending.

It must be noted in this article that no matter how effective Washington and Tallmadge’s efforts were to undo and end Britain’s occupation of Long Island, from 1776 through 1783, the Americans could only disrupt and mitigate England’s presence in New York City and its suburbs to the east. The United Kingdom’s military and Tory political machine in NYC and on Long Island would still be firmly and violently entrenched in these places, and with Britain’s control came a definitive and enduring plague of graft, scandal, brutality, and murder. 

Part 2: History as Documentation…

David M. Griffin’s Chronicles of the British Occupation of Long Island (publisher: The History Press, 2023) probes and explains much of this esoteric history of Revolutionary War-era New York by including not only many actual examples of socio-economic hardship that Britain imposed on Long Islanders during the American Revolution, but Griffin’s book includes specific real-life historical specimens of British and Tory abuse of Long Island’s population, via the pulling of British military, economic and political puppet strings.

Griffin tells (on page 48) the story of one financially blessed (patriot) Captain Solomon Davis of Miller Place, who, in the midst of the British Army’s (1776) advance from NYC to eastern Suffolk County, swiftly but competently, buried £ 500 sterling, under a large rock in his backyard, secretly hiding a big chunk of his personal wealth from British clutches. Capt. Davis was successful, but David Griffin reports the captain died during The War for Independence and that his fortune went undiscovered for nearly a century after, until a later landowner (named Horace Hudson) who claimed Davis’ property sometime in the late 1800s, recovered Davis’ missing treasure for his own.

Griffin also tells the tragic tale (on pages 53-54) of a distant cousin of Solomon Davis, a man of much coin named Goldsmith Davis, of Coram, just a few miles south of Miller Place in Brookhaven. 

Goldsmith Davis was a patriotic American who hid his family (and presumably much of his money) in some local woods. British troops came near his home, pilfering from the houses of New York patriots in Davis’ neighborhood. Goldsmith Davis took the wise precaution of securing his family’s life and personal security ahead of the marauders' unwelcome visitation to his home. Goldsmith stayed behind to meet the ransacking redcoats and to protect his property from them.

Upon finding the feisty Goldsmith Davis present in his house, the British evidently could not find much of value there. After not being successful in obtaining loot and information about Davis’ stash of money, his British redcoat intruders forced him into his home’s attic, tethered his body to overhead rafters, and bayonetted him. Goldsmith Davis subsequently died by exsanguination from his injuries in his attic, where his family later found his murdered remains. The British Army was directly responsible for his death. David M. Griffin reports the spot where Goldsmith Davis bled out (in his attic) was reputedly marked by his spilt blood. 

Part 3: History as Irony…

Both Solomon Davis and Goldsmith Davis (as my own historical research indicates) were direct descendants of the infamous Puritan Long Island settler Faulke Davis, who came from Wales to the shores of the New World in the 1630s, initially helping to found the village of Easthampton. Faulke Davis was driven out of Easthampton because of the nefarious witch trial he caused to take place there (in the 1650s) by making false accusations against one of his female Easthampton neighbors. The accused witch (one Goody Garlick) was found not guilty, and in the aftermath of her trial, Faulke moved west, “up the Island,” to Brookhaven Town, where he bought much land for his many Davis sons to farm. The Davis family lived on land bought initially by their shady progenitor in places such as Coram, Mount Sinai, Setauket, and more distant Queens County. Faulke Davis’ kinfolk thrive in Suffolk County to our very day. Unlike their long-lived and scandalous patriarch and ancestor Faulke, the Davis clan lived their lives smartly and morally. None of Faulke Davis’ progeny were ever to be named after him before, during, or after the American Revolution.  


Part 4: The Historical Detective…

David Griffin continues to tell his many more riveting tales of American Revolutionaries who were victimized by British hands-on Long Island. Another example is the frightening and factual yarn (on pages 66-67) of one Private Robert Silby of the Seventeenth British Light Dragoons. Private Silby was slain while robbing a Yankee home in October 1780. His British superiors seized his dead body from the Hempstead home immediately after his death. Griffin tells us Silby’s body was forced into iron tethers. The British also barbarically placed Silby’s head inside an iron harness. Historian Griffin sadly notes that the British Army then attached Private Silby’s desecrated corpse from a high overhead tree branch, leaving it dangling in the air by its caged head. The British did this (according to Griffin) to terrorize British redcoats and local Hempstead Tories and patriots, both from pillaging civilians out living on Long Island.

History has proven Griffin’s assertions as accurate. In 1935, David Griffin tells us, a 5-year-old Hempstead boy, who was playing atop a sand pile, discovered Robert Silby’s skeletal remains. Silby’s head and neck were still found bound in their iron prisons. Silby’s cadaver was left partially exposed in the ground because of weathering. Nassau County forensic scientists were unable in 1935 to determine the cadaver’s proper identity. Thus, Long Island had a great mystery on its hands for about ninety years, which David M. Griffin solved circa 2021 by carefully reviewing American muster rolls and records from the Revolutionary War. Griffin’s solution to the Silby mystery was reinforced by sound historical investigation and factually accurate information. Griffin’s historical discoveries and solutions are superb achievements as far as historical research and writing are concerned. Nothing more needs to be said with respect to them.

Griffin’s 2023 Chronicles of the British Occupation of Long Island are one of the most revealing, thorough, and intriguing historical studies about New York State's history of the Revolutionary War ever written. Griffin’s excellent book is devoid of any wasteful purple prose. David M. Griffin boldly and precisely brings to light many unknown and fascinating instances and accounts of patriots, Tories, bluecoats, and redcoats colliding with meteoric ferocity on a small island, 120 miles long and roughly 20 miles wide, motivated by idealistic, ethical, selfish and criminal emotions alike. I cannot tell of the sheer vastness of sociological complexity and elaboration that Griffin succinctly relates in his book about late eighteenth-century Long Island history. Still, he does so in brilliant historical detail and great variation of narrative perspective, that it forms a historical habitation and architecture of formidable depth and vivacity, lacking in many contemporary books of history. I strongly recommend David Griffin’s Chronicles of the British Occupation of Long Island as a must-read for serious students of history and enthusiastic history buffs alike.


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










  1. Author's Note:
    Upon further investigation into the biographies of both men, l have determined that Captain Solomon Davis is not a descendant of Faulke Davis. The scant paper trail that exists strongly undermines this common assertion among Long Island historians.
    What few public records that are extant from 18th Century New York (specifically, Long Island) demonstrate that Solomon Davis was a British seaman, who migrated to New York Colony, from Britain, sometime before the breakout of the French and lndian War. During this conflict, Solomon Davis served the British crown as a privateer, assaulting French shipping on the high seas, hence his nickname "Captain. " Solomon Davis was a very respected sea captain. During the American Revolution, Solomon Davis quietly stayed out of this fray and he refused to take sides during this conflict.
    Solomon Davis' living relatives hail from the State of New Jersey. All assert, that although he resided in Miller Place, Solomon does not share a biological lineage with Goldsmith Davis, who was (in fact) a direct descendant of Davis Puritan patriarch Faulke Davis.

    Goldsmith Davis did not die from the wounds he received at the hands of British redcoats, during the American Revolution. Goldsmith Davis miraculously survived his bloody injuries and he died in 1826, aged 69 years old, in Coram, New York. The distinguished Brookhaven Town official of the late 19th Century, Lester Davis, also of Coram, was his direct descendant.

    ---Michael M. DeBonis, March 10, 2024.

  2. Historian David Griffin discovered redcoat soldier Silby's name by examining British Army muster rolls from the American Revolution.

    Captain Solomon Davis also may have relatives living in or near Miller Place, NY,
    to this very day.

    ---M. M. DeBonis, 3-11-2024.