Suffolk County History -- 1683-1783

Suffolk County History -- 1683-1783

Source: Long Island Genealogy

Suffolk was English for just over one hundred years from its founding as a county on November 1, 1683 until the last occupation troops of the British Army left this area late in November of 1783.

This century of rule by representatives of the British monarch saw a steady growth in population from about 2000 people in the scattered original settlements and their offshoots to 16,440 people in a rural society of farmer, fishermen by 1783.

The population of Suffolk was rather sparse. Exclusive of Indians but including Negro slaves this was the population during the colonial period:

1698 - 2679
1723 - 6241
1731 - 7676*
1749 - 9384
1771 - 13,128

*The total count of Indians in Suffolk in 1731 was set at 715.And when Suffolk's population stood at 16,440 in 1790 the total population of the United States was only 3,231,533 people.

In this time there was a succession of royal governors representing the English Crown who tried to govern, impose taxes, and collect them with limited success. Much of the failure could be attributed to the system itself. The governor was not an American but an Englishman coming here for a limited stay serving only so long as he was in favor with the monarch. His ties were clearly to the mother country. Also more than one governor saw his position as a way to get wealthy at the expense of the colony. And often the royal governor was at odds with his representative assembly as they were Americans in tune with their fellow countrymen's needs.

With the prevailing attItude toward royal authority,it is understandable that the people of Suffolk were not too concerned about paying taxes. They preferred to deal with New England which was easy to reach by water and where tax collection was "forgotten" in the transactions. Smuggling and privateering were common in everyday life along the coast. Even piracy was overlooked by a weak government that lacked the power to enforce its own laws. Poor communication helped the buccaneer too!

One governor, the Earl of Bellamont, decided to stop smuggling and other acts against this authority on the sea. He commissioned a respected merchant, William Kidd - in 1696 to sail out of New York to rid the coast of piracy. It didn't work out as intended. Within a year the name of Captain Kidd was feared, for he had turned buccaneer. Captain William a respected merchant, turned pirate in 167 self. And from his exploits come persistent Suffolk legends of buried pirate treasure.

Although there are disputes on several points, historians generally agree that Captain Kidd was sailing from the West Indies to Boston when he stopped at Gardiner's Island off Suffolk's East End. Here he landed and buried a chest of pirate loot consisting of gold, silver, and jewels. Kidd then sailed to Boston in July 1699 where he was seized and put in irons by order of the very man who had commissioned him.

Kidd was sent to England where he was Imprisoned, then given a shoddy trial, found guilty, and executed in May 1701. The mystery of his true relationship to the Governor and the resting place of all his treasures still excite the imagination and make interesting speculation.

Despite the flaws in local colonial government, people were generally loyal to the King except, of course, during the last decade of British rule. There were many shades of attitude within this loyalty however. The people of Long Island's north shore and east end were the more independent being influenced by their New England contacts and the distance from New York. Those on the south shore and western end of the county tended to conservatism due to their proximity to the thinking of New York City. Perhaps a comment by George Washington just two years before the Declaration of Independence sums up how many Americans thought at the time. Washington said in 1774-he was convinced that not one thinking man desired Independence.

Through times were generally peaceful a militia was organized in Suffolk that had 614 men by the year 1700. This would grow in size and expertise during the French and Indian War which began in 1754.

While the war with the French did draw men from the area, its impact on progress here was minimal. The farmers went about their business undisturbed. Most were now growing wheat. The two most easterly counties of the Island were truly the "bread basket" of New York. This fact was noted by an important Englishman and it was to affect life in Suffolk for many years. The man was Lord Howe, commander of British forces. He said of Long Island that it was "the only spot in America for carrying on a war with efficacy ... in this fertile island the Army could subsist with (1683-1783) out any succor from England ... ' Clearly, Long Island's Importance was well known to the leaders of Britain. Wheat, hay, cattle, and wood were seen as critical to any military force trying to hold New York City. And New York was a key location not only because of its fine harbor but because it separated the colonies of New England and the Middle Atlantic. Communication within Suffolk and with the outside world was almost nonexistent. There was no postal service so that messages had to be slowly passed along by coastal sailing vessels or given to horse and rider who might pass a particular place on the way to his destination. Because of lively trade with Connecticut, people in Eastern Suffolk often knew more about what was going on across the Sound than in a neighboring town on the Island.

A postal route was setup in 1764 by which a rider carrying mail would set out every two weeks along the north shore returning to New York along the south shore. It was not until 1793 that Suffolk had its first post office. The system of justice was equally simple a Court of Sessions holding forth in selected Suffolk towns only twice a year.

There was a good hat making trade here using American beaver fur so prized in European markets. Begun in the early 18th Century, by 1732 the hat industry was so prosperous and threatening to English manufacturers that Parliament passed an act prohibiting any export of hats from Suffolk County. This kind of treatment created frustration and anger in people who were trying to build a better life for themselves.

No one knows for sure when the first Revolutionary thoughts began to surface in the minds of local colonists but the French and Indian War certainly played a part in creating such thoughts. Not only did local men, in the service of the Crown, learn the arts of warfare but the cost of this military effort caused Britain to levy taxes on her colonies to pay for it. This led to the odious Stamp Act which taxed almost everyone involved in any kind of a business or personal transaction.

Protests and petitions for relief of grievances grew as the people became more aware that increasing taxation without any real voice in government was unfair. A sense of common fate grew as people from one part of the colonies reached out to others. Sag Harbor people, for example, had active regular trade with Boston so news of events and patriot efforts there were soon reaching the farmer and fisherman of the East End.

When four regiments of British troops occupied Boston under General Gage and that port's commerce was blockaded by warships of the British Navy in May of 1774, an already grim situation was getting worse In the colonists' eyes. Foodstuffs and other goods were collected at several ports in Suffolk to help the people of the Boston area.

In the early days of April 1775 people here elected Colonel William Floyd, a gentleman farmer of Mastic, to again represent this area at the Continental Congress to be held in May at Philadelphia. (He had attended the 1st Continental Congress previously) But events outside Boston in the little towns of Concord and Lexington soon changed his plans. The "shot heard round the world" when British Redcoats and local militia clashed at Concord Bridge quickly mobilized Suffolk people to action and rebellion.

William Floyd was an unlikely rebel wIth everything to lose. By position and wealth he should have been conservative supporting a "wait and see" Tory position. But he was a Welshman, like Long Island's other representative, Francis Lewis and the Welsh have a tradition of opposing British rule.

When William Floyd left his beloved 2000 acre farm to make the long journey to Philadelphia he little realized he would not see home again for seven years. He and his colleagues from the other colonies would draft and sign a document on July 4th of 1776 that closed the door on compromise with Britain. Signing The Declaration of Independence made William Floyd a marked man. His home and property were seized and vandalized just after his wife and family fled to safety in Connecticut.

Lord Howe was now in local waters and on Staten Island with the largest military force the British had ever sent out. By mid August of 1776 10,000 sailors in almost 400 ships carrying 1200 cannons had transported 32,000 fighting men to encampments from which they could capture New York. The city was protected by a much smaller force of troops sunder George Washington entrenched in defense positions on Brooklyn Heights.

On Aug. 22, 1776-just a matter of days after Washington's troops had heard the Declaration of Independence Lord Howe struck the Long Island fortifications of Washington moving 15,000 British and 5,000 German (Hessian) mercenaries across The Narrows to Brooklyn from Staten Island.

The Battle of Long Island was a stunning victory for the British who outmaneuvered Washington at every turn. But as he was to do repeatedly in the years ahead - Washington saved the day when hings looked their worst. Using fishermen troops from the seaport of Marblehead, Massachusetts he ferried the battered remains of his Army across the East River at night under cover of a providential fog. Lord Stirling and 250 brave Marylanders fought a valiant rear guard action that enabled this troop evacuation to take place. Without their bravery and the 'favorable' elements of wind and fog, the American Revolution might have ended the month after it had begun. For Long Islanders - and Suffolk residents in particular - the Revolution was over. For the next seven years they lived sunder the heel of an occupation army. But if they could no longer fight openly, they soon developed ways to aid the Patriot cause by hit and run guerilla tactics, harassment and spying.Perhaps best known are the exploits of Washington's "secret service"the famed Culper Ring.

Based in New York, Setauket, and Connecticut this ingenious group of men and women kept the American commander informed about British troop movements, strength, fortifications, and plans from 1778 until 1782 and on at least one occasion, they pinned down a large English force by deception.The key spy was Robert Townsend, who gathered the intelligence in New York City while he made his rounds of the coffee houses frequented by British officers. His "cover" was a store in the City that delivered merchandise around town.

Townsend's sister Sally also provided information that she gathered at their family home, Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, which was then occupied by Colonel John Simcoe of the loyalist Queen's Rangers. The Hall was a meeting place of British officers including the celebrated Major Andre whose capture saved West Point. Townsend called himself by the code name of Culper Jr.Culper Sr.. was Abraham Woodhull, a Setauket farmer who gathered information on troop movements and plans on Long Island based units.

Messages carrying the secret information were transported with supplies, written on paper with invisible ink, using a code of numbers and names. These messages were carried by Austin Roe who rode a relay of horses to cover the 50 mile distance from New York to Setauket as quickly as possible. He left the messages on the Woodhull farm. These trips were sunder the guise of delivering supplies ordered from Townsend.

Another important person was Anna Strong who used a prearranged signal system of clothes on her wash line to let others know what was happening and where. For example, the number of white handkerchiefs on the wash line told where the whale boat courier from Connecticut was hidden among the bays and inlets of the Long Island shore.

Caleb Brewster was responsible for three whaleboats that kept crossing the Long Island Sound between Setauket and Connecticut. There Washington's riders were waiting for the intelligence reports; they delivered them to Major Benjamin Tallmadge who took them to Washington's head-quarters for decoding.

The Culper Ring operated successfully throughout the war without being detected. Indeed their secret code was so secure that even today one of the women agents who gathered information in New York is known only by her number; Agent 355.

Both sides had spies operating and one of America's earliest martyrs was in this number, Nathan Hale. Nathan Hale's patriotism, devotion and willingness made him a prime candidate for being a hero. And indeed he was but he was supposed to be an effective spy. He was not! He was tall, blonde, and uncommonly handsome in a time when people were smaller of stature and very often pockmarked. Hale stood out in any crowd which is not good for spying. His cover story was weak: he was supposed to be a Dutch schoolmaster, yet the diploma he carried was in his real name. And when he was caught with plans and papers that might have been explained away, he immediately confessed to being a spy. It was in facing death that Hale won the hearts of Americans in all generations although the British tried their best to conceal his bravery so "the rebels should never know they had a man who could die with such firmness."

Nathan Hale's "one life to lose for my country" may have been added to the tale later but whatever the source, it seemed totally appropriate to this fine young American who accepted the greatest sacrifice with no trace of fear.

Nathan Hale's courage in the face of the enemy was matched time and again by the unsung heroes and heroines of Suffolk County during the seven years of military occupation by the British. Civil government had been dissolved and many good people were seized and placed in dreaded prison ships for no reason. "Rebel" property and stock was taken without compensation or wantonly destroyed by lawless bands of soldiers and "cowboys." The latter were outlaws who answered to no flag, but who plundered to satisfy their own greed. Fences, churches, buildings, wood lots were removed to meet the endless need for camp cooking fires, grains were taken, and innocent people forced under penalty of death to give up family heirlooms and possessions.

With no power to oppose the enemy openly and in spite of all the privation, people fought back. Individually and in small groups they harassed the enemy, spied, burned stores, and helped stage whale boat raids on the Sound. This was not without heavy sacrifice by farms and homes destroyed, families broken and lives lost. They acted knowing the consequences and they paid the price.

Peace was finally negotiated after Cornwallis surrendered and on November25, 1783, the last British left Long Island. If this brought a well deserved sense of joy, that emotion was soon dampened. By an act passed by the New York State legislature seven months later, Long Island was taxed 37,000 Pounds for "not having been in a condition to take an active part in the war against the enemy"!!!


This page was last updated August 28, 2000.