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Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Culper Spy Ring

Walking down the tranquil paths of the Frank Melville Park in Setauket, it's nearly impossible to imagine this gentle village rattled by a war, but if one was to step back in time to 1778, they would find the area and the mood abound to be quite different. During the Revolutionary War, Long Island was completely occupied by British forces after their victory at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Once established, they took over everything: moving into colonists' homes, stealing their livestock, picking their crops, and forcing everyone who didn't flee to swear allegiance to the crown. Tensions were high between the settlers and these uninvited guests-- the village of Setauket was no exception. When the British settled here, one of their first tasks was building a fort on the village green in front of the Presbyterian Church, tearing gravestones from the earth to use as fortifications, and gutting the inside of the church to stable their horses. Imagine how upsetting that must have been for the congregation and townspeople alike!

The village green overlooking the Presbyterian Church.

General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, was on the verge of desperation. He underestimated the British army, was viciously outnumbered, and knew the only way to defeat such an imposing enemy was to outwit them off the battlefield. And outwit them he did. With the collaboration of his chief of intelligence, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, they devised a plan of garnering intelligence through the use of local civilians rather than dropping soldiers behind enemy lines as they had done in the past. When asked to assemble a worthy team of spies, Tallmadge went back to his hometown of Setauket and asked childhood friend, Abraham Woodhull to assume the role of head spy on Long Island. Woodhull agreed, Washington approved, and gave him the alias of Samuel Culper, a spin off of Culpeper County in Virginia where Washington once surveyed as a young man.

The duties Woodhull would assume as chief of spies would entail not only gathering intelligence personally through his own travels to New York City and around Long Island, but to also manage and oversee the tasks of his associates, ensuring messages were delivered safely and securely. Some of his associates included Austin Roe, a Setauket tavern keeper who acted as courier traveling to and fro New York City with the guise of picking up supplies for his business. Intelligence was then given to Woodhull to "codeify." Some of the spy techniques utilized in the ring was assigning various numbers to different words and names, creating a coded vocabulary (For example, Washington was "711"). Invisible ink was also extremely effective and used to write secret messages between the lines of seemingly normal letters. When delivered to the recipient, they would apply a reagent on the paper where the "invisible" lines would be revealed. Once Woodhull codeified these messages accordingly, he would hand them off to Setauket-born Caleb Brewster, who sailed them back across the sound to Connecticut where he'd give them to another courier to deliver the message to Tallmadge, who would finally relay them back to Washington.

Site of Abraham Woodhull's home overlooking Little Bay, across the water from neighbor, Anna Smith Strong's property. 

Anna Smith Strong, a likely participant in the spy ring (and a lady no less!), is said to have accompanied Woodhull on some of his trips to New York City to gather intelligence and to make him look less conspicuous by posing as his wife. Legend has it, she would speak to Woodhull through codes from across the bay and hang assorted white handkerchiefs on a line to indicate where Brewster was to meet him, as well as a black petticoat to signal Brewster as he came across the sound into Setauket Harbor.

One of Woodhull and Brewster's meeting spots.

As time went on, and the spy ring grew stronger, the heat also began to grow on Abraham Woodhull. Fearful of being discovered, Woodhull employs the help of Oyster Bay native, Robert Townsend, to take over operations in New York City. Townsend (alias Samuel Culper Jr.), a seemingly unlikely proponent, operated a dry goods store in the city and authored a society column in a loyalist newspaper, making him a perfect addition to the spy ring. His job as a newspaper reporter made it almost effortless for him to gather information unnoticed, and his shop opened the door for Austin Roe to "buy goods" for his tavern, leaving with coded messages Townsend would stuff in his purchases.

Caleb Brewster's family home

The Culper Spy Ring was ingeniously crafted and highly responsible for turning the war around and leading to our ultimate victory. It was so highly classified that Washington himself, at his own request, did not even know the identity of a single one of his spies, nor was the spy ring even publicly discovered until the first half of the 20th century. One of its most pivotal achievements was the uncovering of plans the British had in 1780 to ambush the newly landed French troops in Newport. As quick as they could, Woodhull and Brewster rushed this news to Tallmadge who dashed it over to Washington at once. Washington responded swiftly and calculatingly, diverting the attention of the British by feigning an attack on New York City, throwing them off course and allowing the French to safely relocate. Without this intelligence, the French could have easily been wiped out, leaving us stranded, and more than likely losing us the war.

It's incredible to think that a handful of ordinary men (and women!) from a small Long Island village played such a huge role in the birth of our nation, and how very fitting, for it was indeed the common man who laid each stone of our foundation and has fought to preserve it ever since.


  1. Thank you very nice!! :-)
    Many Blessings Linnie

  2. Thank you, and I enjoyed the photos.

  3. i love history! have you two ever gone to gettysburg

  4. Wonderful history lesson! Thank you so much, Erin. xo

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  6. Erin, this re-read of your post jives perfectly with the TURN series. How awesome for you to live in and walk amidst the very countryside where such heroic history was made. Now, as I continue to watch the series, I'll imagine seeing you and Jacob in period attire among the townspeople!

    1. It's such an interesting town to live in, full of history. When I wrote this post I had no idea I would call this place home one day!

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  7. I just found your blog. I llloooovvveee it! This is awesome how you have pictures of this history that I can't see from Texas. Thanks sooo much!


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  9. as an ex Long Islander enjoyed the article

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