Sunday, May 25, 2014

The view from the Woodhull family side of the bay, looking toward the Strong family homestead where messages were passed by hanging petticoats and handkerchiefs on a clothesline.

Anna Smith Strong's gravesite in Setauket, Long Island.
My husband is a devotee of history, a James Bond aficionado and has been known in our family as "Mr. Miniseries' ever since the dawn of that genre when 'Rich Man, Poor Man' first appeared on the small screen. So what to give him for his birthday?

This year, an alignment of these pursuits presented a unique opportunity for the perfect birthday present. Since March we've been watching the miniseries 'Turn' on AMC. The plot of this Revolutionary War drama, centers on the "Culper Spy Ring headed by a Long Island farmer Abraham Woodhull. The Culper Ring was organized by Setauket-born Major Benjamin Tallmadge under orders from General George Washington in 1778 when the British occupied New York City and Long Island at the height of the Revolutionary War. Woodhull, together with a group of childhood friends from Setauket formed The Culper Ring and turned the tide in America's fight for independence.

History? Spies? Miniseries? Long Island? I could make this happen!

So off we went this Memorial Day weekend to Setauket on the north shore of Long Island in Suffolk County. The Village of Setauket lies just west of Port Jefferson and this mostly residential area is formed by a series of 'necks' creating inner harbors, bays and ponds just off Long Island Sound. 
When we arrived we discovered that the publicity from the TV show has had some effect on the town. The local historical museum, the Three Village Historical Society ( has an exhibit (Spies!) featuring the Culper Ring and a bus tour scheduled for Saturday, June 21. We opted for a self drive tour that meandered through the historical area. 
Through the 'miracle' of the cell phone and a sponsorship by The Long Island North Shore Historic Society (LINSHS), we were able to pull over to the side of the road when we spotted specially designated signs. By dialing in, we were treated to interesting historical tidbits retelling the story of the spy ring and the townspeople who made it all happen. One memorable part of the tour was a walking tour of the private cemetery where the Strong and Smith families were buried. Anna Smith Strong, an alleged member of the spy ring and one of the main characters in the show, is buried here along with her husband. Strong family descendants still reside in the area. Abraham Woodhull is buried in the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery near the village green. Another church, The Caroline Episcopal Church, has a visible bullet hole from the Battle of Setauket in 1777. Truly, it gave new perspective to the TV show and certainly enhanced our knowledge of the role Long Island played in the War of Independence.
The beautiful Caroline Church with bullet
from the battle of Setauket, 1777. 
Of course, on the ride home, we had some questions. On the tour, we learned that Abraham and Anna drove into Manhattan in their pursuit of 'intelligence gathering.' We wondered how long it would have taken to make the trip in a horse and buggy. This distance is about 60 miles. Back then, a horse could travel about 20-30 miles a day so it might have taken two days and probably involved an overnight stay in a Long Island Inn.
More incredibly, we also learned that one of the local spies would row across the Long Island Sound from Setauket to Connecticut to pass on information to the American militia. Knowing the distance and the unpredictability of those waters, it was without question a heroic task.
On a weekend when we honor those who serve and have served our country, my husband and I were happy to be able to learn more about and acknowledge these early patriots, standing for a moment on the shores and lands where they once stood when our nation was fighting for its independence. 
It was an appropriate gift all around.
Happy Memorial Day to all! 

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