In 1775, within weeks of the violent clashes at Lexington and Concord, Patriots throughout the colonies established Committees of Observation to thwart Loyalists from assisting the anticipated British war effort. In the township of Brookhaven in Suffolk County on eastern Long Island, New York, the Committee of Observation was spearheaded by William Floyd, a wealthy landowner in the town of Mastic and future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Shortly after its founding, the Committee circulated Association papers—essentially, Patriot roll calls—that were drafted and signed by Long Island men who vowed to follow the demands of the Continental Congress and Provincial Conventions.
As a result of this intrusion into the private lives of Long Island civilians, the interrogations of proclaimed or suspected Loyalists often degraded into bouts of accusations, and acts of violence. Indeed, the Association conflicts of 1775 and 1776 drew harsh boundaries between neighbors who were forced to identify as Loyalist or Patriot. In most cases, these sociopolitical battle lines remained in place until 1783 and beyond.
In fear of mob violence, some wealthy colonists who later identified as Loyalists signed the Patriot Association in 1775. Some devout adherents to the Crown resisted; one such Loyalist was Richard Floyd IV of Mastic, an influential military officer and judge, and older first cousin of William Floyd. He and others were labelled Non-Associators, recusants, and “very bad” men by local rebels. Still, those who did not sign the circulated pledges were far fewer in number than those who did. Indeed, in 1775, only 236 men in Suffolk County identified as Non-Associators.Historian Maya Jasanoff asserts that these forceful oaths became a “crucial marker of difference” between Loyalists and Patriots, and historian Claude H. Van Tyne noted that “indifference and neutrality were no longer tenable positions” in communities caught up in the roll call fever.
It was not long until the Patriot-dominated Committee of Brookhaven obtained a political stranglehold over the township and won popular support. The Crown’s popularity in Suffolk had steadily crumbled throughout the 1770s for a number of reasons, but it was most directly due to violent incidents between redcoats and protestors in New England. William Floyd and other Patriots soon alerted the Continental Congress of their concern for the “conduct of sundry persons within the limits of this committee,” including Richard Floyd IV, his brother Benjamin Floyd, and the Anglican Rev. James Lyon. Lyon was accused by Patriots of having “from the beginning taken every method” in his “power to seduce the ignorant … and to counteract every measure that has been recommended” by the Continental Congress. The Brookhaven Committee fumed that the Loyalists “damn all Congresses and committees, wishing they were in hell.” Evidence for these early Loyalist efforts is nonexistent, but it can be inferred that these accused men, as influential members of society, voiced their political opinions to nosey inquirers, and certainly furnished or planned on accommodating the British army as they saw fit.
In mid-1776, as per the orders of the Continental Congress, some members of the Brookhaven Committee, including William Floyd, formed a new political body called the Brookhaven Committee of Safety. The Committee of Safety ran rampant with political abuses and used fear tactics, physical violence, and illegal judicial measures to intimidate and silence Loyalists. They effectively usurped the judicial authority of the Crown in Suffolk and supplanted it with a legislative body that followed the orders of the Continental Congress and Provincial Conventions. Due to a small local militia and a lack of imperial presence, William Floyd and other Committeemen easily interrogated Loyalists, regardless of their social status. They questioned confirmed Loyalists, along with those suspected of being royalist sympathizers, and those with familial connections to Loyalists. While violence was not publicly condoned by moneyed Patriots, less wealthy rebels took extreme measures to quiet dissenters, and Loyalists who refused the roll calls or interrogations were doing so at their own risk.
Initially, the Reverend Lyon proved to be the easiest target for rebels in the community. As the former rector of the Church of England’s Caroline Church in Setauket, he influenced at least some of the Suffolk populace—mostly Anglicans—and likely gained a following by blending religion and politics in his sermons. In 1775, Patriots labeled the reverend as “the mainspring of all the Tories on that part of Long Island.” David Wooster, an officer in the Continental army stationed in Suffolk County, accused Lyon of having “considerable money at interest in different hands among his neighbors,” which gave him “an ascendancy over them, and he has been indefatigable, both by writing and preaching, and in every other way, to gain proselytes,” and together with “his connexions with those in other parts of the country, who are inimical” to the Patriot cause, “will be able to do great mischief.” Accordingly, in August, rebels illegally seized the reverend and put him “under guard in Wooster’s Camp.”
Sometime in late 1775, Patriot aggression prompted spirited Loyalist Richard Miller to seek exile. Miller had served Brookhaven as town supervisor from 1763 to 1773 and was also a judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He was close friends with Richard Floyd IV, Benjamin Floyd, and Reverend Lyon. On January 5, 1776, Miller wrote from an undisclosed location to Benjamin Floyd, who had replaced him as town supervisor in 1774, that he longed “to see all my good friends once more,” but was aware of the Committee’s reward of twenty shillings “for any person to take me up and to bring me before their worships.” The defiant Miller remarked that the Committeemen “must first [find] out where I be before they can take me,” and was “fully of the opinion that if they was to know where I am they would not have courage enough … to attempt to take me nor neither do I think their force is sufficient.” Miller fumed at the thought of serving “three months Imprisonment,” or paying “a fine of three pounds” and signing “the association paper.” He looked forward to “better times and much better Liberty than Committee Liberty,” when Long Island would be “taken by our party Early in the Spring and kept as a place rendezvous for them and then undoubtedly we shall have liberty … to speak openly without fear of Congress or Committee.”
Richard Miller, however, was fearful that if he returned home before the British occupation, the Brookhaven Committee would not give him a proper hearing. Miller believed that the Committeemen adhered to a principle “which is first to hang a man and afterwards to indite him.” He sarcastically challenged Daniel Roe, a captain in the Patriot army, to pay him the “ten pounds” Roe had apparently offered for Miller’s capture, and the Loyalist would willingly return. Miller confided to Benjamin Floyd that he was certain “the poor Devil has not got so much money … if he had he would buy himself a new pair of Britches before the next Committee Meeting.” Sometime in 1776, Miller returned home but was captured somewhere in Brookhaven, and executed by men under Roe’s command.
In spite of the dangerous circumstances in Suffolk County, some Loyalists vehemently defied the illegal Patriot body. In mid-1776, the group charged Brookhaven resident Andrew Patchin with damning the Congress “with very abusive and vilifying Language,” and claimed that he insisted that citizens oppose the measures of Congress and Committeemen. Patchin “particularly Dam’d Colonel William Floyd,” for coming “home from the Congress on purpose to make Disturbance and the Divil would have him, for he would go to Hell for what he had done.” It is unclear what sort of punishment, if any, Patchin endured for his remarks.
Thomas Fanning, an influential Brookhaven official before the outbreak of the American Revolution and close friend of Richard Floyd IV, also earned an infamous reputation among the Committeemen in 1776. He was placed under great scrutiny when they found that he regularly corresponded with his Loyalist brother Edmund Fanning, who was Gov. William Tryon’s personal secretary. This familial connection made the wealthy Fanning, who had been in and out of court with many future Patriots throughout the 1760s, an easy and convenient target for the intrusive rebels. He was cited to appear before the Committee “with all the Letters” from his brother “received within three months,” which probably contained British intelligence. At the hearing, the acerbic Loyalist confessed that he had the letters, but not with him, and that he would rather have “his flesh all pul’d off with hot pincers” than show them to the Committeemen.
Fanning vigorously denied the legality of the Brookhaven Committee on a number of occasions, and hurled “abusive language … calculated to Dissuade and Discourage” all who might oppose the “Ministerial Troops.” He was also accused of stating that the colonies would “never have any Peace” until “five or six of them damned Scoundrels on the Congress” were hanged. Fanning denied the accuser’s phrasing but proudly stood by the sentiments. Abraham Woodhull charged him with stating that if he had “a hundred Lives, he would venture Ninety and Nine of them on the side of the King’s Forces, rather than one on the part of Congress.” Fanning happily confirmed this accusation and wildly challenged “any three members” of the Committee, “if they dare,” to a pistol duel. He was taken to New York for judicial punishment, but evidence is inconclusive as to his sentence.
Loyalists suffered intense persecution under the Brookhaven Committee of Safety in the months preceding British occupation. The tide turned in late summer 1776, after the Crown’s victory at the Battle of Long Island. The Committee of Safety disbanded, and William Floyd and other members fled elsewhere to fill Patriot coffers. In contrast, Richard Floyd IV, Thomas Fanning, and other Long Island Loyalists who remained readied themselves for the protection of Suffolk County against rebel forces. By September 1776, Loyalists began to express their devotion to the Crown in greater numbers, and hoped that the coming of the British to New York would ease civil war tensions and erase the harsh boundaries drawn among Loyalists and Patriots during the Association conflicts of 1775 and 1776.
I use the term “Loyalist” to identify those Americans who supported the Crown during the Revolutionary War, and the terms “Patriot” and “rebel” to denote those who favored separation from Great Britain. These labels, while perhaps considered derogatory by some historians, were nonetheless used extensively during this time and serve as ideological indicators.
Frederic Gregory Mather, The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon, 1913; reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1972), 1058-1060. See also “Copy of the Minutes of the Committee of Safety of the Town of Brookhaven, Moriches Patent and St. George’s Manor from April 16 1776 to June 25 1776 inclusive,” 1-15, East Hampton Public Library. The small number of Non-Associators speaks loudly to the devotion of Loyalists to the mother country, in spite of Patriot pressures.
Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties, With an Account of the Battle of Long Island and the British Prisons and Prison-ships at New York (New York: Leavitt & Company, 1849), 57-58. Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 28. Claude Halstead Van Tyne, The Loyalists in the American Revolution. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902; reprinted by Peter Smith, 1959), 76. While the Association conflict certainly exasperated tensions between the most determined of Loyalists, like Richard Floyd IV, and the most resolute of Patriots, like William Floyd, some islanders managed to delay in choosing Loyalist or Patriot ideologies, even after 1776. Some inhabitants, like Richard Floyd IV’s brother Benjamin Floyd, moved in both Loyalist and Patriot circles throughout the war. Indeed, shifting or readjusting political identities in Suffolk County, while a dangerous act, was commonplace in the Revolutionary War. For an in-depth look into the life of Richard Floyd IV, see Matthew M. Montelione, “Richard Floyd IV: Long Island Loyalist,” Long Island History Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2 (December 2015).
John G. Staudt, “Suffolk County,” in The Other New York, The American Revolution beyond New York City, 1763-1787, Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut, ed. (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005), 66. Thos. Helme to Congress, August 3, 1775, in Onderdonk, Revolutionary Incidents,20. Lyon was soon freed from his Patriot captors, and apparently resumed his duties as priest of Caroline Church under British occupation. That Lyon was swiftly condemned and kidnapped by Patriots is testament to his lingering social, political, and religious relevance in revolutionary Brookhaven.
“A Brookhaven Tory’s letter addressed to Major Benjamin Floyd at Brookhaven,” January 5, 1776, “Copied from the original letter owned by Mr. LeRoy Smith of East Setauket and filed in this book by Osborn Shaw, September, 1942,” 52, Floyd Papers, Town of Brookhaven, Historian’s Collection. For Miller’s accomplishments in Brookhaven, see Osborn Shaw, Records of the Town of Brookhaven, Book C, 1687-1789 (New York: The Derrydale Press, 1930).
“A Brookhaven Tory’s letter.” See also “Copy of the Minutes of the Committee of Safety of the Town of Brookhaven.” In May, the Committee recorded an order given to Capt. Selah Strong to apprehend Miller, and “give said Miller a hearing and receive Satisfaction if offered from him.” It appears that Miller’s sarcastic remarks about Roe in his letter operated against him. A Patriot account of Richard Miller’s death was reprinted in Onderdonk, Revolutionary Incidents, 54.
“Copy of the Minutes of the Committee of Safety of the Town of Brookhaven.” Copy of “1775 Tax List,” under Tax and Assessment Lists, 1665-1799, Town of Brookhaven, Historian’s Collection. Thomas Fanning’s tax rate in 1775 was £2, 18s, 8d, a relatively high amount compared to others on the list. See also Book of Common Pleas, 1760-1773, Office of the Suffolk County Clerk. Riverhead County Clerk’s Historical Documents.
“Copy of the Minutes of the Committee of Safety of the Town of Brookhaven.” As Thomas Fanning accompanied Richard Floyd IV on his trip to New York in autumn 1776, it seems unlikely that he was given serious punishment, but he could have briefly served jail time.