Maintaining Normalcy in British-Occupied Brookhaven, Eastern Long Island, New York


July 18, 2018
by Matthew M. Montelione Also by this Author


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In August 1776, the Crown’s disciplined forces easily displaced the unprepared Continental resistance in the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn. It was a decisive British victory, and the surviving Patriots retreated westward across the East River and onto York Island. By September, the British army firmly occupied Long Island and established martial rule there. Thousands of redcoats swarmed across the island and tried to calm the storm of revolution. The British Empire, however, did not bring peace to 1776 Long Island. The sudden presence of British troops alarmed citizens and interrupted their daily lives. Soldiers relied on Long Islanders for provisions and housing for an indefinite amount of time. In reality, few were truly safe, and violence of all kinds was commonplace. People from all walks of life were robbed, abused, kidnapped, and sometimes murdered by marauders who took advantage of wartime situations. Yet, despite all of this doom and gloom, some Long Islanders managed to persist in their daily life activities under British occupation.[1]

Sending children away for schooling was one such activity, a practice by elite families in Mastic in the township of Brookhaven in Suffolk County on eastern Long Island, regardless of political viewpoints. On the Patriot side, in late April 1778, Ruth Smith of Mastic, wife of Patriot judge William Smith, sent their “two little boys” to “boat a fort night Down” to Southampton to stay at their “Uncle Coopers” to “goo to School.”[2] In 1779, ardent Mastic Loyalist Col. Richard Floyd IV’s young son David Richard Floyd was attending country school in Hempstead, Queens County. On April 15, Richard IV paid a Mr. Cutting £5, 10s – £5 for “Six Months Schooling his Son,” and 10s for “Wood for the School Room.” Floyd’s insistence on sending his son to school in spite of wartime circumstances is testament to the father’s belief that reading and writing were essential skills for a well-rounded gentleman.[3]

Manor of St. George (Fort St. George under the British) in Mastic, New York. (Author)

Ruth Smith remained with her children at her home, called the Manor of St. George, in Mastic after her husband had fled to upstate New York at the onset of war. At least in April 1778, the Crown allowed her to stay there to provide sustenance for her and her children, as well as for the many British soldiers in the region. Ruth might not have been able to make it through the harsh times if not for her connection to wealthy Loyalist Thomas Fanning. To Ruth, Thomas was not the scathing Tory mouthing off to the Brookhaven Committee of Safety in 1776. Rather, he was the generous grandfather of her own grandson. Lydia Fanning, teenaged daughter of Thomas, had married William and Ruth Smith’s son John Smith in October 1776. Due to the political differences between the two families, it is possible that the union of John and Lydia was a love match, or perhaps the marriage had been arranged prior to the outbreak of war. Unfortunately, in the spring of 1777, Lydia died at seventeen years old from unknown causes. It seems that both families emotionally suffered from this loss, and their familial bonds persisted in spite of Lydia’s death and the tensions between Thomas Fanning and the absent William Smith.[4]

On April 24, 1778, Ruth Smith wrote to her exiled husband that she believed their family “shall make out to live” if the British no longer disturbed them for goods, and with “the help and Advice of some good friends” like Fanning. Fanning was “so kinde as to let us have a half a dozen” milch cows to prepare butter which her family yearned “to make use of.” Patriot spy William Booth was another such friend, who secured for Ruth and her family use of “a yoke of too oxen,” originally acquired for the British, “to rase our Bread.” Thomas Fanning’s charity demonstrates that generous enemies existed at some level in Suffolk County among Loyalist and Patriot families under occupation. However, Fanning’s good graces probably did not (or perhaps could not, due to British mandate), extend to John Smith. Ruth warned her husband that the redcoats would do “anything” to get to their young son, as “they are enragd.” This says something interesting about familial bonds in relation to gender, but that is a subject for another study.[5]

Patriot wives and their children were not the only Islanders to receive special treatment by Loyalists and the British under occupation. Unkechaugs in Mastic persisted in the English economic system by mostly staying within their borders, keeping to white religious practices, and working on the same estates, albeit under different ownership, as they had been working on before 1776. Unkechaug historian John Strong concluded that the British, “who needed the food, wood, hay, and other supplies from the farms, must have relied on the local laborers,” including slaves, and that the Unkechaugs “probably experienced little interruption in their daily routine.” This routine included exchanging labor for food and English goods. Ruth Smith, writing to her husband in April, was happy that she got “the Servants at home agane” and found that “they have behaved” themselves “very well.” She also lamented at the death of “Poor George who Died last saterday.” Most likely, these servants were of Unkechaug origin.[6]

As the official religion of Great Britain, Anglicanism endured in Brookhaven. On June 10, 1776, just over two months before the Battle of Long Island, the Brookhaven Committee appointed a team “to Mark out” a piece of ground “Round the Church of England in this Town of Brookhaven to begin” adjoining “on the North Side to the home Land of Dr Gilbert Smith and from thence to extend” southerly, easterly, and westerly, so far as they thought convenient “to be fenced in to be and Remain forever for the use of a Burying yard.”[7] Caroline Church was spared destruction under British occupation, and many Loyalists and Crown troops worshipped there throughout the war. In the hot summer of 1777, the church also reportedly served as a hospital for the wounded after Patriots bombarded the fortified Presbyterian meetinghouse “across the Green” from Caroline Church. Historians disagree on whether or not there was an official minister practicing at Caroline Church under occupation, but James Lyon certainly resumed his former duties as minister in Setauket, preaching to British and Loyalist churchgoers. Due to the harsh realities of military occupation, masses did not go smoothly all of the time. Apparently, some British regulars stationed on eastern Long Island forsook piousness in favor of thievery. It is rumored that, while giving a sermon to the royal officers, Lyon fumed, “Here am I preaching the blessed Gospel to you and there are your damned Redcoats in my garden stealing my potatoes!” The reverend must have also administered sacraments from time to time. It is likely that Lyon’s time at Caroline Church came to an end sometime around 1782.[8]

In October 1782, Thomas Lambert Moore, a graduate of Kings College, began to hold regular services at Caroline Church. Despite the installment of a visiting rector, Caroline Church was underfunded and in desperate need of repairs. In January 1783, Moore oversaw a lottery “For the benefit” of “Caroline Church . . . 930 prizes, 2070 blanks, being 3000 tickets at $4 each, making $12,000, with a deduction of 15 per cent.” Lotteries were a form of entertainment for wealthy men, and had taken place in the region for generations. The lottery for Caroline Church, surprisingly orchestrated by Brookhaven Patriots like Selah Strong, was “purely for the assistance of an infant community, not able to assist themselves, and for the promotion of the Christian religion.”[9]

The Brookhaven Committee, a group of landed and influential residents, continued operations throughout the conflict, being comprised of local Loyalists, Patriots, and those playing both sides. Traditionally, Committeemen gained exclusive rights to extensive properties, issued fines to law-breaking inhabitants, and tried to control all facets of maritime commerce in the area. During the war, the group levied taxes on all residents, regardless of their political affiliations. Committeemen drafted and approved at least six warrants “to the Assessors and Collector to Assess and Collect” a town rate of one to two hundred pounds, “on the Estates of the Inhabitants Freeholders” and residents of Brookhaven. A county rate exists for 1778, when Richard Floyd IV apparently dished out £2, 0s, 7d in taxes, one of the highest in the county. Still, his rate was not higher than William Smith’s, who in exile was expected to pay £3, 6s, 8d for his Mastic property, or William Floyd’s, living in exile in Connecticut, who was taxed £2, 17s, 6d. Committeemen collected taxes and fees from residents for such purposes as caring for the poor and constructing roads and fences, among other ventures.[10]

These acts that occurred in revolutionary Suffolk County demonstrate that certain familial, communal, economic, and political bonds persisted under British occupation. Still, locals on both sides of the political fence, who once in a while provided assistance to their apparent rivals, could hardly rectify the post-war situation for hardline Long Island Loyalists like Richard Floyd IV, Dr. George Muirson, and Parker Wickham. By 1783, the New York Act of Attainder, passed by the Continental New York Legislature in October 1779, was enforced by the victorious rebels. The controversial act stripped the aforementioned men of their land titles and all other “real and personal” estate, and branded them as absolute “enemies to this State.” Their fates greatly contrasted to those who were shown generosity during and after the war years, and shed light on the contingencies of circumstance that varied from person to person on revolutionary Long Island.[11]


[1]Judith L. Van Buskirk, Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 21. 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).

[2]Ruth Smith to William Smith, April 24, 1778. Microfilm Collection of the Institute for Colonial Studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook, reel HK, Stony Brook, NY: The Institute, 1965?. Microfilm, Special Collections, Stony Brook University. All spellings from this source are per the original.

[3]Receipt for schooling of Richard IV’s son David Richard in Hempstead. April 15, 1779, William Floyd Estate Archives, FIIS 9664-66, Box 1, Folder 21. 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).

[4]The Tangier Smith Family: Descendants of Colonel William Smith of the Manor of St. George, Long Island, New York (The Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America, Publication No. 34, 1978), 17. For more information on Thomas Fanning, see Matthew M. Montelione, “Patriots Against Loyalists on Eastern Long Island, 1775-1776,” Journal of the American Revolution (May 21 2018).

[5]Ruth Smith to William Smith, April 24, 1778. For an in-depth study of generous enemies in the American Revolution, see Judith L. Van Buskirk, Generous Enemies.

[6]John A. Strong, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island: A History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011), 148. Ruth Smith to William Smith, April 24, 1778.

[7]Osborn Shaw, Records of the Town of Brookhaven, Book C, 1687-1789 (New York: The Derrydale Press, 1930), 381.

[8]Edward P. Buffet, A History of Caroline Church, prepared for the two hundredth anniversary of its organization (Setauket, NY: Caroline Church, 1923), 19-24.

[9]Buffet, A History of Caroline Church, 19-24.

[10]County rate for 1778, Microfilm Collection of the Institute for Colonial Studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook, reel HK, Stony Brook, NY: The Institute, 1965?. Microfilm, Special Collections, Stony Brook University. Due to a lack of evidence, it is impossible to determine if the Brookhaven Committee was legally sanctioned under British military law. Some Committeemen had to have kept the Crown abreast regarding at least some of its business.

[11]The New York Act of Attainder, or Confiscation Act, digital collection of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. March 2014).

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