Long Island, 1776

When Huntington patriots learned that the Declaration of Independence had been approved in the summer of 1776, they read it aloud, marched in impromptu parades and hanged an effigy of King George III before burning it to ashes.

That evening, still in a celebratory mood, the local revolutionary committee drank 13 patriotic toasts -- one for each colony.

This happened not on July 2, when delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved the declaration, or July 4, when they announced their action to the public.

It was not until July 22, the New York Journal reported, that Huntington, a sleepy agrarian community that strongly favored creation of a new nation, received word of the momentous break with England.

When America chose to go its separate way 232 years ago, Long Island was still somewhat isolated, despite its proximity to New York City, the economic engine of the 13 colonies. Its first newspaper would not be printed until 1791, and its first post office would not open until 1793. By the standards of the Internet age, news spread slowly.

That doesn't mean the Island was a backwater. By the mid-18th century it had a thriving agricultural economy, serving as the granary and producer of livestock and timber for New York City. With merchants moving between Long Island and New York, historians say the Island's residents were attuned to the electrifying developments taking place all around them.

Simpler, but tense, times

In July 1776, an uneasy calm had settled on the region. It fell between wintertime raids to Long Island by patriot troops against Loyalists and, in August, the Battle of Long Island. The 30,000 residents of Brooklyn, Queens (which included modern-day Nassau) and Suffolk went about their business. They were farmers, mostly, but also fishermen, sailors, millers and blacksmiths.

The Town of Huntington, which incorporated what is now Babylon, had a population of 700. Oyster Bay hamlet, founded in 1653, had a population of less than 1,000 and a few stores. "The majority of the area was pretty much agricultural," said Oyster Bay Town historian John Hammond. But the Island had progressed beyond the early colonial subsistence level, and farmers sent their surplus to New York and beyond. Fishermen also sent their catch to the city.

Smugglers worked out of North Shore harbors to avoid English import duties, and Southold, Setauket and Oyster Bay benefited from shipbuilding.

The early summer lull was short-lived. The hoopla over the Declaration was followed on Aug. 27 by the disastrous Battle of Long Island, where George Washington's 9,500 troops were routed in Brooklyn. Many militia units from Long Island, including the 300-man regiment under Col. Josiah Smith of Moriches and 100 men of the Kings and Queens County regiment under Col. Jeronimus Remsen of Newtown fought for Washington. Other units mustered in key local Island sites -- the end of the North Fork and Sag Harbor -- to keep British foragers and occupying troops at bay.

Divided loyalties

After the Continentals fled to Manhattan, the Redcoats occupied Long Island until the end of the war in 1783, forcing many patriots to flee to Connecticut. "It was very much neighbor against neighbor," said Hammond.

Patriotic fervor intensified from west to east. Historians say Queens and what is now southwestern Nassau had the highest percentage of residents who saw no reason to split with the Crown in all the colonies. Suffolk strongly supported independence.

"There was an awful lot of agitation for the revolutionary cause here," said Hammond, who noted that patriots organized as the Sons of Liberty met in Oyster Bay as early as 1765. But "there were some very mixed feelings" by 1775, with property owners alternatively voting to support and oppose independence.

Southern Hempstead, like the rest of southwestern Queens, had strong economic and religious ties to England. In 1775, when Hempstead Loyalists voted to support George III, patriots in the north broke away in September to form the Town of North Hempstead.

Angered by Queens' refusal to support the cause, the Continental Congress in early 1776 ordered Col. Nathaniel Heard to take 500 New Jersey militia and Continental regulars to Long Island to disarm Loyalists. They moved through Jamaica, Hempstead, Jericho and Oyster Bay, forcing 500 Tories to sign loyalty oaths. They arrested 19 Loyalist leaders and forced others to hide in swamps. The patriots collected weapons, burned houses and killed livestock.

Patriotic Suffolk

There was no need for Congress to worry about the sentiment in Suffolk. Huntington Town historian Robert Hughes said that, while the delegates were deliberating in Philadelphia, the Huntington militia "was drilling and training on the village green in anticipation of some sort of a conflict. The Continental Congress had sent gunpowder to Huntington, which was stored at the Arsenal."

While most of the growing of grain and raising of cattle, sheep and hogs was done on small farms on Long Island, there also were several large manors, or plantations, including Lloyd Neck in Huntington and Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.

On Shelter Island in 1776, were 21 households, some with slaves. Four property owners were independence-advocating delegates to the New York Provincial Congress, including Thomas Dering, owner of Sylvester Manor. He was the first Shelter Island resident to sign a document supporting independence in 1775. He fled to Connecticut to avoid British occupation.

Mac Griswold, director of archival research for the Sylvester Manor Project, estimates that up to 15 slaves lived on the 600-acre estate. "They would have been growing livestock, wheat, timber, making cheese for sale in New York and other places, maybe some brick, cider because there were plenty of orchards," she said.

Reflecting the divided passions Islandwide, Huntington's wealthy Lloyd clan was split over independence. Joseph Lloyd, who had just completed his manor house that still stands, was a patriot who fled to Connecticut. He became so despondent over the war and his fortunes that he committed suicide.

'Three cheers' for freedom

But for many Long Islanders in July 1776, the expected hardships of war did little to quell the euphoria of independence.

William Yarrington of Coram, a militia captain, kept a diary from 1759 to 1776 that is owned by the New-York Historical Society. Stationed in Oysterponds, now Orient, at the end of the North Fork, he wrote on July 15, 1776: "This day the declaration of Congress was read of independency and three cheers given. Then the small arms was fired. Then the cannon was fired too."

by Bill Bleyer, Newsday, Sunday, July 6, 2008


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