Long Island Historical Documents Collection: Initiatives and New Acquisitions
NEW: Library Research Guide (LibGuide) for George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring.
Articles about the George Washington letters: Chris Filstrup, Dean and Director of University Libraries; Stony Brook Independent; Times Beacon Record; Dan's Papers; and the June/July 2009 issue of Military History.
Washington Letters at Stony Brook University
Establishment of a Historical Documents Committee
Public Events and Exhibitions
Educational Outreach for Primary and Secondary Schools
Conservation and Preservation Initiatives
The mission of the Long Island Historical Documents Collection is to acquire, organize, preserve, and provide access to primary and secondary source material that document the history of Long Island from the earliest settlers through the present, with a strong emphasis on the period of the American Revolution through the War of 1812 (1764-1812).
Press Release from May 2006
Stony Brook University acquired a secret wartime letter authored by General George Washington to his chief spymaster at Christie's auction house in Manhattan on May 24, 2006. Written from "Head Quarters Westpoint" on Sept. 24, 1779, the missive to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the Revolutionary Army's spymaster, focuses on the activities of Robert Townsend, another secret agent, from Oyster Bay, Long Island. The letter, signed as Commander in Chief by Washington, refers to Townsend by his code name, Culper Jr., and refers to techniques used in the spying, including invisible ink.
Stony Brook's Special Collections, with a contribution from Henry Laufer (a former Mathematics professor at the University) and State funds provided by Assemblyman Steven Englebright, acquired the letter, which will be on display at the University. The location of the display will be announced in the next few months.
"This is a terrific acquisition," said Chris Filstrup, Dean and Director of Libraries at Stony Brook University. "It brings to Stony Brook University a famous letter documenting one of Long Island's many contributions to the American Revolution. The purchase is a wonderful example of private-public cooperation with funds coming from an individual donor, Henry Laufer, and from the State Legislature through the good work of Assemblyman Steven Englebright. We are already working with Sarah Abruzzi, Director of Raynham Hall Museum, and Frank Turano, President, Three Village Historical Society, to develop a long-term plan to mount exhibits of the letter in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and to sponsor programs on Long Island's contributions to the American Revolution."
According to the auction catalogue, the letter reveals "[Washington's] daring game of espionage, telling his spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge how to manage a key New York agent," referring to Townsend (1753-1838). Townsend was the central figure in the so-called "Culper ring" of New York and Long Island spies. In the letter, Washington launches into a lengthy discussion of the mechanics of espionage, suggesting methods for transmitting intelligence.
"It is not my opinion," Washington begins, "that Culper junr. should be advised to give up his present employment. I would imagine that with a little industry, he will be able to carry on his intelligence with greater security to himself and greater advantages to us, under cover of his usual business, than if he were to dedicate himself wholly to the giving of information. It may afford him opportunities of collecting intelligence, that he could not derive so well in any other manner. It prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself out of the line in his present employment. He may rest assured of every proper attention being paid to his services."
Townsend—whose true identity was concealed even from Washington (by the Commander-in-Chief's own preference)—owned a merchant's shop in New York City and had business dealings on Long Island, Christie's said. The auction house also said that Townsend also wrote for a local newspaper, giving him the cover to ask questions of British officers without arousing suspicion. Washington then goes on to suggest the best devices for receiving information.
Since "the scrutiny of the enemy...is chiefly directed against paper made up in the form of letters," Washington thought "Culper" should occasionally write his intelligence "on the blank leaves of a pamphlet; on the first second &c. pages of a common pocket book; on the blank leaves at such end of registers almanacks or any new publication or book of small value." Letters could also be used as long as they were sufficiently disguised using invisible ink, which Washington referred to as a "stain."
"He may write a familiar letter, on domestic affairs, or on some little matters of business to his friend at Sautuket or elsewhere, interlining with the stain, his secret intelligence or writing it on the opposite blank side of the letter." The letters containing intelligence matters could be coded by leaving off the date and place (then putting the date in invisible ink), "or fold them up in a particular manner, which may be concerted between the parties...and may be the signal of their being designed for me." Washington and Townsend each possessed the set of chemicals needed to swab the papers and bring the invisible ink back to light.
Washington thought highly of Townsend's reports, according to letters he later wrote to Tallmadge. Although the British captured a Washington letter to spy Abraham Woodhull that referred to "Culper," they never figured out his identity and Townsend took his secret with him to the grave in 1838. His double life remained a secret until the 20th century when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker matched the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington with the script contained in ledgers and other documents found in Oyster Bay, belonging to an obscure New York and Long Island merchant, who turned out to be Townsend.
Stony Brook University acquired a second secret wartime letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge at Christie's in Manhattan on Thursday, February 12, 2009. The letter was Lot 48 of Sale 2265: "Americana and Printed Manuscript." The letters document Long Island's critical role during the American Revolution and specifically the actions of the Culper Spy Ring, which was based in Setauket, New York. The acquisition was made possible with private funds from a private donor, Dr. Henry Laufer (a former professor of mathematics at Stony Brook University) and from the New York State Legislature through Assemblyman Steven Englebright.
WASHINGTON PROMISES TO REWARD HIS FAVORITE SPY: "I SHALL THINK MYSELF BOUND TO...PROCURE HIM A COMPENSATION..."
This is one of the most remarkable letters Washington wrote about the valuable American spy Robert Towensend--code named "Culper, Jr."--who operated within British-occupied New York. Washington shows his great regard for this agent by pledging generous support after the war. "It is impossible for me, circumstanced as matters are, to give a positive answer to C---- Junior's request, as I cannot, without knowing his views, tell what are his expectations. Of this, both you and he may rest assured, that should he continue Serviceable and faithful, and should the issue of our Affairs prove as favorable as we hope, I shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if public employ should be his aim, and if not, that I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct in the light it deserves, and procure him a compensation of another kind. I shall take the first opportunity of sending you a further sum of money for contingencies."
Washington placed great reliance on Culper, Jr. and found his information to be first rate. "His accounts are intelligent, clear and satisfactory," he told Tallmadge on February 5, 1780. "I rely upon his intelligence." We can piece together the kinds of information Culper, Jr. provided by examining the intelligence requests made by Washington. For example, there is a memorandum in Washington's papers dating from September 1780, "Instructions for Spies Going into New York" that reads in part: "Get into the City. There, in the best manner possible, learn the designs of the Enemy. Whether they mean to evacuate New York wholly or in part, or continue the Army there. A discovery of this kind will be best made by attending a little to the conduct of [leading Tory merchants] Delancey, Bayard, Matthews" (Fitzpatrick, 20:104). Washington particularly wanted any news on movements of British supplies and baggage. This is precisely the sort of intelligence that Culper, Jr./Townsend was so well placed to gather. As a prominent merchant he could roam the docks and wharves without suspicion, keeping an eye open for shipping activity, talking with British officers and well-connected Tories. He also had business interests on Long island which further broadened his contacts, and provided excuses for meeting with other members of his spy ring, such as Abraham Woodhull ("Culper, Sr."), and the couriers who passed his intelligence to Washington.
The reference in this letter to compensation or indeed public recognition is particularly intriguing, since Townsend never claimed any credit for his wartime exploits, and took his secrets with him to his grave in 1838. Washington, for security reasons, did not want to know Culper, Jr.'s identity during the war. Major Tallmadge (Washington's chief officer for espionage matters) was Townsend's handler, and all communications between Washington and Townsend went through Tallmadge. It was only in the 1930s that historian Morton Pennypacker uncovered Culper, Jr.'s true identity after comparing samples of Culper Jr.'s letters with the handwriting of a hitherto obscure merchant, Robert Townsend.
The timing of this letter is also significant: the day after Washington sent this letter he traveled to Hartford for a week's discussion with the Comte de Rochambeau about joint Franco-American actions. Washington returned to West Point on September 25, only to receive disastrous intelligence from a completely unexpected source: Benedict Arnold's treason and his attempt to surrender the garrison at West Point. For more information, please consult the finding aid for this document.
The acquisition of the Washington letter provided an opportunity for Special Collections and the Library to form partnerships with local educational organizations. A historical documents committee was established to develop cooperative programming and exhibitions with historical societies, museums, public libraries, and schools. The committee membership includes representatives from the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (Stony Brook), The Three Village Historical Society (Setauket), Raynham Hall Museum (Oyster Bay), and the Town of Brookhaven.
James Jay Autographed Signed Letter (1808). During the American Revolution, Jay supplied medicines to George Washington and developed an invisible ink used by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, his younger brother, John Jay, and members of the Culper Spy Ring.
Autographed document addressed to Isaac Scidmore and signed by (Ezra) L'Hommedieu (1734 - 1811), a delegate to New York in the Continental Congress from 1779-83 and 1788 (1757).
Autographed letter signed by George Clinton, Governor of New York to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State (1793).
Letter from Nathaniel Woodhull to Philip Schuyler (1776).
Document written by Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington's chief spymaster (1781).
Two page transcript of a 1693 legal description of land owned by William "Tangier" Smith, "Lord" of the Manor at St. George in Mastic; a one-page survey map of this same tract; and a statement testifying to the need for and veracity of this transcript by Robert Harpur, a Revolutionary War Patriot (1786).
An extensive collection of Long Island legal documents (1785-1836).
Land deeds and documents pertaining to Brookhaven and Long Island (ca. 1780-1929).
Contract for the sale of a Negro "Jack" in Southampton, Long Island (1798).
Library from a private estate containing early histories of Long Island.
Manuscript diaries of Edward Lewis Squires (1863-1864).
Two manuscripts most likely in the hand of Captain Oliver Soper during the weeks preceding the Battle of Long Island (1776).
Allen, Thomas B., and Cheryl Harness. George Washington, Spymaster: How America Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2004. [Special Collections E 312.66 .A46 2004]
Apuzzo, Robert, and Michael Cohn. The Endless Search for the HMS Hussar: New York's Legendary Treasure Shipwreck. New York: R & L Publishing, 2008. [Special Collections G 525 .A58 2008]
Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War. New York: Basic Books, 2008. [Special Collections E 281 .B87 2008]
Buell, Samuel, 1716-1798. The excellence and importance of the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel-preacher, plainly and seriously represented and enforced, and Christ preached to the Gentiles in obedience to the call of God: a sermon preached at East-Hampton, August 29, 1759, at the ordination of Mr. Samson Occum, a missionary among the Indians. New York: Printed by James Parker, and Company, 1761. [Special Collections BX 7233 .B77 E8 1761]
Buell, Samuel, 1716-1798. A faithful narrative of the remarkable revival of religion, in the congregation of Easthampton, on Long-island, in the year of Our Lord, 1764; with some reflections. Sag Harbor: Printed by Alden Spooner, 1808. [Special Collections BR560 .E25 B8 1808]
Maudiut, Israel. Remarks Upon General Howe's Account of His Proceedings on Long Island in the Extraordinary Gazette of Oct. 10, 1776 . London: [s.n.], 1778. [Special Collections E241 .L8 M4 1778]
Nichols, Walter. Essays and miscellaneous writings of Walter Nichols, of Hempstead, Long Island. New York: Printed by Charles N. Baldwin, 1826. [Special Collections PS2459 .N65 1826]
Phelps, M. William. Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008. [Special Collections E 280 .H2 P38 2008]
Reno, Linda Davis. The Maryland 400 in the Battle of Long Island, 1776. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2008. [Special Collections E 241 .L8 R46 2008]
Richardson, John. An account of the life of that ancient servant of Jesus Christ; John Richardson, giving a relation of many of his trials and exercises in his youth, and his services in the work of the ministry, in England, Ireland, America...(includes accounts of the author's visits to Long Island: pages 125, 224-225, 231). Philadelphia, printed and sold by Joseph Crukshank, in Market -street, between Second and Third-streets, 1783. [Special Collections BX7795.R4 A3 1783]
Whittemore, Henry. The Heroes of the American Revolution and Their Descendants: Battle of Long Island . [New York]: Heroes of the Revolution Pub. Co, 1897. [Special Collections X E241 .L8 W6 1897]
Maps and Atlases
Lewis, Samuel, Mathew Carey, and William Harrison. The State of New York, Compiled from the Best Authorities. Carey's General Atlas, 1796. (note: this was the first General Atlas published in the United States)
Sztabnik, Gerard. The Spies of the Revolution: A Historical Documentary. [S.l.]: Skyscape Productions, [2007?]. [Third Floor Stacks, Videotape Collection, DVD 2147]
The first public unveiling of the George Washington letter was held in October 2006 at the Wang Center and was attended by over 250 members of the local and university communities. Professional re-enactors greeted guests, read the letter, and fielded questions from the audience.
A scholarly conference titled From Captivity to Freedom: Long Island During the American Revolution was sponsored by Special Collections and the Long Island Historical Journal in October 2007. This event was attended by over 150 guests and featured lectures by: Edwin Burrows, Distinguished Professor, Brooklyn College; Natalie Naylor, Professor Emerita, Hofstra University; Alan Singer, Professor of Curriculum and Teaching, Hofstra University; John G. Staudt, Hofstra University; and Gerard Sztabnik, School of Visual Arts.
The conference proceedings for three of the presentations are accessible in the final print volume of the Long Island Historical Journal (Fall 2007/Spring 2008).
In May 2008, the George Washington letter made its first trip off-campus for a public viewing. The occasion was the designation of The Brewster House (c.1665) in Setauket being placed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. Caleb Brewster played an important role in the Long Island spy ring during the American Revolution. The letter has also been exhibited at the Educational Center of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization and at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay.
The Stony Brook University Libraries loan policy and loan agreement form can be obtained by contacting Kristen Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives.
A teachers guide and nine traveling museums containing replicas of historic artifacts relevant to the American Revolution on Long Island, including a facsimile of the George Washington letter, have been produced by the University Libraries in consultation with art historian and educator Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan. They have been donated to three local organizations: Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Three Village Historical Society, and Raynham Hall Museum and can be borrowed by schools for classroom use for a two week loan period. Contact each organization to obtain a brief application and to make a deposit. The 72 page guide of historical background information, maps, and suggested classroom activities can be adapted to the age and interests of the class and the amount of time available. Language Arts, Science, and Mathematics curriculum areas of learning are included. The goal is to educate primary and secondary school-aged children about the American Revolution on Long Island. The effectiveness of using both the guide and the hands-on artifacts will be evaluated with the three organizations. This will be done after the museums and guides have been used throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties. Once teachers are familiar with lessons about the Long Island spy ring, the complete teachers guide will be available to download to make this resource more widely accessible.
Many items in this collection have benefited from professional conservation and preservation treatments. Richie Feinberg, Preservation Librarian at Stony Brook University, has coordinated these efforts in consultation with Special Collections. Fragile maps and atlases have been de-acidified and encapsulated. Books have been placed is custom clamshell boxes and fragile pamphlets have been re-housed. The George Washington letter (1779) received extensive conservation treatment. An item-level assessment report by the Conservation Center for Art and Historical Artifacts in Philadelphia evaluated the condition of this letter as "fair to poor." The iron gall ink was compromising the paper and previous repair work needed to be corrected. The document was de-acidified, flattened, and placed a museum-quality permanent "package." This package has been framed and a custom exhibition case was constructed for display purposes. The case is located in the lobby of Special Collections.
Kristen J. Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives
Stony Brook University Libraries
Frank Melville, Jr. Memorial Library, Room E-2320
Stony Brook, NY 11794-3323
631-632-7119 (t) 631-632-1829 (f)