George Washington Letters
Documenting & Preserving the History of the Culper Spy Ring
Spies do exist in the archive! The Three Village Area including Stony Brook and Setauket was central to intelligence gathering activities during the American Revolution. Special Collections, a division of Stony Brook University Libraries (SBU Libraries) owns and curates two American Revolutionary War-era, Culper Spy Ring letters authored by George Washington. Significant to regional and national historical narratives, SBU's letters were composed in 1779 and 1780 and document espionage activities right here in our community.
In 1778, Washington was desperate for credible reports about British activities in New York City and on Long Island. Intelligence officer Major Benjamin Tallmadge turned to his trusted childhood friends and family in Setauket to aid with the efforts. Spycraft including codes, aliases, and the “sympathetic stain” (invisible ink) was used to conceal information and the identities of the ring’s members. Abraham Woodhull (alias, Samuel Culper Sr.) and Robert Townsend (alias, Samuel Culper Jr.) gathered intelligence in British occupied territories. Although Washington did not want to know the true identities of the spies, he was profoundly involved in giving directives and highly regarded reports from Townsend as evidenced in his letters to Tallmadge.
About the Culper Spy Ring
Code numbers are included in parentheses.
The Culper Spy Ring was assembled in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (alias, John Bolton/721) at the request of General George Washington (711) and operated on Long Island (728) and New York City (727) during the Revolutionary War. Codes and aliases were used to conceal the identities of the members.
Spies were managed by Benjamin Tallmadge. Members with code numbers and/or aliases were Robert Townsend (joined 1779), Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe, and Caleb Brewster. Associated members, sub-agents, associates and informants included Selah Strong, Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, James Rivington, Jonas Hawkins, Amos Underhill, Mary (Woodhull) Underhill (sister of Abraham Woodhull), Nathaniel Ruggles, Zachariah Hawkins, "John Cork," Hercules Mulligan, Cato (an African America slave and spy courier for Mulligan), Hugh Mulligan (brother of Hercules), Daniel Bissel, Lewis Costigin, Haym Salomon, Joshua Davis, and Captain Nathaniel Woodhull (second cousin, one removed of Abraham). Nathan Hale and Joshua Davis were hung for spying before the Culper Spy Ring was formed. Read and learn more about auxiliary spies here.
Robert Townsend (alias, Samuel Culper, Jr./723) and Abraham Woodhull (alias, Samuel Culper, Sr./722) gathered intelligence in British (72) occupied New York City (727). It was then passed to Austin Roe (724) for transport to Setauket (729), Long Island (728). Once in Setauket, the intelligence was carried across the sound by Caleb Brewster (725) to Major Tallmadge in Connecticut (735). Washington thought highly of Townsend's (723) reports, according to letters he later wrote to Tallmadge (721).
Although the British (72) captured a Washington (711) letter to spy Abraham Woodhull (722) that referred to "Culper," they never figured out his identity and Townsend (723) 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 sought to match the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington (711) 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. Pennypacker retained the services of graphologist Albert S. Osborn to make this determination.
This discovery by Pennypacker was first announced at a meeting of the New York State Historical Society on September 27, 1930, when he read a paper that he prepared on Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend (723) (source: The New York Times, September 28, 1930).
Long Island history is a main collecting focus of Special Collections. The acquisition of the Washington letters laid the foundation for the establishment of a Long Island Historical Documents Collection. The collection includes primary and secondary source material on 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). A fund was established in 2009 to support the acquisition of related documents and research collections.
Conservation & Preservation Measures
Both the 1779 and 1780 George Washington manuscript letters underwent conservation treatment by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). These measures were taken to restore the letters.
- Surface cleaning using a grated white vinyl eraser and a soft brush to remove dirt.
- Cleaning and deacidification baths (two). To reduce discoloration and acidity, conservators often bathe disbound leaves in deionized or filtered water, often with added calcium to help remove acids. The bathwater turns a yellow color in the first bath and each successive bath is cleaner. When the water remains clear, the acidic degradation products have been removed from the paper.
- Removal of previous tape repairs during baths.
- Drying and flattening document.
- Mending and filling holes with acrylic mulberry tissue and wheat starch paste.
- Humidification in a gore-tex package and flattening under moderate pressure.
A housing for each letter needed to be fabricated for stability and for exhibition purposes. A unique offering at CCAHA is the sealed package. In it, the letter, mat board, and glazing (acrylic) are joined together as a single unit and sealed along the edges. The matted, encapsulated letter was inserted into a custom fabricated package consisting of UV filtering acrylic glazing and Marvelseal (a nylon, foil, polyethelene laminate) sealing the sides of the package. The package was designed to protect the letter from particulate matter and help mitigate environmental changes.
Browse the research guide for George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring. It has detailed information about the university's two Washington letters and provides pathways to research materials on the spy ring.
Outreach & Engagement
The department collaborates and engages with the university and external communities through a wide array of activities. Collaborators include the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), and Raynham Hall Museum. Special Collections participates in Culper Spy Day, an annual day-long event with activities hosted by cultural insitutions, museums, libraries, restaurants, and more.
Here is a sampling of programming:
- March 2020: "Spies in the Archive" lecture at the Long Island Maritime Museum
- September 2019: Culper Spy Day Open House and Tours
- September 2019: CommUniversity Day Open House
- January 2019: in collaboration with the Three Village Historical Society, SBU’s Washington’s letters were integrated into the society's K-12 teaching curriculum and docent handbook.
- December 2018: the SBU History Club visited Special Collections to learn about the collections, which included a discussion and viewing of the letters.
- September 2018: Special Collections hosted two Q & A sessions and tours as part of the regional event Culper Spy Day (hosted annually since 2016). The viewing was featured inNewsday.
- September 2018: letters featured at SBU’s CommUniversity event.
- August 2018: the letters were featured in the Travel Channel’s popular series “Mysteries at the Museum.”
- July 2018: the 1779 Washington letter made a special trip off campus to the Neighborhood House in Setauket. Kristen Nyitray gave a lecture to a special summer, sold out event, part of the Three Village Historical Society's series.
- April 2018: Kristen Nyitray and Chris Filstrup discussed the acquisition and significance of the letters on the podcast series Long Island History Project.
- September 2017: letters featured at SBU’s CommUniversity event.
- September 2017: Special Collections hosted an open house and viewing of the letters. The department was highlighted by local media.
- Spring 2017: article published by Nyitray, Kristen J, and Sally Stieglitz. “Spies in the Archive: Acquiring Revolutionary War Spy Letters Through Community Engagement.” RBM: a Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage. 18.1 (2017): 44-58.
- Fall 2016: article published by Stieglitz, Sally, and Kristen J. Nyitray. “Using Oral History to Assess Community Impact: a Conversation with Beverly C. Tyler, Historian, Three Village Historical Society.” Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching, and Learning. 2.2 (2017): 115-122.
- News 12 featured the letters on the program "Long Island's Hidden Past."
- the department is a location on the Culper Spy Ring audio tour (Long Island North Shore Heritage Area);
- a facsimile of the 1779 letter is featured at the TVHS's "Spies" exhibition in Setauket, New York.
- the original 1779 letter made a special trip off-campus and was viewed by over 500 children and parents at Setauket Elementary School. The event was covered by News 12 Long Island, The Village Times Herald, and the Three Village Patch.
- the Military Channel program "Secrets of the Arsenal" highlighted the letters.
- the 1779 letter was on view at the historical landmarking event for the Brewster House in Setauket, New York (WMHO).
- the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages interviewed Kristen Nyitray about the conservation of the letters for the exhibition "Long Island at War."
- a scholarly conference on Long Island during the American Revolution was held at Stony Brook University.
- a conference on patriots during the American Revolution was held at Stony Brook University in collaboration with the TVHS.
- the letters were displayed at the community Christmas tree lighting in Stony Brook Village (WMHO).
- facsimiles were presented to New York State Assemblyman and SBU alum Carl Heastie at Patriot's Rock in Setauket, New York.
- a lecture about the letters was given at the inaugural CommUniversity Day at Stony Brook University.
- unveiling of the 1779 letter held in 2006 at the Charles B. Wang Center where hundreds of visitors viewed it and interacted with historical reenactors. Read more...
With the acquisition of the two Washington letters, Special Collections carved its niche as an archive of record for primary source material about the Culper Spy Ring. Public recognition for leading engagement and educational activities has been bestowed on the department and the university.
In 2020, Three Village Historical Society awareded the Kate Wheeler Strong Award to Special Collections and University Archives in recognition of significant contributions toward the fostering of interest in local history and a fuller appreciation of the rich historical and cultural heritage of this community.
In December 2009, Special Collections and University Archives received from the New York Board of Regents and New York State Archives the Annual Archives Award for Program Excellence in a Historical Records Repository for "its outstanding archival program that contributes significantly to understanding the region’s history.” The university was lauded for its “well managed archives” and “its efforts to provide access to the country’s documentary heritage."
The Three Village Historical Society presented the Kate Wheeler Strong Award in 2007 to Assemblyman Steven Englebright, Dr. and Mrs. Henry Laufer, and Stony Brook University “for their unique efforts surrounding the acquisition of the 1779 George Washington Culper Spy letter.”