The 19th century artist William Sydney Mount came from Setauket, and would return back frequently to paint there, claiming it had the best light anywhere. The light is still there on Setauket Village Green, one of the best preserved greens to be found in New York.
The Setaukets refer to the villages of Setauket and East Setauket, the boundary of which is said to be instinctive rather than based on any actual formal delineation. Both villages are part of the township of Brookhaven, which really only makes things more confusing. And the Setaukets are also part of the Three Villages, along with neighboring Stony Brook and Old Field. Others include parts of Port Jefferson and Head of the Harbor in there as well.
But for our purposes today, Setauket refers to the village of Setauket, and in particular, the Setauket village green.
It’s only natural that the Setaukets would be a center for loyalist activity in the American Revolution. When Setauket was first settled, the pilgrims and early settlers which came with them had only been in this country for about 20 years, and were already starting to branch out towards the south. The Dutch, who actually had representatives on Manhattan island for close to a decade before the pilgrims landed, were pushing east across Long Island. With the Dutch entrenched in Manhattan, the English moved onto Long Island from the east and settled to the west. So the early inhabitants of the Setaukets would be firmly British.
The first white settlers arrived in Setauket in the middle of the seventeenth century. They came from New England which meant a strong religious life, and indeed, one of the first mentions of the town comes from a journal in 1647, noting that the writer had attended a Quaker meeting there.
By 1655, the town had built a crude church and hired the first minister, the Rev. Nathaniel Brewster who had three brothers already living around Setauket, and who had come for a visit and decided to stay. Brewster is believed to have been a grandson of the of Elder William Brewster who had distinguished himself as one of the original pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, MA with the Mayflower. Elder Brewster was college educated and took over as religious leader of the Plymouth colony until a proper pastor arrived nine years later, making him essentially the first preacher in the new world. His grandson Nathaniel was also believed to be the first native graduate of Harvard University, in their first graduating class in 1642.
According to legend, the good reverend preached his first sermon from a rock on the village green which remains. To show their appreciation, the town gave him land and a house, which unusual for the times, had glass windows.
At the time, Setauket was a settlement of about 55 people, and early documents note that many were honorable and useful but others were “degenerate suns of noble sires.” In addition to those who lived clustered near the village green, many church attendees came from the areas around Setauket, mostly settlers carving a life from the wilds of Long Island.
A more permanent structure was build to house the congregation in the early 1670s, 28 feet square. Named for the township in which Setauket lay, the church was named The First Presbyterian Church of Brookhaven, a name still in use. This building served Setauket for the next 40 years, and was expanded in 1681 to make room for a good suffissiant substantial pulpett, handsome panell fashon fitt for the 3 men to sett in with a outlett for the minister to stand to preach.
Reverend Brewster served Setauket until his death in 1690, and was followed by George Phillips in 1697. By then the job of pastor was a lucrative one, as the town granted him 300 acres of land which would be passed on to his heirs providing he stayed in the pulpit for life.
By the early 1700s, an Anglican mission was underway in Setauket. The Anglican Church was the Church of England, and many from New England were fleeing England and in particular, the Church of England. But as more and more settlers were coming directly from England, and New Amsterdam now New York and British, the Anglican Church began to grow.
Christ Church as it was known, was expanded in 1714, and then a new church consecrated in 1730. The church was recorded as being “a handsome country church built there with a steeple and bell which in all has cost members of the church and other benefactors upwards of 400 pounds.” Anglicans being a minority in Setauket, the congregation was originally quite small. Fiercely devoted to the crown, the church was given an altar cloth and communion service by Queen Wilhelmina Karoline of Brandenburg-Anspach, wife of George II of England. On the date of the consecration of the new church, it was rechristened Caroline Church in her honor.
The church grew rapidly, enough that a gallery was added, likely so that slaves could attend church and remain segregated from the whites.
In 1741 dissent broke out between the older church and the new Caroline church, over who had the rights to the lots of land reserved for the parsonage and parson’s use. As many of the old families had switched allegiance to the Caroline church, they felt those lots should be transferred along with their membership, which would go a long ways towards helping support financially their new parson. The older Presbyterian church disagreed, but in the end, the lots were split between the two. This disagreement held ominous undertones for the coming struggle over independence which would soon rage over Long Island, as well as all of the British colonies.
As many of us know, the American Revolution began on Lexington green in Massachusetts with the shot heard round the world. The Battle of Lexington and Concord turned a rout by the British into a rout by the colonists, and within a short time the British were forced to abandon Boston which was surrounded by the continentals under the command of General Washington.
The subsequent battles of the American Revolution are somewhat less known. Following the victory at Boston, Washington marched his army to Long Island, expecting the first British offensive to attempt to take New York City. Washington was correct, but was perhaps mistaken in how much support to expect from the colonists on Long Island. Washington was clobbered at the Battle of Long Island, managed to escape to Manhattan, then chased the length of the island and through Westchester county, finally finding a reprieve from the British onslaught in Pennsylvania. Washington managed to drive the British from New Jersey, and by 1777, the colonists essentially had a land blockade around New York City and Long Island by holding New Jersey, southern New York and southwest Connecticut, directly across Long Island Sound from Setauket and the north shore.
The British held Long Island for the next seven years, and though no major conflicts took place, by all accounts the occupation was brutal. British officers were housed in private homes, often against the will of the homeowner and without compensation. Horses and livestock were confiscated for the troops, as well as crops. Various forms of abuse were directed towards the colonists who supported the revolution, including rape and murder.
Additionally, the colonists themselves were split between loyalty to the crown and support for the cause. In the more urban areas, the tendency was to support the crown, while rural areas had a greater support for the revolution, and offered safe harbors for underground tactics and spy networks. This division in Long Island society led to brutal actions by both sides, but particularly by the loyalists towards those advocating freedom from British rule.
Setauket was no exception. Loyalists tended to attend the newer Caroline church, and as elsewhere, the British occupied the church which they didn’t use, in this case the First Presbyterian Church of Brookhaven. The militarization of the church was done under the command of Colonel Richard Hewlett, a notable loyalist from a loyalist family from Hempstead, Long Island. He had about 150 men under his command, mainly other loyalists from around Long Island. And they set about fortifying the Presbyterian Church.
The bones of ancestors were dug up and tossed around, tombstones from the burial ground were used to create defenses, and earthen breastworks were thrown up around the church, six foot tall and armed with swivel guns. The inside of the church was used to house soldiers and horses both, the pulpit destroyed and needless to say, services came to an end in the building. Even in the Caroline church, where services were still being held and now attended by numerous British soldiers, the pastor couldn’t help taking a jab at the occupation. Delivering the sermon one Sunday, Reverend James Lyons, a man considered to be “of wit and talent and basic virtues but with a sharp Hibernian tongue and temper,” lectured that “Here I am preaching the blessed Gospel to you and there are your damned Redcoats in my garden stealing my potatoes!”
In early 1777, the British launched a raid on Peekskill, New York in the Hudson Valley, destroying colonial supplies, and followed up with a raid on southern Connecticut, which was beaten back by the militia. In reprisal, the colonists launched a raid on Sag Harbor, further east on Long Island which was met with great success, and included taking many redcoat prisoners.
Flush with that success, about 500 troops crossed Long Island Sound in whaleboats from Connecticut and landed at Old Field, west of Setauket on the night of August 21. They brought with them a handful of small cannon, and upon landing in the early morning, marched on the British holed up in the Brookhaven church in Setauket. The leader of the expedition was General Samuel Holden Parsons, who had the support of the regiment of Colonel Samuel Blachley Webb.
Under a flag of truce, General Parsons instructed the loyalists to surrender, which was refused. The Colonials set up a line at Patriot’s Rock, now located just off of Setauket VIllage Green, and began firing on the church. The British returned fire, and for the next few hours both sides exchanged volleys, with neither side bringing an advantage to the action. Parsons, worried that the sound of battle would attract the British stationed along the shore to the conflict, made the decision to abandon the mission, taking with him a dozen horses and some blankets, captured from the British. Reports of casualties vary, though it’s certain they were quite low. Parsons reported one injured militia member, but others have claimed that four were killed and several wounded. British figures aren’t available, but the injured were taken to the Caroline Church on the other side of the green to be treated.
Thus ended the Battle of Setauket. In December, a second attempt was made on Setauket, but rough seas and the capture of some of the colonists by a British ship stopped it before it had a chance to begin. Several months later, the British abandoned the First Presbyterian Church of Brookhaven, leaving it a devastated shell. Smaller raids were carried out on the loyalists in Setauket, and the Benjamin Tallmadge spy ring was based in Setauket, but otherwise Long Island had little influence on the rest of the American Revolution.
The Presbyterian Church was repaired and services held once more. The building remained in use until it was struck by lightening and burned. A new church was built in 1812 which still stands.
The Caroline Church perhaps suffered more. The building itself suffered damage in the Battle of Setauket, and additional damage was created by colonist who targeted the church for its loyalist tendencies. Most damaging at all, was the loss of a great number of its congregation, who were forced to flee when the British surrendered in Yorktown, as those who had supported the crown were at best, faced with a loss of income and property, and quite possibly their lives as well. There are penalties for backing the wrong side.
Over time the Caroline Church was remodeled until it bore little resemblance to the original colonial building. In 1936, Ward Melville, shoe baron and CEO of Thom McAn shoes, who seems to have been trying to recreate his own colonial haven on Long Island paid to have the church restored to its former colonial appearance. The steeple is now fifteen feet lower than it was originally, and distorted by the effects of weather over nearly three centuries, but it’s otherwise a faithful restoration of the original building. It’s also the second oldest Episcopal church building in continuous use in America.
Today, Setauket Village Green is a quiet spot in the bustle of Long Island. Setauket itself seems in some ways little changed over the centuries, the light William Sydney Mount spoke of still filters through the trees, people still take advantage of the green on sunny afternoons, and the two churches still face each other, though the congregations are now at peace. The green is smaller now, with roads passing through it, and the trees have swallowed up Patriot’s Rock. But it still retains its charm and its history, and is one of the more tranquil battlefield’s of the Revolutionary War that you’re likely to find.