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 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.
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.
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.