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A Long Island victory tour

Mill owner Hendrick Onderdonk speaks with George Washington

Mill owner Hendrick Onderdonk speaks with George Washington in Roslyn in a 1937 mural by Robert Herbert Gaston. Photo Credit: Roslyn Public Schools

George Washington bore disturbing memories of the last time he had been on Long Island. Fourteen years earlier his outmanned Patriot forces had taken a terrible pounding from the British at Brooklyn Heights. With the battle lost he had sneaked away from the Brooklyn shores under the protection of a dense fog, willing to wait until another day to win the war.

Now it was April 20, 1790, and the 58-year-old retired general returned to Long Island as the first president of the new nation. Washington was a traveling man, and he liked to meet the people and see how they worked the land.

It was an exhilarating time, for Washington and for the people. A new Constitution had taken the disparate and prickly notions of 13 confederated states and fashioned a unified America, a land that was still mapping its destiny. The idea of newness was everywhere: America was a wilderness, and never again would so many things be done for the first time.

Washington sensed this in those days before he returned to Long Island. "I walk on untrodden ground,'' he had written to historian Catherine Macaulay Graham in January, not without an acute sense of his own place in history. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.''

The Long Island that Washington would visit in 1790 was largely a place of serenity and quiet. "A traveller is forcibly struck with a sense of stillness, and sequestration from the world,'' Yale College president Timothy Dwight would write a few years later after a five-day visit to the Island. "Every place seems to him a retirement.''

There were no newspapers yet on the Island, so news of the outside world was slow in coming. Benjamin Franklin had died on April 17, but few Long Islanders knew it. The more educated knew that the French had had their own revolution the previous summer, but keeping up to date was difficult. Although many people made their living along the coastal waters, Long Island was primarily a land of farms. Some of them were large and manorial, but more common were small family operations that often used indentured servants and slaves to keep things going. Crops and livestock were the main products, along with the abundant supplies of wood for both fuel and lumber that were shipped to New York via the Sound. Insular quiet was the natural order of things.

The previous fall, Washington had spent a month visiting New England. As a war hero and as the nation's No. 1 citizen, he found his travels were usually the occasion for pageantry, celebrations, fireworks, endless speeches and official ceremonies.

This trip would be different. From all available records, Washington's tour of Long Island, from April 20 to April 24, was as quiet as the countryside through which he traveled. Although a number of people came out to see him pass by, the trip was informal and low-keyed. He had with him his servants, and he traveled in an elegant, cream-colored coach, drawn by four magnificent gray horses. It carried him on a looping, 165-mile journey into south Brooklyn, to Jamaica, and along the South Shore to Patchogue. He then went north to Setauket, and turned back along the North Shore, stopping in Smithtown, Huntington, Oyster Bay, Roslyn and Flushing. He was back home in New York before sundown on Saturday the 24th of April.

"About 8 Oclock having previously sent over my servants, horses and carriage I crossed to Brooklyn and proceeded to Flat Bush . . . '' So begins Washington's diary entry for the morning of April 20, 1790. He was passing through the territory where he had suffered perhaps his most ignominious military defeat, the Battle of Long Island, on Aug. 27, 1776.

In keeping with his taciturn character, the diary reveals little about what Washington felt, who he saw and what he talked about during his trip. But he gives a fair amount of detail about the look of the land and its agricultural potential.

His first stop was at New Utrecht, where he had a meal at the house of "Mr. Barre'':

He told me that their average crop of oats did not exceed 15 bushls. to the acre but of Indian corn they commonly made from 25 to 30 and often more bushels to the acre but this was the effect of dung from New York (about 10 cart load to the acre) -- that of wheat they sometimes got 30 bushels and often more of rye.

Washington commented constantly about the quality of the soil, which he found generally poor. The use of fertilizer was only beginning to take hold, and the western farms in Queens and Kings Counties were making the best use of horse manure from the nearby streets of New York City. Although Long Island was a land of farmers, few were aware of the new methods of crop rotation and fertilization that experimenters were developing. Old agricultural practices were ruining the land.

"The yields were not large, because an impoverished soil, inherited from colonial times, was scratched with shallow and unlevel furrows and constantly drained by an exploitative crop rotation,'' Ralph Henry Gabriel once wrote of that earlier period. Changes were on the way, however, but not in Washington's lifetime. It was more than change: A revolution in agriculture -- both in tools and in methods -- was on the way, and it would come to Long Island in the first half of the 18th Century.

Having left Brooklyn and passed through the hills to the plains of southern Brooklyn, Washington noted "rich black loam'' in the productive farmland around Gravesend. But later he passed by the Hempstead Plains, barren of trees. "The soil of this plain is said to be thin and cold and of course not productive, even in grass.'' Farther out on the Island he noted unproductive, sandy soil, scrubby oak trees and "ill thriven pines.'' Only on his return along the North Shore did he note an improvement in the soils, especially around Oyster Bay.

This was sparsely settled country, and not without bumps and bounces.

"In many localities there were no roads, and where these did exist they were poor and frequently impassable; bridges were almost unknown,'' reads the introduction to a 1908 government reprinting of the New York State part of the 1790 federal census. "Transportation was entirely by horseback, stage or private coach.''

Although the chief "road'' on Long Island at this time was the Sound -- the ocean to the south was usable, but dangerous -- the beginnings of a real road system had been made. Already developed -- though primitive and sometimes impassable in winter snow and mud -- were South Country Road (now basically Route 27A), North Country Road (Route 25A) and Middle Country Road.

Washington spent April 20 journeying to Jamaica, where he spent the night at William Warne's tavern, "a pretty good and decent house.'' He left at 8 the next morning, stopping in Hempstead to water and feed his horses. About 4 p.m. he had dinner at Zebulon Ketcham's house in what is now Copiague.

Over the years there has been much discussion of why Washington chose to make the trip to Long Island, and why he chose the stops he did. Part of the answer comes from his diary entry for Oct. 5, 1789, just before he made a one-month tour of New England:

Had conversation with Colo. [Alexander] Hamilton on the propriety of my makg. a tour through the Eastern states during the recess of Congress to acquire knowledge of the face of the country the growth and agriculture there of and the temper and disposition of the inhabitants towards the new government ...

When on the road, Washington liked to chat with the people and hold counsel with the notables, always keeping a keen eye out for agricultural practices. But an additional reason for his Long Island trip has been deduced by historians over the years. That was to meet and thank at least one, if not more, members of those Patriots on British-occupied Long Island who had risked their lives as spies for the Revolutionary cause.

Along the way, there were constant reminders of the recent war. After dining at Ketcham's, Washington headed for Isaac Thompson's Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore, where he would spend the night. During the occupation, the manor had been used as a headquarters by British troops. A visitor to the manor today can see the room Washington slept in, as well as a nearby room said to have been used during the Revolution by Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander.

The next morning Washington headed north to Setauket, and on the way he passed by Coram (or, Koram, as he spelled it), in Brookhaven. In 1780, Washington had issued a special commendation to one of his favorite officers, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, who had led a sortie from across Long Island Sound to destroy 300 tons of valuable hay at Coram used as forage for British horses. Tallmadge had been Washington's chief spy, but if the president was reminded of him when he passed through Coram, he did not mention it in his diary.

If there is anything in Washington's sober diary commentaries that is likely to make a reader smile it is his understated entry for Thursday, April 22, where he stayed overnight in Setauket at the tavern of Austin Roe:

. . . thence to Setakit 7 mi. more to the house of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect. [decent] with obliging people in it.

Thus does he camouflage an important agent in the so-called Culper spy ring. Setauket tavern-keeper Austin Roe regularly traveled to New York City to bring back secret messages to be transported across the Sound to be delivered to Washington.

Washington returned across the North Shore and met Revolutionary history at every stop. On April 23 he rested and watered his horses at the widow Blydenburgh's in Smithtown, where the arrogant and ruthless Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton in 1778 led his band of Loyalist raiders on a foraging expedition. He dined at the widow Platt's in Huntington, where the menu, according to a 19th Century Fourth of July orator, included "oysters, baked striped bass, a monster round of beef, stuffed veal, roast turkey, chicken pie, with all the vegetables of the season, and various kinds of preserves.''

There were more memories for Washington: On the shores of nearby Huntington Bay, in September, 1776, young Nathan Hale landed to begin his fateful spying trip to New York City. And as Washington headed west out of town after his big meal, he passed directly by the Old Burying Ground, where the infamous Lt. Col. Benjamin Thompson in the winter of 1782-83 had his Loyalist troops rip up gravestones and build a fort.

That evening, Washington slept at the Oyster Bay home of Daniel Youngs, on Cove Neck Road, across the road from a family cemetery where a future president, Theodore Roosevelt, would be buried. This was an odd choice of lodging, since Youngs had been a captain in the Loyalist Queens militia during the war; in other words, the enemy. As usual, Washington doesn't explain. The house is today owned by Charles Wang, the billionaire chairman and chief executive officer of Computer Associates International Inc. of Islandia.

Up earlier than usual, at 6 a.m. on the 24th, Washington had breakfast with Hendrick Onderdonk in Roslyn. The home is now the Washington Manor restaurant, and Onderdonk's grist and paper mill down the road is badly in need of repair. Onderdonk's paper was of the highest quality available in New York, and family tradition has it that Washington actually made a piece of paper while there.

Washington's Long Island trip was coming to a close. He had 30 miles to go and was in a hurry. He had dinner in Flushing and then headed for Brooklyn Ferry. "Before sundown we had crossed the ferry and was at home,'' he wrote.

The Long Island that Washington saw was sparsely settled and little removed from its colonial days. But change was on the way as the 18th Century turned into the 19th.

Slavery was in full force in 1790, though it would be ended in New York State by 1827. Roads were still primitive, but the new century would see major developments in road-building. A half-century later there would even be a railroad running down the spine of the Island. Even though there was work to be done, there would be poets and painters to celebrate it.

Like the new nation, Long Island was about to begin building.

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