In 1775, no one was more active in the Patriot cause than Gilbert Potter of Huntington, a medical doctor who had served in the French and Indian War. Potter, who a year later would be named a lieutenant colonel in charge of the western regiment of Suffolk militia, wrote to Congress Dec. 10, begging for more than the 100 pounds of gunpowder it had allotted Huntington in September. He wrote:
I have exerted myself in my station. But if nothing is done by your House, I must be obliged to desist. But as to myself, as an individual, I am determined to live and die free.
The next month, 1,000 more pounds of gunpowder were sent to be stored in the Huntington Arsenal.
The town’s finest moment in an ongoing war of words with Britain had come 19 months before. It was in the form of one of Long Island’s most important revolutionary documents, Huntington’s Declaration of Rights of June 21, 1774, putting the town in the vanguard in opposition to British repression. The town defiantly declared that taxation without representation was wrong. The resolution by the town fathers, sent to the king’s representatives in New York, read, in part:
That every freemans property is absolutely his own, and no man has a right to take it from him without his consent . . .
That therefore all taxes and duties imposed on his Majesties subjects in the American colonies by the authority of Parliament are wholly unconstitutional and a plain violation of the most essential rights of British subjects.
With Long Island divided in its support for the British or the American cause, Patriot sentiment was strongest in Suffolk, and the Town of Huntington had showed an independent spirit that reached back into the early days of English rule. In 1670, only six years after England had wrested control from the Dutch, the governor’s council in New York ordered the outlying areas to pay a tax to help pay for repairs to Fort James in the city. Since a promised Colonial Assembly had never been formed, Huntington, along with the towns of Flushing, Hempstead and Jamaica, refused. Huntington’s reason, first and foremost, was “because we conceive we are deprived of the liberties of Englishmen.’’
Furious, the council denounced the Long Islanders’ petitions as “scandalous, illegal and seditious.’’ The colonial governor, Francis Lovelace, ordered the papers publicly burned in front of City Hall, and the men who wrote them prosecuted. But nothing more came of it.
More than a century later, on May 2, 1775, Huntington reactivated its militia. It was fast becoming a town where gunpowder replaced talk in the community’s grievances against the king.
On July 4, 1776, the Congress in Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence. The British, having abandoned Boston, were massing troops on Staten Island, preparing for an attack at Brooklyn that would take place on Aug. 27.
The news of the newly adopted declaration reached Huntington July 23, and its public reading set off a wild celebration. In what is today called the Village Green, at the center of town, there was a Liberty Pole, a flagpole that residents used to stir up opposition to British policies, but as loyal subjects of the king. Thus, the flag was scarlet with a Union Jack in the canton. On one side was the word “Liberty,’’ and on the other side, “George III.’’
Revelers ripped off the words “George III,’’ cut away the Union Jack, leaving what has since been known as the Huntington Liberty Flag, a white “Liberty’’ on a red background. The Liberty Flag was carried as a Suffolk regimental battle flag at the Battle of Long Island. Hessian troops under Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall captured the flag and 60 militiamen.
Then, in the town’s final insult to the king, an effigy of George III was stuffed with gunpowder, hung on a gallows and exploded. Later that evening, according to an account in Holt’s N.Y. Journal, the town fathers and other worthy citizens drank 13 toasts to the heroes who had died at Boston, Lexington and Concord, and to “the free and independent States of America.’’
But no excess of patriotic spirit could stop the British occupation from coming. On Aug. 26, Lt. Col. Potter sent an urgent letter to Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull, head of the Suffolk militia. British ships carrying Redcoats were expected in Huntington Bay before morning.
“Have not ordered any men from here as yet, but am mustering them to make as good opposition as possible. We must have help here. Everything possible for me, shall be done. I think General Washington should be acquainted. Our women are in great tumult”
The help did not come. Potter, with the pounding of British boots ringing in his ears, wisely fled to Connecticut. The conquering troops, 200 infantrymen and 100 mounted cavalry under Gen. Oliver DeLancey, arrived Sept. 1. Huntington became occupied territory. Huntington’s male population ages 15 and above were given two choices: either sign an Oath of Loyalty and Peaceable Behavior or flee to Connecticut. A total of 549 men signed the oath, although it is uncertain how many really meant it.
Apparently the Huntingtonians did not completely give in to their British overlords. When a complaint was made that Col. J.G. Simcoe of the British Queen’s Rangers gave no receipts for the cattle, sheep and provisions that he seized, Simcoe replied:
I did not give receipts to a great number of people on account of their rebellious principles, or absolute disobedience of the general orders. The inhabitants of Huntington came under both descriptions.