A modest historical marker attesting to Babylon Village’s role in a true tale of swashbuckling adventure will be posted this fall on Shore Road along Sumpwams Creek, replacing an original that had become worn.
“Porter’s Landing,” the replacement will read, in black letters in a blue frame, along with the date July 6, 1814. “On this site American naval hero David Porter landed after escaping from a British Blockade ship.”
Porter was 32, marked for death or capture by the British admiralty after commanding the USS Essex to America’s first victory over a British man-of-war in the War of 1812, and later taking a transport carrying $50,000 of British gold bullion, Jack Whitehouse wrote in his 2011 book, “Fire Island.”
Captured in 1814 after a ferocious battle against two British gunships off the coast of Chile that killed or wounded 155 of the 225 men under Porter’s command, the survivors were allowed to sail back to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
The British, however, stopped them before they reached their destination. The 1875 “Memoir of Commodore David Porter” suggests that the British may have been preparing to renege on an agreement to let the Americans sail back under their own power and instead took them into custody.
The memoir recounts his escape to Babylon: Porter left a message that he was “armed and prepared to defend himself,” then took a boat and rowed with his men about 60 miles through dense fog to Babylon.
The memoir does not dwell on the reaction of the tiny settlement’s fishermen, farmers and tradesmen to the sudden appearance of a band of haggard, armed strangers, except to say that they initially “discredited” Porter’s story.
“When the Babylonians were satisfied of Porter’s true character, they hauled his boat from the water, and placing it on wheels, he was conducted by a number of the towns people to the city of New York,” according to the memoir.
He was a badly needed hero to the young nation, greeted with parades, an audience with the U.S. secretary of the Navy and soon, another commission.
Porter’s later career was brilliant but checkered, including a court martial for the unsanctioned invasion of Puerto Rico after the jailing of one of his officers, command of the Mexican Navy and a stint as American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
For Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone, the story fits with others, like the burning by the British of the first Presbyterian Church during the Revolution, and the service during that war and the War of 1812 of Joel Cook, a soldier with Babylon ties.
Taken together, they sketch a rich, sometimes violent picture of the community during Colonial times.
“We have these little anecdotes, little pieces of history,” she said. “We’ve forgotten so much.” But, she said, “If we can do the research, find the information and share it, we’ll find something around every corner.”
Margaret and Baron Rohl, who own the property where Porter made his landing, said they welcome the historical marker’s return.
“We’re longtime Babylonians,” Margaret Rohl said. “This is part of the village history.”