Some people have heard of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, the capture of spy Nathan Hale or maybe the Battle of Long Island. But not many are familiar with the full story of what took place here during the American Revolution.
The Southampton Historical Museum hopes to change that with a new interactive exhibit on the British occupation: “Southampton Under Siege.”
“It’s not very well known that Long Island was occupied during the Revolutionary War,” said curator Emma Ballou. “The British didn’t hold that much land in the Colonies during the war, but Long Island and New York City were among the few places that they actually held.”
To make that clear, the exhibit features rooms with period décor, a timeline, maps and video to bring attention to the inhabitants who lived in an isolated and occupied village from 1776 until the end of the war seven years later. A video display tells the story of Christopher Vail, a Sag Harbor teenager who served in a number of military companies, took part in a whaleboat raid on Sag Harbor, became a privateer and was captured and held prisoner in the West Indies for nearly a year.
Before the war, Southampton Town was a thriving trading and farming community with Sag Harbor serving as a major port for shipping to and from the Eastern Seaboard and the West Indies. Following Gen. George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn, in August 1776, British troops occupied New York City and all of the Island.
Most East End residents were patriots who supported the Revolution, Ballou said. The proportion of loyalists or Tories was higher in western Long Island and New York City. One out of every six Long Island residents, about 5,000 people, fled to Connecticut to escape the British occupation. In Southampton, they included silversmith Elias Pelletreau, head of the local militia, whaling captains from the Pierson and Rogers families along with members of the Halsey and other prominent families. Pelletreau’s house became British headquarters.
Not everyone could afford to be a refugee. “The people who were left in Southampton were the poor, the sick, the elderly and slaves who were left to take care of the land while their masters fled to Connecticut, or the wives and children of the men of the household who fled,” Ballou said.
The exhibit includes two rooms showing the contrast between how British officers lived in luxury in the homes of Southampton residents while the remaining residents suffered deprivations.
“Those who fled didn’t have an easier time in Connecticut,” Ballow explained. “They were uprooted and they had to make a life for themselves there with not that much in the way of resources. When they returned after the war, everything was pillaged, crops were ruined.”
Within the town, there were British garrisons in Southampton village, Bridgehampton as well as Sag Harbor, which is partially in East Hampton. “Southampton was actually lucky” in the British officer placed in command there, she said. That was Gen. Sir William Erskine. “He had a restraining influence on his subordinates,” Ballou said.
A Major Cochrane was in command in Bridgehampton.
“There were a lot of scandalous stories about Cochrane’s behavior in Bridgehampton,” she said. “He basically created terror everywhere. Women weren’t safe. He used a lot of force.”
The British in the southern part town were never challenged by the Americans like the whaleboat raid staged by Col. Jonathan Meigs in Sag Harbor in the spring of 1775. His story is also told in the exhibit.
The British made the Americans who remained in Southampton sign oaths of allegiance, which came back to haunt them. “At the end of the war, Southampton wasn’t viewed as a place that really suffered and New York State taxed them” because of the belief that they had not really participated in the Revolution, Ballou said. Even the patriot refugees who had fled to Connecticut came back to find their properties ruined and were subjected to the tax.
Because of the oaths, the Daughters of the American Revolution has been challenging the membership of people from the East End, Ballou said.
The British are coming!
The Southampton Historical Museum’s “Southampton Under Siege: The British Occupation of Southampton During the Revolutionary War” exhibit will be at the Rogers Mansion at 17 Meeting House Lane in Southampton from March 19 until Dec. 31. The mansion is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A free opening reception and curator talk will be held March 19 from 4 to 6 p.m. The fee after that is $4 for non-members; free for members and children 17 and younger. For more information, call 631-283-2494.
— Bill Bleyer