When it comes to celebrating and thinking about the Fourth of July, it can sometimes seem that places like Boston and Philadelphia get the bulk of the attention.
There’s a reason for that field trip of the imagination, of course, given the early Revolutionary War skirmishes that took place in New England, and the Declaration of Independence signed in the City of Brotherly Love.
But this July Fourth — after a pandemic year spent close to home — let’s not forget the events of Revolutionary War history that took place right here on Long Island.
In a raucous beginning, a Huntington public reading of the Declaration in 1776 led to residents creating and hanging an effigy of Britain's George III.
But with the retreat of George Washington’s forces from Brooklyn, the Island was bound for some seven years of British occupation, during which the region became a storage and foraging place for British troops. A strong Loyalist presence made life difficult for patriots in what is now Nassau and Suffolk.
That concentration of British forces and their allies, however, meant that Long Island was also a buzzing and noteworthy hive of spies and forays. There were quick-hit whaleboat raids launched across the Sound, including a famous one that reached Sag Harbor. Would-be 21-year-old spy Nathan Hale, who is forever famous for his alleged line about regretting having only one life to lose for his country, landed near Huntington Bay to begin gathering information about the British.
The longer-lasting Culper Spy Ring carried secrets from Manhattan to Setauket and beyond to keep Washington informed.
And Long Islanders participated in and suffered through the war in great numbers, on both sides. A famous but failed plot against Washington led to some Loyalists being pursued and one shot on Long Island, an event memorialized in 2019 with a Rockville Centre marker. Local militia and unvetted soldiers — including enslaved Long Islanders — took up arms. The conflict was a brutal civil war here and the onerousness of British wartime rule was felt by many Long Islanders, a bitter legacy of years of war or occupation on New York soil.
Some of these events, experiences and historical figures are memorialized in plaques or exhibits on Long Island — Hale, for example, has a plaque and memorial in the Town of Huntington, plus a bronze statue in the town clerk's archives. They’re worth revisiting during our annual celebration of America’s independence, a major and consequential event with reverberations around the globe.
But Revolutionary War-era Long Island is also a reminder that history happens to regular people, in their homes and towns. History is made by those who rise to the occasion and those who struggle through the slog of events. It includes pandemics and political movements and the extraordinary advances of technology, and the way lives are shaped and changed. It is happening now, here.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.