As we celebrated another birthday for America this July 4th I was reminded of the rich history and vital role that New York played in the founding of this nation. This is no less true within the sandy shores and glacial uplands of Long Island.
Drive south on William Floyd Parkway today, through the Suffolk County communities of Yaphank, Mastic, Shirley, and Mastic Beach, and it might be hard to imagine that this area was once the site of a great struggle between a world power and the early American settlers who came to yearn for independence.
The Manor of St. George
Tucked away and overlooking the eastern shores of Bellport Bay, west of William Floyd Parkway, stands the magnificent home , the Manor of St George, that began with William Tangier Smith. Born in 1655 in England, Smith received grants of land from Lord Limerick which he eventually supplemented with large purchases of land. By 1688 much of the land that became the estate of Colonel Smith had been purchased from various landholders.
On May 25, 1691, Smith purchased a substantial tract of the land that is now the Town of Brookhaven from Chief John Mayhue of the Unkechaug Nation. In exchange, the Unkechaugs were given title to 175 acres that was later reduced to the 55-acre Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic. With these additional lands Smith’s holdings increased to 81,000 acres, including all of Fire Island, in what
is now Brookhaven Township and portions of Riverhead.
This became part of a patent granted to Colonel Smith by the King of England in October 1693.Years later, in 1724, William Floyd, an original signer of the Declaration of Independence, purchased 4,000 acres from descendants of Colonel Smith, establishing his own vast estate in Mastic Beach that extended nearly 15 miles
north to the present-day site of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The Historic Carmen’s River
Both the Manor of St George and the Floyd Estate are situated along the southernmost portion of the Carmen’s River where it empties into Bellport Bay. Then known as the Connecticut River,
whose headwaters begin some 15 miles to the north near the historic community of Yaphank, it was resources like the Carmens River, as well as the numerous harbors, inlets, and bays all along
the approximately 120 mile length of Long Island, that made Long Island a strategically desirable location to both the British and the colonists.
Strategic avenues for travel and transport, such as the Carmen’s River corridor from Yaphank to Mastic, were sought after by both sides in the conflict. After the British captured Long Island in 1776, Fort St. George, which the British used as a supply base for their forces, was erected near the present-day site of the Manor house.
From this location they controlled Fireplace Neck in Bellport, where it is said fires were set at night to guide sailing vessels to shore. The fort also afforded control of the waters along Bellport Bay and the inlet to the Atlantic that then existed at Old Inlet on Fire Island, as well as the Carmens River from which the British could float lumber and supplies.
Beginning in 1777, in what has been dubbed Whaleboat Warfare, a series of raids originating in Connecticut were fought at places like Lloyd Neck (Fort Franklin), Fort Salonga (Fort Slongo), and Sag Harbor. The most dramatic raid however, occurred at Fort St. George in the Fall of 1780.
At approximately 4 am on November 21, 1780 twenty-six year old Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, a spy chief for General George Washington, along with 80 men of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, set out in eight whaleboats from Fairfield, Connecticut to cross Long Island Sound.
At about 9 pm they landed at Old Man’s Harbor, known today as Mt. Sinai. With rain delaying their progress, the small force set out the following day, arriving at Fort Smith before dawn on November 23. Crying, “Washington and glory!” three detachments of the raiders attacked the sleepy garrison. While the main body of the fort was quickly taken, most of the British force continued to hold two of the houses on the estate.
As the raiding colonists celebrated their conquest of the fort, a volley of British muskets was fired upon them from the main house. Returning fire, the Dragoons charged the house, attacking the doors with axes. In a fierce struggle, some of the defending Loyalists were thrown head first from the second story. A massacre may have occurred were it not for the intervention of Colonel
Tallmadge who ordered the slaughter to cease.
Tallmadge’s men then turned the fort’s guns on a nearby British ship, sinking it to the water line. They then destroyed the fort. By 8 am the battle was over. Seven Loyalists were killed or wounded, and 53 officers and men captured. Amazingly, Col. Tallmadge lost no men, and only one was wounded.
Dividing his force, Colonel Tallmadge took twelve men and moved on to Coram where, an hour and a half later, they overcame Loyalists guarding 300 tons of hay. After setting fire to the hay, they went on to meet with the rest of the raiding party at Old Man’s Harbor at around 4 pm, returning to Connecticut by midnight.
The nation’s first Purple Heart was won during the whaleboat raids. Twenty-seven year old Sgt. Elijah Churchill was recognized for bravery at the raid on Fort St. George, and later at the
battle of Fort Slongo. General Washington established the medal, then known as the Medal of Merit, on August 7, 1782, awarding it for “any singularly meritorious action.” In 1932, the Purple Heart was redesigned and issued to Americans killed or wounded in combat.
A Living History
For a firsthand account of the Battle of Fort St. George, and to witness what life was like in colonial days on Long Island, you can visit both the Manor of St. George, and the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach. The Manor is owned and managed by a private trust dedicated to preserving the estate as a museum in memory of Colonel Smith. The site is maintained by the Town of Brookhaven. The William Floyd Estate is managed by the National Park Service. Both facilities are open to the public for tours.
Illustrations, from above: Detail of 1777 map of Long Island and Connecticut by Bernard Romans (courtesy Library of Congress); The Manor St. George as sketched for Benjamin Tallmadge during the Revolutionary War; Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge circa 1800; and The Manor of St George today.