2011, Volume 22, Issue 1

Teaching American History with a Long Island Perspective: Pre-Columbian through the American Revolution

Stephen N. Sanfilippo

Abstract: Long Islanders played important roles in the development of America, but secondary and college American History survey courses and their textbooks generally overlook Long Island. Thirty years experience as a high school and community college history teacher made the author eager to incorporate Long Island into survey courses, making events and persons distant in time and place more understandable to students, while gaining students’ interest through the knowledge that they live in an area whose geographic location and demographic diversity has both affected and reflected America. Through articles from the Long Island Historical Journal, from its inception in print to its present electronic journal format, teachers can elicit positive reaction from students, placing otherwise distant events into a Long Island context. Topics discussed include pre-Columbian Native culture, European contact, Colonial settlement, Native-Colonial relations, religious intolerance, early economic class distinction, provincial military demographics, and Revolutionary War property confiscation.

Keywords: teaching history, student motivation, American History survey course, Long Island History, Long Island perspective, historic microcosm

Long Island educators should consider the positive results to be gained for themselves as teachers, and more importantly for their students, through the teaching and studying of America’s history from the perspective of the history of our scenic and diverse Atlantic home. While I often used examples from Long Island’s past in my teaching of American history, I never did so in a systematic manner until the spring of 2007 when immediate necessity forced me to do so. I found it to be a most instructive, stimulating and rewarding approach. This article addresses the American historical experience in the colonial period through the microcosm of Long Island, with the Long Island History Journal serving as its basic tool. My comments are not intended as a curriculum, but as a presentation for consideration by college instructors and secondary teachers. I also do not mean to imply that the placement of Long Island into the teaching of American History be limited to the LIHJ, but rather that it provides an excellent and readily available starting point for additional readings and research.

Following a teaching career at a Long Island high school, I was given the opportunity to introduce a course in the history of Long Island at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk County Community College. I developed a course that emphasized central and eastern Suffolk, the area that was home to all of my students. It was a great opportunity to delve into the history of “fish-shaped Paumanok” from its pre-European contact native civilization to its post-World War II suburban and then exurban development. My twenty students were quite varied in age, ethnicity, and ambitions, and included a young man descended from Southampton’s English settlers of the 1640s, a young woman of a Canadian immigrant family living on the North Fork whose boyfriend worked on commercial Long Island fishing trawlers, and a young Islamic woman living in the ever-increasing diversity of the Town of Brookhaven. My goal of having them place themselves and their experiences into Long Island’s history worked well, motivating interest, empathy, and understanding.

I was prepared to teach the course again the following year when, less than a week before class was to begin, the course had to be canceled. I was, instead, asked to teach “Foundations of American History: Pre-Columbian through Reconstruction.” Disappointed though I was about the loss of the Long Island course, I accepted the assignment. However, class started in two days!

I was going through a tough time with serious medical problems as well as a prospective move to another state. There was no time to make up a full and comprehensive syllabus for the American History course. Fortunately, a supportive chair permitted me, within curriculum guidelines, to develop my own syllabus. As I had already spent much time in preparing for the “History of Long Island” course, I decided to incorporate the Long Island perspective into the American History survey. The plan worked out far better than I anticipated, and students who told me that they had always been turned off to history were suddenly discovering that what had gone on in Boston, or Philadelphia, or Virginia, or England, was much like what had been happening on Long Island, sometimes in their own town and sometimes with people whose descendants they knew! I always made it a point to keep national history in the forefront, but in most cases the fifteen to twenty minutes per class meeting spent on Long Island opened up the vista of America’s history to my students in a new way.

The textbook, Thomas A. Bailey’s The American Pageant included only a brief discussion of how New York went from being a Dutch to an English colony.[1] Some students recognized a lasting Dutch influence on New York, mentioning basketball’s New York Knickerbockers, the Dutch Sinter Klaas becoming Santa Claus, the oddly named street called Dutch Broadway in Nassau County, the Dutch origins of other place names that include Brooklyn and Bushwick, and Hofstra University’s teams being called “The Flying Dutchmen,” but for the most part the early period of American history seemed extremely remote to my students. Most were of 20th-century Italian, Polish or Irish immigrant ancestry, with many being second- or even third-generation suburbanites. How could I make this history seem relevant and immediate to them? The answer rested on bringing Long Island into the picture, and I found the Long Island History Journal, available at most public and college libraries on Long Island (and now on-line), the means for a perfect solution.

Together with each class meeting’s general reading in the Pageant, I assigned two or more students to read, prepare duplicable formal notes, and make a brief oral content presentation on a relevant article or articles published in the LIHJ. I also asked these students to prepare a comment and a question on how the Long Island experience as described in these articles increased knowledge and understanding of that class meeting’s specific topic.

Our first topic involved pre-Columbian Native Americans and early contact of Native Americans with Europeans. The Pageant presents these episodes in an overly wide and extremely brief manner, generalizing on pre-Columbian native linguistic and ethnic distributions and population numbers, on the effect of European contact disease, particularly in the area that is now the American Southwest and Mexico, and to a lesser degree on the Chesapeake region. It also gives little consideration to pre-contact native agriculture, crafts, structures, and community units. This was pretty dry for most of the students, but when Long Island was introduced their interest was piqued and their understanding grew. To this purpose I had students read two LIHJ articles. The first of these, “How Advanced Were Long Island’s Native Americans? A Challenge to the Traditional View,” by Stony Brook Anthropologist Philip C. Weigand, argues that Long Island’s Native people were far more numerous and advanced than has been recognized.[2]

Weigand maintains that the general misunderstanding of the higher level and complexity of native Long Island culture stems from a misconception of its ethnographic baseline date, that being the date at which a native society is analyzed as having existed immediately prior to its European contact. Historians and anthropologists have traditionally used 1640, the year of the English settlement of Southold and Southampton, as the baseline date, describing native Long Islanders as having achieved no more than living in small bands of diminishing size, lacking an over-reaching organization, having a limited diet, residing in seasonally-nomadic settlements in accord with the availability of wild foods to be gathered, and demonstrating a demoralized mentality that made them willing to accept English cultural and economic pressures. In contrast to this rather bleak picture of native Long Islanders at the moment of European contact, Weigand, citing considerable documentary and archaeological evidence, presents the island’s indigenous people as having had a far more advanced, complex and well-organized society. That society, he maintains, had a far greater population, and was defined politically and economically, having cleared large tracts of land for cultivation at least 400 years prior to European contact, and having established seasonal support settlements that provided additional foods for the larger sedentary population. Additionally, many of these seasonal and permanent settlements were organized around specialized economic activities, such as fishing, quarrying, intense agricultural cultivation, or hunting, and engaged in considerable trade with other island settlements and with native peoples both across Long Island Sound and at more distant places.

What accounts for the discrepancy between the generally accepted low level view of Long Island’s Native Americans and Weigand’s argument for a far higher level of advancement? Weigand maintains it is the common mistake of using 1640 as the ethnographic baseline date. That date came 116 years after the date that should be used as the baseline, 1524, and resulted from Giovanni da Verrazzano’s lengthy exploration of Narragansett Bay and vicinity. Although no evidence clearly places Verrazzano and his men on Long Island, their contact with the Narragansetts was significant enough to lead to a secondary effect through the Narragansetts’ considerable contact with other native people throughout the region, including eastern Long Island. This contact is why 1524 should be used as the baseline date. The effect of this contact was the spreading of European diseases among the indigenous population. Within a few generations, these European contact diseases wiped out much, if not most, of the native population of Long Island and nearby mainland New England. The years from 1524 to 1640 witnessed political, social, and economic disorganization, continuing disease, increased malnutrition, and an inability to present a large and well-organized force to resist English colonial ambitions. Thus, Weigand concludes, the triumph of English colonialism on Long Island resulted not from English contact with native people who had never achieved an advanced culture, but rather from encountering a native society whose earlier numbers, culture, power and prosperity had been in decline for over 100 years since the first affective European contact.

The Weigand article stimulated considerable discussion among my students, while fostering a wider and simultaneously sympathetic and sophisticated understanding of Native Americans and native culture in the wake of European contact. Many questions were raised regarding the immorality of colonialism versus the reasonable opportunity for one group of people to advance its interests at the expense of another, and of the means by which the English, and then the United States, spread a non-native population and culture across the continent. Still, despite Weigand’s article, my students generally thought of Native Americans as an anonymous mass of people. Native Long Islanders seemed to lack an essential American quality: individual identity. This misconception was challenged through the use of a second LIHJ article, “The Lives and Identities of the Indians of Shelter Island, 1652-1835,” by John Charles Witek, that introduced my students to Yokee, Turkyman, Ambusco, and many other individuals.[3]

Witek, an archaeologist who had done work for both the New York State and Connecticut Archaeological Associations, used Shelter Island colonial documents and recent Shelter Island archaeological finds to present evidence of native Shelter Islanders having individual personal and legal identity, owning property, having private incomes that resulted from working for English settlers and their American descendants, and maintaining credit accounts with local merchants. An examination of the account books of leading Shelter Island families identifies by name many individual natives, mostly men, and indicates their labors and levels of skill, their earnings, and their buying habits. Analysis of these accounts also indicates that there were two native population groups on Shelter Island, one being sedentary and living within a combined traditional and colonial economy on the island, and a second being seasonally migratory, working at times in agriculture or other tasks for Shelter Island colonists, and at other times as whalemen in whaleboats owned by Southampton colonists.

My students were struck by Shelter Island’s role as a point in the triangular trade that included England and the Caribbean, and its growing involvement with slavery and alcohol. The English settlers on Shelter Island paid their native workers with rum, thereby establishing it as both a currency of exchange as well as an item of dependency among native men. For the settlers, rum further cheapened an already cheap labor supply and the resulting problems of native drunkenness, addiction, and disorderly conduct were met with the establishment of laws and enforcement to insure settler control over the native workforce. My students, having seen this early tragedy and the manipulation of people through the availability of a drug as a device of the economy, then attacked the “fire water” stereotype of Native Americans, and commented upon the detrimental impact upon the most unprivileged of society that comes about through the ready availability, reliance upon, and addiction to drugs that has been a most unfortunate part of America’s history.

Most of all, however, Witek’s article somehow transformed a faceless race of people from 400 years ago, whether on Shelter Island, or the Chesapeake, or at the “First Thanksgiving,” or on the Great Plains, into people who had names, and whose names conjured faces and personalities. Who named them, my students wondered? Why did they have two names, their own real name and a name attached to them by settlers when they went to work for a white man? Why did some names sound like slave names, and some like Indian names, and some like the names of Englishmen?

Much like the early Native Americans, the colonists, except for a few of “textbook” status, also remained a mystery to my students. Who were these people? They knew Miles Standish was in Massachusetts, and John Smith was in Virginia, and William Penn was in Pennsylvania, but who else was there? Again the question arose as to whether these people lived “real” lives or whether they were just drones of the King of England? It was hard for my students to imagine real individual people at Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, instead of just a faceless mass under a leader. Brooklyn, however, was another matter. That’s where, through another LIHJ article, my students met Joris and Catalina Rapalje.

The Rapaljes, lost to textbooks, were among America’s earliest and (one can argue) most important European settlers. They and their descendants are the subject of “Joris and Catalina Rapalje, The First Colonists in New Netherland,” by genealogist and biographer D. Reid Ross.[4] Ross sets the Rapaljes’ history against the turmoil, intolerance, violence and displacement of the Spanish Netherlands in the early 1600s. It was a time of civil war between Spanish imperial mercantile Catholicism and Dutch nationalist bourgeois Calvinism in which one’s ethnic, lingual and religious identity were key factors in determining legal and social status, protection or persecution, and often life or death. Joris and Catalina, Calvinists seeking religious and economic advantages, and already refugees within the Spanish Netherlands, were among a group of about 100 people recruited by the Dutch West India Company to settle its lands in North America where, as farmers and artisans, they would populate and stabilize the Dutch colonies and support the company’s profitable fur trapping and trade with the Indians.

Joris and Catalina, both in their late teens, were married in 1624. Four days later they joined several others in setting sail for North America as settlers for the Dutch West India Company. Their passage to America was free, and they had been promised toleration of their religious beliefs. They had also been promised free land to farm and could purchase livestock from the company at low cost. The settlers were sent to several of the company’s colonial enclaves, including the mouth of the Delaware, coastal Connecticut, Albany, and Brooklyn. The Rapaljes were placed at Albany until 1626, when they were relocated by the Dutch governor to the southern tip of Manhattan where Joris farmed, worked on fortifications, and fought Indians. The couple prospered, acquiring a house on Pearl Street. Then, apparently having made their own peace with the native people of the western tip of Long Island, they traded an unspecified amount and value of goods for 335 acres of native lands around Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn, soon to be an important market site (and later, in part, the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard).

The victory of the English over the Dutch for possession of New Netherlands did not interfere with the Rapaljes’ successes. If anything, they prospered even more under English rule. Joris’s status rose from farmer to planter, and he added to his income by ventures as a tavern keeper and as the owner of a privateer. Despite remaining Dutch-speaking, he was entrusted by the English as a magistrate, while Catalina and he, together with other Dutch New Yorkers, enjoyed the protection of the English crown in their worship at the Dutch Reformed Church, whose services were held in Dutch. Joris died in 1662, while Catalina, who had borne 14 children, lived until 1685. The couple was buried at Wallabout, in Brooklyn, where their descendants, a clearly identified ethnic minority, continued to live and to prosper under the British. Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution the Rapaljes’ descendants either remained neutral or openly embraced Loyalism. Ross is puzzled by and critical of their loyalty to the British Crown, particularly in view of the persecution that Joris and Catalina had suffered in the previous century. Clearly, however, Ross overlooks the obvious. The Rapaljes’ descendants were Loyalist Long Islanders because it was the British Crown that had protected their religion and their property as the world around them changed from one populated by Dutchmen and Native Americans, to one populated by Englishmen who were transforming themselves into Americans, and that transformation presented much uncertainty for the Dutch minority. As had been discussed in an earlier LIHJ article, David Aliano’s “Long Island’s Struggle for Civil Liberty Under the Dutch Regime,” Dutch Long Islanders enjoyed more liberty under English rule than they had under that of the Dutch West India Company.[5]

Ross’s article on the Rapaljes stimulated a great deal of interest, discussion and deeper questioning among my students. They seemed annoyed that they had not they learned about the Rapaljes earlier. After all, Joris and Catalina were the European founders of the post-Native American culture and economy of western Long Island. The students also engaged in a discussion on the Rapaljes’ motivation in going to America, and that of the company (their “mother country”). Did couple and company have the same motives? Were the Rapaljes more concerned with their faith or their wealth? Did Catalina really want to go, or did she have to because Joris wanted to and, as his wife, she had to obey? One young woman in the class suggested that Catalina did not want to leave the comfort of Europe for a dangerous ocean voyage and the uncertainty of life and likely of early death in America, rhetorically asking: “They left four days after they were married. What kind of a honeymoon surprise was that?!” The article also raised the question of ethnic minorities and why individuals and ethnic groups might favor one government over another. Overall, Ross’s article provided a new angle on the peopling of Colonial America for my students who saw the Rapaljes as two young newlyweds settling on Long Island to try to make their way in a new world, far removed from what they had known.

The Dutch of western Long Island presented comparisons and contrasts with the English settlers of Suffolk County. This gave my students an interesting perspective on why and how the English colonies at Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia were so much alike in some ways, but so vitally different in others. Again, through the use of the LIHJ, students came to see that the differences among the colonies were not necessarily as stark as textbook history makes them out to be, but existed in degrees of variation. Massachusetts Puritans sought religious freedom for themselves, practiced intolerance towards other faiths, and made holy war against Native Americans. Pennsylvania Quakers sought a peaceable kingdom based upon simple living and just sharing with the native peoples. Tidewater Virginia planters, bent on wealth through the appropriation of native lands and the exploitation of huge numbers of imported enslaved Africans, affected lofty neo-classical cultural tastes. How could such people, Colonial Americans, be so different one from another? How could such diverse people be the forefathers of a unified nation? Perhaps there was a place where their cultures and interests intersected in such a way as to explain these seeming contradictions. Such a place was found on Long Island, in Suffolk County, and can be seen in the lives of two friends of the 1600s, Lion Gardiner and Richard Smith.

The significance of Lion Gardiner to the foundation of Long Island and American political society is discussed by Dr. Roger Wunderlich, the LIHJ’s founder, in “Lion Gardiner: Long Island’s Founding Father.”[6] Gardiner, who lived from 1599-1663, is in many ways a personal representation of both English colonialism and the Long Island of his time. An English soldier of lower-middle rank, he had a long and successful marriage with a Dutch woman, Mary, who accompanied him through many of his adventures and accomplishments. Gardiner, as presented by Wunderlich, was an extremely complex individual, and my students came to see him as much more than a man on a remote island, something like Robinson Crusoe, living in isolation except for a few Indian friends and a mysterious contact with Captain Kidd. He did, in fact, bridge the English colonial experience as represented in the “types” of particular colonies. He was a Calvinist, like his religious brethren in Massachusetts, but was not given to their excesses. When New England’s witch-hunt threatened Long Island, Gardiner stopped it, even though the woman he saved was accused by others of having caused the death of Gardiner’s own daughter. Though, like the settlers of Massachusetts, he fought Indians, particularly in his earliest years as defender of a fort in Connecticut, he also shared with William Penn a desire to deal fairly and peacefully with Native Americans, favoring negotiation over warfare, and friendship and trust over shows of force and use of might. He rejected colonial anti-Indian racist characterizations, while at the same time subjecting persons of African origin to enslavement under his ownership. In all, Long Island’s founding father is identified by Wunderlich as a common soldier, the lord of a manor, an Indian fighter, a friend to the Indians, a fair negotiator, a land speculator out to acquire as much land as possible, a man willing to give valuable land to others, a loyal friend, an opportunist, a religious non-conformer, a defender of justice against emotional irrationality, and a man who, with his wife, “were Americans long before the word was coined.” Most controversial, and perhaps most significantly American, was his relationship with the sachem Wyandanch. Was Gardiner an altruistic friend to Wyandanch and truly supportive of native Long Islanders’ independent well-being, or was he a manipulator, using Wyandanch as a puppet to facilitate his own greed for land and power? Was Long Island spared the colonial warfare against Indians that all the other colonies experienced, and that so characterized the white settlement of the Americas, because of Gardiner’s moral vision, or because he was able to accomplish what he wanted through the negotiated manipulation of native Long Islanders who feared losing their lands through violence to others, most notably to the natives of mainland New England? Through Wunderlich’s depiction of Lion Gardiner, my students found that the incomprehensible diversity of English colonies and colonists in America could be made more understandable by examining the life of a very complex Long Islander.

One of our early class meetings dealt with the establishment of a colonial economic elite. The Pageant provided a general view of the emergence of the slave-holding plantation aristocracy of the South, and the emerging capitalist merchants of the seaports, together with the unrest of non-elite whites as seen in Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 and the discontent that was found among the seaport poor. If Lion Gardiner provided my students with a way of understanding the diversity and overlap of the English colonial experience, both in different colonies and in individuals, it was Richard Smith’s experience that gave them insight into why America did not develop a truly classless society of individuals who, though claiming equality in legal rights and liberties, are not equal in status, influence, and power. Students were quick to recognize wealth as an important factor (some said the important factor) in American life and politics, and also saw the relationship between physical place and wealth, and expressed curiosity as to why houses in Suffolk County’s inland communities generally cost less than houses along the North Shore and the South Shore.

For the early history of America, my students came to see the acquisition of land, not just in large amounts, but more importantly of the location, quality and uses of the land, as a decisive factor in the formation of colonial and of later American society. They read in their textbook of the Byrds and Carters of Virginia, with riverfront ship landings on their huge tobacco plantations, and of the merchants of Massachusetts, owners of their own ships, wharves and harbor-front warehouses, but it was a Long Island example that made the case most clearly understandable to my students, while at the same time giving them pause to think of how much Long Island has changed from what it was before European settlement and its subsequent repopulating and suburbanization. The case at hand took place only a few miles to the west and northwest of their campus and involved one of Long Island’s legendary figures, Richard “Bull” Smith.

Richard Smith, often credited as the founder of the settlement at Smithtown, earned his nickname, at least in local folklore, through his day-long ride on his bull, “Whisper,” after the Nissequogue Indians pledged to give him all of the land he could circumnavigate on his bull in one day. According to legend, he rode around 30,000 acres. He actually received the land as a gift from his friend, Lion Gardiner, who had received it as a gift from his friend, the Long Island paramount sachem Wyandanch, possibly in appreciation for Gardiner’s role in gaining the unharmed return of Wyandanch’s daughter from the off-island Indians who had kidnapped her, the return of the young woman to her father likely taking place at Richard Smith’s house, in the northern part of the Town of Brookhaven.

“Bull” Smith’s legendary ride is commemorated on the seal of the Town of Smithtown and with the large statue of a bull at the west end of Smithtown village. Legend aside, the bull is an excellent representation of Richard Smith’s wealth: the cattle he could raise on a large tract of suitable land. That’s the thesis argued by Elizabeth Shepherd in her LIHJ article “Land, Livestock, and Liberty: Richard Smith of Smithtown.”[7] Shepherd presents Smith as a person of moderate status who, as a result of persecution against his Quaker beliefs during the 1650s and early 1660s, had his property at Southampton confiscated and was forced to leave the settlement. Fortunately, he had a good friend in Lion Gardiner, who granted Smith a large tract of land along the Nissequogue River, including ponds at its center island headwaters, small tributaries, and its estuary and adjoining bays at Long Island Sound. The size of the land grant was, of course, greatly significant, but even more so was its constant supply of fresh water, its exceptionally large amounts of uncultivated upland meadow grass, and its seemingly unlimited supply of salt marsh grass along the tidal part of the river, its estuary, and bays. This abundance of grass, available without the labors of cultivation, enabled Smith, and then his sons and grandsons, to graze large numbers of cattle, as well as sheep and horses, and also pigs. So large was Smith’s livestock holding that it well exceeded the local demand of his growing town settlement, leading him to seek distant markets. When New York colonial laws hampered his trade with New York City, he used his estate’s location along a navigable river, with an excellent harbor, to establish trade in horses, cattle and cattle products, salt pork and wool with Rhode Island, Boston, and the Caribbean. Thus, through ownership of a large amount of land, excellent in both its natural resources and its location, Smith grew to considerable wealth and local political and legal power.

Richard Smith, as presented by Shepherd, was very much a founding figure in the English settlement of Long Island. He had many ties to New England, yet he wasn’t a Calvinist New Englander. He lived in New York, yet he sought business outside of New York instead of with New York City. He was a Quaker, though in contrast to a commonly held misconception that Quakers only settled in Pennsylvania. As a Long Islander, Smith exemplified how Long Island developed a political, economic and cultural overlap among the characteristics of the various colonies and colonial regions. In discussing Shepherd’s article, many of my students came to the conclusion that, though raising cattle instead of tobacco or other southern plantation crops, Smith was most like a Chesapeake planter. This was especially true with regard to Shepherd’s portrayal of Smith’s need for laborers. Smith chose not to use free English settlers, as they wanted their own lands, sought to work for their own gain, and could assert their own rights. He chose not to use indentured European laborers, as they were not entirely controllable, and as indenture contracts were closely regulated by the colonial government. He chose not to use Native American labor, as he saw such laborers as seeking only seasonal employment and not inclined to labor beyond their needs. Smith, therefore, relied upon what he considered to be the most controllable, sustainable and reliable form of labor available: enslaved Africans and their enslaved American-born off-spring. By 1700 the Smith family owned at least 72 slaves. Within thirty years of its founding, Smith’s Nissequogue estate had become a corner of the triangular trade, dealing in horses, cattle, wool, salt pork, and slaves, as Long Island, together with New York City, became the major slaveholding area north of Maryland.

Shepherd’s article led to heated discussion among my students, particularly with regard to the way in which Smith gained his land through his connections rather than through his own work, to the way his land gave him wealth and power over his less prosperous neighbors and tenants, including several English settlers who preceded him on his Nissequogue land, and to his reliance on slave labor instead of free labor. The most important part of the discussion rested on Shepherd’s use of the word “liberty” in the title of her article. There wasn’t liberty for the Native Americans who lost the land, or the white settlers who slipped from ownership into tenancy, or the enslaved Africans. Ultimately, the question the students raised concerned the issue of whether or not a society can develop total “liberty” and total “equality.” Thus, through an LIHJ article that placed colonialism and the development of class separation into a nearby locale, the students came to see the complexity of colonial settlement, society, class, and economics, the Long Island perspective bettering their understanding of the emerging planter class of the Chesapeake and merchant class of the New England.

Shepherd’s article raised two other questions for my students. First, if people came to America for religious freedom, why did Richard Smith face confiscation and expulsion because of his Quaker beliefs? Second, if people faced such discrimination at the hands of the government, what could they do about it? We examined these questions in the following class meeting. Our textbook reading dealt with religious persecution in Europe, migration to America, the establishment of official religions and enforced religious conformity in several colonies, and the rise of denominational conflict and insubordinate religious sects in opposition to governmental control over faith and worship. After discussing the content and ideas presented in the textbook, I told the students that we would hold off on a more detailed discussion of religious freedom until we got to the First Amendment a few class sessions later. Students, of course, found it hard to keep their own feelings and often their own beliefs out of the discussion that followed, and I was extremely impressed that whatever their feelings “on the street” might have been, they showed each other respect. Some students were willing to voice that they were brought up with prejudices against people of other religions, but that they themselves didn’t care whether or not their friends held differing beliefs. Many agreed that if told they couldn’t have friends of a certain religion, they would disobey and have them for friends anyway. This was a perfect segue to an example from colonial Long Island, as presented in the LIHJ, of how ordinary people could take action against the dictates of religious intolerance.

The religious controversies of Colonial America are usually presented in textbooks and survey courses as occurring in Puritan Massachusetts, Calvinist dissenting Connecticut, and Anglican Virginia. “The Samuel Bownas Case: Religious Toleration and the Independence of Juries in Colonial New York, 1703-1704,” by Christopher Densmore, an archivist at SUNY-Buffalo and writer in the field of Quaker history, extended these religious controversies to a place well known to my students.[8] While the students had difficulty with the physical and temporal remoteness of 17th century New England and Virginia, they demonstrated an affinity with an incident that, though occurring 300 years ago, took place close to home.

Samuel Bownas was an outspoken Long Island Quaker at the time that Quakerism was on the rise in both numbers and influence. Within early 18th century New York, the most religiously and ethnically mixed of the thirteen colonies, Quakerism placed third in the number of adherents behind the official religion, Anglicanism, and the Dutch language Dutch Reformed Church. While English colonial authorities were willing to tolerate the Dutch ethnic minority, they were unwilling to see an English-language faith gain in numbers and influence against the established church. Despite their own protestations that, under the Act of Toleration, they would accept non-Anglican Christian beliefs, New York’s Anglican clergy and colonial government feared Quakerism, seeing it as a violent anti-English conspiracy. Equating religious non-conformity with political disloyalty, they denounced Quakers as worse than what they characterized as infidel Muslims and savage Indians, and saw in them an enemy bent on the destruction of society. Within this politically charged religious setting Samuel Bownas was arrested in 1703, while attending a Quaker meeting in Flushing, on a charge of blasphemy for criticizing the Anglican doctrines of baptism and communion. A young woman in my class said that she had gone to a U. S. Open tennis match near there the previous year, and couldn’t imagine that someone had once been arrested in that very section of Long Island because of his religion. A young man added that it’s near the baseball stadium where the New York Mets play. Another said he was born in Flushing. Someone added that it’s near the gigantic steel globe, by the old World’s Fair grounds, that you see when you’re driving into Manhattan. Suddenly Samuel Bownas was their neighbor, and they really cared about what was going to happen to him.

My students agreed that Bownas should not have been arrested for his beliefs, or even for speaking against another group’s religious beliefs, especially when he was in his own church. That’s exactly what a grand jury of Long Islanders, none of them Quakers, decided. They refused to indict Bownas. New York’s chief justice, who presided over the grand jury, threatened the jurors with fines and humiliating public corporal punishment, but the jurors would not waiver. A second grand jury was called, but it too refused to indict Bownas. When the judge ordered the sheriff to call in jurors who were known to oppose Quakerism, he refused. Thus, through the refusal of Island jurors to hand down a criminal indictment on a religious charge, through the sheriff’s refusal to obey a discriminatory court order, and finally through the successful appeal by Long Islanders for protection from the Crown, New York’s colonials asserted the cause of religious freedom against the power of their colony’s government.

The Bownas case generated student interest in the power of the people to stand up against government abuse through non-violent action, stimulating thoughtful discussion regarding the abuses suffered by religious minorities in the United States and elsewhere, and recognition of the difference between abstract professions of toleration and actual abridgements of religious liberty. Finally, it raised the question of the degree to which a government has to rely upon the support and cooperation of its subjects or citizens, and how different sets of people and different levels of government might be in agreement or in conflict with one another.

One young man in my class was an American infantry combat veteran of the Iraq War. Among his many classroom comments was that most of the privates with whom he had served were from lower-middle class or lower class families, and that many had enlisted because they needed a job. This observation echoed the findings presented by John G. Staudt, then a doctoral candidate in history at George Washington University and an instructor at Hofstra University, in an LIHJ articled titled: “Immigrants, Indians, and Idle Men: Long Island’s ‘Rabble in Arms’ in the French and Indian War.”[9] Through analyses of the New York’s provincial force volunteer rosters and its militia muster rolls, Staudt determined that those New Yorkers who fought in that war were considerably different from what is generally believed, a misunderstanding that Staudt termed “the militia myth.”

Staudt’s findings rest on a clear understanding of the difference between the provincial force and the militia. The provincial force, which supported the British army, consisted entirely of volunteers who enlisted for a lengthy period of continuous active duty that could put them into action far from their place of enlistment. Staudt cites the example of the action of Long Island provincials against the French in the Niagara campaign. The militia, on the other hand, was organized by locale, involving men of the locale who met property and residence requirements, and was intended as a part-time defensive force for local purposes. It consisted of economically self-dependent yeoman farmers, but not tenants or farm laborers, of master craftsmen, but not journeymen or apprentices, and of shopkeepers, but not clerks. Very few of such men of property volunteered to fight in the provincial force, and when they did it was almost always as officers.

New York colony’s fighting, therefore, fell to men who were not themselves eligible to serve in the militia. These were members of a growing property-less laboring class of unskilled rural and town wage workers, many chronically unemployed or seasonally underemployed, and mostly 21 years of age or younger. They included non-indentured white men. Many were recent immigrants from Germany or northern Ireland, while many others had migrated to New York from other colonies in search of work. Native Americans also made up an important part of the provincial armed force raised on Long Island, their 8% of the force being significantly higher than their portion of the Island’s overall population. For many of these men, be they poor English colonials, recent German or Irish immigrants (who would again be the largest ethnic groups in the Union Army of the American Civil War), or Native Americans, soldiering in the provincial army was the only consistent work available, and their way to enter the increasingly money-based economy. Staudt also comments that African American Long Islanders, who were excluded from the militia, were nearly entirely absent from the provincial force raised on Long Island, despite comprising one-fifth of the Island’s adult male population. Staudt attributes this to a combination of two factors: a fear of arming Blacks, who on Long Island were mostly slaves, and the unwillingness of the island’s slave owners to risk the loss of their valuable property in warfare. Staudt concludes his thought-provoking and myth-challenging article by stating that it was the colonial experience of forces such as New York’s provincial “rabble in arms,” not its militias of men of property, that prepared the thirteen colonies for the military challenge they would face in the rapidly approaching American Revolution.

My students had some difficulty with the Revolution, as much of what they knew about it was based on a combination of fact and myth, with myth often serving as the setting for fact. Many believed that almost everyone in the thirteen colonies supported the Revolution. They also placed the American Revolution in distant places: in Boston, with Paul Revere’s ride, or at Valley Forge, with George Washington on his knees, praying in the snow. Few placed the American Revolution on Long Island, and most believed that the United States won every battle, thoroughly defeating the British and quickly driving them from our land. Loyalists, many students believed, were evil traitors.

“By the Rude Storms of Faction Blown: Thomas Jones, A Long Island Loyalist,” an LIHJ article by Patrick J. MacNamara, then a doctoral candidate at Catholic University, brought students to a more accepting understanding of why the Revolutionary cause was seen differently by various people, and why many chose to embrace the crown instead of the side of rebellion and independence.[10] MacNamara depicts Jones as a person of privilege and wealth who, unlike those who pledged their fortunes in the Declaration of Independence, believed that his own best interests, and the preservation of an orderly and prosperous society, rested with the continued protections of British rule. Jones, like many of the leaders of the American cause for independence, was from a family of long-standing wealth, high standing in society, local political influence, and respectful recognition by the general population. However, his own fortunes, both judicial and economic, were very closely tied to the royal colonial government of New York, causing him to take his stand for the crown. Jones suffered greatly for his position, losing his property to confiscation, and living the remainder of his life as an expatriate in England. My students were quite divided with regard to Thomas Jones’s right to his anti-Patriot political beliefs and to his active support for the Loyalist cause. Perhaps, some students ventured, he was entitled to the freedom of his Loyalist opinions, but not to his support of the Loyalists in time of war. They were also divided on the newly independent New York State government’s confiscation of Jones’s property. Some saw it as a violation of his rights, while others didn’t even see it as confiscation, but rather as Jones’s own abandonment and forfeiture through his anti-American stand and his self-imposed exile to England. One issue rested at the heart of the discussion: does the right to dissent end during war? The political views and resulting consequences for this one Long Islander, Thomas Jones, put the reality of the Revolutionary conflict into an unanticipated context and perspective for my students, simultaneously clarifying and complicating the issues involved.

Teachers now addressing the case of Thomas Jones have the further benefit of examining its political, social, cultural and legal complexities through “Thomas Jones: Embittered Long Island Loyalist,” by Dr. Joseph S. Tiedemann of Loyola Marymount University, recently appearing in the LIHJ’s new on-line electronic format.[11] Tiedemann analyzes Jones’s Loyalist stance from the perspective of his privileged status as a member of New York’s colonial elite. Jones, as depicted by Tiedemann, held to a conception of government and society that would preserve his lofty rank, both through institutional structures and popular deference. With his life spanning from social acceptance of the familial inheritance of his elite status into the anti-deferential attitudes of democratic assertion and revolution, Jones became what Tiedemann terms “an embittered remnant” of a royal colonial past, living in exile in England, writing an elitist history of the Revolution, and disgusted with a corrupt British hierarchy that was unable to protect for colonial Loyalists the very social order upon which its own power and wealth were based. Teachers could use Thomas Jones’s case as the basis for a debate on various aspects of elitism, democracy, political faction, and the suppression or protection of minority viewpoints by having some students read McNamara’s sympathetic treatment and others the more critical article by Tiedemann. Whatever side they take, the students will be touched by Thomas Jones never having his greatest hope fulfilled: he never returned to Long Island.

The curricula, teaching, and the writing of American History textbooks often concentrate on things distant from students not only in time, but in place. An examination of the standard textbooks and supplementary readings for an American History survey course will usually reveal few, if any, references to Long Island. Educators and students of America’s history would be well-served to address this oversight and find ways to include Long Island’s story in our middle school, high school and college level survey courses. The Long Island History Journal is a convenient tool for incorporating the diverse history of Long Island into the study of the wider societies of the nation and even of the world. By using local history as a portal to the teaching of national history and global history, an instructor can transport people, events and issues, long distant in time and far removed in place, to a student’s home community and thereby actively engage students in the learning process.


[1] Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant, Volume 1, to 1877, 13th edition, as updated by David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006).

[2] Philip C. Weigand, “How Advanced Were Long Island’s Native Americans? A Challenge to the Traditional View”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 17, nos. 1 and 2 (Fall 2004/Spring 2005): 101-118.

[3] John Charles Witek, “The Lives and Identities of the Indians of Shelter Island, 1652-1835”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 173-184.

[4] D. Reid Ross, “Joris and Catalina Rapalje, The First Colonists in New Netherland”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 205-218.

[5] David Aliano, “Long Island’s Struggle for Civil Liberty Under the Dutch Regime”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 8, no. 5 (Fall 1995): 111-118.

[6] Roger Wunderlich, “Lion Gardiner: Long Island’s Founding Father”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 10, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 172-185.

[7] Elizabeth Shepherd, “Land, Livestock, and Liberty: Richard Smith of Smithtown”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 12, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 193-208.

[8] Christopher Densmore, “The Samuel Bownas Case: Religious Toleration and the Independence of Juries in Colonial New York, 1703-1704”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 2, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 177-188.

[9] John G. Staudt, “Immigrants, Indians, and Idle Men: Long Island’s ‘Rabble in Arms’ in the French and Indian War”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 11, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 178-189.

[10] Patrick J. MacNamara, “By the Rude Storms of Factions Blown: Thomas Jones, A Long Island Loyalist”: Long Island Historical Journal, vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 178-190.

[11] Joseph S. Tiedemann, “Thomas Jones: Embittered Long Island Loyalist”: Long Island History Journal, 21, no. 1 Fall 2.