1740 – 1776: Before the Revolution
In 1740, 23-year-old Samuel Townsend purchased the property now known as Raynham Hall, moving from his father’s house in nearby Jericho. His move to Oyster Bay allowed him easier access to the waterfront and benefited his growing shipping business, co-owned with his brother, Jacob, who moved in next door on Main Street. Samuel’s property consisted originally of a four-room frame house on a sizeable plot of land with an apple orchard across the street and a narrow meadow leading down to the harbor.
In short order, Samuel had enlarged the house to eight rooms by building a lean-to addition on the north side, creating a “saltbox” style house. This property, dubbed “The Homestead,” would have been a hub of activity during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, and was home to Samuel, his wife Sarah Stoddard Townsend, their eight children, and their household slaves.
By 1765, Samuel and Jacob owned four ships, which sailed to Europe, Central America, and the West Indies. They traded in an impressive range of goods, including most importantly logwood (which was and continues today to be a crucial ingredient in the dying of textiles), tea, lumber, molasses, sugar, china, wine, textiles, dye and rum. In addition to the shipping business, Samuel operated a general store from his home, providing local access to a wide variety of imported wares. He was an active member of local and state government, as Oyster Bay’s Justice of the Peace and Town Clerk, a member of the New York Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1777, and, after the Revolution, a New York State Senator from 1786 to 1790.
Although most of Oyster Bay sided with the British during the American Revolution, Samuel’s sympathies were with the Patriots, despite the far greater risks that position entailed to his position, family and fortune. Following the Patriots’ decisive defeat in 1776 at the Battle of Long Island, British forces occupied all of New York City and Long Island, often brutally. Many people in the area who ran afoul of British authorities were confined to prison ships on which more than 10,000 people would die of illness or starvation by the end of the war in 1783, at a time when Manhattan’s entire population was around 20,000. The Townsend family, unlike many Patriots who fled, decided to stay in their home throughout the occupation.
Slavery at the Townsends’
Slavery was a integral part of the economy of 18th century Europe and its colonies, resulting in the importation of some 12 million people from the African continent to the Americas, nearly 300,000 of whom came to the thirteen colonies that would make up the United States by the time of the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War in 1783.
Typical of wealthy New York families, the Townsends of Raynham Hall owned many slaves who labored to maintain the house and grounds. Samuel Townsend’s business interests also were intertwined with the economics of slavery, including, as they did, trade in such products as logwood, sugar, rum and tobacco.
The earliest slave record concerning the Townsends is a receipt of the purchase of a man bought by Samuel in 1749 for 37 pounds. No name is listed on the receipt. A Bible in Raynham Hall Museum’s collection contains entries from 1769 to 1795 recording the names, births and deaths of seventeen Townsend slaves, as well as a partial genealogy. The record lists first names only, including Hannah, Violet, Susannah, Jeffrey, Susan, Catherine, Lilly, Harry, Gabriel and Jane as slaves of Samuel. When the oldest Townsend son, Solomon, married his cousin Anne in 1782, they were given Gabriel and Jane as a wedding present. Their children, named Nancy, Kate, Jim and Josh became Solomon’s slaves, as well as several others not mentioned in the Bible, named Charles, Shadwick, Pricilla, and her unnamed son. Additionally, letters show Samuel also owned a slave named Elizabeth, who escaped Oyster Bay with the British Queen’s Rangers when they decamped in 1779. Audrey and husband Capt. James Farley owned a slave named Rachel Parker, and Phebe’s husband Dr. Seeley owned Amos Burling.
Other slaves from Oyster Bay are recorded as having come to the Townsends’ general store to purchase goods for their masters, and the “Negro ledger,” kept by sons William and David, records many purchases made during the 1760s and 1770s.
The Declaration of Independence in 1776 was an act of rebellion the British king, George III, could not allow, and following the Battle of Long Island, a decisive initial defeat for George Washington, British forces occupied all of New York City and Long Island.
In September of 1776, British soldiers came to Samuel Townsend’s home in Oyster Bay to arrest him for his Patriotic beliefs, and to imprison him on one of the notorious prison ships in New York Harbor, where horrendous conditions would result in the deaths of over 10,000 captives by the end of the war. According to the recollection of family members, a British officer in the home smashed a hunting rifle that was mounted above the mantle, declaring that a rebel had no right to possess such a weapon, and then motioned to a portrait of the Townsends’ oldest son, Solomon, demanding to see him as well. When told that Solomon was at sea, he expressed regret that they could not arrest him as well. Outside the house, wife Sarah and daughters Sally and Phebe were frantic, afraid they might never see Samuel again.
Samuel was led away through the village and towards Jericho, traveling up the long hill in Pine Hollow. Coming down the hill were Thomas Buchanan and his wife Almy, Samuel’s sister, riding in a Phaeton carriage, with Samuel’s daughter Audrey alongside on horseback. Though he was Tory, Buchanan was very close to the Townsends. He was Samuel’s brother-in-law, was also in the shipping business, and had hired Samuel’s son Solomon to captain his merchant ship, the Glasgow.
When Buchanan saw Samuel being led away, he took Audrey’s horse and followed the soldiers to Jericho, where he paid a huge sum of money, several thousand pounds, to secure Samuel’s freedom. To the great relief of family and friends in Oyster Bay, Samuel returned home, unharmed. Following the end of the war in 1783, when all British were required to evacuate, Thomas Buchanan’s great loyalty and friendship were remembered, and he was allowed to stay and continue his successful merchant business in New York.
In his 1846 book, Revolutionary Incidents in Queens County, Henry Onderdonk described another compelling account of Oyster Bay during the war, which mentions the Townsend house:
“A great variety of troops lay at Oyster Bay village during the war. Delancy’s Corps was the first. Fanning’s Corps, in charge of Major Grant, lay here one summer. They were rude and ill-behaved… The streets were garnished with sentry boxes to protect the patrol from the weather. These paraded the streets after 9 o’clock at night, when no one was allowed to pass without a countersign. One evening John Weeks, when challenged by the sentinel, instead of giving the countersign, left the road and ran off across the fields. He was seized, tried, and sentenced to be whipped. He was accordingly tied up to a locust tree in front of Townsend’s, but before he received the full measure of his punishment, the cries of the youth and the frantic appeals of his mother and sister so wrought on the people, that by their interference he was set at liberty.”
For a six-month period from 1778 to 1779, the Townsend property actually served as headquarters for a regiment of 300 British troops called the Queen’s Rangers, and their commander, Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, who quartered himself in the house, alongside the family. Daily officers’ meetings were held in the front parlor, and the presence of British officers in the house became an everyday fact of life. During that time, Simcoe was visited several times by a close friend, British officer Major John André, who would shortly be hanged as a spy for his role in helping Benedict Arnold turn traitor in 1780. After the war, Lt. Col. Simcoe founded the city of Toronto, where he served as Governor of Upper Canada.
America’s First Valentine
John Graves Simcoe also had a more personal link with the Townsend Family. Indeed, Raynham Hall is home to the first known Valentine in the United States, addressed to Sarah by Simcoe, and presented to her on February 14th, 1779. The Valentine alludes to the difficulty of loving an enemy. The poem reads:
Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!
Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well, where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine to fix thy power with spells divine;
Thou know’st what powerful magick lies within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires, and Heaven’s own joys around inspires;
Thou know’st my heart will always prove the shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne two ways that lead are only known—
Here gay Variety presides, and many a youthful circle guides
Through paths where lilies, roses sweet, bloom and decay beneath their feet;
Here constancy with sober mien regardless of the flowery Scene
With Myrtle crowned that never fades, in silence seeks the Cypress Shades,
Or fixed near Contemplation’s cell, chief with the Muses loves to dwell,
Leads those who inward feel and burn and often clasp the abandon’d urn,–
Say, awful God! Did’st thou not prove my heart was formed for Constant love?
Thou saw’st me once on every plain to Delia pour the artless strain—
Thou wept’sd her death and bad’st me change my happier days no more to range
O’er hill, o’er dale, in sweet Employ, of singing Delia, Nature’s joy;
Thou bad’st me change the pastoral scene forget my Crook; with haughty mien
To raise the iron Spear of War, victim of Grief and deep Despair:
Say, must I all my joys forego and still maintain this outward show?
Say, shall this breast that’s pained to feel be ever clad in horrid steel?
Nor swell with other joys than those of conquest o’er unworthy foes?
Shall no fair maid with equal fire awake the flames of soft desire:
My bosom born, for transport, burn and raise my thoughts from Delia’s urn?
“Fond Youth,” the God of Love replies, “Your answer take from Sarah’s eyes.”
The Valentine was said to have been found among Sarah’s possessions after her death at the age of 82. Sarah never married, and we may never know what effect the Valentine might have had on her life, nor the true nature of her relationship with Simcoe.
Robert Townsend and the Culper Spy Ring
The only known likeness of Robert Townsend was sketched by his nephew Peter Townsend in 1813, when Robert was 60 years old, and is pasted into Peter’s sketchbook
Well-aware of the Patriots’ enormous disadvantage against the far wealthier, better-equipped and better-trained British, who possessed the most powerful fighting force in the world at that time, George Washington believed that the best — and perhaps only — chance he had to succeed was to develop a superior source and use of intelligence. After the death of Nathan Hale, hanged at 21 in Manhattan after being captured by the British as a spy, Washington also resolved that his intelligence network would be operated with discipline and cunning, and he recruited Hale’s Yale classmate Benjamin Tallmadge as his chief operative, in charge of recruiting and running the ring.
At the time he accepted to join George Washington’s intelligence network in 1778, Robert Townsend operated a Manhattan-based merchant shipping firm with his brother William and cousin John. Using his work as a merchant as a cover, Robert could move about the coffee houses, social events, shops and docks of Manhattan, eavesdropping and observing British troop movements, without arousing suspicion.
Under the code name “Culper Junior,” Robert formed the first link in a chain of agents who came to be known as the Culper Spy Ring. Using a special invisible ink formula, invented by John Jay’s brother Sir James Jay, as well as an elaborate numeric code, the spies supplied Washington with critical information about New York City and Long Island.
Robert conveyed his messages to George Washington via courier (usually Long Island tavern keeper Austin Roe) to Setauket, Long Island, whence the messages would be secreted by whaleboat (a vessel that might be rowed by six to eight men with the additional help of dismountable sails) to to shores of Connecticut, and eventually to wherever Washington was headquartered. There, Washington could apply the re-agent solution that would make the message reappear.
The process of gathering and forwarding information was slow and hazardous, and it caused continual friction between Washington and his field agents. Repeated attempts to speed the messages met with failure, and Washington’s frustration is clear from his correspondence. “It is of little avail to be told of things after they have become a matter of public notoriety,” he wrote in June of 1779.
Despite the shortcomings of the system, Robert and his comrades provided invaluable service to the American cause. By gathering information on British troop movements, they alerted Washington to the possibility of attack. Likewise, they broke the news that the British were planning to undermine the war effort by flooding New York with counterfeit American currency.
The greatest coup of the Culper Spy Ring was alerting Washington to a planned British attack on the French fleet landing at Newport, Rhode Island. With this timely piece of intelligence, Washington was able to bluff the enemy into believing he would attack New York City. This forced the British to withdraw their attack force, and the French were able to disembark without hindrance.
Robert Townsend served his country well, and at great risk to himself and his family. Though he moved back to Raynham Hall following his father’s death in 1790 and lived for years with his sisters Sarah and Phebe, he kept his involvement in the Culper Spy Ring a total secret from his family and friends for the remainder of his life. Indeed, Robert’s involvement in the Culper Spy Ring was not uncovered until the 1930s, when historian Morton Pennypacker hired a well-known handwriting analyst to prove the true identity of Culper Junior.
A sketch of the Samuel Townsend Family
Samuel Townsend, 1717-1790
married Sarah Stoddard, 1724-1800
Solomon (died aged 4 months) 1743 – 1744
Captain Solomon, 1746-1811
Silhouette of Captain Solomon Townsend
From an early age Solomon was educated in the intricacies of his father’s shipping business, going to sea as a cabin boy at age fourteen and becoming a ship’s captain at twenty, first for his father’s ship, the brig Sally, and later for Thomas Buchanan’s 300-ton ship Glasgow, making many successful transatlantic voyages. During the war, with a Loyalist employer, Solomon’s own patriotic beliefs led him to give up his career at sea in 1778. Landing the Glasgow in London, he traveled to Paris where he met with Benjamin Franklin, and swore his allegiance to the new United States. Returning to America, but unable to return home due to the occupation, he spent the last years of the war with his cousin Peter Townsend, owner of the Sterling Ironworks in Orange County, New York. Earlier that year Peter Townsend had forged for General Washington the “Great Chain,” an enormous iron chain which was stretched across the Hudson River at West Point to block the passage of British warships. Solomon learned the iron business, and married Peter’s daughter Anne in 1782. After the war he established the Augusta Forge nearby, as well as an anchor shop in New York City. He went into the shipping business for a period with his brother Robert, and dealt primarily with iron and anchors. Following in his father’s footsteps, he was elected to the New York Legislature and was serving in Albany when he died in 1811 at age 65.
Samuel was married to his cousin Esther Townsend and they had a son named William Penn. Samuel was a merchant in the family merchant trade, and while on business in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1773, he caught a fever and died at the age of 24. Tragically, just two months later, his son Penn also died, aged 2 in Oyster Bay, leaving Esther a deeply grieving young widow.
Phebe (died aged 3 months) 1751-1752
Robert (Culper, Jr.), 1753-1838 — See Robert Townsend and the Culper Spy Ring
Audrey married Captain James Farley, a sea captain who had commanded one of her father’s vessels before the Revolutionary War, and was a close associate of her brother Captain Solomon Townsend. She and James did not have children, and lived in Oyster Bay their entire lives, though Capt. Farley was often at sea.
William was a clerk in his brother Robert’s mercantile business in New York City during the war, rooming with Robert and cousin John in an apartment above the shop described as “Bachelor’s Hall.” After the war he returned to Oyster Bay. Considered by some family members to be the most handsome of the Townsend sons, he was called “the flower of the family.” William died unmarried in the winter of 1805 at age 48. While he was cutting a boat out of the ice in Oyster Bay harbor, he slipped, fell into the icy waters and drowned.
Also engaged in the family business, David died unmarried of hasty consumption (tuberculosis) following the Revolutionary War, at age 26.
Sarah (“Sally”), 1760-1842
Sarah, who is believed to have had a flirtation with British Commander Simcoe when she was 18 years old (link to Valentine story) spent her entire life living in Raynham Hall with family, especially Robert, Phebe, and Phebe’s husband Dr. Seeley. After her father’s death in 1790 they shared the house until her death in 1842 at age 82. An original windowpane from the front of the colonial house was preserved, with a scratched message from a British officer describing her in her youth as “the adorable Miss Sally Sarah Townsend.”
Phebe lived at Raynham Hall for most of her life, and created a family scandal when she got married in 1808 at age 45 to a man who was just 26. Her husband, Dr. Ebenezer Seeley, became the owner of the Townsend family property.
Silhouette of Phebe Townsend Seeley from her nephew Peter Townsend’s scrapbook.
Raynham Hall since the 1850s
In 1851, Solomon Townsend II, son of Solomon and Anne, and grandson of Samuel and Sarah, purchased the Townsend Homestead and its property from his uncle, Dr. Ebenezer Seely. He then remodeled and enlarged the colonial dwelling in the fashionable Gothic Revival style, bringing the number of rooms from eight to twenty-two. The addition of a large rear wing and a tower doubled the size of the house and transformed it into an elegant Victorian “villa.” Disregarding his grandfather’s Patriot allegiances, he renamed it Raynham Hall, after the home of the Townshends in Norfolk, England, of whom perhaps the most prominent member was Charles Townshend, author of the Townshend Acts which played no small part in sparking the Revolution. Initially, Raynham Hall served as a summer residence for Solomon and his family, with Solomon probably commuting to New York City during the week while his wife Helene DeKay Townsend and their children lived in Oyster Bay. By 1861, the family had made Raynham Hall their permanent residence.
Like his father and grandfather, Solomon was a prosperous merchant and importer. In keeping with the family tradition of public service, he served in the State Legislature and at two State Constitutional Conventions, in addition to being President of the Oyster Bay Board of Education. By 1860 he was one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Oyster Bay.
The Solomon Townsend II Family
Solomon II (1805 – 1880) in 1849 married Helene DeKay (1821 – 1895)
They had six children:
- Solomon Samuel, 1850-1910
- Charles DeKay, 1851-1922
- Robert, 1853-1915
- Maurice Edward, 1855-1927
- Edward Nicoll, 1857-1917
- Maria Fonda, 1860-1908
By 1912, the house had passed into the ownership of Edward Nicoll Townsend, Jr., son of Edward Nicoll Townsend list above, and grandson of Solomon II. He held the house for two years before selling it to a cousin, his great-aunt Sarah Townsend Coles’ granddaughter, Julia Weekes Coles. Julia owned the Townsend home between 1914 and 1933, and though she apparently never lived there, she and her sister, Sarah Townsend Coles Halstead, maintained the home and operated a tea room there for a time. In 1933, Ms. Coles sold it for $10 to the Oyster Bay chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a hereditary organization whose members are descendents of people who were Patriots during the War of Independence.
The Daughters of the American Revolution, in turn, donated the property to the Town of Oyster Bay in 1947, on condition that the Town maintain Raynham Hall “as a public shrine, and as far as possible, make perpetual a memorial to the brave men and women of revolutionary times, for the use and benefit of the general public of the nation under agreements, covenants and conditions which will best secure to our people the diffusion of knowledge and the inspiration of our forebears in cherishing freedom, love of country and the fostering of patriotism.”
The Friends of Raynham Hall, Inc., is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization incorporated in 1953 which partners with the Town of Oyster Bay to maintain and operate Raynham Hall as a museum.
Preservation of Raynham Hall
The mission of Raynham Hall Museum is to enable visitors to the nearly 300-year-old Townsend family home in Oyster Bay to experience what it meant to be prominent merchants and heroic patriots, and to become engaged in the worlds of espionage, domestic life and the decorative arts.
The building and grounds of Raynham Hall are owned by the Town of Oyster Bay, and the site is operated as a museum by the Friends of Raynham Hall, Inc. The Museum has been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums since 1991, the only historic house museum on Long Island to bear that distinction. We are also a local, state and national landmark, listed at the national level of significance.
We welcome thousands of students every year who come on class field trips to enhance their knowledge of Revolutionary War history, and our costumed educators also offer tours to walk-in visitors. Additionally, we offer group tours on other historic subjects (for instance the Civil War, Victorian life, or slavery) that can be tailored to your needs, and we offer many adults and children’s workshops throughout the year. We partner with other community groups to encourage the revitalization of this vibrant community, and we advocate for historic preservation.
The current members of Raynham Hall’s board of trustees are:
Joanna Badami, 2nd Vice President
John A. Bonifacio
Elizabeth Brown, Treasurer
John M. Collins, President
Rebecca Finelli, Secretary
Rita Roselle, 1st Vice President
G. Bruce Knecht
James M. Murphy, Legal Advisor
Kathleen Gallagher Pries
Patricia P. Sands
Kay Hutchins Sato
Karen J. Underwood, 3rd Vice President
Abby Youngs Weir
Our advisory board members are:
|Rosemary E. Bourne
Judith C. Chapman
Alice L. Gromisch
Robert F. Hussey
|John M. Perkins
Franklin Hill Perrell
Bradford G. Weekes III
Richard Weir III
Our honorary trustee is: Mrs. Bradford G. Weekes, Jr.
Our staff is as follows:
|Harriet Gerard Clark, Executive Director
Nicole Menchise, Collections Manager
Antoinette Fleig, Michael Goudket,
Jeanne Pellizzi, Joann Perotto,
Jo Ann Paulsen, Thomas Valentine
|Theresa Skvarla, Public Relations Director
Alexandra Sutherland, Director of Education and Public Programs