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 his brother 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 those sympathies posed 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 an 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.