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, riding in a Phaeton carriage, with Samuel’s daughter Audrey alongside on horseback. Though he was considered a Tory, Buchanan was very close to the Townsends. His wife Almy was Samuel’s niece, the daughter of his brother and business partner, Jacob, who lived directly next door. Thomas Buchanan was also in the shipping business with the Townsends, and had hired Samuel’s oldest 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.