Virtual SPIES! Tour
Join us every Monday for a virtual tour exploring local sites of Setauket’s Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring.
At each site you will learn about a spy that played a key role in the ring and YOU will help to decode a spies message at each location! Be sure to also visit Tri-Spy Tours for more virtual programming and updates on when in-person tours will resume.
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Week 5 - Anna Smith Strong
ANNA SMITH STRONG, great grand-daughter of Setauket’s Lord of the Manor William “Tangier” Smith may have devised a washline signal system to identify for Abraham Woodhull, Setauket spy chief, the whereabouts of Caleb Brewster's whaleboats, so Woodhull could find him and pass along messages for General Washington. To avoid detection by the British it was necessary for Brewster to hide his boat in six different places, each identified by a number. Nancy Strong, as she was known by friends and family, hung her laundry from the line in a code formation to direct Woodhull to Brewster’s location. A black petticoat was the signal that Brewster was nearby, and the number of handkerchiefs scattered among the other garments showed the meeting place. Using the most ordinary of personal items and improvising on the most ordinary of personal tasks, she made an extraordinary contribution to the Patriot cause.
Nancy and her husband Selah Strong lived at Mount Misery (now Belle Terre) when first married in 1760. In July 1775, Selah sold his house at Mount Misery and they moved to Nancy’s ancestral home on what is now Strong’s Neck. After the British took control of Long Island, British officers moved into the Manor House on the neck. Selah and Nancy, with five children, then moved to a little house on the Neck. In January, 1778 Selah was arrested and confined, probably in the sugar house prison, in New York City on a charge of treasonable correspondence with his Majesty’s enemies. Nancy obtained his release, possibly with the help of her two Tory brothers and he fled to Patriot Connecticut.
While British officers luxuriated in the Strong’s Manor House, Nancy and her children, lived in the little house halfway down the hill to the shore, looking right across the bay to the home of Abraham Woodhull. When the Culper Spy Ring began the work of providing information about the activities of the British forces in New York City, Nancy Strong became the connection between Woodhull and Brewster. She also ordered expensive goods to be bought in New York for herself and the British officers who occupied the Manor house, so Austin Roe would have an excuse to go from Setauket to the city where he gathered intelligence for General Washington.
In February 1781, British spy William Heron wrote to the British Intelligence Chief in New York City that Private dispatches were frequently sent From New York to Washington by some traitors and that they came by way of Setauket where a certain Brewster received them at, or near, a certain woman’s. That certain woman was almost certainly Nancy Strong, Abraham Woodhull’s only neighbor.
Not later than June of 1780, Nancy and Selah were reunited in Setauket. Selah Strong was elected as president of the Town of Brookhaven trustees and was present at the June town board meeting. After the Revolutionary War, in April 1790, Selah led Washington's carriage and party from town headquarters in Coram to the Roe Tavern in Setauket during President Washington’s tour of Long Island. Both Selah and Nancy Strong continued to be leaders in the Town of Brookhaven and in their community for the remainder of their lives. Nancy died in 1812 and Selah in 1815. They are buried in the Smith-Strong family graveyard along Cemetery Road on Strong's Neck
NANCY’S POLYBIOS CHECKERBOARD CIPHER
1 2 3 4 5
a b c d e
f g h ij k
l m n o p
q r s t u
v w x y z
Polybius was a Greek historian and cryptographer of the second century B.C.E. His signaling system led to a basic form of substituting digits for plaintext letters. Each of the letters has a pair of numerical coordinates derived from the numbers of the row and column in which it was located. Using the English alphabet and combining I and j in a single cell, a five-by-five square is arranged.
NANCY’S POLYBIOS CHECKERBOARD CIPHER
11 33 33 11
43 32 24 44 23
43 44 42 34 33 22
52 34 42 15
42 15 14
35 15 44 44 24 13 34 11 44 43
Week 4 - Captain Austin Roe
CAPTAIN AUSTIN ROE, as the courier known as Long Island’s Paul Revere, was the member of the Setauket Spies most visible to the British and Tories in Brookhaven.
Roe ran a tavern in East Setauket where food and drink were served and where travelers could stay overnight on their way to or from the east end of Long Island. The original location of the tavern (it was moved in 1936) was along what is now Route 25A, just west of Bayview Avenue. The site is marked by a state road sign which details a few of the most important facts about Austin Roe and the tavern.
Austin Roe used his position as a tavern owner to justify his 110 mile trips to New York City (Manhattan) and back to Setauket. While in New York, Roe gathered supplies he needed for the tavern, and expensive materials and goods for Nancy Strong. These trips provided the cover he needed to obtain spy messages. Roe, born in 1748, was 29 years old when he first agreed to be a part of the Setauket Spies. He made numerous trips to Manhattan, sometimes as often as once a week. The roads were heavily traveled by British and Loyalist troops and by highwaymen (thieves and robbers). Roe would receive intelligence directly from Robert Townsend, the messages written in code or invisible ink. Roe would ride back to Setauket and pass the information to Abraham Woodhull. Roe was never identified as a spy courier.
In April, 1790, less than one year after his inauguration, President Washington made a four-day trip on Long Island, principally to thank the spies for their work during the Revolutionary War. Washington stayed the night of April 21 at the home of Squire Isaac Thompson in what is now Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore. Thompson’s mother was Abraham Woodhull’s aunt. Washington spent the next night, April 22 1790, at the Roe Tavern in Setauket. As he departed from Coram, led to Setauket by Selah Strong, president of the Town of Brookhaven trustees, Washington wrote in his diary, “ . . .to Setakit 7 miles more to the house of a Capt. Roe, which is tolerably dect. With obliging people in it.”
The room President Washington stayed in is believed to be the one with the two windows on the left side of the larger section of the house. The window over the main entrance is the upstairs hallway leading to the bedroom the president occupied. The one-and-a-half story section on the right side, with a tall peak dormer, is the original 1703 home built by the first Selah Strong. It was sold to the Woodhulls, and they sold it to Austin Roe who converted the home into a tavern.
A story, passed down through the Roe family says that when Austin Roe found out that President Washington was headed for the Roe Tavern, he was in such a hurry to get there and meet the president that he fell off his horse and broke his leg. Meeting President Washington must have been special for Roe and his wife Catherine, Selah and Nancy Strong, and Abraham and Mary Woodhull as well as for other townspeople who had a chance to meet our first president and the hero of the Revolutionary War. Roe and his family moved to Patchogue in 1798 where he founded the Roe Hotel. He died there in 1830 at the age of 81.
AUSTIN ROE’S REVERSE TRANSPOSITION CIPHER
Transposition shifts the original text, causing the normal order of the letters to be disarranged.
Ciphers also require a key, which determines the operations of a given cipher. A keyword might signify the pattern of letters in a cipher alphabet, while a keynumber could specify the order of the letters in a transposition.
The cipher is a basic plain text reverse cipher without a complicated arrangement of letters. Just follow the “keyword” instructions below.
Read the cipher in reverse. Insert spaces between words as needed.
AUSTIN ROE’S REVERSE TRANSPOSITION
nitsua eor sah a terces edoc rebmun tub on terces edoc eman
yps segassem erew decalp ni a wolloh eert
eor saw nrob ni denword wodaem
Week 3 - Caleb Brewster
CALEB BREWSTER was perhaps the most bold and daring of the spies. He was the only one of the group that the British had definitely identified as a spy. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Brewster enlisted in the local militia.
After the August, 1776 Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn Brewster joined the Continental Army with the rank of a lieutenant of artillery. He returned to Setauket in August of 1777 as part of the attacking force from Connecticut that fought in the skirmish (battle) at Setauket. In November 1780 he was one of the officers under Major Benjamin Tallmadge who captured Fort St. George at Mastic. They returned to Connecticut with the entire complement of the fort captured.
In spite of his service designation, one of Brewster’s task throughout the war was to command a fleet of whale boats operating from the Connecticut shore against British and Tory shipping on Long Island Sound (known as the "Devil's Belt"). This, together with his knowledge of the Long Island shoreline, his work as a mate on sailing ships, and his boyhood association with Benjamin Tallmadge, made him an ideal choice to carry intelligence back and forth across the Sound. It was Caleb Brewster who most likely gave Benjamin Tallmadge the idea to use Setauket as a center for intelligence operations. Beginning in 1777, Brewster gathered information on the activities of British and Loyalist units on Long Island from his friends, relatives and other contacts and gave the mostly verbal information to his boyhood friend Tallmadge.
Once Tallmadge formalized the activities of the Culper Spy ring, Brewster took his whaleboat crews to Setauket and neighboring coves to bring messages back to Fairfield, Connecticut for Major Benjamin Tallmadge to deliver to General Washington. Brewster also made numerous trips with his Whaleboat crews into Long Island Sound to attack British and Loyalist ships. This activity also provided more opportunities for gathering intelligence for General Washington.
BREWSTER’S ROSICRUCIAN CIPHER
Each letter is represented by the shape of the box or partial box formed by the grid and by a dot indicating the letter’s position.
The a’s dot is in the first position, or left side; b is second in the middle; and c is third on the right. The letters d, e, & f have a U shaped box. The only completely boxed letters are m, n & o.
abc def ghi
jkl mno pqr
stu vwx yz
Week 2 - Benjamin Tallmadge
BENJAMIN TALLMADGE, Organizer and leader of the Revolutionary War Setauket Spies, was born in Setauket on February 25, 1754. He was the son of the minister of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. The home where he was born is still standing in Setauket at the end of Runs Road. Tallmadge grew up in Setauket, attended school here with his close friend Abraham Woodhull and like many residents of Suffolk County he grew to have a healthy distrust for British authorities in New York. Tallmadge, a classmate of Nathan Hale, graduated from Yale in 1773 and, like Hale, taught school for a time in Connecticut.
When the Revolution began, Tallmadge enlisted in the Continental Army and was soon awarded the rank of Major. Later, General Washington appointed him head of his secret service and tasked Tallmadge with establishing an espionage network against the British in New York City. To conduct this vital undercover operation on Long Island, Tallmadge choose his boyhood friend Abraham Woodhull. Tallmadge and Woodhull choose other friends and neighbors from Setauket; men and women who could be trusted and who would prove to be so discreet in all their contacts that their identity would not be discovered until the 20th century.
Major Tallmadge, referred to by the code name John Bolton, not only led Washington's secret service, but was also in most of the battles involving the Continental Army in the northern states. Among his many exploits was the capture of Fort St. George at Mastic, Long Island in November 1780.
After the war was over Tallmadge retired from the Army with the rank of colonel. In 1784 he married Mary, eldest daughter of General William Floyd of Mastic - Long Island's signer of the Declaration of Independence. Tallmadge lived in Litchfield, Connecticut and represented that state in congress for 16 years. He died at Litchfield in 1835 at the age of 81.
BENJAMIN TALLMADGE'S NOMENCLATOR CIPHER - CULPER SPY RING
From about 1400 to 1850, the nomenclator, from the Latin nomen “Name” and calator “caller,” was the primary means of masking communications. Beginning as a list of names with their equivalent codewords used by scribes of popes and kings to protect personal and diplomatic correspondence, the nomenclator developed into a collection of syllables, words and names similiar to a code, with a separate cipher alphabet.
BENJAMIN TALLMADGE’S NOMENCLATOR CIPHER
The fqqo BY THE SWORD vimmu the uvqls
Week 1 - Abraham Woodhull: Leader of the Culper Spy Ring
ABRAHAM WOODHULL, a descendant of Richard Woodhull, an early Brookhaven Town leader and magistrate, was born on his family's farm in Setauket, overlooking Little Bay, in 1750. He was a farmer by occupation. Probably because of his elder brother Richard's death at the early age of 32, Abraham inherited the family home [circa 1690] and farm. The land had been in the family since Richard Woodhull, came to Setauket, sometime between 1655 and 1657.
From the beginning of the Setauket Spies in 1778, Woodhull was in charge of day-to-day operations. His code name was Samuel Culper and the spy operation came to be known as the Culper Ring. Woodhull was referred to as Samuel Culper Senior after he recruited Robert Townsend, who became Culper Junior. Not only did Woodhull direct field activities, but he also risked his life countless times by personally collecting information in New York and on western Long Island.
Woodhull was responsible for evaluating the reports received from all sources, determining what was to go forward to Washington's headquarters and seeing that the dispatches were carried across the Sound by Caleb Brewster. Woodhull's health was poor, partly caused by stress as he lived in constant fear of discovery.
After the Revolution, Woodhull became the first Judge of Suffolk County. He died January 23, 1826 and his grave in the Setauket Presbyterian Church graveyard was marked by the Mayflower Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution in 1936. Bricks from the foundation of the Woodhull homestead, which was destroyed by fire in 1931, were used in the memorial.
WOODHULL’S ROUTE TRANSPOSITION CIPHER
Read the cipher in a top-to-bottom direction.
Be sure to recognize the vertical placement of letters even if they do not line up directly. Disregard the letter x in all cases.
WOODHULL’S ROUTE TRANSPOSITION CIPHER
O O W N B S S X A
N D X X L A P T L
C X R I X G I H O
E H O N E E L X F
X U T V M X L E X
W X E I E A E V I
O L X S X N X I N
X L A I S D D X K
ONCE WOODHULL WROTE AN INVISIBLE MESSAGE AND SPILLED THE VIAL OF INK
Check back with us every Friday for the answer to this cipher and
be sure to join us every Monday for an introduction to a new spy and their hidden message for you to decode!