Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Southampton Under Siege was the first exhibit I helped create when I started at the Southampton History Museum in 2016. The majority of the research and preparation was completed by our former Curator Emma Ballou, current Research Center Manager Mary Cummings and a volunteer named Megan Flynn. If you missed that great exhibit from a few years ago or just want to take a look at some of the info again, you can check it out below!
Southampton Under Siege:
The British Occupation of Southampton During the Revolutionary War
was on display March 19th to December 31, 2016
The Exhibit was sponsored by:
Bath and Tennis Club Charitable Fund
Southampton Colony Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution
That there would be an American Revolution in 1775 would have been all but unthinkable to Anglo-American colonists in the first half of the eighteenth century. They considered themselves proud Englishmen and women, and believed that English government, economics, religion, and culture were the best in the world.
Much of the unrest that would occur in the years leading up to the Revolution centered around a fear that Britain's lawmakers had distorted the spirit of the constitution in order to take away the liberties Americans enjoyed as British imperial citizens —not that there was something essentially wrong with monarchy or imperialism. Even as discontent grew, most continued to hope for (and expect) reconciliation, not independence, as the answer to their complaints.
The geographic expanse that comprised Britain’s thirteen North American colonies in 1775 meant that, throughout most of the Revolution, relatively little land was occupied by the British army at any given time. The East End of Long Island turned out to be one of the exceptions. Following British victory at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Southampton and other East End towns found themselves isolated and “besieged” by British and Hessian (typically German mercenary) soldiers. Southampton’s experience as a town under siege was one of contrasts: between the remaining villagers and the soldiers who moved in, and among villagers themselves —including the shadows of those who had temporarily left their homes behind.
1740 to 1773
Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, Parliament’s measures to raise funds from the colonies to cover the cost of the Seven Years’ War, as well as its efforts to limit colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, inspired growing fears that the Empire had lost its way. When Britain passed the Stamp Act in 1765 as a revenue -raising measure, some colonists, particularly those with an interest in commerce (legal or illegal—both flourished in colonial port cities), were outraged. Previously, Britain had only ever attempted to raise funds from the colonies by regulating trade, but the Stamp Act amounted to a direct tax on colonists. Nine colonies sent delegates to a Stamp Act Congress, which petitioned Britain to repeal the Act, holding that Parliament lacked the authority to impose such a tax. British merchants, facing an American boycott as well as a recession, also lobbied for repeal, which Parliament eventually did. Nonimportation and nonconsummation agreements (though not very effective until 1774), the propaganda characterizing a 1770 fracas in Boston as a “massacre,” and the increase of print material criticizing Parliamentary and kingly measures signaled growing colonial agitation.
In 1740, Southampton reached the 100th anniversary of its foundation. Established by emigrants from Massachusetts, its cultural inheritance was that of a colonial New England town. Commerce, too, tied the colony to New England, as the East End enjoyed bustling trade across the Long Island Sound with Connecticut, as well as with various New England ports. The East End had also become a source of administrative complaints concerning piracy and smuggling, as products from the West Indies were landed at the East End, rather than at the customs houses in New York. Southampton counted itself among those archetypical eighteenth-century American farming communities that, though their economy relied on agriculture, were also highly dependent on commerce. But colonial farms (many of which in Southampton and elsewhere were worked by white families alongside Native American indentured servants or African American slaves) were increasingly able to produce surpluses, and white families in Southampton and throughout the colonies were highly dependent on commercial imports from Great Britain and its colonies in North America and the West Indies. On average, Americans in the 1770s spent almost one-third of their total incomes on imports ranging from West Indian sugar to British manufactured products including glass, medicine, children’s toys, and especially textiles. Sag Harbor emerged as an extremely important port city in the colony of New York , intertwining Southampton’s community and its interests with the wider commercial world.
1773 to 1776
1773 and 1774 proved to be critical years in American history. In December 1773, a group of Bostonians boarded British East India Company ships and dumped over 300 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. They did this to protest the 1773 Tea Act, believing that Parliament was conspiring with the British East India Company to force colonists to buy only British tea. Britain responded to the property destruction with police action. Parliament passed the Coercive Acts (called the “Intolerable Acts” by colonists) in 1774. Boston’s port was closed, the Massachusetts colonial charter suspended, and military government (though not administration) implemented.
Many colonists saw the Acts as unjustly punishing all of Massachusetts for the actions of a few radicals in Boston. Full-scale military conflict finally erupted with the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington in 1775, and the ensuing creation of a Continental Army under the leadership of General George Washington. Nonetheless, when the Second Continental Congress convened in June 1776, imperial loyalty ran strong, though it was not enough to prevent the Congress from approving a resolution declaring, “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” The war already being waged now had an explicit American goal: total independence from the British Empire.
Following the implementation of the Coercive Acts in 1774, Bostonians were characterized as martyrs to the cause of liberty for colonists everywhere, to great effect. Americans were urged to send goods and money for the relief of the poor living in the occupied city. Southampton was among the many towns that sent subscriptions, and Captain John Foster of Sag Harbor volunteered the use of his ship to deliver the money. East Hampton went so far as to impose a tax on its residents to “raise one hundred pounds New York Currency, for the support of the industrious Poor in Boston.”
In 1775, the New York Provincial Congress passed an act declaring that any man who refused to sign the Articles of Association declaring support for the Patriot cause, would have his weapons confiscated for the use of New York militia units. A Suffolk County unit was moved into Queens to enforce compliance with the decree in the more Loyalist-heavy West of Long Island. In the East End, though, virtually every Southampton man signed the Articles, and by some accounts, the handful who did not initially sign eventually fell into step—with or without “persuasion” from their neighbors.
In July 1776, a group of “old gentlemen” (and young boys) in Southampton who were known to be “well equipped with a good musket, powder, ball cartridge, etc.” formed an independent company. Their leader, the eminent silversmith Elias Pelletreau, made “a very animating speech to them on the necessity of holding themselves in readiness to go into the field in time of invasion.” Pelletreau’s regiment may have been the only independent company consisting predominantly of grandfathers in United States history.
Meanwhile, younger East End men, including a number of men from the Montauk Nation, enlisted in more conventional militia and Continental Army units. Theirs would be an extremely harsh war, characterized by short supplies, grueling labor, long marches, rampant disease, and the horrors of battle.
1776 to 1781
In August, 1776, Britain sent an armada to New York, hoping to take advantage of the tactical advantage the British Navy held in an area surrounded by water, and the strong Loyalist presence in the city. General Washington divided Continental troops, which narrowly escaped capture. The British allowed the general to escape, via Brooklyn, as they believed actually capturing the army would cause more political problems than it was worth. The battle gave Britain strategic control of New York City—a major loss for the American cause. The British would occupy New York (as well as eastern Long Island) until the end of the war, finally evacuating the city in 1783.
After, 1776, the Revolution became a war of endurance. Bolstered by a French alliance, Continental victory came years later, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. The French Navy and the Continental Army secured controlled access to the Virginian peninsula, allowing Washington to capture British General Charles Cornwallis’s army. Though his troops comprised only a small fraction of the entire British force, Cornwallis surrendered. Britain had proven unable to devise a successful military strategy, it was weakening itself, and its leaders finally concluded that continuing the war would hurt the Empire more than letting the
Following Washington’s retreat at the Battle of Long Island, the East End found itself cut off from other Revolutionary sympathizers, as the West End of the Island was predominantly Loyalist. The British would occupy eastern Long Island for seven years (until the end of the war). In August, the New York Convention recommended that East End inhabitants “remove as many of their women, children and slaves, and as much of their livestock and grain to the main as they can.”
Many of the evacuees who “crowded” the “wharves at Sag Harbor” were heads of families who wished to avoid taking an oath of allegiance to Britain, and who were sufficiently young, able-bodied, and affluent to leave. An estimated one out of every six Long Island inhabitants (5,000 people) fled. Those who did not or could not leave their homes in Southampton lived in a town under British occupation. Authorities demanded that colonists sign an “Oath of Allegiance” to the Crown. Threatened with death, the men remaining in Southampton signed the Oath, despite their established loyalty to the Patriot cause. British and Hessian troops took up residence in private homes and frequently raided and seized crops, livestock, and household goods—and when they did not, crops were liable to be requisitioned by American forces in Connecticut.
In occupied towns throughout the colonies, soldiers tended to set up camp in the larger, more public rooms in the houses where they were quartered. The families still living there sometimes lost access to their own front doors or kitchens. General Sir William Erskine commander of the British forces occupying Southampton who headquartered at Elias Pelletreau’s house, was credited as a restraining influence on his subordinates there until his resignation. Other East End towns were less fortunate. The Major Cochrane who commanded the troops occupying Bridgehampton was notorious for his cruelty. The charges leveled against him (retrospectively) by those who lived through his presence in their town ranged from tormenting children to physically abusing his own soldiers, and given his status, there was no way to keep such behavior in check.
The United States of America became the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, and the new country saw its territory nearly doubled in the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the Revolution. United at first as a “league of friendship,” an alliance between sovereign states, it became a nation with a centralized, federal government upon the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 (following months of extremely contentious debate). Former Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army General George Washington was unanimously chosen as the nation’s first president by the electoral college. Washington provided not only an exalted example of republican ideology, but also an important symbol of unity in what would turn out to be an extremely politically divided and fractious, fledgling nation.
"It is yet to be decided whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age along, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved."
- George Washington, Jun 8, 1783
After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, refugees returned to Southampton to find ruined farms and a village depleted of resources. The postwar years saw unusually high sums voted for poor relief, numerous changes in property ownership, and huge numbers of mortgages placed on property. On top of that, the state of New York levied a tax of $37,000 on largely-Loyalist Long Island, on the grounds that it had not been in a position to take an active part in the war.
Southampton’s experience of the American Revolution was, in some ways, extremely typical. A small farming village intimately bound with the wider world of commerce, culturally New English, Southampton was precisely the type of community that tended to support the Revolution. Nonetheless, its location at the far end of an island dominated by Loyalists with a very different cultural inheritance, and its status as occupied territory made its experience of the American Revolution rather unique. Furthermore, among Southampton residents themselves, the experience of the war varied immensely along lines of race, economic status, age, and gender. The enlisted Continental soldier, the respected, aged household head, and the wife left to manage a besieged household all experienced the war differently. Those experiences comprise a sampling - illustrative but far from all-encompassing - of how one of the most formative events in American history was lived in an East End farming community.
The Story of Christopher Vail
A 10 minute mini-documentary we created to tell the story of one young man from Long Island during the American Revolution.
Images of the Exhibit when it was on view
The Southampton Colony Chapter is the local chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. It was organized in 1922 and continues its mission of Preservation, Education and Patriotism. The local chapter offers 4 area HS scholarships. For information, contact Regent, Kathleen Hendrickson at email@example.com .