Women in Spy Chain

Footnotes to Long Island History




Thomas R. Bayles

     There were several women in the Setauket spy chain that operated during the Revolution and kept General Washington supplied with information regarding the movements of the British troops in New York and on Long Island.

      One of the most interesting stories concerns Ann Smith Strong (she was called Nancy in the spy records), wife of Judge Selah Strong, who lived in Setauket. The British army was having a great deal of trouble with American saboteurs and any one who rode about very much, out of uniform was suspected of unfriendly intentions. Nancy gave Austin Roe excuses for his trips to New York by giving him large orders for goods so he could ride safely to New York to fill them.

       Since Caleb Brewster was a well known figure in Setauket, it was not safe for him to always land his boat in the same spot, so he had six landing places. Abraham Woodhull could not always know whether Brewster was in the village, or at which landing place his boat was hid, so Nancy made it her business to keep track and passed this information on to Woodhull through her clothesline. Most of the petticoats worn by the women in those days were red so if Mr. Woodhull saw a black petticoat waving on Nancy's clothesline he knew Brewster was in town. Each of the landing places had a number, and by counting the handkerchiefs hanging on Nancy's clothesline he knew at which landing place Mr. Brewster's boat was hidden.

        Nancy was not discovered by the British, but her husband, Judge Strong, was arrested and thrown into prison on one of the worst British prison ships. Nancy got permission to visit him and took a boat load of food, which probably saved his life and the lives of other prisoners. Later on she secured his release, although he had to flee to Connecticut for safety. Nancy's place in the spy ring was an important one, and she occupies a front place in the line of Colonial American's great women.

       Later on in the war, General Benedict Arnold, who was dissatisfied with the treatment he had received from Congress, planned to turn over the key fort at West Point, of which he was in charge to the British. Arrangements between General Arnold, and the British, through the go-between British officer Major John Andre (known as James Anderson) were almost completed in September 1780, when Robert Townsend, discovered the plot. Word was passed along to Austin Roe who took it to Setauket, and Abraham Woodhull turned it over to Caleb Brewster, who carried it across the sound to the headquarters of Maj-Tallmadge.

       On September 10, Maj. Tallmadge had received a letter from General Arnold saying he expected a "James Anderson" from New York and if he should come to Major Tallmadge's headquarters, would he give him an escort to Gen. Arnold's headquarters below West Point. On September 23, James Anderson (who was Major Andre) was captured while crossing the American lines near Tarrytown. The following morning when Gen. Arnold received word that Major Andre was being held as a British spy, he hurriedly called for a horse and rode to the river, where he ordered his bargemen to row him, not up the river to West Point, but down the river to the British man of war "Vulture" and so he escaped to the British.

       Major Andre was convicted and hanged as a spy October 2, 1780. The surrender of West Point was prevented by the fast work of the Setauket spy ring, and again the course of history was changed through their activities.

       After the war, Benedict Arnold went to live in London, where he was despised even by the country he had sold out to, and died in June 1801.The only tribute to his memory in American hearts was a contempt and hatred more enduring than granite.


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