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The Ketcham Inn and the Curious Case of the Culper Connection (Part 1)

June 10, 2015

In 2010, we told the story of the historicTerrill-Havens-Terry-Ketcham Inn, located in the hamlet of Moriches, in the town of Brookhaven, on the South Shore of Long Island. Now, after 25 years of painstaking restoration the ancient edifice is poised to be reborn.

Like any serious undertaking, it has been a long and arduous road. Patience and perseverance; the love of Bertram Seides, Mary Field, the late Van Field, restoration carpenter, Scott Brown and a dedicated army of volunteers and supporters - is about to pay off. We were privileged to have, in a small way, participated in their journey. Since the 'Restoration Celebration' is slated for July 4th, Independence Day, we thought we'd look a little further into the inn's patriotic history.

With monikers like Moriches Inn, Clinton Inn, Wayside Inn, Hitching Post, Colonial Arms and Stage Coach Stop, the building has served as a tavern, inn and public house for much of its history. In the early days, as Terry's Hotel, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison stayed there as did another founding father, George Clinton, New York State's first governor. This narrative, however, focuses on the building's first innkeeper, Benjamin Havens; tavern owner, mill owner, fish carter, Patriot and quite possibly a spy.

Our story begins in the hamlet of Setauket, on the North Shore of Long Island - as the crow flies, about 20 miles from the inn. Anyone who has been following the television series, TURN on AMC, knows that during the British occupation of Long Island at the time of the Revolutionary War, Setauket was ground zero for George Washington's famous espionage network, the Culper Spy Ring.

Washington recruited a young cavalry officer from Setauket, Benjamin Tallmadge, to head the operation. Tallmadge in turn enlisted only those he could trust with certainty, beginning with his childhood friends, Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster. Tradition maintains that Woodhull's neighbor, Anna Smith Strong, a descendant of colonial elites, also aided the ring. Her husband, Selah Strong, a Patriot judge and close friend of Brewster, was arrested by the British and confined to prison "on a charge of treasonable correspondence with the enemy." Austin Roe, a tavern owner who did business in the city, acted as a courier for the ring passing information between Robert Townsend in New York and Woodhull in Setauket.

Posing as a Tory, Townsend had free reign in the occupied city, British headquarters after the Battle of Long Island. He wrote a society column for the Loyalist weekly, The Royal Gazette, published in New York by James Rivington, giving him access to British society. He also financed in part and frequented Rivington's coffee house, a hang-out for high ranking British officers.

Woodhull went by the code name, Samuel Culper Sr., while Townsend was Samuel Culper Jr. Tallmadge was referred to in plain or encrypted letters as John Bolton. All of the key players, save Townsend who was from Oyster Bay, were not only friends and neighbors but also related in one way or another by blood. Secrecy was so tight that Washington never knew many of their true identities - those now known were only revealed in the 1930's - an unknown number remain anonymous to this day.

Benjamin Havens owned substantial property in Moriches and was known to have run a tavern there during the Revolutionary War. In 1772, along with two other innkeepers, he established a stagecoach route from Brooklyn to Sag Harbor that made a stop at his inn. In 1775, Captain John Hulburt stayed there with his troops, on his way back to Bridgehampton from the pivotal Fort Ticonderoga, following a campaign to liberate the Champlain Valley.

The first clear connection in the record to Setauket occurs in 1754, when the forty some year old, Benjamin, married twenty three year old, Abigail Strong - a member of a prominent Setauket family. Abigail, who through her mother was related to Abraham Woodhull, provides an intriguing link to many of Washington's famous gang.

In 1755, her sister, Submit, married Phillips Roe (a cousin to the tavern owner, Austin), who with his brother, Nathaniel, supplied intelligence to Brewster and material aid to the cause. Five years later her brother, Selah, the imprisoned Patriot Judge, wed celebrated spy, Anna Lloyd Smith. In 1770, her sister, Zipporah, married the Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge Sr., father of the young cavalry officer. Havens must have known all the key Setauket players as he watched them grow from boys to men.

By the time of the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress, on July 4th, 1776, Havens' Patriot convictions would have been clear. He signed the Articles of Association, a document circulated throughout the province of New York in the spring of 1775, in the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord:

Persuaded that the salvation of the rights and liberties of America depends, under God, on the firm union of its inhabitants in a vigorous prosecution of the measures necessary for its safety, and convinced of the necessity of preventing the anarchy and confusion which attend a dissolution of the powers of government, we, the Freemen, Freeholders, and Inhabitants (of the City and County of New York), being greatly alarmed at the avowed design of the ministry to raise a revenue in America, and shocked by the bloody scene now acting in the Massachusetts Bay, do, in the most solemn manner, resolve never to become slaves; and do associate under the ties of religion, honor, and love to our country to adopt and endeavor to carry into execution, whatever measures may be recommended by the Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention, for the purpose of preserving our Constitution, and opposing the execution of the several arbitrary and oppressive acts of the British Parliament, until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America on constitutional principles (which we most ardently desire) can be obtained; and that we will in all things follow the advice of our General Committee, respecting the purpose aforesaid, the preservation of peace and good order, and the safety of individuals and private property.

In April of 1776, at a Brookhaven town meeting in the hamlet of Corum, Benjamin was chosen "by a great majority of voices" as a member of the Committee of Safety whose purpose was to keep an eye on the Tories in town. This honor bestowed reflects his stature in the community, as well as his associations.

Included on the committee of 26, were: William Smith, a cousin of Anna Smith Strong and the proprietor of St. George's Manor in nearby Mastic, William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Floyd's brother-in-law, Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull; Benjamin's brother-in-law, Selah Strong, a town trustee and captain in the militia; Abigail's brother-in-law, Phillips Roe and his brother, Nathaniel; and a young cabbage farmer, Lieutenant Abraham Woodhull, alias Samuel Culper.

Click here for Part 2

Click here for Part 3

Click here for Part 4

The Ketcham Inn Foundation

The Ketcham Inn 2010 blog

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