Thursday, November 10, 2016

Tanglewood Preserve - Site of First Revolutionary War Skirmish on Long Island

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association newsletter, News & Views

Image result for tanglewood preserve
A view of the pond at Tanglewood Preserve, Nassau County

Some time ago, while browsing through some of the West Hempstead Historical Society

growing collection of local historical material, I came across an item regarding a little

known Revolutionary War incident that took place just down the road in present day Lakeview,

at the current site of Tanglewood Preserve. The episode became known as the Skirmish at

Hempstead Swamp. While the incident in and of itself was a relatively minor one, I decided to

find out some background about it and was surprised to learn that it actually represents the first

action during the American Revolution that involved bloodshed on Long Island between the

warring parties.

There are scant details of the event. One of the only sources we have about it comes from a

book published in 1844 entitled Revolutionary Incidents in Queens County, by Henry Onderdonk


Here is some brief background about it.

In colonial times, Pine Stream used to run free and clear from Hempstead Plains down through

modern day West Hempstead, where it formed a series of ponds and swampland all the way

down to the Atlantic Ocean. Part of that tributary, Tanglewood Preserve was once a swamp

that sat just north of Smith’s Pond, known in those days as DeMott’s pond, named after Michael

DeMott and his son Anthony, who ran a mill at the southern end of the pond, where the water

crosses Merrick Road in Rockville Centre. In fact, the name Tanglewood bears an echo of

testimony to the swamp that once enveloped the property.

Throughout the South Shore of Long Island, there was heavy loyalist sentiment among

residents in the leadup to the American Revolution. Parenthetically, this was the apparent

reason for the Break-off of the Town of North Hempstead, whose residents were frustrated by

their southern neighbors’ loyalty to King George III, from the greater Town of Hempstead.

According to George Combes, historian for the TOH in the 1940s, many South Shore residents

were initially sympathetic to the Patriot cause, particularly after British troops landed in Boston in

1775. But a series of actions perceived to be too aggressive on the part of the Patriots,

including a raid upon Long Island by the New Jersey militia in April of 1776, crystallized

sentiment in the area solidly for the British.

In July of 1776, around the time of our Nation’s independence and a full month before General

Howe’s troops arrived in New York, some loyalists had tried to subvert the cause of

independence by attempting to poison George Washington by planting Paris green into his

soup. The attempt failed because it made the soup taste terrible, but it certainly got the

attention of our founding father. It was determined that the scheme had been hatched by

loyalists from Long Island and so Washington promptly dispatched troops to Hempstead to

arrest the perpetrators. The loyalists were warned in advance of these troops’ arrival and so

they packed provisions and took shelter in the swamps south of Hempstead village. The

DeMotts were also loyalists and they agreed to hang a white sheet in the window of their mill as

a signal to warn the fugitives of the troops’ impending arrival. Onderdonk Jr. recounts the

episode as it occurred on the third Saturday of July, 1776:

“...a party of Whig soldiers went to Hempstead Swamp at the head of DeMott's mill pond to take

up some Tories who were hiding there. ... A party of nine of them in two sedge boats were

concealed in the swamp at the head of the mill pond. Stephen Rider climbed an oak tree to

reconnoiter, when a ball whistled by his head. He saw the smoke whence it came and, a loaded

gun being handed him, he fired, and the ball passed through the body of George Smith.”

The Tories were then cornered and soon after surrendered. They were then rounded up and

taken in chains to a jail in Jamaica but were soon freed after the British had occupied Long

Island. George Smith was badly wounded in the shoulder, but was treated by a local physician

named Dr. Searing, and recovered from his wound. By then the Revolutionary War was well on

its way, but most of the famous battles would be fought in other parts of the country, while for

the most part, Queens (Nassau) County quietly remained under British occupation.

Although the event could hardly be considered a major action in the annals of the Revolutionary

War, given the impetus for its occurrence and the fact that it saw the first blood spilled on Long

island soil in the War for Independence, in my opinion, consideration should be given to add the

site to the list of New York State Revolutionary War Trail Sites of Long Island.

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