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

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A view of the pond at Tanglewood Preserve, Nassau County

Some time ago, while browsing through some of the West Hempstead Historical Society website’s 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 Jr.

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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