Fishers Island in the Revolutionary War

by Pierce Rafferty

“Genl. Howe Evacuating Boston,” engraving by J. Godfrey, circa 1861. Museum Collection.

The first rumblings of the American Revolution reached our shores in late May 1773, some six months before the Boston Tea Party. According to an account published in a New London newspaper, Fishers Island farmers physically drove British soldiers from the Island after they behaved quite boorishly at a pig roast.

The newspaper account stated: “The Captain, or Master or Esquire Howe, [Commander of His Majesty’s ship Cruiser] went to keep Sabbath on Fishers Island; they had got a pig…which they cook’d and after dining drank the King, [i.e. toasted the king] so they drank the King, Admiral Montague, and d_______ to America [i.e. damned or damnation to America]; which last toast was sounded with so great éclat that it disturbed the honest tenant; he went to desire them to be quiet, and they ordered one of the crew to beat him, which he not so well relishing, he called his negroes and hired men, in the whole he mustered seven, they each took a good cudgel and drove the never-to-be-forgotten Howe, with thirty odd of his crew off the island.” Quote from the New London Gazette, June 4, 1773.

In strategic terms, this fight had about as much significance as a brawl at the Pequot would today, but, if true, it does reveal that the farmers working the island were patriots, not Tory sympathizers. It also provides evidence that there were likely slaves still working on the island, as there had been during the preceding Mumford tenancy.

The “honest tenant” who resisted the British revelers was almost certainly Benjamin Brown of Rhode Island. His tenancy on Fishers Island began in 1756 when he rented the entire island for 500 pounds per annum from the island-owning Winthrop family. He soon settled into the bucolic business of stock farming, blissfully ignorant to how trouble-filled his farm would become. Interestingly, Benjamin Brown was a relative of John Nicholas Brown, a later and far richer resident of Fishers Island, who lived here in the mid-20th century. They descended from different sons of Chad Brown, the first of the Browns to come to Rhode Island.

For several years following the 1773 brawl, there is no indication that further struggle—small or large, hand-to-hand, or more significant—occurred on Fishers Island.

In 1775, in the wake of the initial armed clashes of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord, the active rebellion (and clumsy British efforts to counter it) centered on Boston and its neighboring towns. Following the bloody battles of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, the main British force was bottled up in Boston, under siege by outlying Colonial forces in Cambridge.

Before the outbreak of hostilities, the British had arranged with Boston merchants to secure necessary supplies, but after active hostilities erupted, those connections were all but severed. Unscrupulous merchants and Loyalists still managed to conduct surreptitious sales, but nowhere near enough for the British to meet their quota by land alone. Consequently, they turned to the sea, where their Navy ruled supreme. They had the option of transporting food directly from England, but given the length of the passage, the volume of supplies needed, the high percentage of loss to spoilage, and the pressing demand, such a supply route was impractical. Instead, the British command dispatched a portion of their fleet on a massive foraging expedition.

In late July 1775, three British men-of-war, six transports, and several smaller vessels sailed out of Boston heading “east south east.” The fleet’s movements were of great concern to those at the top of the American forces, including George Washington, head of the newly formed Continental Army.

General Washington wrote a letter to the Continental Congress dated July 27, 1775, stating that he had received intelligence that transports with 600 men on board had left Boston and were bound to Block Island, Fishers Island, and Long Island to “plunder them and bring off what Cattle they may find.” Washington informed the Continental Congress in that same letter that he had received additional information that revealed “each transport had but 20 men on board” and that he had written to Governor Cook of Rhode Island and to General Wooster of the Continental Army, who was then in Harlem, in order “that they might take precautions for removing the Cattle of those Islands and preventing any surprize. As we are confirmed by every Account of the great Scarcity of fresh Provisions in the Enemy’s Camp.”

With the Continental Army in its infancy and the American Navy yet to be founded, the exposed stock farms on Fishers, Great Gull, Plum and Gardiner’s islands promised to be easy targets for the desperate British, unless preemptive removals were successful. The General Assembly of Rhode Island ordered that cattle and sheep be removed immediately from Block Island and sent approximately 200 men to take them off.

Because the British had a presence along the Rhode Island coast, the livestock, including more than 1900 sheep, were rounded up and taken by boat to Stonington and then driven inland to Rhode Island. When the British reached Fishers Island Sound on August 6th, 1775, however, virtually all of Benjamin Brown’s livestock was still in place—with the exception of a few market-ready cattle and sheep that had been removed by Connecticut authorities the day before the raid.

The arrival of the British vessels greatly alarmed the citizenry of New London who immediately sent off “an express” to alarm the surrounding towns. The defenders who rushed from outlying towns to the banks of the Thames soon discovered that the fleet’s intended target was Fishers Island, where the British landed unopposed and in one day managed to take off “1,139 sheep, three milch cows, one pair of working oxen, about 25 young cattle, and ten hogs.” It was later reported in the New London papers that in the case of Fishers Island, the British had offered to pay for the stock. When Mr. Brown stated that he was unwilling to sell, he was threatened with a seizure without pay. He then reluctantly agreed to the sale.

After raiding Fishers Island, the British didn’t tarry. By Tuesday, August 8th 1775, their fleet was anchored on the east side of Gardiner’s Island, fully engaged in seizing its stock. The Gardiner overseer later wrote that the British seized one thousand sheep, other animal and seven tons of hay. As “payment” they dismissively left a half a guinea and a pistareen, a small silver coin worth about as much as its name implied, the equivalent of paying half an English pound for goods worth hundreds of times more.

The next British target was Plum Island. On August 11, 1775, General Wooster managed to land 120 troops on Plum from Oyster Ponds on the North Fork, where they engaged in a brief “cat and mouse” skirmish with British regulars, with many shots fired but no casualties. Some writers noted this as the first naval engagement and amphibious assault in the history of the Continental Army. The British were only able to seize about 14 fat cattle, for which they left no compensation. After the British fleet departed for Boston, Wooster’s men took the remaining cattle to the mainland and ordered that all grain on Plum be threshed and carried off to Long Island.

British military belt plate, circa 1778, dating from the reign of King George III (1760-1811). This belt plate was found at Race Point in the 1950s. Museum Collection.

The British had, with relatively little effort, turned the offshore farms of Long Island Sound into giant “take out” shopping centers, yielding ample supplies with the bonus that payment was optional. The fact that the Winthrop family, then-owners of Fishers Island, had long-standing ties to the crown may have led the British to offer compensation to Mr. Brown, an act which generated some mainland suspicion about Fishers Island’s loyalty, including claims that the Winthrop owners had facilitated the sale.

What had gone wrong with the livestock evacuation plan? General Washington, not the first to be confused about our Island’s governing allegiance, nor the last, had sent his letter containing that intelligence to the Governor of Rhode Island, not the Governors of New York or Connecticut, who in the first case held jurisdiction and in the second was in a better position to affect the removal. Unfortunately, Washington’s letter to Governor Cook of Rhode Island was never forwarded.

Remarkably, despite great potential benefit to the enemy, stock farming on Fishers Island was not shut down after the British raid of August 1775. However, the Connecticut authorities did on several occasions take preemptive steps to deny the enemy the Island’s produce and stock. On July 3, 1776, on the very eve of the Declaration of Independence, the Committee of Inspection for New London and Groton resolved and ordered the removal of “horned cattle, sheep and swine from Fishers Island to the main, leaving necessary working oxen, cows, sheep and swine, for the use of the families there at their discretion.” The authorities were to have the stock appraised by “indifferent and judicious men” and subsequently to repay the owners. It is interesting to note that in time of war, the Colony of New York’s jurisdiction over Fishers Island seemed to have no status and was rarely mentioned in the records of the various Connecticut committees and councils making strategic decisions about the farm supplies on Fishers Island.

The very next week, on July 9, 1776, General Washington once again penned a letter “To prevent the Enemy from attaining fresh provisions” on a variety of islands that stretched from Martha’s Vineyard to Plum and included, of course, Fishers Island. However, this time he wrote directly to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, stating that he feared the enemy would soon be on another plundering voyage. He asked Trumbull for his full attention “that the stock might all be removed quite out of the reach of the enemy.”

The Colonial Records of Connecticut reveal that livestock was removed from Fishers Island in July 1776, for they document that Mr. Benjamin Brown was later awarded 570 pounds and three shillings for that stock. But these animals, or others just like them, were soon once again grazing on Fishers Island, despite Washington’s entreaties.

Revolutionary War-era powder horn carved by American sailor Reuben Partridge in 1777. Illustrations include a map of Fishers Island, forts Griswold (Groton) and Trumbull (New London), and New London Harbor Light. Museum Collection.

After the American forces were defeated at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, the British naval presence in Long Island Sound was even more dominant. British frigates Niger and Amazon spent most of the winter of 1776/77 stationed near the west end of Fishers Island, effectively bottling up the mouth of New London’s harbor. In mid-March 1777, a large British naval force anchored off Groton, once again generating great fear along the coastline. It was déjà vu all over again. In the words of New London’s preeminent historian, Frances Caulkins:

An immediate descent was expected, and tumult and terror reigned for a time in the town. The object of the squadron, however, was to obtain, as they had the year before, the stock of Fishers Island, and this business they executed so thoroughly, as almost to sweep the island clean of produce. They took not only sheep, cattle, swine, poultry, corn, potatoes, wood and hay, but blankets, woolen cloth, sheeting, and other necessaries, for all which they made a reasonable compensation to Mr. Brown, in British gold.

Besides the seizure of livestock and supplies, much of the action in and around Fishers Island during the Revolutionary War involved the seizure and re-seizure of vessels, cargo and crews. Throughout the conflict British warships traversed the Sound, keeping the coast in “a torture of expectancy,” as one historian put it. These warships frequently patrolled around Fishers Island, anchoring near West Harbor and often off the west end.

The island also functioned as a detached no man’s land visited not only by both sides of the conflict but also by numerous smugglers, those engaged in trade with the enemy, and your standard brand of criminals. Fishers Island also provided a convenient and mutually acceptable site for occasional prisoner exchanges. From time to time loyalists employed the Island as a rendezvous point to link up with the British fleet, and conversely, deserters jumped ship on Fishers Island to join the colonial cause. Finally, the British used the Island at least once during the Revolutionary War, to offload what they called refugees, who were described in the press of the day as the refuse of jails, Irish convicts, and “artificers.”

Despite these other incidental uses, the main story—the dominant theme of Fishers Island during the Revolutionary War—centered on supplies and provisions. The British needed them, and the Connecticut authorities tried, somewhat fitfully, to deny their enemies access. The last of these attempts at denial came in December 1778, when a Connecticut council ordered the winter hay removed from Fishers Island, presumably leaving little else left to seize. At the time Elijah Brown, son of Benjamin Brown, was in charge of running the Island’s farms. The following summer, on July 15, 1779, a British raiding party landed on Fishers Island and carried out the final and most destructive of the three major raids, perhaps out of frustration that there was little left to take, or perhaps because the war was proving intractable. The following newspaper account gives some details of this raid:

Last Thursday some people landed at Fishers Island, from the British Shipping lying off this Harbour, and placing some combustible Matters in the Cellar of the House lately improved by Mr. Brown, they blew up the Middle of the House, and then putting Fire to the windward End of it, consumed the Whole – they afterwards set fire to the Out-Houses and consumed them, as also a Quantity of Hay, &c. on the Island. (Connecticut Gazette, July 21, 1779.)

Not surprisingly, shortly after the raid the Brown family finally abandoned the island and departed for New London. Frances Bayard Winthrop, the owner of the island, subsequently petitioned the authorities in Connecticut and received permission to build a small brick building to house those tending his stock on Fishers Island. The inner core of today’s Mansion House, the historic house that stands in right field of the ballfield, is the “small building” that was subsequently built in the early 1780s. Although it doesn’t appear so, the Mansion House is at core made of brick.

The war wouldn’t formally end for four years following this last sacking of Fishers Island. There were major events still to come in our region, most importantly the notorious burning of New London and storming of Fort Griswold, Groton, in 1781 by the traitor Benedict Arnold and his forces. But for Fishers Island, its farms in ruins and buildings burned, the war was over.