Historic preservation: An Island history challenge

COURTESY PHOTO Helping hand cleaning Brinley Sylvester’s ‘table,’ the most elaborate gravestone.
Helping hand cleaning Brinley Sylvester’s ‘table,’ the most elaborate gravestone.

Part 2 of an occasional series, courtesy of the Shelter Island Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, updating Islanders on who’s who in the Presbyterian Church cemetery and why it’s such an important place. You will also find out, if you read through to the last paragraph, how to win a prize. And who won the last one.

Heads up, Islanders. Let’s see how well you know your history.

Be advised that this column is actually a contest — somewhere throughout the following paragraphs there will be three questions. Everyone is on Scout’s honor. If you are a member of the DAR you should not compete; this applies as well to the staff, paid or volunteer, at the Shelter Island Historical Society.

Islanders are encouraged to consult with any one of them, as well as to go online and find out whatever they can.

As you may know, one of the primary missions of the DAR is historic preservation — actually preservation related to the American Revolution — and headstones from those years are very much related. In our cemetery, behind and across the road from the Presbyterian Church, there are the graves of a number of Island men who fought in the Revolution. How many? That was actually one of the three questions in our first contest and the answer is nine.

In May 1775, just a month after the Battle of Lexington, the news of one  of the first battles of the Revolutionary War reached Shelter Island. Adult males of the 27 Island families came together at the Meeting House, which stood where the Presbyterian Church stands now.

They came to vote — the question before them was whether to support the resolution of the Continental Congress, thereby formally associating themselves with the Revolutionary cause. The further east on the Island, the higher the Loyalist sentiment; to vote yes was to take a risk. Everyone there did so. If only we could hit the replay button. Were they all of one mind or did one side convince the other? What would you give to hear those actual voices?

The first question is: How many men were there?

After the Battle of Long Island was fought and lost, the residents of Shelter Island and the inhabitants of Suffolk were commanded by the Continental Congress “to remove as many of their women, children and slaves and as much of their livestock and grain as possible” to the shoreline of Connecticut.

It was from there that the soldiers would fight the British. Many of the Island families gathered in Sag Harbor on Long Wharf, eventually granted passage, leaving their land and homes behind for an uncertain future.

Here’s our second question: Of those Island families, How many in the census of 1775 were named as having a woman as “head of household?”

Of the 27 families, there were those owning ships powerful enough to have sailed the Pacific and these would be converted to Men of War; these were the families that were better off financially. But there were less well-off families, and some of them stayed behind, afraid to lose the little they had.

They were subject  to the landings of British sailors, who scoured the island for supplies of food and fresh drinking water. When Islanders returned after the eight long years, and here’s your third question, Who told them of the British raids and of being forced by those ships’ captains to sample the family’s well water, to prove that it was not poisoned?

Call DAR member Karen Kaier, who heads the cemetery project, at 917-912-4748 and leave your information on her voicemail. Whoever gets all three answers correct first will win the prize, a copy of an interesting book, “Shelter Island and Its Presbyterian Church,” by Reverend Jacob E. Mallman.

Congratulations to Ann Brunswick, winner of our first contest. She answered the questions, knew that the cemetery lead was melted down to make bullets, and identified the table gravestone as belonging to Brinley Sylvester, the first lord of the Manor.

Let’s see who wins. And Hareleggers? Let’s hear from all of you. You should be yards ahead of the rest of us here.

Next column, you’ll find out who won and what the answers were.