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Touching history

The Shelter Island Presbyterian Church cemetery.

Reading the headstones in the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church cemetery, you could be reading the Island’s phone book.

Within the quiet, beautiful grounds, you’ll find Manwaring, Congdon, Dering, Chase, Bowditch, Burns, Baldwin, Dickerson, Gardiner, Cartwright, Tuthill and many more familiar names.

On a bright and hot Independence Day, Karen Kiaer, historian of the Shelter Island Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and Joyce Bowditch-Bausman, honorary regent, led a guided tour of Revolutionary War patriots’ gravestones.

During the war, when neighbors could be friend or foe, Shelter Island had surprisingly uniform support for independence from the British and deep ideological links with the mainland, Ms. Kiaer said.

This is reflected in Shelter Island’s own Declaration of Independence, which was written in May 1775, one month after the Battle of Bunker Hill, and which all but two families on the Island signed.

According to Ms. Kiaer, the Island paid a dear price for their rebellion.

In a 2010 issue of the DAR’s magazine, “American Portals,” there’s an account of Islanders’ commitment to the Revolution. After George Washington’s defeat in August 1776 at the Battle of Long Island, 1,000 revolutionary soldiers were captured. Those prisoners of war were kept in hastily built prisons, as well as on board prison ships, anchored off the eastern shores of Long Island, and according to historical accounts, kept in deplorable conditions. Overcrowding, hunger, and disease were rampant.

Some of those 1,000 patriots were most likely from Shelter Island.

Some of those who are now buried in the Presbyterian cemetery went on to have careers in the new United States Congress. Most notable was Jonathan Nicoll Havens (1757-1799), who lies underneath what are called “tabletop” monuments.

As Linda Puls wrote for the Reporter last year: “The rich and famous of the colonial era — or the one percenters of 18th-century Shelter Island — built elaborate monuments to mark their graves. The DAR chapter has sponsored five years of restoration and repair work to these tabletop memorials and historic gravestones. It is important to note that because the school burned in the 1820s and the town clerk’s home burned in 1883, all town records were lost. What remains are these gravestones, which now function as the early town records.”

In addition to being the Island’s town clerk from 1783 to 1787, Jonathan Havens was part of the New York delegation that approved the federal Constitution in 1788. He went on to serve in the New York State Assembly from 1786 to 1795, and then served as a U.S. congressman from 1795 until his death.

Ms. Kiaer and Ms. Bowditch-Bausman and the rest of the DAR help preserve Shelter Island’s connection to the history that has shaped us and our country.

Thanks to their efforts, anyone can stroll on the cemetery grounds and feel a vital connection between Shelter Island and its patriotic past.