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George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring: Home

Research Materials about George Washington, the Culper Spy Ring, and the American Revolutionary War

Special Collections, SBU Libraries: Documenting and Preserving the History of the Culper Spy Ring

Special Collections, a division of Stony Brook University Libraries (SBU Libraries) is the owner and steward of two American Revolutionary War-era, Culper Spy Ring letters authored by George Washington. This research guide has detailed information about the university's two Washington letters and provides pathways to research materials on the spy ring. Significant to regional and national historical narratives, SBU's letters were authored in 1779 and 1780 and document espionage activities in the Three Village area of Long Island, New York, the site of a impactful war effort known as the Culper Spy Ring. 

Assembled in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge at the request of Washington, the Culper Spy Ring operated on Long Island (concentrated in Setauket, NY) and in New York City and Connecticut during the American Revolutionary War. Credible reports about British activities were needed, and as an intelligence officer Tallmadge turned to his trusted childhood friends and family in Setauket. Spycraft including codes, aliases, and the “sympathetic stain” (invisible ink) was used to conceal information and the identities of the ring’s members. Abraham Woodhull (alias, Samuel Culper Sr.) and Robert Townsend (alias, Samuel Culper Jr.) gathered intelligence in British occupied territories. Although Washington did not want to know the true identities of the spies, he was profoundly involved in giving directives and highly regarded reports from Townsend as evidenced in his letters to Tallmadge.

Collections

Long Island history is a collecting focus of Special Collections. The acquisition of the Washington letters laid the foundation for the establishment of a Long Island Historic Documents Collection. The collection includes primary and secondary source material on the history of Long Island from the earliest settlers through the present, with a strong emphasis on the period of the American Revolution through the War of 1812 (1764-1812).​ A fund was established in 2009 to support the acquisition of related documents and research collections. 

Outreach & Engagement 
The department collaborates and engages with the university and external communities through a wide array of activities. Collaborators include the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), and Raynham Hall Museum. 

Recent Activities

  • January 2019: in collaboration with the Three Village Historical Society, SBU’s Washington’s letters were integrated into the society's K-12 teaching curriculum and docent handbook.
  • December 2018: the SBU History Club visited Special Collections to learn about the collections, which included a discussion and viewing of the letters.
  • September 2018: Special Collections hosted two Q & A sessions and tours as part of the regional event Culper Spy Day (hosted annually since 2016). The viewing was featured in Newsday https://www.newsday.com/lifestyle/long-island-events/culper-spy-day-setauket-1.20866483.
  • September 2018: letters featured at SBU’s CommUniversity event.
  • August 2018: the letters were featured in the Travel Channel’s popular series “Mysteries at the Museum.”
  • July 2018: the 1779 Washington letter made a special trip off campus to the Neighborhood House in Setauket. Kristen Nyitray gave a lecture to a special summer, sold out event, part of the Three Village Historical Society's series.
  • April 2018: Kristen Nyitray and Chris Filstrup discussed the acquisition and significance of the letters on the podcast series Long Island History Project.
  • September 2017: letters featured at SBU’s CommUniversity event.
  • September 2017: Special Collections hosted an open house and viewing of the letters. The department was highlighted by local media.
  • Spring 2017: article published by Nyitray, Kristen J, and Sally Stieglitz. “Spies in the Archive: Acquiring Revolutionary War Spy Letters Through Community Engagement.” RBM: a Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage. 18.1 (2017): 44-58.
  • Fall 2016: article published by Stieglitz, Sally, and Kristen J. Nyitray. “Using Oral History to Assess Community Impact: a Conversation with Beverly C. Tyler, Historian, Three Village Historical Society.” Engaged Scholar Journal: Community-Engaged Research, Teaching, and Learning. 2.2 (2017): 115-122.

Additional Activities

  • News 12 featured the letters on the program "Long Island's Hidden Past."
  • the department is a location on the Culper Spy Ring audio tour (Long Island North Shore Heritage Area);
  • a facsimile of the 1779 letter is featured at the TVHS's "Spies" exhibition in Setauket, New York.
  • the original 1779 letter made a special trip off-campus and was viewed by over 500 children and parents at Setauket Elementary School. The event was covered by News 12 Long Island, The Village Times Herald, and the Three Village Patch.
  • the Military Channel program "Secrets of the Arsenal" highlighted the letters/
  • the 1779 letter was on view at the historical landmarking event for the Brewster House in Setauket, New York (WMHO).
  • the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages interviewed Kristen Nyitray about the conservation of the letters for the exhibition "Long Island at War."
  • a scholarly conference on Long Island during the American Revolution was held at Stony Brook University.
  • a conference on patriots during the American Revolution was held at Stony Brook University in collaboration with the TVHS.
  • the letters were displayed at the community Christmas tree lighting in Stony Brook Village (WMHO).
  • facsimiles were presented to New York State Assemblyman and SBU alum Carl Heastie at Patriot's Rock in Setauket, New York.
  • a lecture about the letters was given at the inaugural CommUniversity Day at Stony Brook University.
  • unveiling of the 1779 letter held in 2006 at the Charles B. Wang Center where hundreds of visitors viewed it and interacted with historical reenactors.

Recognition
With the acquisition of the two Washington letters, Special Collections carved its niche as an archive of record for primary source material about the Culper Spy Ring. Public recognition for leading engagement and educational activities has been bestowed on the department and the university. The Three Village Historical Society presented the Kate Wheeler Strong Award in 2007 to Assemblyman Steven Englebright, Dr. and Mrs. Henry Laufer, and Stony Brook University “for their unique efforts surrounding the acquisition of the 1779 George Washington Culper Spy letter.” In December 2009, Special Collections and University Archives received from the New York Board of Regents and New York State Archives the Annual Archives Award for Program Excellence in a Historical Records Repository for "its outstanding archival program that contributes significantly to understanding the region’s history.” The university was lauded for its “well managed archives” and “its efforts to provide access to the country’s documentary heritage."

About the Department
Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University select, acquire, preserve and provide access to rare, valuable, and scarce primary and secondary materials in a variety of formats in support of the educational and research endeavors of Stony Brook University's students, faculty, and staff. The department also extends its services to researchers in the wider geographic region, nationally, and internationally. The collection includes: books, manuscripts, and maps; University Archives; audio/visual materials;  and digital collections. 

Director & Associate Librarian

Kristen J. Nyitray's picture
Kristen J. Nyitray
Contact:
Director, Special Collections & University Archives
University Archivist
Associate Librarian
E-2320, Melville Library
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-3323
t: 631.632.7119
f: 631.632.1829
e: kristen.nyitray@stonybrook.edu
Website

Culper Spy Day

SAVE THE DATE: SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2018

 

The Three Village area is full of hidden intrigue and stories of how America's first spy ring secretly came together to provide George Washington the information he needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution. 

On Culper Spy Day, you will have the chance to visit the places where history was made and visit with area groups to learn about the patriots who risked their lives. 
Follow Culper Spy Day on Facebook. More information is available here.