Special Collections, a division of Stony Brook University Libraries (SBU Libraries) is the steward of two American Revolutionary War-era, Culper Spy Ring letters authored by George Washington. The department is committed to preserving and documenting the history of the Culper Spy Ring and to creating awareness of its contributions to the founding of the United States. This research guide has detailed information about the university's two Washington letters and provides pathways to complementary research materials on the spy ring.
Significant to regional and national historical narratives, the letters were authored in 1779 and 1780 and document espionage activities in the Three Village area of Long Island, New York, the site of an important 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 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.
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 outreach activities. Collaborators include the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), the Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), and Raynham Hall Museum.
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.