Chauncey Judd: Ebenezer Dayton
While these nocturnal travelers are snatching a few minutes' sleep in Mr. Gunn's barn, let us explain who they are, and why they appear here in these circumstances.
We have already related the reasons which led so many of the people of Gunntown and vicinity to espouse the cause of the royalists.
After the disastrous battle of Brooklyn Heights, and the masterly retreat of General Washington and his forces to New York, Long Island fell wholly under British control. It became in consequence one of the haunts of the tories, and a general resort for thieves and desperadoes of every description.
The engagement of the 27th of August, 1776, says Thompson
was followed by an abandonment of Long Island to the enemy; and the town and county commissioners, in many instances, either through fear or necessity, were inclined to repudiate all legislative authority exercised by the Provincial and Continental Congresses. The inhabitants who continued on the island were compelled to subscribe to the oath of allegiance and fidelity to the king. General Howe had, immediately on landing at Gravesend, issued a proclamation promising security of person and property to those who should remain peaceably upon their farms. This island became, therefore, conquered territory, forts being erected and garrisons established in different places. Martial law prevailed, the army became a sanctuary for criminals of every grade, and means the most despicable were resorted to for increasing the numerical force of the enemy. Those inhabitants who had theretofore taken an active part as officers of militia and committeemen, deemed it most imprudent to remain, and consequently sought refuge within the American lines, leaving the greater part of their property exposed to the ravages of the unprincipled foe.…
"The enemy took possession of the best rooms in their houses, and obliged their owners to provide them accommodations and support for men and horses. The property of those who had fled from their homes, and especially those engaged in the American service, was particularly the object of rapine, and in very many instances the damages were immense."
Among the persons who thus fled from the island was a man named Ebenezer Dayton. He was a native of Brookhaven, a descendant of Rev. Nathaniel Brewster, D. D., one of the first ministers, and connected with some of the most respectable families in the town. He had long carried on mercantile business there, not only at his own store in Brookhaven, but also by traveling tours in adjacent towns, in consequence of which he became extensively known throughout the middle and eastern portions of the island. The following amusing incident, related by Thompson, will give us a glimpse of the manner in which the business of a country tradesman was then carried on, and the perils to which it was liable:-
Dayton arrived in the village of Easthampton on Saturday evening, with a stock of fancy goods for sale. He was apparently laboring under slight indisposition resembling the measles; but for the purpose of apprising the people of his presence, and against the earnest remonstrance of his landlady, he made his appearance the next day at church, and placed himself, of course, in the most conspicuous part of the assembly. Meeting was no sooner dismissed in the afternoon than a rumor of his indisposition was spread through the town; and the general indignation was so apparent that the delinquent, considering prudence the better part of valor, departed early the next morning.
But the incensed population was not so easily satisfied. A few ardent youngsters set off in pursuit, and, overtaking the peddler on the road, seized and brought him back to the village, and having paraded him through the principal streets on a rail, drenching him thoroughly in the town pond, and committing other indignities upon him, permitted him to depart. The terrors of the law were speedily visited upon the actors in this scene of violence, through the instrumentality of Col. Burr, then a young and aspiring practitioner, which resulted in a verdict of one thousand dollars damages; yet, strange to say, the verdict was never fully approved by the people, seeing that nearly one hundred persons took the disease, of whom several died. The era is still alluded to as the time of the Dayton measles.
Mr. Dayton espoused the American cause, and was very active in the measures taken to protect the towns and villages in that part of Long Island, and to annoy the British troops and tories. He was clerk of the Committee of Safety appointed by Brookhaven, under the authority of the Provincial Congress, to apprehend and punish traitors. In 1776 he was commissioned as quartermaster in the regiment raised in that county. Of course he had become exceedingly obnoxious to the royalists, and when Brookhaven fell into the hands of the enemy, he removed, with his merchandise, to Connecticut. At that time the intercourse between Brookhaven and the main coast was very frequent. There were family ties connecting the people of that town with Derby; indeed, it had formerly itself been within the Connecticut jurisdiction for several years. At first Dayton fixed his abode at Milford, but in view of the exposed position of this place to attack by sea, he shortly afterward removed some ten or twelve miles inland, to what is now Bethany, then a part of the ancient territory of New Haven.
But notwithstanding the removal of his family and goods to this supposed place of safety, he did not personally abandon the scene of conflict. Under a privateer's commission, he raised parties of men with whom he made frequent incursions upon the enemy. Expeditions of this kind were very common at that time.
Most parts of the island, says Thompson,
and particularly along the Sound, suffered greatly from depredations of little bands of piratical plunderers, designated whale-boatmen, from the fact of their craft resembling those used in whaling along the shore. With this they would make frequent descents under cover of night, attack detached houses, rifle the inhabitants of their money, plate and other valuables, and availing themselves of the speed of their boats, reach their lurking places among the islands of the Sound, or upon the main shore, before any effectual means could be taken to intercept them. Indeed, so great was the apprehension of these sudden attacks that many of the inhabitants had their doors and windows protected by iron bars, and it became usual for people to pass the night in the woods and other secret places to avoid personal violence.
One of these expeditions, in which Dayton was engaged, is thus described in New York Gazette of February 16, 1778:-
At two o'clock last Thursday morning, a party of twelve rebels seized at Coram, in Suffolk county [in Brookhaven], two wagons loaded with dry goods, the property of Obadiah Wright of Southampton. These marauders had been several days on the island, visited most parts, and committed many robberies, especially at the house of Colonel Floyd, Setauket, which they robbed of goods and cash to a considerable amount, and took some property of Mr. Dunbar, who rides down the island occasionally, and happened to lodge in the house that night.
Communication between the towns on the eastern part of the island and New York city was then, for the most part, carried on in small vessels, which transported provisions, forage, wood, etc. for the use of the British army, and brought back groceries, dry goods, and money in payment. These vessels, therefore, became a coveted article of plunder to parties like those above described. Mr. Dayton had already captured no less than twelve of them, which were condemned as lawful prize of war, and had become known among the British and their adherents under the designation of a "rebel pirate."
Nor was he held in much better estimation on the patriotic side. It was strongly suspected that, of the large quantities of goods brought by him from the island, no small part was procured by smuggling, and sometimes even by the robbery of personal friends of the American cause. The two wagon loads mentioned above, were replevied by Mr. Wright, their owner, in the Superior Court at New Haven, and recovered on the ground of his fidelity to his country. Other goods in Dayton's possession were attached on similar allegation; and, although he claimed that he had received them in payment of a debt due to him, the plea was disallowed and the goods forfeited.
The result, as a whole, was that Mr. Dayton was in ill odor on both sides. By the royalists he was feared and hated as a "rebel pirate," and by the Americans suspected as a smuggler and indiscriminate plunderer of friend and foe. So keenly did he feel this general odium, that, while some of the aforesaid cases were pending in the courts, he prepared an elaborate defense of his conduct, which, with numerous affidavits from persons in Brookhaven, Derby, Stamford, etc., be caused to be published in the Connecticut Journal of April 12, 1780. Its seems due to his reputation, and will at the same time most forcibly exhibit his standing in the community, to quote a few passages from this statement:
The parties against me in the eight fore-mentioned suits [for smuggling], and the said sixteen traitors indicted for treason [including the robbers and their friends mentioned in the next chapter], being a very great number of persons, all imagine it of great importance to them in the several trials depending to slander me, and that their conduct will appear less dishonorable and not criminal if they can make me appear extremely odious and detestable in the opinions of the good people of this state; for which purpose they have jointly employed all their arts of corruption, together with their interest and friends, to raise a popular clamor against me by propagating and spreading the following reports, viz., that I am a tory, and as such have carried immense quantities of provisions to the enemy; that I am a plunderer, and have robbed the people of Long Island to a great amount; that, before I fled from the island I was worth nothing; and that all the property I have had taken from me, and what I yet have, was procured by feeding the enemy and plundering on Long Island; and that, therefore, it is just and right for anybody, either whig or tory, to plunder me of my property; and that I ought to be considered as outlawed, and not entitled to protection of person or property. And as I am a refugee stranger, without friends or connections in this state, while the parties secretly propagating these reports are numerous, consisting of whigs and tories, they have succeeded so far in spreading these reports that they are generally believed where I am not known, and by many of those who live near me, to that degree that I am in constant fear that my life and property are in danger, and on that account have been induced to keep an armed guard many nights for my defense.
Mr. Dayton then proceeds to declare solemnly that, except the capture of twelve vessels and the seizure of Mr. Wright's goods, - in the latter case acting only as a private of the party, and not the commander, - he knows of
none the least foundation in truth for any of the forementioned reports. The affidavits of friends were to the effect that they knew him to have been a merchant at Brookhaven who had been in the habit of selling goods on credit; that he went to the island only to collect what was due him; also that they had never heard that he had plundered anybody of either party, though they acknowledged that his reputation in this respect is greatly injured among people of all ranks, denominations, etc.
It is impossible at this day to determine the truth in respect to this matter, nor is it of great importance in relation to our story. It is enough that such were the opinions generally entertained of Dayton at this time, especially among the tories. These opinions, with the current belief that he had in his dwelling-house, a large amount of money and valuable goods, undoubtedly led to the perpetration of the outrage we are now to record.