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Setauket Elementary Students Get Close-up History Lesson

Actual letter from Gen. George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge shown on Monday.

In 1779, Gen. George Washington composed a letter to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, spymaster of the revolutionary army, detailing spy techniques and advising the activities of his spies on Long Island.

That letter, which testifies to the existence of the Culper Spy Ring's activities in Setauket, was the center of an historical presentation for Setauket Elementary students on Monday.

Students got to view the actual letter signed by Washington, on loan for the morning from the special collections of the Stony Brook University Libraries, and enjoyed an explanation provided by historical actors portraying Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull, better known as the spy "Culper Senior." Both Tallmadge and Woodhull were natives of Setauket.

The assembly marked the first time the letter had been exhibited at a public elementary school. The letter, which called for the use of invisible ink and codes, was an apparent hit among students.

"I think it's really interesting that they found [Washington's] actual writing and his signature," said sixth grader Jake Colletti.

Sixth grader Kerry McKeever agreed. "It was pretty cool knowing that our town is that historic," she said.

The letter itself was acquired by Stony Brook University from the Forbes collection for $96,000 in 2006 at a Christie's auction, according to Kristen Nyitray, head of special collections and archives at the university. The funding came through a grant from Assemb. Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, and from a contribution from former professor Henry Laufer.

"They diagnosed it as actually being in fair to poor condition," Nyitray said of the letter upon original acquisition.

It required de-acidification and cleaning before being fit with a permanent frame providing UV protection for exhibiting.

The following is an excerpt from Washington's letter to Tallmadge:

"It is not my opinion that Culper Junr. should be advised to give up his present
employment. I would imagine that with a little industry he will be able to carry on his intelligence with greater security to himself, and greater advantages to us — under cover of his usual business, than if he were to dedicate himself wholly to the giving of information. It may afford him opportunities of collecting intelligence, that he could not derive so well in any other manner. It prevents also those suspicions which would become natural should he throw himself out of the line of his present employment...
I would add a further hint on this subject. Even letters may be made more subservient to his communications, than have been yet practiced. He may write a familiar letter on domestic affairs, or on some little matters of business to his friend at Satuket or elsewhere, interlining with
the stain his secret intelligence, or writing it on the opposite blank side of the letter.
"

Residents can learn more about the Culper Spy Ring at an upcoming exhibit at the Three Village Historical Society, opening Oct. 3.

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