Historian Claire Bellerjeau has been working for the past 14 years to unearth two truths — the life of Oyster Bay’s Townsend family, including that of Revolutionary War spy Robert Townsend, and detailing African-Americans’ role in the history of the town, about which there has been little information. And while endeavoring to research one of these subjects, she often discovers vital information about the other.
On Sunday, she will share her latest findings from the past six months, information she uncovered in a ledger in Robert Townsend’s handwriting at the East Hampton Library, and another ledger she came across at the New York Historical Society. “I have been looking through documents I’ve never seen,” she said, adding that both collections include Townsend family documents. “And in looking at these ledgers, I was able to find information on many African-Americans, some of whom were slaves and others who were free.”
The East Hampton Library has several Townsend documents, many originally donated by Morton Pennypacker, a collector of Long Island and New York historical materials who also wrote several books on Long Island history.
Perhaps Pennypacker’s biggest discovery was the identity of Robert Townsend, who grew up at Oyster Bay’s Raynham Hall. Although Townsend was a major player in Gen. George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War, no one knew it, including his family, until the 1930s, when Pennypacker made the discovery. “He figured out Robert was a spy by handwriting analysis,” Bellerjeau said. “Robert had very unique handwriting.”
Researching the East Hampton Library collection was not a new experience for Bellerjeau. In fact, it has provided many primary sources that were key to her research. But her recent discovery of a ledger, which the library references as the “Robert Townsend Daybook,” was a bit startling.
“I’ve been focusing my research on four individuals that were enslaved at the Townsend household, and also on an overview of the Oyster Bay community of free African- Americans,” she said. “In Robert’s ledger I was able to find transactions involving at least 39 African-Americans.”
Bellerjeau has also found data on African-Americans listed by the Town of Oyster Bay in the Federal Census for the years 1790 to 1810, including both slaves and free people. These entries are handwritten by the original census taker. “After counting them, I found it amazing how many African- Americans there were,” she said. “If you look at the historical books written about the Town of Oyster Bay, there is very little mention of this community.”
According to the 2010 Census, 2 percent of the Town of Oyster Bay’s population is African-American. Bellerjeau has discovered that between 1790 and 1810, the percentage of African-Americans was much greater, 16 percent. “They represented a significant portion of the population,” she said, adding that she felt compelled to continue her research to uncover more.
She found that there were 381 slaves in the town in 1790, and 302 free African-Americans, among a total population of 4,097. “During 1790 to 1810, the number of freed and enslaved African-Americans changed, with more becoming free, but the percentage of African-Americans, 16 percent, stayed the same,” she said. The discovery was enlightening. “I feel as though a veil has been lifted. Invisible people have become visible.”
The discoveries are fitting amid the celebration of Black History Month, Bellerjeau said, allowing for a “true accounting of the history of African-Americans in the Town of Oyster Bay, and a greater understanding of those living in the hamlet.”
Denice Evans-Sheppard, who became the executive director of the Oyster Bay Historical Society in October, said she was pleased and encouraged by Bellerjeau’s determination to set the record straight on Oyster Bay’s past. Evans-Sheppard’s family has lived in Oyster Bay since 1795. Many still live in the hamlet on Carll Hill in the Pine Hollow area. The property was purchased by her great-great- grandfather David Carll before he joined the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment as a private in the Civil War. Evans-Sheppard lives in his house now.
“I think it’s wonderful what Claire is discussing as she unveils the historical information regarding African-American history in Oyster Bay as it relates to Raynham Hall,” Evans-Sheppard said. “I’m so happy someone is taking the initiative to bring forth the community’s history. It’s so important.”
She worked for years with the former director of the historical society, Philip Blocklyn, in search of her own family’s history. She has more information than she once had, but still knows little of those who came before her.
“I knew for a fact I had relatives here in the past, but there wasn’t any information on them in the historical society collections,” Evans-Sheppard said. “How could that be? Claire has a passion for this research, and it shows. I applaud her.”
Tom Gall, the first recorded slave freed on Long Island, was from Oyster Bay. He was freed in 1685 after his owner, Alice Crabb, died. When Gall was purchased, the contract promised him his freedom upon Alice’s death or when he turned 31, whichever came first. He was 25 when she died. “What was interesting was the connection to Raynham Hall,” Bellerjeau said.
In research presented last year, she shared evidence that Crabb’s property was purchased many years later by Samuel Townsend, and is today Raynham Hall Museum. “I will be sharing what I found out just this past week on Sunday — that Plato Gale, one of the founders of Oyster Bay’s Hood AME Church in 1848, was very likely a member of the Gall family. What a wonderful thing to find — a relationship between this historic faith community, Oyster Bay and Raynham Hall.”
Harriet Clark, Raynham Hall’s executive director, continues to be impressed by Bellerjeau. “She’s always finding fresh information from old files,” Clark said. “This information is interesting because the African-American population in Oyster Bay feels like it’s dwindling. We’re hoping to reignite the conversation in town for Black History Month.”
It’s important to be honest about Oyster Bay’s history, Clark said. Schools often visit the museum, but teachers say that although students are learning the basics of slavery in America, they do not get the entire story. “Some teachers have told our educators that they used to be uncomfortable talking about enslaved people” she said. “Our story at Raynham Hall is straightforward, and they find it easier to talk to their students about it. The point isn’t to blame people. It is to be aware and knowledgeable.”