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Declaration from long ago seems just as relevant today

Townsends believed in civic engagement


People living in the hamlet of Oyster Bay and those who love history, particularly that of the Revolutionary War, know about Robert Towns-end. He was a member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which historians credit with paving the way for a victory for the colonists over  the British. Raynham Hall, a museum in Oyster Bay, was once Townsend’s home. 

But some of his ancestors had an impact on the hamlet, too, though their stories may not be known. There is a belief among many residents today that they say is in-grained in the fabric of the community: that they will stand up for one another and are committed to pursuing the greater good. What most people may not know is that it was two Townsend brothers, John and Henry, who preceded Robert by five or six generations, who first promoted that idea in writing.

Historian Claire Bellerjeau, the director of education for Raynham Hall, said that John and Henry Townsend’s lives, before their arrival in Oyster Bay, probably solidified their belief that community was of the utmost importance. Both signed the Flushing Remonstrance in 1657, which stated that individuals should have the right to worship as they pleased. The document is considered a precursor to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

“John and Henry, who lived in Flushing before coming to Oyster Bay, knew that the Flushing Remonstrance would upset [Peter] Stuyvesant because it was a direct complaint about his laws that prohibited Quakers from worshipping,” Bellerjeau said. “None of the men who signed it were Quakers. It was a statement of civic duty — doing something for someone else.”

When the Flushing Remonstrance was given to Stuyvesant — the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland, which became New York and New Jersey — he became enraged, which led to the imprisonment and torture of those who signed it, including the Townsend brothers. They fled to Oyster Bay in 1661, because of its distance from Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam (which became Lower Manhattan), and because Oyster Bay was a settlement whose control was a source of dispute between the Dutch and the English in New England. Henry Townsend also knew of an opportunity to build a grist mill, which, Bellerjeau said, may have enticed him to stay.

The unrest they saw in the hamlet, and their experience in Flushing, may have led the Townsend brothers to decide that a commitment to civic duty needed to be put in writing.

Bellerjeau discovered that document, which she calls the Oyster Bay Declaration, 10 years ago. Written in 1662, it was a statement of goodwill toward hamlet residents, and was signed by 12 community leaders, including the Townsends.

“The Oyster Bay Declaration, which I believe Henry Townsend wrote, because he signed it first, didn’t set up any laws,” Bellerjeau said. “It was more a social or civic agreement amongst themselves.”

The original document no longer exists, Bellerjeau said, but Robert’s nephew Dr. Peter Townsend, who was an avid history buff, copied it and included it on page 75 of the family genealogy, which he called “the Notebook.” It was never published, but it is held in the Raynham Hall archives, where it has been used as a source of information about the family. Bellerjeau said that were it not for Peter Stuyvesant, there would have been no Oyster Bay Declaration.

The declaration is no longer in the “Old Record Book,” the Town of Oyster Bay’s first book of records, with entries from 1658 to 1663. The book, which is kept in the town’s archives, is in bad shape, according to John Hammond, the town historian, with pages that have fallen out and some that are frayed. In the case of the Oyster Bay Declaration, it disintegrated.

The declaration, just two paragraphs long, stated that it was unclear who governed Oyster Bay, the English or the Dutch, but that residents did not care. They would stand together regardless. The declaration, Bellerjeau added, could well be the earliest declaration of caring for one’s neighbor in history.

And it was needed, Hammond said. “They wrote this document to stand up for one another,” he said. “Those people were totally dependent upon each other because there was no government.”

Rob Brusca, a lawyer, who is involved in the community, said he agreed with the declaration. “It’s karma,” he said. “It’s ironic because, to me, that’s what the fabric of Oyster Bay and East Norwich has been for as long as I can remember.”

There is notable diversity in Oyster Bay in race, heritage and income, Brusca said. “This is a fantastic thing to hear about, this document,” he said, “but I’m not surprised.”