If you haven’t done it yet, go to Washington, D.C. and look up the Declaration of Independence. There, among the signatures, you’ll find the name of a seventeen-mile long road on Long Island. Seriously, it’s right there, along with the names of John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The name is ‘William Floyd’.
The William Floyd Highway is named after one of the two men from Long Island who signed the Declaration of Independence. If you’re from around here (‘here’ being Long Island), you might know the road, but you might not know the man. You really should know the man. To understand, ‘why,’ come back with me to the Long Island of 1776, just weeks before the signing of the Declaration of Independence…
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It’s a cold May morning. You’ve just rowed out of Long Beach Bay into the middle of Long Island Sound, fishing for bass. Emerging from the fog, you spot a convoy of British ships carrying more than 3,000 British soldiers from Boston to New York. If they catch you, you’ll be impressed into the British navy, so you row as fast as you can back to shore.
By June, you’re fishing out of East Hampton on the south shore, only to encounter the same problem. Over several weeks, the British send several convoys of war ships, troop transport ships, frigates, and supply boats from Halifax, Nova Scotia, past Montauk, and into New York harbor.
By mid-July, only weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there are more than 400 British ships and boats in New York harbor. From Montauk to Brooklyn, Long Islanders go about their business while one of the largest armadas ever assembled in the Western world passes by just miles from their beaches. By comparison, the Spanish Armada, which was supposed to conquer all of England, had only 130 ships. The Battle at Trafalgar, 29 years later, involved only 70 ships. Not until the D-Day Invasion, nearly 170 years later, would the world again see such a large invasion force.
As far as the British are concerned, it’s the beginning of the end of the war for New York City and Long Island. In August, with more than 31,000 men, the British initiate the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. The British attack with 24,000 men, outmaneuvering and ultimately overwhelming Washington’s army of 19,000. The British do almost everything right, nearly crushing the Americans’ hopes of continuing the War, but they allow Washington and the remains of his army to escape across the East River, to fight another day.
Where are you while this is happening? As an able-bodied man, you are required to serve in the Suffolk militia. Your main task has been to protect the sheep and cattle of Long Island, an unglamorous but critical part of the War effort. As the British invade Brooklyn, your company and other groups from Montauk and Southampton get a message to march as quickly as you can to join in the battle.
You never get to Brooklyn. By the time you reach Huntington, you receive a message that the battle is over, that Washington has retreated to Manhattan. You’re ordered to go back home, but you know that the British soldiers are already on their way to arrest anybody who took up arms against the King. So, you and hundreds of other men make your way to the nearest ports and beaches to find boats that will take you to Connecticut, where the Patriots are in control.
You settle with family in the port town of New Haven. During the next several weeks, as word of the abuse the Patriots suffer at the hands of the British and Hessian soldiers spreads, you watch as thousands of Long Island men, women, and children find whatever means they can to cross the Sound to Connecticut. Most leave on schooners and sloops from Sag Harbor, while some engage small rowboats and even whaleboats to carry them across. By the end of October, more than a third of the entire population of Suffolk County has left their homes in a mass evacuation.
William Floyd’s wife, Hannah, and her three children are among the evacuees. William is a wealthy Long Island landowner, a leader in his community, and a former militia captain, making him a natural to be selected to represent New York at the Continental Congress. It is up to him and the other Founding Fathers to declare our independence from England and then to guide our infant country through the War that follows. Hannah knows that this makes William’s home and family a target for the invading British. Taking with them whatever they can, Hannah and her children abandon their home, take a boat across the Sound, and join the many Long Island refugees who settle in Middletown, Connecticut.
William joins his family in Middletown, with no chance to see what’s happened to his property. The British soldiers have taken over his house in Mastic and are using it as a barracks and stable. Even in New Haven, you hear about William’s difficulties. With no money and with nothing to sell, William resorts to asking friends and the Continental Congress for handouts to support his family. Then, in 1781, his beloved Hannah dies at the age of 41.
Shortly after the British evacuate New York in 1783, William returns to Mastic, but his house has been wrecked and his farm has been destroyed. William Floyd remarries, moves to upstate New York, and continues to serve his country in other capacities, but nothing can compensate him for his losses during the War.
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Return with me to the present. Each year, we celebrate our Nation’s birthday and the blessings of being its citizens. We have parties, make a lot of noise, and show the world how proud we are to be Americans. Don’t stop there. Now that you know William Floyd’s story, take a moment to remember that we owe at least a portion of our good fortune to the sacrifice of a man whose name graces a not-so-famous highway and a very important piece of paper.