Ebenezer Dayton


Patriot Peddler, by Hervey Garret Smith
Long Island Forum, April 1975

ANYONE DELVING into the history of Long Island in the American Revolution is bound to come across the name of Ebenezer Dayton. Born in Coram March 17, 1744 he was by trade a peddler, traveling about the island selling his wares. On February 5, 1776 he was commissioned as Quartermaster of Col. Josiah Smith's regiment of Minute Men, and served with distinction.

After the Battle of Long Island, the British overan the Island, plundering and looting the homes and farms of the inhabitants, forcing the majority of the patriot residents to flee to Connecticut for safety. In September 1776 Dayton made three trips from Southold to Milford, Conn., bringing off his family and belongings. Subsequently he settled in Bethany.

The house in which he lived was moved to a new location in 1929 and remodeled, during which several interesting discoveries were made. A cornerstone was found bearing the date 1730. In a secret closet there was a handmade dagger wrapped in oilskin, with a pewter hilt, apparently made from a bayonet; also a gold ring well over 100 years old.

Many of the patriot refugees engaged in privateering, making whaleboat raids on the Island, and attacking British ships On the Sound. The families of the privateers were very proud of them for taking action against their country's enemies. Their popularity waned eventually, when they began to attack patriots as well as loyalists in search of riches.

Dayton acquired a small schooner, the Suffolk, and early in 1778 was commissioned as a privateer by Governor Jonathan Trumbull at New Haven. In June he sailed around Long Island into the Great South Bay and at Blue Point captured three sloops the Dispatch, the Polly, and the Jane and the pettiaugre Lively, all loaded with stolen food and supplies for the British in New York City. Taking aboard their cargoes, Capt. Dayton sailed back to New Haven and filed claims, called "libels". The prizes were awarded in court on July 6, 1778 and Capt. Dayton took his loot to his home in Bethany.

In November, 1778 he led another raid with a privateer sloop and four whale-boats from New London to the Great South Bay. He met and overtook a British brig loaded with tobacco, but instead of returning to New London he stayed in the vicinity too long, and was overtaken by a British vessel and captured. It is not known whether he escaped or was exchanged for a British prisoner.

The British on Long Island were tired of being raided by Dayton, and early in 1780 a young Tory officer named Graham recruited some youths for the purpose of looting Dayton's home in Bethany. On the night of March 14, they broke into his house (Ebenezer was in Boston at the time) terrorized his wife Phebe and their children, and systematically looted the place, taking jewelry, money and other goods valued at f450. On their way back to the boat they met a 16-year old boy named Chauncey Judd, who was walking home from a party. Because he was of a patriot family, and recognized most of the raiders they took him prisoner and forced him to lie on his back in the whaleboat as it headed back to Long Island.

Meanwhile Phebe Dayton loosened her bonds and aroused the community. A Capt. Clarke of Derby set out across the Sound after the robbers. He overtook them, captured all of them and rescued Chauncey along with Dayton's valuables. Graham was turned over to the miltary authorities and eventually was hanged. The others were imprisoned in Simsbury jail, from which they later escaped and fled to Canada.

In 1874, a Rev. Israel P. Warren, of Naugatuck, wrote a book entitled "Chauncey Judd, or The Stolen Boy" giving a detailed account of the affair. In it he stated that he had been aided in writing it by documents loaned to him by Rev. Smith Dayton, of New Haven, then 90 years old, who was a son of Ebenezer.

Unfortunately, many patriots hated or distrusted Dayton, convinced that he was a smuggler and was plundering patriots as well as loyalists homes on Long Island. Dayton was so upset by this talk that he prepared an elaborate defense of his conduct, with affidavits from persons in Brookhaven, Derby, and Stamford, which was published in the Connecticut Journal of April 12. 1780. One affidavit by Lieut. Caleb Brewster stated that Ebenezer Dayton was a Brookhaven merchant who often sold goods on credit, and that he frequently returned to the Island to collect what was owed to him. But to this day many suspect that his desire for wealth was so great that he didn't care which side it came from.

After the Revolution. Dayton visited East Hampton to peddle his wares, arriving on a Saturday. To advertise his presence he went to church Sunday morning, taking a prominent seat in the front row. Then the parishioners noticed that his face was very red and blotched, with all the symptoms of measles. By the end of the day nearly one hundred had gotten the measles, from which several died. When Dayton left town the next morning he was pursued by some young men, overtaken, brought back to town, tied to a rail and ducked repeatedly in the Town Pond.

Dayton brought suit against them, his lawyer being Col. Aaron Burr, then an aspiring young attorney. The jury awarded him $1,000 damages. To this day local tradition perpetuates the story of the "Dayton Measles"!

Eventually Ebenezer Dayton was distrusted both in Long Island and Connecticut. On April 5, 1786 the Connecticut Gazette reported that he had gone bathing in the Housatonic River and never returned. His clothes were found but there was no trace of his body, and it was assumed that he had drowned. But it is more than likely that Dayton was alarmed by the patriots' charges, arranged his own "death" and took off for other parts.

On January 11, 1853 Reverend Smith Dayton copied Some family records in his possession that cleared up a number of questions regarding his fathers biography. Most important was the fact that he died in New Orleans April 14, 1802 of yellow fever, aged 58 years. His wife was Phebe Smith, daughter of Joshua Smith of Coram, whom he married Aug. 16, 1772. She was born June 16, 1749, and died in New Orleans of yellow fever Mar. 18, 1827, aged nearly 78 years.

The children of Ebenezer and Phebe were as follows: 1. Jonathan, born at Coram Jan. 7, 1774, died of yellow fever at New Orleans Aug. 20, 1817. 2. Phebe, born at Coram April 17, 1776, died at Derby, Conn. July 15, 1834. 3. George, born Mar. 1778, died at Balize, Miss. of yellow fever, July 1799. 4. Ruth, born Aug. 9, 1781. 5. Smith, born at Bethany, Conn. July 11, 1784.

The author is indebted to Mr. Davis Erhardt of the Queens Borough Public Library for supplying much biographical data on Ebenezer Dayton.

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