War and Conflict

War and Conflict

From interpersonal conflicts to imperial rebellion to civil strife, Long Islanders have gone to battle with their enemies and, at times, with each other. They have contributed to every war in American history on the front lines and the home front, shaping the future through scars and strife. Explore the stories below to learn more.

The First Known Person of Muslim Original in America

Introducing Anthony Van Salee

Written in Dutch, this legal document records New Amsterdam Governor William Kieft’s 1639 land grant of 100 morgens (200 acres) of land to Anthony Jansen Van Salee on western Long Island just north of Coney Island. Land deeds and conveyances are plentiful in the BHS collection, but this one is unique because of its recipient. 

Anthony Jansen Van Salee (1607–67)—also called Anthony from Salee or “Anthony the Turk”—was the first known person of Muslim origin in the Americas. His story casts new light on the history of Dutch New Amsterdam and exemplifies the immigrant experience that has shaped New York City and Long Island for centuries. New research is only beginning to shed light onto the many diverse Long Islanders whose histories are emerging from obscurity.

Land deed in Dutch signed by Peter Stuyvesant, 1661

Lefferts family papers (ARC.145)

Brooklyn Historical Society

People of color were central to the development of New Amsterdam from the beginning. Founded in 1624 as a colony of the Dutch East India Company, the first enslaved Africans were imported to present-day New York just a year or two later. Enslaved laborers tilled agricultural fields, worked on ships as part of the critical fur trade, and built the new settlement’s essential infrastructure: its wharves, mills, roads, and fortifications. 

Upon Van Salee’s arrival in New Amsterdam at the end of 1629 with his wife, Grietje Reyniers, government officials described him as a “mulatto” or as the “Turk” in their records, a direct reflection of his skin color and mixed ancestry. Anthony’s father, Jan Jansen, had been a Dutch privateer; his mother a Spanish Moor. Although there is no direct evidence to prove that Van Salee practiced Islam in the New World, his mixed ancestry and religious heritage eventually brought him and his wife into direct conflict with their New World neighbors, shaping the family’s future in New Amsterdam.

Nieuw Amsterdam ofte nue Nieuw lorx opt’t Eylant Man, 1660


By 1638, the couple had established their own bouwery (farm) just north of the city wall, known today as Wall Street. That year, Everadus Bogardus, dominie (or minister) of the Dutch Reformed Church, sued Van Salee for unpaid debts towards Bogardus’ salary. Accusations of dishonesty from both sides turned into a grudge that blossomed into fifteen civil suits in the next year. The escalating conflict drew forward more community members, many of them friends of Bogardus, with testimony challenging both Anthony’s and Grietje’s conduct and character. To defame the couple, some accused Grietje of lasciviousness and even prostitution. 

Ultimately, overwhelmed by testimony documenting the “various troubles” the coupe had caused the community, Governor Kieft made the unusual decision to banish them from the jurisdiction of New Netherland. Although New Amsterdam’s diversity and supposed “religious tolerance” is widely celebrated, the Van Salee’s story is illuminating. Their difference was only marginally tolerated until they directly challenged the state religion and authority.

A description of the towne of Mannados or New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661, 1859 [1664] 

M-1664 (1859?).Fl

Brooklyn Historical Society

Van Salee nevertheless came out ahead. Governor Kieft approved his request for land on New Amsterdam’s far frontier on the southern tip of western Long Island. With their 200 acres, Anthony and Grietje were among the first European landholders in the area of New Utrecht and Gravesend, where they thrived. Their four daughters went on to marry into prominent merchant families. Today, members of the Vanderbilt family trace their lineage to Anthony Van Salee and Grietje Reyniers.

Where the Revolution Began

The Battle of Long Island

Although the battles of Lexington and Concord are traditionally highlighted as the unofficial start of aggression during the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Long Island, on August 27, 1776, was the war’s first major military engagement following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. 

New York City, then colonial America’s second-largest city after Philadelphia, was a strategic target for the British. The American army was desperate to defend the wealthy commercial center with its thriving port from capture. Rural and sparsely populated Brooklyn, just across the East River from Manhattan on the western tip of Long Island, became the opening site of the British army’s New York offensive.

The Plan of the City of New York in North America, circa 1770
Bernard Ratzer
Brooklyn Historical Society

Having anchored hundreds of ships in New York Bay earlier that summer, on August 22, a British force of approximately 15,000 soldiers began moving onto Long Island. Five days later, the British attacked. Washington’s American forces, half the size of the British, were out maneuvered and ambushed near the Vechte-Cortelyou House (today known as the Old Stone House). Hundreds of Americans were killed, more were captured, and Washington was forced to retreat into Manhattan.

Battle of Long Island, 1858
Alonzo Chappel
Brooklyn Historical Society

The American loss at the Battle of Long Island put Washington on the defensive. Within two months, New York fell to the British, who occupied the region until 1783, when the war ended. The Battle of Long Island may have been a defeat for the Americans, but locals were heartened that Washington’s army escaped to fight another day. Beginning in the 1800s, Brooklynites began considering the battle as an important milestone in the history of colonial America and preserving relics—cannonballs and musket balls—unearthed from the ground as construction reshaped the city.

Cannonball, late 18th century
Brooklyn Historical Society

A Traitor in Our Midst?

Nicholas Couwenhoven and British-Occupied Brooklyn

The original Brooklyn owner of this portrait miniature was Nicholas Couwenhoven. Neither a devoted patriot nor traitorous loyalist, Couwenhoven was a pragmatist who played both sides to protect his own interests. This was in fact common in the Revolutionary Era as many people living in New York or Long Island considered themselves neutral in the fight. 

As was the case with many prominent Kings County landowners, any loyalty Couwenhoven felt to the Revolutionary cause early on cooled following the British victory at the Battle of Long Island and the subsequent occupation of Manhattan and Long Island. In contrast to the droves of Long Islanders who fled to Connecticut following the battle, Couwenhoven elected to stay at his home in New Utrecht and cooperate with British authorities.

Committee of Southampton License to Remove to Connecticut, 1776
Pelletreau family papers (ARC .142)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Couwenhoven’s wartime network was not limited to the British cause and its supporters. Occupied New York was not a fortress. Instead, it was a melting pot where patriots, loyalists, pragmatists, soldiers, civilians, enslaved people, and prisoners coexisted, at times uneasily. Individuals like Deborah Covenhoven (no known relation to Nicholas Couwenhoven) were routinely granted permission to travel throughout the city to conduct business or to visit with or assist relatives. Travelers needed official orders of permission to go on their way.

Order of Permission to Travel to Long Island, 1782
Deborah Covenhoven Orders of Permission (1977.640)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Couwenhoven frequently encountered potential enemies on Long Island during the war, all of whom he attempted to appease to protect his own interests. The Couwenhoven family heirlooms in the BHS collection provide evidence of this balancing act. Family history claims that Couwenhoven received this portrait miniature from a grateful American soldier, while a European-made snuffbox, also at BHS, attests to Couwenhoven’s good standing with the British. A British soldier who stayed with the Couwenhovens during the war supposedly gifted them with the snuffbox as a token of gratitude for their hospitality.

English or Continental, late 18th century
Brooklyn Historical Society

Following the American victory, Couwenhoven’s cooperation with the British during the war forced him to act quickly and strategically to defend himself from legal prosecution as a traitor. His portrait miniature played a key role in his defense, becoming proof of his “loyalty” to America.

Negotiating Captivity and Freedom

The Different Fates of American Prisoners of War

Couwenhoven family legend claims that Nicholas received this portrait miniature from Colonel Nathaniel Ramsay, a Continental Army lieutenant colonel from Maryland and brother-in-law of the miniature’s creator, Charles Willson Peale. How Couwenhoven and Ramsay became acquainted and the role their relationship, represented by the exchange of this miniature, played in Couwenhoven’s postwar legal battles reveal the little-known history of American prisoners of war during the Revolution.

On June 28, 1778, Ramsay was wounded and captured by the British at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Like most American prisoners, Ramsay served out his sentence in New York City. Although estimates vary, between 1776 and 1783 as many as 30,000 American soldiers may have been held prisoner throughout the city. Ramsay was lucky. As a high-value officer-captive, he was held in a private home on western Long Island in Flatbush. His captivity was spent in much better conditions than American foot soldiers confined in overcrowded makeshift cells or British prisoner ships like the HMS Jersey, docked in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay. As many as 18,000 Americans died while imprisoned, more Americans than perished on the battlefield.

Prisoner Ship Jersey, late 19th century
Edwin Stafford Doolittle
Brooklyn Historical Society

Ramsay’s release took two years to negotiate. During that time, he got to know the locals, including Couwenhoven, who had taken a great interest in American prisoners. Couwenhoven’s wartime account book (in the BHS collection) documents hundreds of dollars of his own money loaned to American prisoners to pay their wartime expenses, including lodging and clothing.

In June 1780, Couwenhoven lent “30 Spanish milled dollars,” or silver coins, to Ramsay and a fellow officer-prisoner, Colonel Oliver Towles, to fund the cost of their travel into Manhattan for a meeting with the British that ultimately ensured their release. While speculative, the role Couwenhoven played in this meeting may have been the reason that Ramsay gifted the miniature of Washington to him.

Revolutionary War Era Account Book, 1780
Nicholas Covenhoven papers (ARC .283)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Nineteenth-century Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles wrote that Couwenhoven’s efforts on behalf of American POWs were “merely a polite concession to the rising fortunes of America,” and indeed, they may have been. In 1783, New York State authorities summoned Couwenhoven to stand trial as a suspected loyalist. For suspected traitors on trial, testimonials and support from family and friends were critical to prove their innocence. Couwenhoven’s most important defense likely came from George Washington himself, who wrote in a letter that he had “frequently heard from the American officers who have been prisoners on Long Island that on all occasions you [were] their friend.” Couwenhoven was cleared of all charges, thanks in no small part to prisoners of war like Ramsay; Ramsay’s brother-in-law Charles Willson Peale; and, of course, Washington. This portrait miniature was most likely Couwenhoven’s ticket to freedom.

The Scars and Relics of Battle

Brooklyn and the Civil War

While Ovington’s flag was likely created as a personal display of patriotism, the BHS collection is also home to more than a dozen Civil Warera regimental flags and ceremonial banners associated with New York battalions. Because the Long Island Historical Society was founded during the war, in 1863, the scars and relics of that conflict were among the first items donated for preservation. And while these regimental flags honor the men who served, it is through more intimate war mementoes that the struggles and sacrifices of those soldiers and their families survive.

Civil War Drum, 1861–1862

New York 56th Infantry Regiment


Brooklyn Historical Society


A letter in the BHS collection written by Brooklynite Mary A. Herbert documents her devastation at the death of her only son, Joseph. A member of New York’s 173rd Regiment Company K, Joseph was killed in action on June 14, 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Mary Herbert waited months for confirmation of her son’s fate, finally receiving word of his death from Nathaniel Augustus Conklin, a fellow Brooklynite from the 173rd Regiment. 

Herbert’s grief echoes from the pages of her response to Conklin, embodying the anguish of family members of the deceased. “I feared…I was writing to the dead from not having heard from him in so long a time. Still I kept hoping against fear that it might be from some other cause but not my hopes are all blasted and I am left a lonely widow by the death of my only son.”

173rd Regiment New York Volunteers flag, after 1862


Brooklyn Historical Society


A letter in the BHS collection written by Brooklynite Mary A. Herbert documents her devastation at the death of her only son, Joseph. A member of New York’s 173rd Regiment Company K, Joseph was killed in action on June 14, 1863, at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Mary Herbert waited months for confirmation of her son’s fate, finally receiving word of his death from Nathaniel Augustus Conklin, a fellow Brooklynite from the 173rd Regiment. 

Herbert’s grief echoes from the pages of her response to Conklin, embodying the anguish of family members of the deceased. “I feared…I was writing to the dead from not having heard from him in so long a time. Still I kept hoping against fear that it might be from some other cause but not my hopes are all blasted and I am left a lonely widow by the death of my only son.”

Letter from Mary A. Herbert to Nathaniel Augustus Conklin, 1863

Conklin and Bedell families papers (2005.021) 

Brooklyn Historical Society

Women’s Contributions from the Home Front

The United States Sanitary Fair Movement

During the Civil War, many women made flags and similar items to sell in hopes of raising money to aid Union troops. Beginning in 1863, American women began organizing “sanitary fairs,” fundraising spectacles intended to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission. This federal agency oversaw soldiers’ everyday “sanitary interests,” providing food, clothing, housing, transportation, and care for the sick and wounded. 


Although it is unclear whether she made this flag for the fair, Martha Ovington undoubtedly knew about the fair and perhaps even attended the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, held over two weeks in February 1864.

Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, Interior view of Academy of Music, 1864

Brown & Co., lithographer


Brooklyn Historical Society

Largely organized by Long Island–area volunteers from the local Women’s Relief Association, the fair was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in two neighboring, built specifically for the fair. The event was both a fundraiser and a community morale booster, providing a diversion from the war. There was an art gallery, agricultural displays, and a popular exhibition designed to resemble a New England kitchen.

Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, New England Kitchen, 1864

Brown & Co., lithographer

Library of Congress

Through solicited donations, ticket sales, and goods sold, the fair raised over $403,000, more than any similar sanitary fair held to that point. 

The Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair lasted only two weeks, but many of the curiosities and historical documents displayed during the event were preserved by the Long Island Historical Society (now Brooklyn Historical Society). In February 1864, LIHS was barely a year old, and its founders recognized the fair as an unprecedented collecting opportunity. In a written plea to their members, they asked, “Will you not, among your purchases, remember our Society and procure for us a Picture, a Volume, a Collection of Autographs, a Set of Coins, a Piece of old Armor, Furniture, Costume—any thing, indeed, which is curious and ancient, and which will contribute to illustrate the Past.”

Long Island Historical Society Request for Fair Donations, 1864

Women’s Relief Association Records (ARC.245)

Brooklyn Historical Society

The request from LIHS proved successful with local donors. Today the BHS collection includes artifacts and documents of local and national importance brought into the institution from the fair.

Tin-glazed earthenware tile, 17th or 18th century 


Brooklyn Historical Society