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Silas Wood and Benj F Thompson
Robert R. Coles - 1970

    The Austrian statesman, Metternich, once generalized that "Men who make history, have not time to write it". Evidently this gentleman had never heard of those talented Long Islanders, Silas Wood and Benjamin Franklin Thompson. These men not only made history; they were also Long Islands first great historians. And, while they wrote well over a century ago, their works are held in high esteem by all competent to judge.
    History is the true account of people and events. Certainly the men, women and events of which Messrs. Wood and Thompson wrote are interesting to everyone concerned with Long Island's past. But the writer has found the lives of these compilers of history, and the events of their time, to be quite as intriguing as anything about which they wrote.
    Their lives were similar in many ways, although there were also some striking dissimilarities. Both were birthright Long Islanders, whose forebears had lived here for generations. They were both eminent attorneys, highly respected by their fellow practitioners. Both were District Attorneys, and served in the state and/or national legislatures. And they both did a tremendous amount of original research on the history of Long Island.
    Silas Wood's book, which first appeared in 1824, is called, A Sketch of the First Settlement of the Several Towns on Long Island. And Benjamin F. Thompsons contribution, first published in 1839, is entitled, A History of Long Island.
    Silas Wood was born at the old family homestead at West Hills, in the Town of Huntington, on Sept. 14, 1769. Benjamin Thompson was born at the ancestral home at Setauket, in Brookhaven Town, on May 15, 1784. Wood died in 1847 and Thompson, in 1849. And the eight decades during which one or both of them lived was a time of great importance in the history of Long Island.
    Wood was born prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. He was a boy during the difficult years that the British occupied the Island. And while that conflict is little more than a "storybook war" to us, it must have been a terrifying experience to young Silas.
    Gold was discovered in California in 1848, the year before Thompson died, an event that had its repercussions on Long Island. Among other things, it attracted many of those previously engaged in the whale fishery and was one of the factors that helped bring to a close deep sea whaling from Long Island ports.
    Both men were grown during the War of 1812. Indeed, Thompson was attached to a regiment of the Brookhaven Militia, as surgeon. They both witnessed the beginning of steamboat transportation and the early development of the Long Island Rail Road. And they were of mature age during the heated discussions over the issue of Negro slavery, preceding the Civil War. Those wishing to know how our Island looked when these men lived need merely study the wonderful paintings of the Mount brothers, of Setauket and Stony Brook.
    As previously mentioned, both Wood and Thompson were descended from several generations of Long Islanders. Their forebears had come originally from England and had lived for a time in New England. They were all apparently of good stock, and many of them played important roles in Long Islands early history.
    Little is available concerning Silas Woods ancestors. His father was named Joshua, and his mother was Ruth. They had three sons named Samuel, Selah and Silas. We are told that Samuel and Selah were farmers.
    Although more is known about Thompson's ancestors, space permits only a few words concerning his parents. Benjamin's father was Samuel, and his mother was the former Phebe Satterley. Samuel was born at the family homestead, at Setauket. This quaint farmhouse stands today and is open to the public during the warmer months, under supervision of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities.
    We are told that Samuel Thompson was a farmer who, at the age of thirty, began the study of medicine, which profession he followed, with farming, throughout the rest of his active life. His son describes him as, "a gentleman of vigorous intellect (who), by a long course of reading and reflection, acquired an extensive fund of useful knowledge."
    It is evident that both Wood and Thompson determined at an early age to make the most of their educational opportunities. This they did, although fate dictated that they were to attain their goals by somewhat different methods. As boys both experienced brief periods of tutoring and studied at private academies. Silas Wood entered Princeton College at the age of sixteen, was graduated with the highest honors, and spent the next five years there as a tutor.
    In 1802, at the age of eighteen, Benjamin F. Thompson was admitted to Yale College. Unfortunately, his college career was cut short at the end of the first year because his father felt that the boy was needed at home to help run the farm. Except for a few weeks of lectures at Columbia College, some years later, this was apparently all the formal education he ever had.
    It should be mentioned here that Benjamin's mother had died in 1793. Two years later his father married Ruth, a daughter of Seviah Smith, and they had several children. This was undoubtedly one reason why Samuel felt the need of his son on the farm.
    Having to leave college to perform menial farm chores would have had unfortunate repercussions for many. But this was not the case with Benjamin. Indeed, he seems to have accepted it as a challenge.
    Sometime after his return to Setauket young Thompson decided to prepare for the practice of medicine, and began reading the medical books elsewhere. In the autumn of 1804 he studied under Dr. Ebenezer Sage, of Sag Harin his fathers library and bor, and continued with him until the following March. Then, in the winter of 1806-07, he attended lectures on medicine at Columbia College and clinics at the New York Hospital. Sometime after that he was authorized to practice medicine, which profession he followed successfully for some years.
    In 1810 the young doctor married Mary Howard, a daughter of the Rev. Zachariah and Abagail Green, of Setauket. This proved a fortunate union, not only for the principals, but also because of the warm friendship that developed between Thompson and his father-in-law, who was familiarly known as "the fighting parson" because of his service in the Revolution.
    While Benjamin F. Thompson was growing up and acquiring an education, Silas Wood, about fifteen years his senior, was experiencing some of the hard vicissitudes of life. In 1795 he was elected to the New York State Assembly from Suffolk County, where he served two terms.
    Possibly while at Albany, he became interested in an extensive area of land in the vicinity of Johnstown, several miles northwest of Schenectady, then being developed in the wilderness. After serving in the legislature Mr. Wood journeyed there from Long Island, apparently with the intention of establishing a permanent home.
    In 1802 he married Catharme Huyck, formerly of Kinderhook. The following year she died at childbirth and their infant son survived only a few days. This tragic loss left a deep impression upon Wood, who was possessed of an unusually kind and sensitive nature. Some believe that it nearly resulted in the loss of his mind, and the scar remained with him for the rest of his days. Indeed, it may have been largely responsible for his complete withdrawal from professional life some years later.
    In 1829, some years after his having returned to Huntington, he married Elizabeth Smith, of Long Swamp. They also had a child who died in infancy - a loss that affected Wood profoundly.
    Sometime after his earlier tragedy Wood decided to prepare for the legal profession and entered the law office of Daniel Cady, of Johnstown. After admission to the bar he entered into partnership with Cady until 1813, when he returned to Long Island.
    After meeting the necessary requirements, Silas Wood began the practice of law at Huntington, and soon became a highly respected attorney. In fact his reputation as a man of clear mind and sound judgment was soon recognized far beyond the immediate environs of his native town. He was appointed District Attorney of Suffolk County by Gov. DeWitt Clinton and later elected to Congress for five successive terms.
    It is apparently not known just when Wood began to compile material for his book. Quite possibly this was soon after his return to Long Island from Johnstown. It is likely that at first he did not even contemplate the publication of a book, but, possessing an insatiable curiosity - as did Thompson - he may have begun the research simply to satisfy that yearning.
    We do know that he covered many miles, visited numerous town and county offices, where he studied many original records, interviewed numerous persons, spent days at Albany, probed the files of the leading historical societies, and traveled throughout much of New England in quest of every shred of information with the slightest bearing on the subject.
    The first edition of his book, of 66 pages, had a circulation of two hundred fifty copies. It appeared in 1824, when Wood was fifty-five years of age. A second edition of 112 pages, and one hundred copies, was published in 1826. And a third edition, of 183 pages, and one hundred copies, came out in 1828.
    The third and last edition to be published by the author, appeared a relatively short time before Woods marriage to Elizabeth Smith, in 1829, and the subsequent death of their child. The following year, 1830, he retired from practically all of his former pursuits and became deeply religious. He was then in his sixty-first year. He died in March of 1847, two years before the death of Thompson, and is buried in the historic Old Hill Burial Ground, at Huntington.
    There is abundant evidence that Benjamin F. Thompson had many other interests and responsibilities while practicing medicine. Being an avid reader, he was largely responsible for the first public library at Setauket. His interest in state, local and national affairs became recognized far and wide, and he was often called upon to write and lecture on these matters.
    The following are just a few of the many responsibilities he assumed during those years, although they were not necessarily in the order listed.
He served for a time as assistant clerk of Suffolk County, was Justice of the Peace and Postmaster at Setauket and, in 1812 was elected to the New York State Assembly. Also, as before noted, he was attached to a regiment of the Brookhaven Militia during the War of 1812.
    As we have noted, it was in 1813 that Silas Wood returned to Huntington and began his law practice. That same year Dr. and Mrs. Thompson had their first child, named Henry Rutgers. They also had three other children while living at Setauket. These were Mary Greene, born in 1815; Harriet Satterley, born in 1818; and Edward Zachariah, born in 1821.
    After practicing medicine for about ten years, Thompson decided that he would like to study law, and he tackled that subject with the same energy that he did everything else. He gave up medicine completely in 1818 and three years later, in 1821, he was admitted to the bar of Suffolk County, and later qualified to practice in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
    The family moved from Setauket to Hempstead in 1824, the same year that the first edition of Silas Woods book was published. Thompson was then forty years of age, and while there is little doubt that he had long been interested in the history of the Island, it is highly probable that Mr. Woods little book furthered that interest considerably.
    But the time had not yet arrived when Thompson could devote as many hours to the subject as he might have wished. His oldest child, Henry, was eleven, and the youngest, Edward, was only three.
    Although entering the law later in life than most, Thompsons keen intellect and tremendous energy soon made up for lost time. Any who may have entertained doubts of his ability rapidly changed their minds when they learned of his reputation in the courtroom. In 1826, the year the second edition of Woods book was published, Mr. Thompson was appointed District Attorney of Queens County and served in that capacity, with distinction, for many years.
    As we have noted, Benjamin F. Thompson was never content with merely one area of interest at a time, and there is little doubt but that he conducted considerable historical research during his years as district attorney, and probably earlier. And it is certain that he was as thorough in his pursuit of the facts as was Mr. Wood.
    I do not know when Thompson decided to publish his history, but it was not until after the appearance of Woods third edition, in 1828. He greatly admired Mr. Wood and his work. Indeed, the first edition of Thompson's history was dedicated to "The Honorable Silas Wood". In that dedication the author praised Wood, and stated that he would never have brought out his history if Wood had intended to publish a fourth edition.
    Two editions of Thompsons famous history appeared during his lifetime. The first, of one volume, came out in 1839. The second edition, of two volumes, was published in 1843. And at the time of his sudden passing, in 1849, a third edition had been completed in manuscript.
    Upon being praised for his great contributions to science, Sir Isaac Newton is said to have remarked: "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants". Certainly, every Long Island historian since the days of Silas Wood and Benjamin Franklin Thompson has seen farther by standing on their broad shoulders.

First appearing in the LI Forum 1970 No Copyright Information Data Found