Honors and wealth came to Silas Wood (1769-1847),
a native of West Hills, as Long Island's first historian, a lawyer and
a statesman, but happiness eluded him. Tragic circumstances connected with
the death of his first wife and their infant came near unbalancing his
mind. Then twenty-six years later, after he had won renown, a second and
similar misfortune overtook him in the early death of a child born to his
second wife, leaving him without an heir. In 1830, seventeen years before
his death, he retired into seclusion with a gloomy view of life.
Joshua and Ruth Brush Wood, who lived in a modest farm home in West Hills, had three sons: Silas, the future historian; and Samuel and Selah who became "respectable farmers." The birthplace of the author, which stood on a knoll on Chichester Road, between Sweet Hollow and Mount Misery Roads, was removed in 1937 to make way for the new home of Thomas C. Wayland.
For two years in his boyhood, Silas had as his tutor the Reverend Mr. Talmage of Brookhaven. When the lad was fifteen, he went to. Fairfield, Connecticut, and attended school for one year. At sixteen, he entered Princeton College, taking a full course of classical studies for four years and graduating with the highest honors in his class. For five years the young man was a tutor at Princeton, resigning because of ill health.
In 1795, two years after he left Princeton and when he was twenty-six years old, Silas was elected to the State Assembly from Suffolk County and served four years, "taking an active and originative part in the business of the House."
The next few years were spent in the land business in Johnstown, N.Y. There, in 1802, Silas and seventeen-year-old Catherine Hyck were married. She died the following year on July 18, 1803, leaving an infant who survived her only three days. In the biography of Wood, given in the 1865 edition of his history, we read of Catherine's strange demise: "Her death was very sudden while they were on a journey through some wilderness in Montgomery County. He had to bury her without any civilized assistance. This incident had the effect of partly unhinging his mind."
In the next two years Wood declined the offer of two academic positions - that of principal of an academy at Fsopus (1804) and the following year a professorship at Union College in Schenectady. His interest was in the law; in 1810, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court.
Wood opened a law office in Huntington in 1813. Four years later he was elected to the United States Congress, serving five consecutive terms or ten years. He was praised for obtaining increased mail service for his district. On May 18, 1826, he wrote from Washington, D.C., to Postmaster Samuel Fleet in Huntington:
"The Postmaster General has consented to give us mail twice a week from July 1, leaving New York and East Hampton Mondays and Thursdays, leaving New York and Oyster Pond (Orient) Mondays and Thursdays." (A single rider carried the mail between New York City and Jamaica.)
In December, 1829, Wood married Elizabeth, the daughter of Josiah Smith of Long Swamp. "By a mysterious Providence, he had by this, as by his former marriage, but one child, who died also in early infancy. He was thus left with no descendant to inherit his lands, or to enjoy that better patrimony of the public respect for his character and achievements."
During the period that Wood was in Congress he spent his vacations traveling over Long Island, gathering information for a history and in 1824 published "A Sketch of the First Settlement of the Several Towns of Long Island" and also "A Sketch of the Geography of the Town of Huntington. About this same time, he drew a sketch map of Huntington, showing the Indian purchases and one of Oardiner's Island, both now in the possession of the Huntington Historical Society.
The ancestors of Silas were among the earliest pioneers of Huntington Town. When the noted Reverend Richard Denton, a graduate of Cambridge, came to New England on the ship James in 1635, he was accompanied by a group of followers who later went with him to Hempstead. This company included members of the Wood family who originally were Yorkshire weavers.
Edmond Wood and his son James came from Oram while Jonas Wood "H," a brother of Edmond, was a native of Halifax. Jonas Wood "H" was in the rum, wine and sack trade in the West Indies and also the owner of land in Southampton. He, Captain Edward Higbie, and Thomas Powell, who also came~rom Bermuda, were among Hunting-ton's first merchants and had homes near the harbor.
While on a trip to Southampton in 1660, Jonas Wood "H" was drowned in the Peconic River, leaving a widow Joanna (Strickland) and children. Samuel Wood, grandson of Jonas and Joanna, was living on East Street, now Park Avenue, Huntington, in 1689 when his son Joseph, the weaver," bought the Powell property. In 1723, Joseph sold his home and twelve acres of land for 160 pounds and moved to a house in West Hills where Silas Wood was born.
Wood's history, "A Sketch of the First Settlement of the
Several Towns on Long Island," was issued in three editions all of which were printed in Brooklyn by Colonel Alden Spooner- the first in 1824, 66 pages, octavo, 250 copies; the second in 1826 in 112 pages; and the third in 1828, in 183 pages, one hundred copies each. "The last were ordered by its conscientious writer in order to do fuller justice to the memory of General Woodhull, by the ampler memoir in the Appendix." Like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, also issued in Brooklyn, Wood's history, now an exceedingly rare collector's item, had a very slow sale at first.
Against his will and best judgment, Wood was persuaded by his friends to become a candidate for re-election to Congress in 1829. He was defeated and the following year, somewhat disappointed with human affairs, retired from public life.
"In the spring of 1830," we read in his biography in the 1865 edition of the history, "Silas Wood formally relinquished his professional pursuits and public life and determined to devote himself to meditations which had long pressed themselves upon his mind as of higher importance than early ambition."
After his retirement, Wood and his wife Elizabeth went to the old homestead of his ancestors on Park Avenue, Huntington, where he lived until his death, March 2, 1847. He was survived by his widow. The old home stood until 1881. The site has a New York State marker.
Return to Long Island Genealogy Home Page