Monday, June 05, 2006


Pieces of history sail into LI museum

By Bill Bleyer
May 31, 2006

In 1815 letter, on display in Southold, Sag Harbor teen recounts British shipwreck, rescue
When 19-year-old Henry T. Dering, a member of a prominent Sag Harbor family, heard about a ship wrecked off the South Shore one stormy morning in January 1815, he borrowed a horse and rode five miles to the scene.

Off the Southampton shore he saw five survivors clinging to the keel of a section of the overturned hull of H.M.S. Sylph and watched as two of the sailors drowned and three were rescued.

Shipwrecks along Long Island's Atlantic coast were common in the Age of Sail. What makes Dering's connection to the demise of the British sloop of war unusual and important from a historical perspective is that he recorded his observations in a 2 1/2-page letter to his sister.

Recently acquired by the Southold Historical Society, it is the centerpiece of a new permanent exhibit on the Sylph that opened this weekend at the Horton Point Lighthouse.

The display features other recent acquisitions relating to the ship, including an 1815 book that mentions the shipwreck, and a painting of the Sylph commissioned for this exhibit by the society.

Long Islanders did not have good memories about British warships. During the War of 1812, the Sylph was a familiar and despised presence around Long Island as it blockaded harbors and destroyed merchant vessels and even an early semisubmersible torpedo boat that had run aground in Southold in 1813.

Nevertheless, when the Sylph was wrecked at the end of the war, the Americans tried to help, as Dering recorded in excited and tangled syntax.

Dering later succeeded his father, Henry Packer Dering, as customs collector of the port in Sag Harbor and also served as the village's second postmaster.

Geoffrey Fleming, director of the historical society, said he learned of the letter over the winter when its private owner mentioned it and he arranged to buy it because the museum already had a piece of wood from the wreck.

"It's one of the few extant handwritten accounts [of the wreck] from the period," Fleming said.

Fleming said the society commissioned English artist Bryan J. Phillips, who specializes in historical British maritime subjects, to do a painting of the Sylph and H.M.S. Maidstone because there was no existing illustration of the warships attacking the torpedo boat off Horton Point.

"They basically got into skirmish with members of the Sag Harbor militia who had arrived at Horton Point to defend the torpedo boat," Fleming said. "The British launched some barges and some of their men were killed but they did succeed in driving off the militia and burning the boat."


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