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Captain Samuel Longfellow

Who was Captain Samuel Longfellow?

A Port Washington History Mystery

By Glen J. DeSalvo - Trustee


There are several fine old colonial cemeteries in Port Washington. One of the oldest is the Cornwall (Cornwell or Cornell) cemetery situated on a tree-covered hill in Soundview. Fortunately, although most of the headstones have vanished or are illegible, the lives of those lost and buried there were well documented many years ago. One of the oldest identifiable headstones was that of Captain Samuel Longfellow who died in 1780 at the age of twenty-eight. Who was this man and why was he buried in the Cornwall family cemetery?


The Cornwall family was the first permanent settlers on Cow Neck. In 1676 John Cornell built a house on land granted to the Cornwall family on Cow Neck by Governor Edmund Andros. Like many colonial families, the Cornwalls established a cemetery on their property for the burial of deceased family members. It was determined that the cemetery originally held thirty-six graves. Twenty-two of the graves were members of the Cornwall family. Seven headstones marked the final resting place of individuals with names other than Cornwall, Cornwell or Cornell, and seven headstones were deemed illegible. 


Samuel Longfellow’s story remained a mystery for many years. H.W. Lawrence, in his Port Washington News column, Old Time Port Story, wrote in 1945: “Who he was, when he came here and the cause of his early death remains a mystery for none of the annals of this community mention his name.”  His story probably would have been lost forever if it were not for his illustrious ancestry. His older brother Stephen Longfellow (1750 – 1824) was the grandfather of the noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882). The thread linking Samuel to the Cornwall family was provided by his sister Tabitha (1754 – 1817) who married Richardson Cornwell (1741 – 1817). For some unexplained reason Richardson Cornwell later changed his name to Captain John Stephenson.


Samuel Longfellow was born in Falmouth, Maine on November 29, 1751. In 1774, with the help of his brother-in-law Captain John Stephenson, Longfellow began his seafaring career. Over the next several years he made many voyages to the West Indies and Florida. After the commencement of the American Revolution, commerce between New England and the West Indies became more dangerous. In 1780 Longfellow was captured by the British off the coast of North Carolina. He was then transported to the notorious British prison ship Jersey anchored in Upper New York Bay. 


While imprisoned Longfellow contracted dysentery. With the help of a friend with political connections he was released from prison and taken to the Cow Neck home of Stephen Cornwell, brother of his sister’s husband Richardson Cornwell (Captain John Stephenson). He died at the Cornwall residence on October 4, 1780 and was interred at the Cornwall family burial ground.


If not for the American Revolution, Captain Samuel Longfellow might have lived a long and prosperous life. Extraordinary circumstances and family connections brought this stranger to the shores of Cow Neck and his final resting place in the Cornwall family cemetery.

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