Being a Tory sympathizer in New England during the American Revolution was not popular. A great many simply fled. Others had to scramble to avoid persecution. That was the case with Stephen Graves who, along with others, often hid in a cave in the woods in Burlington, Conn. People called it the Tory Den.
In nearby Harwinton, Capt. Joseph Wilson persecuted Graves more than anyone. Wilson belonged to the Sons of Liberty. A local leader, he actively enforced enforced the town’s decisions to send men to fight in the Continental Army.
Men who wouldn’t serve when drafted had the option of hiring a soldier to go in their place . If they didn’t do one or the other voluntarily, Wilson and his fellow members of the Sons of Liberty would hunt them down and whip them.
The Tory Den
Though Graves was hardly the only Tory to face such hostility, his story is well recorded. When in 1777 he was drafted, Graves paid a substitute to fight in his place, though the expense was a heavy burden for the young man.
When the town ordered him again to serve, in 1778 or 1779, he resisted. On one occasion he was captured and whipped with a hickory rod. Another time he visited his grandfather in Saybrook he got arrested for desertion. He escaped from his captors, however, as they returned to Harwinton.
Graves and his fellow Tories also played a lively game of cat and mouse with the Sons of Liberty. When the Sons went hunting for Tories, the women sounded the alarm by blowing a dinner horn.
The signal would send the Tories off to the woods and into the Tory Den where up to 30 men could hide out. When the Sons went away, the Tories’ wives would signal again.
They played a high-stakes game, however, In 1777, Moses Dunbar died on the gallows for recruiting for the British side.
For Graves’ wife Ruth the hide-and-seek routine led to some rough encounters with the Sons of Liberty, though she was apparently no shrinking violet. In one often told story, Ruth was at home when the Sons came to the house and demanded she hand over a conch. They knew she blew into it to sound the alarm.
She scrambled to the bedroom and pulled the chamber pot from under the bed. and Hiding it under her clothes, she fled the house with it, pretending it was the horn. Captain Wilson, in hot pursuit, ran outside, and she doused him with the contents of the chamber pot.
Her actions so enraged him that he demanded and received the actual conch at gunpoint.
Just how many men used the Tory Den isn’t clear. But the oft-persecuted Loyalists in the area knew about it. Many did get arrested, whipped, tormented and tarred and feathered for their opposition to the war. But they probably avoided many such incidents by quietly hiding in the cave.
The Sons of Liberty never found the Tory Den. After the war the Graveses stayed in Harwinton, though the passions never completely cooled. Upon learning of Captain Wilson’s death years later, according to family records, Ruth Graves said she was pleased to hear it.
Today, the Blue-Blazed White Dot trail of the Tunxis Trail System on the border of Plymouth and Burlington.
The story of the Tory Den is preserved by the Graves’ grandson X. Alanson Welton in the 1909 book The Tories of Chippeny Hill, Connecticut by E. LeRoy Pond.
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: Tory Den By Morrowlong – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9810753. Tory logo Original photo was by Philip Halling – Derived from geography.org.uk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7151826.