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, Connecticut that became known as the Tory Den.
Harwinton’s Captain Joseph Wilson was Graves’ chief persecutor. Wilson was a member of the Sons of Liberty and a local leader who was an active enforcer of 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, and 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 subject them to a whipping.
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 ‘79, he resisted. On one occasion he was captured and whipped with a hickory rod. While he was in Saybrook visiting his grandfather he was arrested for desertion, though he escaped from his captors as they were returning to Harwinton.
Graves and his fellow Tories also played quite a lively game of cat and mouse with the Sons of Liberty during those years. When the Sons would be out hunting for Tories, the locals would sound 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 coast was clear, their wives would signal again. The stakes were high in this game, however. In 1777, Moses Dunbar was hanged 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 that she would blow into to sound the alarm.
She scrambled to the bedroom and pulled the chamber pot from under the bed and hiding it under her clothes fled the house with it, pretending that it was the horn. Captain Wilson in hot pursuit came 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 it was well-known to the often persecuted royalists in the area, and while they were arrested, tarred and feathered, whipped and tormented for their opposition to the war, they probably avoided many such incidents by quietly hiding in the cave.
The Sons of Liberty never found the Tory Den and 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.
The story of the Tory Den is preserved by the Graves’ grandson X. Alanson Welton and I the 1909 book The Tories of Chippeny Hill, Connecticut by E. LeRoy Pond.