Martyred Cowboy - Nathaniel Woodhull's Revolutionary Cattle Drive

Martyred Cowboy - Nathaniel Woodhull's Revolutionary Cattle Drive

Nathaniel Woodhull was one of the most prominent Long Island Founders.

As both President of the Provincial Congress and a Major General in the State Militia, Woodhull worked with many of the highest level players in the Revolutionary War.

Unfortunately, Nathaniel met a tragic end at the hands of the British.

Nathaniel Woodhull

After serving in the French and Indian War, Nathaniel Woodhull retired to a massive estate on Long Island, becoming one of the wealthiest men in Suffolk County.

When revolutionary sentiment began to spread across the colonies, Woodhull was sent to represent his community in the New York Provincial Congress. This was the illegal body which essentially took over power in the colony.

Nathaniel was elected President of Congress, making him de facto Governor of New York when after the Revolutionary War broke out.

Brigadier General

Based on his previous wartime experience, Woodhull was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the State Militia.

Nathaniel was given command of all soldiers on Long Island. His dual positions as President of Congress and Brigadier General made him one of New York’s most powerful Revolutionaries.

He communicated frequently with George Washington who often recommended actions which would work in conjunction with the Continental Army (State Militias and the Continental Army had separate chains of command, despite their common goal). 


In August of 1776, Washington gave Woodhull a new task...become a cowboy.

With the Battle of Brooklyn looming over everyone’s head, Washington was concerned that the British might gain access to the thousands of cattle on western Long Island.

He chose Nathaniel Woodhull, who knew the terrain better than any other General, to resolve this issue. 

Woodhull was to complete what may very well have been America’s first cattle drive. He was to sweep across the Island and drive all of the cows east and disrupt a necessary supply line for feeding the Redcoats. 


Woodhull’s chore started off well, but a thunderstorm forced him to take cover in a friends house. His men viewed their task as futile and were quickly deserting.

Nathaniel requested more troops but to no avail. Two days later, the enemy came through and he was captured.

Woodhull was struck in the head and stabbed in the arm before being taken to a prison ship.

The wound on his arm soon became dangerous. The British, realizing how valuable he could be as a hostage, brought Nathaniel ashore and amputated his arm in a futile attempt to save his life.

Nathaniel Woodhull passed away on September 20, 1776.


As the story goes, Nathaniel Woodhull was attacked in such a vicious matter because when his captors instructed him to say ‘God save the King’ he responded with a defiant ‘God save us all!’

Unfortunately, like many tales of this nature, there is no documentation to prove that this was his response. Actually, the first telling of this exchange was not printed until almost seventy years after Woodhull’s death. 

We may never know exactly what was said, and contemporary reports even disagree on the circumstances. One Connecticut newspaper states that Woodhull refused to remove his sword while a letter written by a friend to the New York Provincial Congress implies that Nathaniel was struck for keeping silent during questioning.

Either way, Woodhull was treated poorly for such a prominent citizen and his death was yet another example of British cruelty for the Patriots to unite around.

Here are some other Founders from Long Island:

Ezra L’Hommedieu and the Montauk Lighthouse

Caleb Brewster Row Row Row’s His Boat

Austin Roe - Washington’s Spy on Horseback

Long Island had a lot of interesting turns during the American Revolution.

To learn more, I suggest you pick up a copy of ‘The American Revolution on Long Island’ which picks up right about the time of Woodhull’s death.

Pick up a copy through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same) but be warned, it is very rare and therefore expensive.

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