Spy Chain of Revolution

Footnotes to Long Island History


JAN. 21, 1960


Thomas R. Bayles

One of the best kept secrets of the American Revolution was the spy system that operated on Long Island, from the village of Setauket, and kept Gen .Washington supplied with impotent information about the movements of the British troops in New York and on Long Island.

        All but one of members of this spy ring were Setauket people The details of the origin of the spy system are not clear, but about 1778 Major Benjamin Tallmadge was head of this organization, and reported to Gen. Washington. Mr. Tallmadge was born in Setauket in 1754, the son of the local Presbyterian minister, and it was natural he turned to his Setauket neighbors for help. For five years or more he and the men picked out by him operated this spy ring under the noses of the British in New York and Long Island, without any of them ever being caught. So successful were they in concealing their identity that Gen. Washington never knew who members of the spy chain were.

       News of the British plans and movements were gathered in New York city by Robert Townsend who operated a coffee shop near Wall street. He was known to Gen. Washington only as "Culper.Jr." Information gathered by him was taken to Setauket by a messenger on Horse back, who was Austin Roe of Setauket. He in turn left it in a secret hiding place for Abraham Woodhull, who was the middleman in the spy system and went under the name of "Culper Sr." He turned it over to Caleb Brewster, who took it across the sound in one of his boats and delivered it to Major Tallmadge's headquarters in Connecticut. From there it was delivered to Gen. Washington, wherever he might be.

       Robert Townsend was the chief figure on the NewYork city end. He posed as a young Tory merchant in partnership with James Rivington, and they operated a general merchandise store and coffee shop. Mr.Townsend was a well educated young man and soon became widely acquainted in British circles.

       The man who carried the messages from New York to Setauket was Austin Roe, who operated a store and tavern in Setauket. Disguised as a country merchant, he traveled back and forth without detection. It is almost impossible to realize what Austin Roe had to contend with as he rode the 55 miles from Setauket to New York through the enemy's country, often several times a week.

       If it had possible to follow a message from New York to Setauket and across the sound to Major Tallmadge's headquarters, we might have seen Austin Roe enter Mr. Townsend's coffee shop in New York. He was tired and hungry, for he had just finished a long ride from Setauket. When Mr. Townsend saw Mr. Roe come in he knew Gen. Washington was expecting a message from him, so he soon left and went to his quarters nearby. He was soon followed by Austin Roe, who handed him a  letter from John Bolton (Major Tallmadge) which read, "I wish you to send by bearer 1/2 ream of letter paper." Mr. Townsend paid little attention to this message but went to a secret closet and brought out a bottle of liquid which he brushed over the letter. Soon another message sprang to light on the paper. It was from Gen. Washington, requesting certain information. In the meantime Mr. Roe had started down the street to the printing office of James Rivington, where he purchased a half ream of paper, and went back to Mr. Townsend's rooms .Carefully it was unwrapped, so that it could be sealed again without showing it had been opened. Mr. Townsend  began counting the sheets until he arrived at a number previously agreed on. That sheet was taken out, and Mr. Townsend, reaching for another bottle of a different liquid, began to write his message to Washington. As soon as the stain was dry it disappeared giving no hint it was there waiting to be developed by other liquid. The sheet was replaced in its proper place in the package of paper and resealed.

       Austin Roe packed his saddle bags with a variety of articles needed by those in the Setauket area, and set out for home, crossing the Brooklyn ferry and arriving at Setauket in time to give attention to his cattle which were kept pastured in a field belonging to Abraham Woodhull. He was a young farmer of Setauket and the middleman in the spy ring, who used his farm on Conscience bay as a base for operations. Because his house was full of British troops, he arranged for Austin Roe to pasture his cattle on his land which gave Mr. Roe a place to hide the messages he brought from New York. Mr. Woodhull then picked up the message from a secret box behind a fence, and later turned them over to an ex whaler by the name of Caleb Brewster, who carried them across the sound in his boat to Major Tallmadge's headquarters in Connecticut. In addition to this, Mr.Brewster, with his lightly armed whaleboats, captured several supply ships headed for the British army at New York and also led his men on a raid across the Island, burning and wrecking whatever they could find belonging to the British Fort St. George at Mastic in November 1780 which proved a complete success.

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