Talk on Revolutionary Spies presented at CAR meeting

Footnotes to Long Island History

Talk on Revolutionary Spies Presented at CAR Meeting


Thomas R. Bayles


      Thomas R. Bayles was guest speaker at a recent meeting of Captain Austin Roe society, Children of the American Revolution, held at the home of Miss Suzanne Ditmars on Shore road. Mr. Bayles gave an extremely interesting talk on the “American Spy System” and told of the important Long Islanders, including Austin Roe, for whom the society is named.

Before Mr. Bayles’ talk Miss Nancy E. Jenkins, junior president, was in charge of a short business meeting, and the slate for the CAR convention April 20 and 21was made up. A food sale was planned for March 2 to be held at Hugh Furman Motors on North Ocean avenue. Mrs. Walter Spavins is chairman and Mrs. Ivor Conklin, co-chairman. Mrs. Daniel Whaley is chairman of the grandmothers’ committee.

 Said Mr. Bayles, “One of the best kept secrets of the American Revolution was the spy system that operated on Long Island in the interests of the Americans and furnished General Washington with important information about the movements of the British enemy troops.”

            Following is an account of the spy system as told by Mr. Bayles to the Society:                                                  Based at Setauket

This spy ring operated from the village of Setauket and all but one of its members were Setauket people. Major Benjamin Tallmadge was head of this organization and reported to General George Washington. Major Tallmadge was born in Setauket, so he turned to the Setauket people for help to organize this spy system. For five years he and his picked men successfully operated the spy ring under the noses of the British armies in New York City and on Long Island and delivered a great deal of valuable information  to Gen-Washington.

            News of the British movements and plans were gathered in New York City and taken by messenger on horseback to Setauket, where it was turned over to a second man who in turn gave it to a third man with a boat who took it across the Sound to Major Tallmadge’s headquarters in Connecticut. He passed it on to General Washington, wherever he might be.

            Robert Townsend was the man who gathered the information regarding the British in New York city. He posed as a young Tory merchant in partnership with James Rivington and operated a coffee shop and general merchandise store in New York city. He was a well-educated young man and soon became well acquainted in British circles.

            The man who carried Townsend’s messages, from the city was Austin Roe, who kept a tavern and store in Setauket. Disguised as a country merchant, he went back back and forth from Setauket to New York city on horseback without being deducted. When one realizes what Austin Roe had to contend with in riding the 55 miles back and forth from Setauket to New York through British troops who were stationed on Long Island, it is amazing what he accomplished.

                                                Method of Operation

If it had been possible to follow a message from New York to Setauket one might have seen Austin Roe enter Townsend’s coffee shop in New York, which was a signal to Townsend that General Washington was expecting a message. Townsend paid little attention to the order for goods that was written on the paper, but went to a secret closet and brought out a bottle of fluid which he brushed over the page, and soon another message sprang to light. His reply was written in disappearing ink also. These letters have been called by the historians “stain letters” Roe packed his saddle bags with merchandise needed by the Setauket people and, crossing Brooklyn ferry, set out for Setauket, arriving in time to take care of his cattle, which were kept pastured in a field belonging to Abraham Woodhull.

            The middleman in the spy chain was Abraham Woodhull, a young farmer of Setauket, 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 cows on his land, which gave Roe a place well-hidden behind a fence to hide the messages he brought from New York. Woodhull then picked up the messages and 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. Brewster also captured several British supply ships with his lightly-armed whaleboat, and at various times led his men on raids across the Island, burning and wrecking anything they could find belonging to the British.

                                                Nancy Strong’s Part

            An interesting story concerns Ann Smith Strong (called Nancy in the spy records). Nancy gave Austin Roe an excuse for his many trips to New York by giving him large orders for goods, so he could ride safely past the British troops. Since Caleb Brewster was a well-known man in Setauket, it was not safe for him to land his boat always in the same place, so he had six landings. Abraham Woodhull could not always know if Brewster was in the village or at which landing place his boat was hidden, so Nancy made it her business to keep track of him and passed this information on to Woodhull through her clothes line. Most of the petticoats the women wore in those days were red, so if Woodhull saw a black petticoat hanging on her clothes line he knew Brewster was in town. Each of the six landing places had a number and by counting the handkerchiefs hanging on Nancy’s clothes line, he knew at which landing place Brewster’s boat was hidden. Nancy was not discovered by the British, but her husband, Judge Selah Strong, was arrested and thrown into one of the worst British prison ships. His wife got permission to visit him and took a load of food, which probably saved his life and the lives of other prisoners. Later she secured his release.

            Nancy’s place in the spy system was an important one and she should be placed with Colonial America’s great women.

                                                Setauket Foils Arnold

            Later on in the war, General Benedict Arnold, who was not satisfied with the treatment he received from the American Congress, decided to turn over the key fort at West Point to the British. Arrangements were almost completed when Robert Townsend discovered the plot. Word was passed on to Austin Roe, who in turn carried it to Setauket, and from there Caleb Brewster carried it across the Sound to Major Tallmadge. He acted fast and captured the British spy, Major Andre, thus preventing the surrender of West Point to the British; however, Arnold escaped. Again the course of history was changed through the activities of the Setauket spy ring.

            Robert Townsend operated under the name of “Culper, Jr.,” and Abraham Woodhull under the name of “Culper, Sr.” Austin Roe went by a number. Caleb Brewster kept his own name. Major Tallmadge was “John Bolton.” Only in recent years has the secret of the spy ring been disclosed, and even General Washington did not know who his head men were. He had the greatest confidence in them, however, and in 1780 wrote, “Of the Cuplers’ fidelity and ability I entertain the highest opinion.”

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