The Townsends of Oyster Bay and Washington’s spy ring

Robert TownsendMy mother’s family tree is composed primarily of German, English, and Scotch Irish ancestors who came to the US as far back as the 1600s. They eventually settled in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, but the earliest immigrants among them started out in New England and Long Island. After reading George Washington’s Secret Six, a book written by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, I was excited to find a connection between my ancestors and Washington’s revolutionary war spy ring.

Three Townsend brothers, John, Henry and Richard, came to Oyster Bay, Long Island about 1661, by way of New Amsterdam and Flushing, NY. My ancestors came from Henry Townsend’s line, including his daughter Mary (born about 1657). Mary’s daughter Eliphal married John Morris, and their daughter Deborah married John DeCamp. The DeCamp family ended up moving into Western Pennsylvania.

John Townsend’s descendents from Oyster Bay included Robert Townsend (1753-1838). Robert was a critical member of George Washington’s  spy ring. During the revolutionary war, Robert was a newspaper reporter and store owner in New York City, at the time when the British army occupied the city. His reporting job gave him opportunities to pick up strategic information from British soldiers. This information was transmitted to George Washington through an elaborate, multi-step process that began at Townsend’s store, where he would hide secret messages in merchandise packages. The packages were handed off to a messenger who rode out to Setauket, Long Island, where a dead drop in a farm field was arranged. Another pick-up sent the secret messages across Long Island Sound in a small whaleboat, where a series of mounted riders would finally deliver the messages from Connecticut to New Windsor, NY, where Washington was stationed.

The spy ring had a number of successes. One was their discovery of the British army’s plan to ambush French troops landing in Rhode Island in 1780. They were also involved in exposing the treasonous attempt by Benedict Arnold and Major John Andre to hand over the fort at West Point to the British.

Robert Townsend used the alias “Samuel Culper Jr.” for his spying activities. His true identity was a well kept secret until 1930, when a historian used handwriting analysis to match a sample of Townsend’s writing with one of Samuel Culper Jr.’s letters.

Sources

  1. History of Townsend family on Long Island from longislandgenealogy.com
  2. Description of Culper Spy Ring on George Washington’s Mount Vernon website
  3. More information about Culper Spy Ring on history.com
  4. Lots of information from ancestry.com, especially link between my McKean/Vosler ancestors of Western Pennsylvania, and the DeCamp family tree, as documented by Audrey Hoffman.

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