Espionage and Enslavement In the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth by Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Yecke Brooks (216 pg.)
The American Revolution was not only a time of great change but involved many stories involving many sides of the conflict.
There were the patriots (or rebels) who had what looked to many as a very uphill battle to win independence. An essential part of this battle was the secret war, including the spying done by the successful Culper Ring in Long Island and New York City. One agent? Robert Townsend.
On the other side, there were the British, who had their own spies. They also had soldiers and loyalists, who lived among and fought the rebels. One was Colonel John Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers, young and having a bright military future, as well as being an abolitionist.
Both sides obtained assistance from black Americans, sometimes with a promise of freedom. Liss (Elizabeth) was a slave in the Townsend family, who eventually wound up among the British army, but eventually came back pregnant to live with Robert Townsend in New York City.
This book is about all of these stories of war, espionage, and slavery. It is also about how Liss wound up separated from her child, sent to South Carolina, but also how Townsend managed to get her back. None of these people are stereotypes, each having complex human stories.
Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution covers it all.
The book tells the stories of a range of people who flesh out details concerning espionage and slavery in the time of the American Revolution. It highlights two stories that stand out, each a rebel in more ways than one, their lives shining through the pages of history.
Should I Read It?
Espionage and Enslavement In the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth in its under two hundred pages tells a bunch of stories.
This it does in a down-to-earth way that should be enjoyed by the amateur interested in American history as well as those more specialized in the topics covered.
A lot of ground is covered, from the early days of Oyster Bay, slavery in New York, revolutionary war details, espionage (including secret inks), and the personal stories of multiple characters. A reader who wants to learn a bunch of things should appreciate this. The reader who wishes to learn a more in-depth analysis of the details might wish to look elsewhere.
It should be noted that there is a lot we do not know about Liss. The book is only partially about her, and she disappears for many of its pages. The subtitle aside, she is more in the background than front and center. Those here for Liss might be disappointed.
Robert Townsend, given the availability of source material, is given much more attention.
A well-read high school student should easily read this book. It is not required that the reader is deeply knowledgeable about the material.
Vanessa Williams, the singer and actress, has ancestors who lived in the Oyster Bay community in Long Island, New York. She met a co-author of this book at a historical event there and agreed to write the foreword to this book.
The book begins with a snapshot of a young slave named Elizabeth (Liss), who in January 1785 was separated from her young son and about to embark on a trip from her home in New York to South Carolina. Would she ever see her young son Harry ever again?
Part I: The Times That Try Men’s Souls
Chapter One: Merchants and Masters
Slavery, including in New York, was firmly established in British North America by the early 18th Century. This includes the village of Oyster Bay, New York on Long Island.
The Townsends, early settlers of Oyster Bay, had a long history of support of civil rights, including religious liberty and treatment of the unwanted French settlers. But, the family also were slave owners, slavery well accepted even among many “reformers.”
Chapter Two: Congressman and Commissary
Samuel Townsend was a successful businessman along with his sons as the American Revolution began. Samuel supported the patriot cause even while most of Oyster Bay voted not even to send a representative to a convention discussing the matter.
He also was given the task of delivering a key message to the leader of troops in Long Island. After the British won the Battle of New York (summer 1776), Townsend was seized by the British. A family member with some connections to the British was able to gain his release.
Meanwhile, his son Robert Townsend did business in New York City. For a short time, Robert was appointed commissionary by the New York Provincial Congress, to help obtain supplies for the troops. And, the teenage Liss, one of Samuel’s many slaves, looked on in Oyster Bay.
Chapter Three: Oyster Bay Occupied
After being forced to use his ship to help the British, Samuel’s oldest son Solomon Townsend eventually was able to leave the ship in Britain. Solomon then went to France, received a confirmation of his loyalty to the rebel cause from Franklin, and joined the Continental Navy.
After the British won the Battle of New York (summer of 1776), Samuel Townsend’s home and nearby residences were repeatedly used to quarter British troops.
Multiple troops came to town, including John Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers. Simcoe, then in his twenties, was a reformer type, strongly concerned with restraint in war. Troops quartering in colonial towns often treated the locals harshly; Simcoe made it a matter of principle to treat locals with special respect.
John Simcoe also went the extra mile regarding his abolitionist beliefs. Simcoe believed slaves could be potential solidiers for the British. The British often did not take advantage of the potential resource, but some (like Union supporters in the U.S. Civil War) saw their potential.
Chapter Four: “No Probability of Your Getting Her Again”
When Colonel Simcoe, after a mostly pleasant stay, left Oyster Bay with his troops, Liss [perhaps] secretly left with them. [May 1779]
As with many details of her story, we do not really know just what happened when the teenage girl slave Liss left the Townsend household.
Simcoe’s pro-abolitionist sentiments suggest he would welcome her leaving. The Townsends (Robert Townsend already starting to have abolitionist beliefs himself) also seem to curiously not have done much at all to try to get her back.
So, there is a chance the Townsends knew her plans, and/or were not concerned. There is even a suggestion she might have been used as an American spy though there appears to me to be very little evidence given of this being the case.
Chapter Five: Spies and Traitors
This chapter discusses the Culper Ring, one of General Washington’s most successful intelligence operations, based on Long Island and New York City. The television series Turn: Washington’s Spies, based on a book, also is about this operation.
Robert Townsend, with a prime spot for intel as a merchant in British-controlled New York City, was a major agent. Townsend even did some guard duty for the British. The failed British attempt to obtain West Point (via Benedict Arnold) and the capture of the infamous British spy John Andrė (friend of Simcoe) are also discussed.
Liss at some point left the Queen’s Rangers and was later owned by a British officer.
Liss, how exactly is unclear, wound up at Townsend’s home. She was a few months pregnant, apparently by a distinguished white man. Robert paid his father to be able to legally own her. This showed that even the reform-minded Robert Townsend still to some degree played by the rules of the day regarding slavery.
Part II: In the Course of Human Events
Chapter Six: “A Child with Her Then Master”
Robert Townsend basically had a bachelor pad in New York City with his younger brother and another family member. When the housekeeper became pregnant, Robert allowed her to name the son after him (though his younger brother was the likely father).
He also sold Liss and her baby boy (for the same price Robert paid for Liss alone) to a widow with a proviso that Robert had the right to take her back if the widow wanted to sell Liss. The widow, the successful businesswoman Ann Sharwin, seemed a safe spot for Liss.
Chapter Seven: “Ensnared into Bondage”
Robert Townsend joined the New York Manumission Society, which included such members as John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Efforts to help blacks kidnapped into slavery are discussed.
Meanwhile, Robert was not paying attention to how Liss was doing. Ann Sharwin married a disreputable businessman, who sold Liss to a buyer in South Carolina. Sharwin, even given the sexist laws of the day, had the legal power to stop him. Why she did not is not recorded.
[This is not emphasized but this underlines that even a reform minded sort like Robert showed a lackluster concern about the needs of a slave, even one he basically grew up with. To be fully fair, perhaps, we also have limited information about just what happened.]
Chapter Eight: “A Townsman with a Cudgel”
Richard Palmes purchased Liss. Palmes was a supporter of the American Revolution. His long winding path included involvement in the Boston Massacre, helping to escort John Adams to France, service as a marine, and more. He also had a lifelong problem of living beyond his means, regularly in debt trouble. We do not know how Liss spent her two years with him.
[The man with a cudgel in the photo of a painting of the Boston Massacre found on the cover of the book is Richard Palmes. The book does not discuss the photo.]
Chapter Nine: “Derangement and Separation”
After the war was over, Richard Townsend (along with many others) had to deal with economic difficulties in the 1780s. He spent a lot of time and aggravation trying to collect debts.
Townsend, after two years, also finally found out about Liss. He and his brother Solomon, who had business connections in South Carolina, started their efforts to get her back.
Chapter Ten “Principled against Selling Slaves”
Robert hoped to get Liss back quickly, but found out in early 1787 that things would be more complicated. First, the original agents they tried had moral qualms about being involved, since it would involve buying Liss back without a promise of freedom.
Chapter Eleven “Obtain the Wench from Him”
Next, this time using a business associate (another Revolutionary War veteran and abolitionist minded fellow) of Solomon’s, they found out Palmes would not sell. South Carolina debt laws also factored into the whole affair, Palmes again living beyond his means.
But, eventually, the brothers were able to get Liss back. The exact details are unclear though probably included smuggling her back into New York, the current laws in place prohibiting the transfer of a Liss into the state. The laws had a basically beneficial purpose to guard against interstate sale of slaves, but in this case, was counterproductive to the needs of Liss.
Part III: For Ourselves and Our Posterity
Chapter Twelve: “Elizabeth, a Black Woman”
Liss, now known as Elizabeth, returned to Oyster Bay. Robert Townsend had earlier taken her son to the Townsend home to live with his aunt. Robert himself moved back home, to take care of his parents, his father dying shortly afterward.
Chapter Thirteen: Uncle Robert and “Free Elizabeth”
A free black woman named Elizabeth, probably Liss, is listed as a servant in a grand home owned by David Richard Floyd-Jones (Samuel Townsend helped him earlier) in 1790. This is the last we know of her. We know little of her life, but the records still provide amazing details.
Her son Harry stayed with the Townsends. In 1804, Robert sold Harry (then 21) via a contract that tried to carefully ensure that he was free in a few years. It is not clear if this worked out. Slavery itself ended in New York in 1827. Robert himself by then long in retirement.
Robert died at eight-four in 1838, never marrying.
Epilogue: “The Journey’s End”
We learn the fates of various other characters in the book from other members of the Townsend family to John Simcoe to Richard Palmes and others.
Points to Ponder
One theme of this book is that people often are complex, especially historically when slavery is involved. Multiple people in this book who were involved in anti-slavery activity owned slaves. This might lead many to dismiss them, but the book offers a more nuanced view.
We simply do not know chunks of Elizabeth’s story. But, the book ends by noting, however “frustrating as the lack of records can be at times, it is also remarkable that documents survive” to give us so much information about the past. This is a basic lesson in studying history. Consider how much we know about people from centuries ago. It is amazing.
About the Author
Claire Bellerjeau currently serves as historian and director of education at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, New York. She has long researched the Townsend family. Bellerjeau has written several articles about colonial New York. This is her first book.
Tiffany Yecke Brooks holds a PhD in American and Dramatic Literature and has spoken and written much about early portrayals of race in America as well as the development of the American identity. She researched and contributed to the writing of many books, including:
George Washington’s Secret Six
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli’s Pirates
Limitless: The Power of Hope and Resilience to Overcome Circumstance
Fear Is a Choice: Tackling Life’s Challenges with Dignity, Faith, and Determination
Gaslighted by God: Reconstructing a Disillusioned (Pending)
Is Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution a Reliable Source?
Claire Bellerjeau is a historian with special expertise in the history of Oyster Bay and the Townsend family. Tiffany Yecke Brooks has researched and written multiple books covering this time period, including about the intelligence efforts of George Washington.
The two authors are not only trustworthy and experts in the field, but provide detailed source material for their book. Also, when the information is unclear, which often occurs with Liss’ story, the authors clearly say so. They are required at times to judge what is the likely truth given the available information but clearly say so when exactly what occurred is not known.
The reader should recognize that the authors are not experts regarding all of the many subjects in the book. Some of the details might conflict with the works of said experts in some respects. Historical research is like that. As a whole, however, this book is basically reliable.