Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend (1753-1838)

Robert Townsend is one of the most recent members of the Culper Spy Ring to be identified. Morton Pennypacker, a Long Island historian, made the connection in the late 1930's through handwriting, and brought in Albert S. Osborn and other nationally recognized handwriting experts. The experts concluded that not only did agent "Samuel Culper, Jr." have the same handwriting, they used the same exact paper.

Townsend was born to a merchant family, and his father was involved in Patriot politics. During the early part of the Revolution, Robert Townsend mainly resided in New York City, working as the family's business agent and mercantile clerk. It is not clear whether Townsend was initially neutral or Loyal in his politics, or as other historians have claimed, he felt strongly tied to his Quaker religion and wanted to connection ot the war. However, it is clear that by 1778, Townsend began spying for Washington. In addition to the handwriting connection, Townsend's business ledgers document a pattern of huge cash withdrawals that coincided with key reports from Samuel Culper, Jr.

Abraham Woodhull, the first Culper agent, recruited Robert Townsend to serve as another agent as the British became suspicious of Woodhull's frequent trips to Manhattan. Woodhull and Townsend probably knew each other through family and social ties. Besides being related, both families moved in the same Patriot and local government circles, and both men were the sons of Patriot judges. Additionally, both men stayed at Woodhull's sister Mary Underhill's New York City boardinghouse when in Manhattan.

Townsend's initial reports had decent naval intelligence, since he encountered this information through his mercantile business. However, from the very start, he wrote Tallmadge that he could not get good information on the army. Not until the fall of 1779 did this situation change, following the August 15 letter where Woodhull wrote of traveling to New York to meet a "lady of my acquaintance," whose assistance he expected "outwit them all." Whether these events are connected is not entirely clear, but Townsend's reports do indicate he had friends who knowingly contributed information.

The quality of Townsend's reports seems to be linked to the presence of Major John Andre, British Chief of Intelligence. When Andre left New York City for the seige of Charleston, and following Andre's capture and execution, Culper intelligence was nonexistant. However, immediately following Andre's return from Charleston at the end of May, the American leadership seems to have discovered American General Benedict Arnold's correspondence, negotiating his treason and the delivery of West Point, General Washington, and the French leadership, to the British.

Townsend, unlike Woodhull, rarely used code, depending on the invisible ink. His letters were usually written between the lines of another seemingly unimportant piece of paper, or most frequently, disgused as a "blank" sheet within a package of paper sold at his store. This method worked particularly well with the second and better known courier, Austin Roe, a Setauket tavern keeper using the cover story of buying supplies to travel to Manhattan.

Following Arnold's treason, all the members of the Culper Ring seem to have gone into hiding as Benedict Arnold began a witch hunt for spies in New York. Townsend chose to go to Woodhull's home in Setauket, which offered him opportunity to escape to Connecticut, and more protection from the British officers stationed at his father's Oyster Bay home.