A “New” Samuel Culper Letter

TOPICS: Espionage, Featured Document(s), George Washington, Revolutionary War

by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
June 8, 2018

One of the most enjoyable aspects of documentary editing at The Washington Papers is making annotated transcriptions of relatively inscrutable manuscripts readily available, manuscripts like spy letters with incomplete decryptions. On Sept. 9, 1780, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) wrote Gen. George Washington from North Castle, N.Y., and forwarded two letters addressed to him that he had received from Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and spy on British-controlled Long Island, New York. A preliminary transcription of Tallmadge’s letter to Washington, dated September 9, can be found on Founders Online. No transcription, however, is currently available of the enclosed Woodhull letters, which are among Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress.1 Complete transcriptions of the Woodhull letters Tallmadge sent Washington on Sept. 9, 1780 will be presented in volume 28 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. An initial transcription of the principal Woodhull letter with sketch annotation follows:


Samuel Culper to John Bolton

729 <Setauket>2—6173 <Sepr>–eth <1>–1780


When C. Jurs last 130 <dispatch> came to hand4 He directd me to wait on him at Dilcgq [Jerico] yesterday5 But my present state would not admit6—Therefore Sent the 174 <Express> which handed him your inclosed7—But he hath returnd without any answer—The reason is he had not the counterpt with him8—And in regard of the state of affairs in general He assured the 174 <Express> they remaned as heretofore or as when wrote you last9 nothing new every-thing appeared to be at a Stand, And the Enemy much embarssed expecting an attack10—I am sorry you have to wait so long for an answer, that Judge is of importance. But it must Still unavoidably be lenghtend untill the—enth <10th>—As C. Jur Said he could not be in 727 <New york> before the O <8th>.

Since my last the Infantry have marchd to Huntington and incamped there, Fannings Regt to Loyds Neck, Simcoes Rangers to Oyster bay11—And thers in Setauket the 17 Regt Dragins, Some Huzzars Some Rangers—About 20 Waggons 300 Horses 250 Men 220 [go] Mounted—They are encamped round about Capt. Nathan Woodhulls House12 and Parsons Lyons’13 The former is the Coll Quarters The officers mostly lodge in Camp—at night Thers every appearance of there continueing here Some time And they appear quite easy and off their guard—Am fully of an Oppinion that 500 good Men would make Prisoners of them all, if Secretly conducted on your Shore as well as here—If you intend to attack—direct 725 <Brewster>14 to cross the night before, And will meet him and further advise at all hazzards—Aiqlai Bqyim [George Howel] of Southhampton is now on your Shore, And positively an 23 <Agent> for the 178 <Enemy>,15 he hath bene a long time serviceable in that way, And this is his Second embassy,16 I know it to be true, And have lately had a perfect knowledge of his conduct for this three years past—And have bene Solicited by his friend as an assistant—A Little time Past a Boat from New Haven, Loaded with Provisions met a number of Refugees here—one of the Mens Names was Trowbridge[17] an intimate acquaintance of John Clark18—And you may depend the refugees land on your Shore and hide their boats—The other day I Saw a man that had the appearance of a Gentleman, Told me had had bene three weeks conceald in Middletown and Heartford—the former being his Native Place—but could not find out his Name—He Told me had left 20 od Thousand Pounds of Counterfeit Money—of your late emetions in the hands of the Torys—to Pay their Taxes with19—youll Doubtless take Some notice of this information—And anxiously wait for the arival of our deliverers And am Sincerly your

Saml Culper

N.B. The Enemy are now collecting all the forage they Possibly can the whole will be very little, certainly not half enough for the winter.20

DLC:GW. Tilghman penned decryptions above the line that are included in angle brackets. Additional decryptions are included in square brackets.


Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


1. For quotes from and summaries of these letters, see A Calendar of Washington Manuscripts in the Library of Congress, ed. Herbert Friedenwald (Washington, D.C., 1901), 160, and Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (New York, 2014), 173–74.
2. Setauket is about sixty miles east of New York City on Long Island.
3. “617” deciphers as August. Washington’s aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman wrote “Augt” above “617” and struck it out. He then wrote “Sepr” between “Augt” and “617.” For the code employed in Culper’s letter, see Tallmadge to GW, 25 July, 1779, and n.2 to that document, in vol. 21 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series.
4. Robert Townsend (alias Samuel Culper, Jr.) operated in British-controlled New York City as part of Tallmadge’s New York spy network. His dispatch has not been identified.
5. Jericho, N.Y., is on Long Island about half-way between New York City and Setauket.
6. For Woodhull’s recent ill health, see Culper to Bolton, 27 Aug., enclosed in Tallmadge to Washington, 28 Aug., DLC:GW.
7. Tallmadge presumably enclosed a letter he wrote for Townsend in a letter he wrote for Woodhull, neither of which has been identified.
8. Woodhull is referring to “counterpart,” a liquid to reveal invisible ink.
9. Tallmadge quoted part of a letter Townsend wrote him from New York City on 23 Aug. in his letter to GW dated 28 August.
10. Washington had recently sent a force to Bergen Point, N.J., to collect forage and other provisions opposite New York City (see Washington to Samuel Huntington, 24 Aug., U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Papers of the Continental Congress, item 152).
11. Huntington, Lloyd Neck, and Oyster Bay are Long Island locations between New York City and Setauket.
12. Woodhull’s uncle Nathan was a captain of Long Island Loyalist militia but also part of Tallmadge’s spy network (see Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring [New York, 2006], 173–74).
13. James Lyon was an Anglican reverend and Long Island Loyalist leader (see Matthew M. Montelione, “Patriots against Loyalists on Eastern Long Island, 1775–1776,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 21, 2018.
14. Capt. Lt. Caleb Brewster conducted espionage operations sailing between Connecticut and Long Island (see Brewster to Tallmadge, 27 Aug., enclosed in Tallmadge to GW, 28 August.
15. George Howell of Southampton in eastern Long Island was a double agent operating in Connecticut (see Richard F. Welch, George Washington’s Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War [Jefferson, N.C., 2014], 88). A transcript of a letter Woodhull wrote Tallmadge from Setauket on 14 Oct. is in Morton Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies On Long Island and In New York (Brooklyn, 1939), 270. Woodhull noted in that letter: “I am pleased with your intention of apprehending Aiqlai Bqyim” (ibid., 270).
16. See Woodhull to Tallmadge, 14 Oct., in ibid., 270.
17. Woodhull might be referring to Joseph Trowbridge, a Connecticut Loyalist “refugee” on Long Island (see David Bell, American Loyalists to New Brunswick: The Ship Passenger Lists [Halifax, 2015], 67). Trowbridge would be captured commanding a Loyalist privateer by Brewster’s operatives in February 1781 (see Rose, Washington’s Spies, 234–35).
18. John Clark, a Continental army major and reconnaissance specialist, had served as a spy on Long Island in 1777 (see Rose, Washington’s Spies, 46).
19. See Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., to GW, 31 Aug., DLC:GW.
20. A force under Tallmadge would raid Long Island in November to destroy forage and other British supplies (see Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, Prepared by Himself, at the Request of his Children [1858; reprint, New York, 1968], 40–42; see also Washington to Tallmadge, 11 Nov., DLC:GW). A transcript of a letter Woodhull wrote Tallmadge from Setauket on 28 Nov. is in Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies, 271–72. Woodhull noted in that letter: “The burning the forage is agreeable to me and must hurt the enemy much” (ibid., 271).