Robert Townsend, Spy!

Robert Townsend (November 25, 1753 – March 7, 1838) was a member of the Culper Ring during the American Revolution. With the aliases “Samuel Culper, Jr.” and “723,” Townsend operated in New York City and gathered information as a service to General George Washington. He is one of the least known operatives in the spy ring, once demanding that Abraham Woodhull, aka “Samuel Culper,” never tell his name to anyone, not even Washington.

Counterfeiting plot discovery

One of Townsend’s most valuable and memorable discoveries concerned a plot by the British to ruin the American economy by flooding the country with counterfeit dollars. American political and military leaders were well-aware of these intentions and understood the potential ramifications of a worthless dollar. In early 1780, Townsend received some intelligence about the British belief that the war would not last much longer as a result of a disastrous depreciation of the dollar. The most crucial part of Townsend’s report was that the British had procured “several reams of paper made for the last emission struck by Congress.” This was terrible news for American leaders because whereas before the British were forced to counterfeit money on paper that was similar to the official paper, now they had the authentic paper, and thus distinguishing between real and fake money would be virtually impossible. As a result, Congress was forced to recall all its bills in circulation; a major ordeal but one that saved the war-effort by not allowing counterfeit money to flood the market.[18]


Townsend warned his superiors of spies in their midst. At one point, he warned Benjamin Tallmadge that Christoper Duychenik was an agent of New York City Mayor David Mathews. Townsend warned that Mathews was under the direction of Governor William Tryon. Townsend also believed that if these men found out about the intelligence report, they would immediately suspect Townsend, indicating Townsend’s potential association with high-level officials.


After the French had joined the war on the side of the colonists a French fleet was set to land and disembark troops at Newport, Rhode Island. The problem with this plan was that the British controlled Long Island and New York City and had large amounts of influence in Long Island Sound. The British got wind of the French plans and began preparing to intercept the smaller French fleet before the French soldiers could make landfall. When George Washington learned of the British plans through the Culper Spy Ring he was able to successfully bluff the British forces into believing an attack was planned on New York City. Through feeding the enemy false information on his plans Washington was able to keep the British occupied while the French were able to safely land their forces.


A number of events caused Townsend to become extremely suspicious and led to his using great caution regarding spy activities.

One involved his nephew, James Townsend. After Washington and Woodhull had a brief falling-out, James became the new courier between Robert and Tallmadge. James’ cover story was that he was a Tory visiting family in rebel-controlled territory and was seeking to recruit men for the British army. When James visited the Deausenberry family, he acted the part well enough to convince the secret Patriots that he was really a Tory. John Deausenberry dragged James to the local Patriot headquarters, but after Washington’s personal intervention, James was set free. This event not only caused anger towards his nephew for Robert, but illustrated how easy it was to get caught. As a result of this event, Townsend often refused to report intelligence in writing for the remainder of his spying career.

Another event revolved around the arrest of Hercules Mulligan by Benedict Arnold (by then serving the British). Mulligan eventually became an agent of the Culper Ring and was responsible for a number of intelligence reports. Mulligan had previously been arrested for agitating anti-British sentiment, and Arnold had him arrested for having questionable American contacts. Although he was released after no evidence showed him to be a spy, his short captivity further convinced Townsend of the dangers he faced. This event led Tallmadge to direct Culper Ring activities more towards tactical intelligence for Tallmadge’s dragoons rather than undercover operations in New York.

As the end of the war drew near, and American forces focused on Yorktown and Lord Charles Cornwallis, the Culper Ring became less significant for Washington. However, even after the British Parliament overruled King George III and ordered a cessation of arms, Washington remained skeptical of British intentions. Reports suggested that British forces in New York still continued to fortify their lines. Nevertheless, Culper activity was limited and ended for a short time. However, when a British delegate reached Paris in 1782 to discuss peace negotiations, Washington reactivated the Ring. Upon this request to reactivate, Townsend wrote what is likely his last report on September 19, 1782:

The last packet…has indeed brought the clearest and unequivocal Proofs that the independence of America is unconditionally to be acknowledged, nor will there be any conditions insisted on for those who have joined the King’s Standard…Sir Guy himself says that he thinks it not improbable that the next Packet may bring orders for an evacuation of N. York.

A fleet is getting ready to sail for the Bay of Fundy about the first of October to transport a large number of Refugees to that Quarter…Indeed, I never saw such general distress and dissatisfaction in my life as is painted in the countenance of every Tory at N.Y.

Life after the Culper Ring

After the war, Townsend ended his business connections in New York and moved back to Oyster Bay. Townsend never married, sharing his family’s home and growing old with his sister Sally.

Townsend likely had a son, Robert Townsend, Jr., and it is unclear who the child’s mother was. One possibility is Townsend’s housekeeper, Mary Banvard, whom Robert Sr. left $500 in his will.Another possibility is that the mother was a Culper Ring member known today only as Agent 355, however this possibility is unlikely. Questions remain about whether Robert, Jr. was indeed Townsend’s son. Solomon Townsend once claimed that Townsend’s brother, William, was actually the father.

Robert Townsend died on March 7, 1838, at the age of eighty-four. He managed to take his alternate identity to the grave. The identity of Samuel Culper, Jr. was discovered in 1930 by New York historian Morton Pennypacker. The Townsend home in Oyster Bay is now a museum known as the Raynham Hall Museum.

All content courtesy Wikipedia