The Culper Spy Ring was an American spy network operating during the War of American Independence that provided George Washington with information on British troop movements. In November 1778, George Washington appointed Major Benjamin Tallmadge as director of military intelligence, charged with creating a spy ring in New York City, the site of British headquarters.
Austin Roe, born in 1749 in Setauket, owned and operated a tavern which was a home he bought from the Woodhull family. Roe used the excuse of buying supplies for his tavern to make frequent trip to Manhattan enabling him to do his job as Culper courier. Roe would ride some 55 miles to New York City to visit Townsend at his store. Townsend's business ledgers record some of Roe's early visits. He frequently carried Townsend's reports as part of a blank package of paper.
The trip between New York and Setauket was dangerous at best. Long Islanders were constantly harassed by British raiding parties, and numerous guerrilla-like groups foraged, since there were never enough supplies for the British Army. Any civilian traveling was viewed with suspicion and subject to attack. Roe rarely seemed to have problems though, perhaps because of his experience dealing with rowdy patrons in his tavern.
Although Roe initially shared duties with Jonas Hawkins, Hawkins made several trips where he was attacked or felt threatened and gave up the job, leaving the courier duties solely to Roe.
The spy ring established a sophisticated method of conveying information to Washington, who was based at New Windsor in New York. As a result, all information sent to Washington had to be transported through British-held territory. Austin Roe rode from Setauket, Long Island, to New York City, where he entered Townsend's establishment. There Roe placed an order from Tallmadge who signed under his code name John Bolton. Contained in this message were prearranged code words from Washington to Tallmadge to which Tallmadge responded in code. The messages were then hidden in goods that Roe took back to Setauket, and hid on a farm belonging to Abraham Woodhull who would later retrieve the messages. The group also used invisible ink but since the British also had access to invisible ink, it did not make Roe’s job any safer.
The spy ring played an important role in the Revolutionary War. For instance, in 1780 the group learned that the British under the command of General Henry Clinton were about to launch an expedition in Rhode Island. Tallmadge contacted Washington who immediately ordered his army into an offensive position causing Clinton to cancel the attack. The group was also responsible for the apprehension of the British spy Major John André.
Roe remained with the ring throughout the war. He was married before the war to a woman whose first name was Catherine. After the war, he continued to operate his tavern. Washington stayed in Roe's tavern during his 1790 tour of Long Island. In 1798, he moved to Patchogue, where he ran a reincarnation of his former business, Roe's Hotel. Roe died in 1830, after many years of service in the Suffolk County militia and fathering eight children.
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