Spying was a major component of the strategy and the tactics of the American Revolution. However it’s only recently that historians have focused on the intrigues, subterfuges and skullduggery that were used by all sides. Except for the spying of British Major John Andre, his collaboration with Benedict Arnold, and of the failed spying of Nathan Hale, undercover intelligence gathering operations during the Revolution is a mostly forgotten aspect of that conflict.
Nonetheless, spying was quite common in that era and George Washington was its chief proponent. Washington made full use of the 1700s tools of the spy trade including invisible ink, hiding messages in feather quills, and small silver balls for hiding messages that could be swallowed in the event of capture. He also encouraged forging documents and making sure they fell into British hands.
In the late summer of 1776, the British captured the City of New York and held it until November 25, 1783 and for almost nine years; it was the nerve center of the British Army. Accordingly, George Washington saw that if the nascent United States were to achieve its independence, he needed to know what the British were up to in the City and the surrounding areas such as Westchester County just to the north of the City. In this regard, he organized a network of spies and double agents under the command of John Jay, a resident of Westchester County who later became the first Chief Justice of the United States. From summer 1776 to winter 1777, he oversaw the activities of a New York legislative committee charged with “detecting and defeating conspiracies.” The conspiracies largely were British attempts to use Tories to control New York City. Jay’s committee made arrests, conducted trials, and used agents to gather information.
Reporting to Jay was another Westchester County resident, Elijah Hunter. He was born on August 4, 1749 in the Town of Cortlandt Manor on a farm near the Village of Bedford. After the Revolutionary war he settled in the Town of Mt Pleasant where the Village of Ossining now stands and he died on December 22, 1815 in New York City. As it turned out, Hunter led an eventful life particularly during the Revolution.
Early in the War Elijah Hunter, served as lieutenant and as captain of Grenadiers at the Battle of White Plains. He was also a delegate to the Assembly of Westchester County. However, his most important service was a civilian when he supervised a network of counterintelligence agents operating in the Fishkill area. He later worked for the American side as a spy and double agent in New York City and there exists a number of letters and other related documents in the George Washington papers that reference Hunter’s role as a secret agent. One of these is Washington’s letter to Hunter in which the General attaches exaggerated information about the strength of the American forces in the lower Hudson valley area. He intended that it fall into the hands of the British and force them to keep a large force pinned down in New York City to defend the it and unavailable to assist General John Burgoyne’s forces who were marching down from Canada. In part the letter says:
“Inclosed (sic) you will find a return of the troops fit for duty under my immediate command. For the reasons I mentioned to you the other day I have not the least objection to our real strength being known, and it will be well for you to inform that you came by the knowledge of it from inquiry and your own observations of the troops when under arms upon which you formed an average estimate of the force of each regiment in the different Brigades; to give your account, the greater air of probability you may observe that the Officers are very incautious in speaking of the strength of their regiments. “
In a follow up letter to General Robert Howe who would later confront Burgoyne at Saratoga, NY and environs, Washington refers to Hunter as number “95” in some correspondence and as “Mr. H” in others. Of Hunter’s his capacity as a double agent Washington writes:
“…do not conceive it would be expedient in you to drop the smallest hint by which he could discover the tendency of these inquiries, much more the time and manner of execution, if these should be the result of them, considering him as a double character, it is more than possible he would give some intimation by which the project would be ruined, if otherwise it bid fair for success.
Moreover, in a letter to General Mc Dougall he states:
” I have had a good deal of conversation with Mr. H-——. He appears to be a sensible man capable of rendering important service, if he is sincerely disposed to do it. From what you say, I am led to hope he is; but nevertheless, if he is really in the confidence of the enemy, as he himself believes to be the case, it will be prudent to trust him with caution and to watch his conduct with a jealous eye. I always think it necessary to be very circumspect with double spies.”
All counted there are at least six letters during the war in which Washington mentions Hunter to others or corresponds directly with him. Among the most interesting of these is an exchange between Washington and Hunter regarding the latter’s service as a spy. In one Washington (in part) wrote:
“The Recommendations given in your favor by Mr. Jay then President of Congress and Major General McDougall were such as induced me to repose great confidence in you, and to my own knowledge, after being employed in the manner abovementioned you obtained such intelligence, either by yourself or your Correspondents, of various things which passed within the British Lines, as was of considerable consequence to us. Under this recollection of circumstances I cannot hesitate to Certify, that I thought at the time and still conceive your services were of such an interesting Nature as entitled you to the good opinion and favorable Notice of your Countrymen. I am &c.’
Later on in February of 1790 the exchanges were a little more tense as Hunter sought payment for his services to the nation. He claimed : “four years and 4 months pay as Captain allowed me for secret services performed by me for the United States from the first of March, 1778 to March 1st 1783 at forty dollars per month.”
Washington responded saying in part:
“General McDougall, who, I well remember, had two hundred Guineas put into his hands, with which to pay those who were used as secret Agents, I always supposed (if more than recommending you to the State of New York, which seemed to be your great if not only object, was expected) that this money, or a part thereof, would be applied. From this view of the matter you will readily see that I cannot take any other steps in it than what have been already effected. I am etc.”
It is not known if the matter was ever resolved but regardless after the war, in 1785, Elijah Hunter purchased a large plot of land in the portion of the Town of Mt. Pleasant that now comprises the Village of Ossining. Roughly, this parcel stretched from the East where Route 9 now is to the bank of the Hudson River on the West, On the North it was bounded by Main Street and on the South by the lands where Sing Sing Prison now stands.
It consisted of 196 acres that was once part of the confiscated lands of Frederick Philipse and he purchased the acreage from the Commissioners of Forfeitures for 550 pounds in Gold and Silver. Upon his death, a considerable part of this land was turned over to the congregation of what now is the First Baptist Church of Ossining that he helped to found. His house was on a lot on Hunter Lane now called Broad Avenue at a point where Broad and State Street now meet.
Nearby was the Hunter family cemetery on State and St Paul’s Place. At the edge of the Hudson River he constructed a pier that became known as Hunter’s Landing and as a result of lower docking fees for than the one at Sparta to the South, his pier was favored by ship captains over the former and commerce in Sparta withered and Ossining boomed.
Ossining’s Baptist Church was actually the offspring of the Baptist Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut where Elijah Hunter and his wife, Anna Drake, first worshipped. First Baptist was officially organized on November 12, 1790 with 33 members and Hunter was its first Deacon. Interestingly, First Baptist was a racially integrated church from its inception as it had had several “ Negroes” as African Americans were then called among its enrolled congregants. However, they were slaves.
Among these was a woman named Lib belonging to Ruben Harrison and a man named Prince belonging to Hunter. In any event, slavery was abolished in New York State in 1820 and the African American residents of Sing Sing continued to worship at First Baptist. In 1890, these African Americans formed the bulk of the founders of the “Centennial Star of Bethlehem Colored Baptist Church” under the pastorship of Revered Henry E. Duers a former slave and Civil War soldier. Reverend Duers was invited to attend First Baptist’s centennial celebration in 1890 and as Christmas Day was on the horizon, these events inspired the name for his church.
Regardless, the first steps toward formal establishment of First Baptist began three years earlier in 1787, when he opened up his home for services. In 1783 he went from Stamford to Sing Sing and opened his own house for a place for worship. Through him the Rev. Ebenezer Ferris, pastor of the Baptist church at Stamford, of which Mr. Hunter was a member, went to Sing Sing to conduct the services. Hunter’s seminal role in the foundation of First Baptist is found in a church record of April 1787. In part it states: “Elijah Hunter and his wife, being professors of religion and members of the Baptist Church of Christ at Stamford, State of Connecticut, finding some persons through Divine Grace inclined to promote the publick (sic)worship of God in the order of the Gospel, accordingly met together, and agreed to continue their meetings on every Lord’s Day, by the assistance of the Almighty God: and to invite Elders and Preachers, of their Profession, to visit and preach with them.”
The Baptist congregation however had no building of its own and for many years it continued to meet in the home of Hunter and of other members. Then in 1811, a small wooden building was erected more or less at the site of the present brick gothic-style building on Route 9 and Church Street. In his will dated January 24th 1815, he deed the land and the building to the congregation. This will in part states; “I give, devise and bequeath unto the trustees of the Baptist church in Mt. Pleasant and their successors in office in trust forever the lot of ground wherein the Meeting House now stands and the land as now enclosed with a fence around said meeting House…” He also bequeathed to them “my house and lot of ground…” and the “rents, issues and profits arising from said lot… “. He also gave them a total of :six hundred Pounds” and stipulated that the money be invested in “good, permanent land securities” and that the principle not be touched and that interest be used for the upkeep of the property.
Upon the death of, Elijah Hunter, in January, 1816, the Reverend John Stanford delivered the funeral sermon. The text was, “I have finished my course.” It was a fitting summation of Captain Hunter’s life taken from 2 Timothy 4:7. Indeed, he “fought the good fight” for his country and “kept the faith” by establishing and supporting (even after his death) the First Baptist Church of Ossining. Thanks in part to his efforts the United States came into being, the Village of Ossining prospered and the First Baptist continues into the 21st century and neither the nation, nor the village nor his church have finished the course. Elijah Hunter is buried at Dale Cemetery in Ossining.
Photo: The First Baptist Church of Ossining as it looked in the early 19th Century. (Courtesy Historic First Baptist Church).