Dark Eagle: Was Colonel Jacob Griffin A Spy?


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Colonel Jacob Griffin portraitThe American Revolution forged a nation out of a place where none had existed previously, and in one of history’s truly shocking instances, a modern democracy had created itself and turned on its former master with stunning speed and resolution.

Colonel Jacob Griffin, a tavern keeper from Dutchess County at Fishkill, was a brazen and unflappable American Patriot. He had helped stir anti-British sentiment in 1775 by using his tavern to draft a formidable petition supporting the Continental Congress and openly maligning the Crown. The document demanded the Colonies’ separation from England and mustered 502 signatures.

In the late spring or early summer of 1775, he joined the Dutchess County (New York State) Militia as a Captain and would be promoted to Colonel before War’s end.   As a successful tavern owner Jacob Griffin rubbed elbows with the Continental Army’s elite – Steuben, Putnam, the Marquis de La Fayette and Washington. But is there more to Griffin’s role in the Revolutionary War?

Taverns were (and still are) places and pipelines for gossip. Jacob Griffin was in the perfect place at the most opportune time to collect military intelligence for Washington and his Continental Army. Britain’s center of operation was mainly New York City. Griffin’s Tavern was located (it burned to the ground in 1995 due to electrical fire) just far enough to the City’s limits to notice anything relevant and just distant enough north of Manhattan to remain out of Britain’s claws.

Although Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge’s famed Culper spies were the bulldogs of the Continental Army’s (and Washington’s) espionage efforts, they could not have been the only ones. American spy rings more than likely existed everywhere during the American Revolution. The geography and terrain of the Thirteen Colonies could never allow this. The U. S.’s vastness was simply much too big to permit the Culpers from viewing every little bit of military intelligence emanating from all arenas.  In Boston and New England, Long Island, NYC and Connecticut, as well as the Southern states of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Washington needed factually correct data on British forces from all over our country, at all times, for him to strike against his enemies effectively, even on the frontier.

Griffin would be the perfect bell-ringer for the Continentals. He need not travel far from Hopewell Junction to be effective as an agent. The people would come to him, including Continental soldiers and visiting French. As a middle-aged militiaman he likely would never had gone too far from his home. But while serving drinks to soldiers and merchants (perpetually on the move) Colonel Griffin would have heard everything in vino veritas.

As with John Jay and Nathaniel Sackett (both engaged in spying and with strong connections to Dutchess County), Griffen could easily fished for information valuable to the Continentals. The Colonel was loyal to the Patriot cause and most likely kept his ear to the ground. Besides, looking for Tory agents need not take him from his duties at home as it did Abe Woodhull, Caleb Brewster or fellow tavern keeper Austin Roe. Griffin’s tavern was his home and the dynamics of the tavern made it a singularly good place to acquire intelligence.

The dearth of physical written documentation is damning here, but it is also not conclusive. Historian Alexander Rose once told me, “Secret agents are not in the habit of leaving around incriminating documents.” Nor should they be. Robert Townsend, Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith Strong were all mum, even beyond death. Their Culper Spy Ring was not discovered until almost two centuries after the fact.

Other famous Revolutionary War spies for the Americans against the British also include John Honeyman and Enoch Crosby. The latter’s importance was thoroughly debunked by American literary critic Warren S. Walker, in his 1956 essay “The Prototype of Harvey Birch.” New Jersey resident Honeyman’s claim for being a Washington spy, although (historically) not conclusive, does seem to have merit to it. Yet, whatever spies existed for the American cause while America’s struggle raged, we will never know for certain. Spying was was and remains a disreputable and dangerous enterprise, then operated under the grim and savage shadow of the hangman’s noose. For the penalty of a spy caught in the 18th century was always death.

Colonel Jacob Griffin may not have been a spy or part of an early detection system to warn the Continentals against British invasion from New York State’s northern regions, but he could have been. Considering his role in the1775 petition attacking the Crown and supporting the Patriot cause, I find the scant documentation of his story odd. Spies, loyal to their flags or not, never prefer the limelight. Their lives in the field depend on their anonymity. Spies who get caught are the ones who usually get killed. It is that simple.

Colonel Griffin, living well within friendly lines, was relatively safe from harassment by the British, but he could still be useful to Washington and the Continental Congress as a lethal pair of eyes, hiding in plain sight. Griffin’s targets would, I suppose, not need be strangers only those working against the Patriot cause, but it would be logical to think that a radical personality like Jacob Griffin would continue to quietly advance the Revolution.

Portrait of Colonel Jacob Griffin.

10 thoughts on “Dark Eagle: Was Colonel Jacob Griffin A Spy?

  1. Julie Diddell

    Ancticipaing more from Michael DeBonis that will give us a evidence of Griffin as a spy for the Patriot cause! Very provocative writing, Mr. DeBonis!

    Reply
  2. Michael Mauro DeBonis

    Special thanks to John Warren and his staff for allowing me a voice and and means to communicate Jacob Griffin’s story here. NY History Blog did a great job editing a somewhat cumbersome article. Many blessings to Hopewell Junction, Dutchess County…and history lovers everywhere.

    Reply
    1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez

      Mr. DeBonis Thanks for an informative article on Rev. War intelligence gathering in the Hudson Valley. It was a crucial element of General Washington’s strategy for winning the war. Perhaps his letters and other documents as well as those of his principal spy master in this region John Jay might offer further confirmation of Jacob Griffin activities. I found them most useful in sourcing my article http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/06/16/revolutionary-war-spies-the-lower-hudson-valleys-turn/

      Reply
  3. Sue G.

    Taverns as “information hubs” certainly supports the notion of Griffin’s active engagement in making sure the right folks knew important news… thanks for this!

    Reply
  4. Theresa Kraft

    Woahhhh certainly adds up. I was intriguing by reading this insightful piece, and look forward to learning more on this part of our ‘hidden in plain sight’ history.

    Reply
  5. Rick Soedler

    Just an FYI. Hopewell Junction did not exist until 1849. All of the area of the Rombout Patent was a part of Fishkill. There did exist a Hamlet of Hopewell up the road near the Hopewell Dutch Reformed Church. I loved reading your article. Rick Soedler/Director EFHS

    Reply
    1. Theresa Kraft

      Great points Rick. I love to point out to residents and people that visit Beacon, formally Fishkill on Hudson and Matteawan that when they close their eyes, they need to envision that Madame Brett’s part of the Rombout Patent encompassed 80,000 acres of land and that is as far as anybody can envision. Its truly ncredible to think that these important players in our American history walked the same grounds that were walking today.

      Reply
  6. Michael Mauro DeBonis

    I am aware of the history…the revised and expanded version of this article has already filled in these missing gaps. It should appear soon. Remember, it’s you guys that I’m writing for and it’s you guys that will get the word out. I am realizing that one person cannot do this alone. Getting out history stories is not an easy task…especially when the historical record is either ambiguous or lacking…Jacob Griffin is an enigma.
    Researching Col. Griffin was very difficult, in particular, because of the 2 above aforementioned reasons. Without your brainstorming from up there…the lonely historian from downstate (Long Island) would be up the river. You folks know the terrain and the history…even the cast of characters better than me. I cannot do this without your help. Your positive feedback means to me a great deal. It has not fallen deaf upon me. You in upstate, NY have made this very worthwhile. Just keep in mind my article is as you have seen it, is a “historical mental exercise.” That is to say, it is not totally backed up by fact. The expanded and and revised article advances the story of Jacob Griffin, as far as I can move it, up to now. But, I am not done with my research of him.
    My goal here was to present what I thought was the most historically viable case about Col. Griffin, as historical fact and circumstance has allowed me to. When I am done digging (and that won’t be for quite a while) I hope to find new pertinent info. about him and his role in the Revolution. We’re maybe half way done, or less, with his story. More will follow…but I am certain all of you from Fishkills and Dutchess County will further all this. Let’s take this all to its very end. Halfway is boring and it does not suffice. Together, we can do this…apart, may be not so much.
    This is about Colonel Griffin and our Patriot forebears. Without their sacrifice, our nation would never have come to be (or at least as we know it to be). They matter…they were all real people with real lives. Their sacrifices were real and huge. When we ignore and neglect our history…we ignore and neglect ourselves. I think we must learn how to properly connect our past with our present, so we can move ahead into the future, with faith and confidence. American poet and philosopher George Santayana once said (I’m paraphrasing here)…”Those who are deaf to the past are doomed to repeat it.”
    This is why we study history…the other reason is that history is fun. There is always the thrill of the hunt. So there remains the hunt, to find the real Colonel Jacob Griffin. We are all in this together. Who knows what we will find? What will you find, researching Jacob Griffin? What do we find, when we investigate and study, all these these Patriots, and Tories? Some were crooks and villains, some were heroes. And many played both sides, for their own benefit. But their stories are never done.

    Best wishes to all,
    M. DeBonis.

    Reply

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