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George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring: Home

Research Materials about George Washington, The Culper Spy Ring, and the American Revolutionary War

History of the Culper Spy Ring

The Culper Spy Ring was assembled in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (alias: John Bolton) at the request of General George Washington and operated on Long Island and New York City during the Revolutionary War. 

Robert Townsend (alias: Samuel Culper, Jr.) gathered intelligence in British occupied New York City by Abraham Woodhull (alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.). It was then passed to Austin Roe for transportation to Setauket, Long Island. Once in Setauket, the intelligence was carried across the sound by Caleb Brewster to Major Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Washington thought highly of Townsend's reports, according to letters he later wrote to Tallmadge. Although the British captured a Washington letter to spy Abraham Woodhull that referred to "Culper," they never figured out his identity and Townsend took his secret with him to the grave in 1838. 

His double life remained a secret until the 20th century when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker sought to match the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington with the script contained in ledgers and other documents found in Oyster Bay, belonging to an obscure New York and Long Island merchant, who turned out to be Townsend.

Pennypacker retained the services of graphologist Albert S. Osborn to make this determination. This discovery by Pennypacker was first announced at a meeting of the New York State Historical Society on September 27, 1930, when he read a paper that he prepared on Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend (source: The New York Times, September 28, 1930).

News and Events

Special Collections recenty was selected as an official destination on the Culper Spy Ring audio tour by LINSHA (Long Island North Shore Heritage Area). Click here to learn more.

One of the University's George Washington letters (1779) made a special trip off-campus and was viewed by over 500 children and their parents at Setauket Elementary School. The event was covered by News 12 Long Island, The Village Times Herald, and the Three Village Patch.

Library Subject Guides

About This Guide

LibGuide by Lisa Patterson, Curriculum Librarian at St. Joseph's College (in fulfillment of an archival internship for the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, C.W. Post campus of Long Island University) and Kristen J. Nyitray, Head of Special Collections and University Archives/University Archivist.
Last updated by Kristen Nyitray in March 2015.

View the George Washington Letters at Stony Brook University

Special Collections acquired two exciting American Revolutionary War-era letters authored by George Washington that document spy activities in Setauket, NY during 1779 and 1780. The letters laid the foundation for the establishment of a Long Island Historic Documents Collection.

The collection includes primary and secondary source material on the history of Long Island from the earliest settlers through the present, with a strong emphasis on the period of the American Revolution through the War of 1812 (1764-1812).

George Washington letter, September 24, 1779

George Washington letter, September 26, 1780

To view more letters, please consult the new LibGuide titled: Long Island Collection: Digitized Documents and Books from Special Collections.

Recent News

NEW: The Truth Behind the Spies: Decoding AMC’s Turn.
Interview with Three Village Historian Bev Tyler conducted by Chris Kretz for the Long Island History Project

NARA Launches Founders Online
The National Archives, through its National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), has entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create Founders Online and make freely available the historical documents of the Founders of the United States of America.

Through this website, you can read and search through thousands of records from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison and see firsthand the growth of democracy and the birth of the Republic. In this initial phase, Founders Online contains nearly 120,000 fully searchable documents.  As work continues on each of the ongoing publishing projects, newly annotated and edited records will be added. When it is complete, Founders Online will include approximately 175,000 documents.
Visit Founders Online.

New Drama to Air on AMC and Premier on Sunday, April 6
Cable channel AMC (American Movie Classics) has developed a new drama titled "Turn," based on Alexander' Rose's book Washington's Spies about the Culper Spy Ring. Read about it on the AMC website.

Special Collections and University Archives at SBU

Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University select, acquire, preserve and provide access to rare, valuable, and scarce primary and secondary materials  in a variety of formats in support of the educational and research endeavors of Stony Brook University's students, faculty, and staff.

The department also extends its services to researchers in the wider geographic region, nationally, and internationally.The collection includes: books, manuscripts, and maps dating from the 17th century; the University Archives; audio/visual materials;  and a digital repository. All are welcome to explore the library's unique collections.

Books and maps can be located in STARS. For more information about the collections, visit the department's website.

Spies of the Revolution

The Spies of the Revolution: A Historical Documentary by Gerard Sztabnik (2007). Location: Melville Library, Third Floor Stacks/DVD 2147.

Department Head & Associate Librarian

Kristen J. Nyitray
Head, Special Collections & University Archives
University Archivist
Associate Librarian
Frank Melville, Jr. Memorial Library, E-2320
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-3323
631.632.7119 (t)
631.632.1829 (f)
Website / Blog Page

Members and Associates of the Culper Spy Ring

Members were organized by Benjamin Tallmadge and included: Robert Townsend, Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe, and Caleb Brewster; sub-agents and associates were Selah Strong and Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, James Rivington, Jonas Hawkins, Amos Underhill, Zachariah Hawkins, and Hercules Mulligan.

Washington's Spies

George Washington: Spymaster

George Washington's Secret Six