George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Elijah Hunter, 21 May 1779

From Elijah Hunter

State of New york May 21: 1779


I have Just ariv’d from Newyork as I have Been Down with a Flag agreeabl to our Plan1 I have Been In the City for Several Days and have had Recourse to any Person I Chose and Peticular with Governor Tryon and General Clintons A.D.C. Capt. Andrew2 which I Was in a Conferrence Several Times with them Conserng The Ensueing Campain They were Very Peticular With me to obtain your Strength also the Strength of the Garrison at west Point and the Posts in the Highlands and Peekskill the Number of Guns in the Forts the Haghths [heights] that Might Command it also whether we Do Not Consider it an Important Post and Whether if they were to Make a Show with Shipping in the Sound with Troops a Board and Make Beleave that they was a going to attack Some Town in Connecticut whether General McDogal would Not Send Some or the Gratest Part of his Troops that way So that upon the whole I am as Sure that as Sertain as there is any Chance for them that a Vigarous attack will be made on the Fort and Posts up the North River as if they was to obtain they Say it would open the Country to them3 all the Troops from Long Island are Come over to york Island and Simcoes Coar Lies this Side the Bridge At Col. Cortlands Some others have Mov’d up this Side Fort Washington they were anctious I Should Inform them the Road that our Post and Express Rides Goes So that they might be waylaid and their Dispaches Taken from them they Give out that They Expect a Large Reinforsement In to Newyork Soon and another from the west Inges to George But our friends in Newyork Thinks that there wont be But Just a Few to fill up the Regments that are already over Charles Town South Carolina will be a Grand object and I Think there will be an Expedition against it if they Can Possibly Spare Troops as they Say if they Can Take it the State will fall in and Join them and then our Commerse will be So Restricted that we Shall Not be able to Carry on the war there was a Cork Fleet of Ten Sail arivd in Newyork Last Wednesday Four went to Georgia Two to Road Island So that there were Sixteen in the whole4 I Have as Near as Possible Laid Down their Plan and you in your Wise Judgment will be able to Judge of the Matter and act accordingly My Character Stands Fair with them and they to appearance Look upon me in the Character of a Gentleman as they Treeted me as Such they would wish me to be In the Continental Servise and in as high office as Possible they would be Glad to have me a State Comisory of Prisoners if Possible So that I might have Excuse to Come in often if I was with you Could Give you more Peticulars But Shall Give General McDogal all the Ideas of Matters that I Possibly Can if Sr you Should Think Propr I Should make a Return of your army To Newyork Please to have it Sent to me5 Peticular and any other News that you may Think of or any Thing that may have attending to Carry on the Plan as I think you have a Propr Idea of the Matter and you Can Let Me Know I have one Grand Matter to open to you when I See you6 But I Dont Love to Rite you on the Subject I wast Tempted to Let you Know when I Saw you7 but as I was a Stranger to you I Put it of[f] but I find out more and More of the Matter Every Day Mr Jay Can Give you A Hint of what I mean as I am Clear in my opinion I Expect to Go to Philadelphia Soon and Shall Call and Se you and from Time to Time Give you my opinion on Matters and my Reasons and then you will be able to Judge it is Difficult to Rite to you with Safety without Grat Expence I Send you this by the Bearer who will Call on you for any Letters that you may want to Send this way when he Returns from Philadelphia I am Dear Sr your Most obedient Humbe servt

Elijah Hunter


Elijah Hunter (1749–1815), a prominent farmer in Westchester County, N.Y., was at this time serving as an assistant commissary of forage at Bedford, N.Y. For his army and militia service early in the war, see GW to Stirling, 15 Sept. 1778, n.2. Loyalist governor William Tryon recruited Hunter as a British spy in 1778, but early in 1779 John Jay and Alexander McDougall engaged him as a double agent (see McDougall to GW, 21, 22, and 31 March 1779; and Jay to GW, 28 March. See also Jay to GW, 25 Aug., DLC:GW). GW never entirely trusted Hunter, and disapproved of double agents generally; but he decided to employ Hunter as one anyway, using him to feed misleading information on Continental army strength to the British, and allowing him to employ spies of his own (see GW to McDougall, 25 and 28 March. See also GW to Robert Howe, 17, 20 [two letters], and 21 Aug., and 7 Sept.; and GW to Hunter, 12 Aug., all DLC:GW).

Hunter’s ability to move under flags of truce between the lines made him a useful conduit of information for both sides, and in the autumn of 1780 he served, apparently unwittingly, as a courier for treasonous letters exchanged between Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold and British major John André. Eventually, however, Hunter fell under suspicion from both sides. He lost his British contacts after André’s capture, and later claimed that the British had placed him on a list of spies to be executed if apprehended. GW, meanwhile, refused to grant Hunter a passport after Arnold’s treason, and suspicions of his conduct in Westchester County forced him to abandon his farm until the end of the war. Although Hunter apparently ceased serving as a double agent, however, GW met with him at least once in 1781, and he continued to act as a courier. At the end of the war, Hunter sought and received a certificate of service from GW, who acknowledged that his intelligence activities had been of “considerable consequence,” although he later refused to assist Hunter in seeking pay for his war service (see Hunter to GW, 11 March 1783; GW to Hunter, 11 June and 1 Dec. 1783; and McDougall to GW, 28 Nov. 1783, all DLC:GW. See also Hunter to GW, 9 Dec. 1789, in Papers, Presidential Series description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. 17 vols. to date. Charlottesville, Va., 1987—. description ends , 4:377–83). Hunter returned to his farm in 1783 and became a prominent local tradesman and a justice of Westchester County.

1McDougall reported Hunter’s entry into New York via a flag of truce in his letter to GW of 13 May.

2Hunter is referring to Captain John André.

3Hunter elaborated on this intelligence of an impending British expedition up the Hudson River and potential attack on West Point, N.Y., in an intelligence report enclosed in McDougall’s letter to GW of 23 May. GW wrote to John Jay on 7 Sept. that the “first certain intelligence” of this expedition, which commenced on 30 May and resulted in the British capture of King’s Ferry, Verplanck Point, and Stony Point, N.Y., had come from Hunter (the letter to Jay is in Windsor Castle, England; for more on the British expedition, see William De Hart to GW, 30 May, n.1).

4“Last Wednesday” was 19 May. For more on the arrival of the Cork provision fleet, see Benjamin Ford to GW, 24 May, and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 277.

5Commenting that “I have not the least objection to our real strength being known,” GW enclosed a return of the army in his letter to Hunter of 12 Aug. (DLC:GW). It was not, in fact, an accurate return; GW just wanted Hunter to think that it was so that he would appear more convincing in presenting it to the British. For GW’s reasoning and his continuing dubious assessment of Hunter, see his letter of 17 Aug. to Robert Howe (DLC:GW).

6The specifics of this “Grand Matter” are unknown. John Jay wrote to GW on 25 Aug. that Hunter had mentioned “a Matter of very delicate Nature, which I believe was omitted in your Letter” (DLC:GW); in his reply to Jay of 7 Sept., GW surmised that Hunter had been referring to British designs on the Hudson River and Charleston, S.C., and to their expedition to Portsmouth, Va. (Windsor Castle, England; see also McDougall to GW, 23 May).

7Hunter had met with GW in late March; see John Jay to GW, 28 March.

Index Entries