Austin Roe - Washington's Spy on Horseback
Austin Roe has a special place in my heart because he is the most notable American Revolutionary buried in the town I grew up in. I also appreciate that he did a job so thankless that it took over 100 years before anyone realized he did anything at all.
Austin Roe was a 29-year-old tavern owner in Setauket, NY when he was approached to serve George Washington as a spy.
The Culper Spy Ring, as this group became known, would infiltrate British occupied New York City and send information across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut. The information provided by this Spy Ring proved invaluable to the Continental Army as they attempted to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
Austin Roe’s part in the Spy Ring was to ride 55 miles back and forth to New York City, where he would retrieve intelligence from his man on the inside. Over the course of the war, Roe road over 1000 miles on horseback for the Patriot cause.
Roe was able to enter and leave New York by saying he was traveling to order supplies for his tavern, which in essence was true. Taverns, at the time, were more than just drinking establishments. Travelers could rest for the night and often general goods could be purchased.
Roe eventually wore on the patience of some of his cohorts. Robert Townsend, the man in New York City, became upset that Roe would be late to appointments. Abraham Woodhull, the middle man in Setauket and one of the Ring leaders, disapproved of how much money Roe required for each trip.
To be fair, the distance and danger involved in his travels played the biggest part in Roe’s tardiness and expenses. Benjamin Tallmage, Head of Intelligence and leader of the Culper Spy Ring, defended Roe’s shortcomings to Washington. He said the following:
“obliged always to ride to New York…his expenses on the road and in the city for himself and his horse must be very considerable.”
A Visit From the President
As the war wore on, and the dangers became more intense, the Spy Ring’s communications slowed..
Austin Roe’s final ride was after the Battle of Yorktown, when victory was inevitable, and he provided information on the British evacuation of New York City.
Almost a decade later, President Washington took a famous tour of the United States.
While traveling the north shore of Long Island, Washington spent a night at Roe Tavern. Although Roe had played a major role in shaping the General’s intelligence during the American Revolution, this was probably the first time the two men had met.
It is impossible to know for sure how their conversation went, but it is not a large stretch of the imagination to think that perhaps there was a ‘your country thanks you’ offered by the President.
What we do know is Washington wrote in his diary that he found Roe’s Tavern, “tolerably decent,” which was more of a compliment at the time then it sounds today.
In 1800, about the age of 50, Austin Roe would move to the South Shore of Long Island and open a new tavern in Patchogue, NY. A small settlement when he arrived, he would play a large part in the development of that town.
You might say, he was a Founding Father of Patchogue.
It is certain he was a Founding Father of the United States.
The TURN Catastrophe
The recent hit show, TURN, focuses on the Culper Spy Ring and the American Revolution in the village of Setauket.
While this series is entertaining for any fan of the Founding Fathers, there are many noticeable errors or outright omissions (by the third season, they give up on historical accuracy altogether).
The most confusing of these historical inaccuracies is the total absence of Austin Roe. Although Abraham Woodhull did make a few trips to New York City, he is given all of the credit despite Roe doing most of the riding.
At the end of the series (SPOILER ALERT!), Washington goes to Setauket to meet the Spy Ring in a tavern. This should be Roe’s Tavern but, again, Roe is not in the show.
While I understand some artistic license should be expected on television, the removal of Austin Roe is baffling as he is an integral character with an interesting story.
The only mention of Austin Roe in the show is when Robert Rogers uses the name briefly as an alias. Giving an otherwise famous British person credit as an American Patriot is precisely how historical myths begin.
My great hope is this article gives Austin Roe back just a bit of the credit that, as a hero of the American Revolution, he deserves.
To learn more about the Culper Spy Ring, check out these books. The Alexander Rose book is the one that TURN is based on (though the book is much more accurate) and started the current wave of Spy Ring books. The Brian Kilmeade book is, in my opinion, above the rest of the pack.
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