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  • Criminal Correspondence:Loyalism, Espionage and Crèvecoeur
  • Bryce Traister (bio)

His successor (whose name I have no desire to be informed of provided his intelligence is good, & seasonably transmitted) should endeavor to hit upon some certain mode of conveying his information quickly, for it is of little avail to be told of things after they have become matter of public notoriety, and known to everybody. This new agent should communicate his signature and the private marks by which genuine papers are to be distinguished from counterfeits.

—George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, 27 June 1779

In a letter dated at Boston, 22 February 1775, British General Thomas Gage ordered Captain William Brown, Ensign Henry D'Berniere, and their servant, John Howe, to take a reconnaissance of Suffolk and Worcester counties. On the eve of the battle of Lexington, Gage wrote:

You will go through the counties of Suffolk and Worcester, taking a sketch of the country as you pass; it is not expected you should make out regular plans and surveys, but mark out the roads and distances from town to town, as also the situation and nature of the country . . . The rivers also to be sketched out, remarking their breadth and depth and the nature of their banks on both sides . . . The nature of the country to be particularly noticed, whether inclosed or open . . . It would be useful if you could inform yourselves of the necessaries their different counties could supply, such as provisions, forage, straw, &c. the number of cattle, horses . . . .

( D'Berniere 204)

Here is the opening of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's "Description of Martha's Vineyard," written at roughly the same time, yet for apparently different reasons:

This island is twenty miles in length and from seven to eight miles in breadth. It lies nine miles from the continent and with the Elizabeth Island forms one of the counties of Massachusetts Bay, known by the [End Page 469] name of Dukes County. Those latter, which are six in number, are about nine miles distant from the Vineyard, and are all famous for excellent dairies. A good ferry is established between Edgarton and Falmouth, on the main, the distance being nine miles. Martha's Vineyard is divided into three townships . . . [T]he number of inhabitants is computed at about 4,000, 300 of which are Indians . . . Edgar is the best seaport and the shire town . . . The town of Chilmark has no good harbour, but the land is excellent . . . [I]t contains excellent pastures, convenient brooks for mills, stone for fencing, etc. The town of Tisbury is remarkable for the excellence of its timber and has a harbour where the water is deep enough for ships of the line. The stock of the island is 20,000 sheep, 2,000 neat cattle, beside horses and goats.


A lesser studied excerpt from his well-known Letters from an American Farmer, the passage reads like an answer to the British general's request for reconnaissance. While the size and location of the island would have been widely known, figures for population, livestock, harbor sounding, and topographical features would not; moreover, the resources of the island would have been useful for a military commander planning population control, troop movements, provisioning, and encampment. (Indeed, in September 1778, a British troop transport landed on the island and plundered its livestock.) Only speculative at this point, the possible intersection of surveying and espionage is worth considering further, and not only because the rhetoric of reportorial neutrality employed in Crèvecoeur's middle letters could have functioned also as a language of spying. Suspected to be a loyalist in Pine Hill and a patriot in Manhattan, the betrayer of provincial secrets "to the king's men" (48) as well as the author of lies "hostile to the happiness of Great Britain" (Ayscough 3), the creator of "Farmer James" raised suspicion regarding his political literary motives on both sides of the revolutionary conflict.1 In this essay I pursue a reading of Crèvecoeur's suspicious authoring by considering the Letters in the context of Anglo-American loyalism and revolutionary espionage.

As D'Berniere's narrative opens, we read how he and his...


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