3 min read
If the British were watching her, Anna hoped they would think she was just hanging her wash out to dry that sunny morning on Long Island, New York. Little did they know a petticoat on a clothesline could be a secret signal. And Anna’s was!
Anna Smith’s great-grandparents were early settlers in Setauket, Long Island, New York. Anna was born on April 14, 1740, in the manor house her great-grandfather built when he first arrived in the colonies. When she was twenty years old, she married Selah Strong and they started their family in the manor.
Many of Anna’s wealthy relatives were Tories, but Anna and Selah were Patriots. Selah served as a minuteman when the Revolution first broke out. After the British took over New York City and Long Island, he was arrested and held in a British prison ship under miserable conditions.
Selah was released after Anna begged her Tory relatives to intervene for him. But he wasn’t safe in Setauket. The British had even taken over the manor house. Selah fled to Connecticut, which was still in Patriot hands, taking his and Anna’s younger children with him. Anna was determined to stay on Long Island, because she was a spy.
General George Washington needed a way to get information about what the British were planning, where their troops were moving, what ships were bringing supplies to them. He set up a network of spies, called the Culper Ring, to carry information on a complex route, from New York City to Setauket, across Long Island Sound to Connecticut, then on to him. There was danger of messages being intercepted at every point, but Anna’s help made the transfer of information a little easier.
Most of the spies in the ring were Anna’s childhood friends, whom she knew she could trust. Her immediate danger lay in keeping the British from being suspicious of her.
About once a week, one of the spies rode to New York City to dig up information about the British troops. Upon his return, he would hide the message in a wooden box buried on Anna’s friend Abraham Woodhull’s farm, across the bay from her. Meanwhile, Anna waited for word from another spy, Caleb Brewster, who had been a whaleboat captain and knew the waters well. He would slip past the British ships and hide in one of the coves in the bay.
Once Anna found out where Caleb was, she hung out her black petticoat. That meant Caleb was ready. The spies had given all the coves a number, so beside the petticoat she hung up the corresponding number of handkerchiefs. Three handkerchiefs meant “go to cove number three.”
Abraham kept a close watch on Anna’s clothesline. He would count Anna’s handkerchiefs and know exactly where to find Caleb. This saved him from stumbling around looking in cove after cove, which would have made it easier for the British to figure out he was up to something. Under cover of darkness, Abraham sneaked across the fields right to Caleb’s hideout.
Once Caleb got the message, he rowed over to Connecticut and got it to the spymaster. From there it went straight to General Washington.
One day, the British got hold of a letter General Washington had written about a new spy in the ring. Luckily for Anna, the spies in the ring had code names, and most of the messages were written using code words. But the new spy didn’t have a code name yet. He was found out. Other members of the Culper Ring grew increasingly concerned about their safety.
Their service had been invaluable to General Washington for nearly four years. As the Culper Ring became less active, Abraham sent a message directly to General Washington with news that the British were ready to cease the fighting, and he thought that independence would be offered to the colonies. Official news of this didn’t reach General Washington for several months.
After the war ended, Anna was reunited with her husband and their children. They moved back to the family manor house. Years later, Anna had the honor of meeting General Washington, president of her new nation, the nation she risked her life to help create.
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