Early American Espionage

Ruff Ruffman’s not the only one who can teach us how to solve a mystery…our first president can, too! George Washington’s days as a spy date all the way back to the 1700’s, when he was a dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America. It was his savvy spying abilities that led the United States to victory in the Revolutionary War.

Tricks of the Trade:

One trick to sending a message during the war was to write a letter. I know what you’re thinking – what if someone stole the letter and revealed the secrets inside? British General, Sir Henry Clinton knew that this was a possibility as well, so he created something called a mask letter. He would write a letter that seemed unimportant to readers unless you cover it with a mask to reveal the true message.

To view more spy letters from the Revolutionary War Visit:


Men weren’t the only ones acting as spies during the war. Women would send messages using their clothing lines that would go completely undetected. Anna Smith Strong was one of the brave souls who sent messages to the Culper Ring (Washington’s spies). If she hung a black petticoat on her clothing line it meant that another member of the ring, blacksmith and boatman Caleb Brewster, had arrived on his boat. The number of white handkerchiefs on the line indicated which of six coves Brewster and his boat were hiding in. Codes were an extremely important means of communication during the Revolutionary War. Major Tallmadge invented a secret writing system that substituted digits for words. Codes: “Long Island” – 728″Arms” – 7″January” 341Words without codes were each given a cipher, which means each letter in a message was replaced by another letter or number. Another tricky way to send a message was by using invisible ink. The spies would write their messages between the lines of a normal letter so that no one, except for those who knew to look for it, could see the writing. Often times the spies would place the letter in a bottle and leave it in a hole (known as a timed dead drop), for someone else to pick it up and read the secret message.As you can see, George Washington and the men and women of the Revolutionary War thought hard to create ways to out-spy the British. In the end, their efforts were a great success.If you’re in learning some spy techniques of your own check out some of our upcoming events! -Kerri, PR Intern

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