Samuel Parsons, to all outward appearances, served as a loyal general on the American side in the Revolutionary War – until the secret diaries of British General Henry Clinton were unsealed nearly 100 years after the war. Then people began to wonder if General Samuel Parsons was really a British spy.
The discovery of Clinton’s papers, and their subsequent publication in The Magazine of American History, touched off a debate over Samuel Parsons because the letters mentioned that Connecticut loyalists actively recruited Parsons into their camp.
Until then, Parsons’ record seemed clear. Before the Revolution he declared that Britain had no legitimate authority over the colonies other than what the two sides negotiated. During the war, he led a militia to fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and later in containing the British troops in New York, rising to the rank of major general.
Yet in Clinton’s letters, historians found the seeds of doubt.
Samuel Parsons and William Heron
Samuel Parsons was born in Lyme, Conn. into a prominent family in 1737. Graduated from Harvard where he became friends with John Adams, he returned to Connecticut in the 1750s as a young man. He studied law with his uncle and won election to the Connecticut General Assembly.
The main case against Parsons centered around his relationship with William Heron, an Irishman and civic leader in Redding, Conn. A sizable number of loyalists remained in Redding following the breakout of the Revolution.
William Heron, a schoolteacher and surveyor, frequently travelled across the battle lines and into New York during the war. He would sail up and down Long Island Sound under a flag of truce. Such flags recognized by the military. People displaying them could go about their business provided they were not involved in the war, but suspicious minds suggested Heron might be trading with the enemy.
General Samuel Parsons vouched for Heron in letters to George Washington:
“His Enemies suggest he carries on an illicit Trade with the Enemy; but I have lived Two Years the next Door to him and am fully convinced he never had a single Article of any Kind for Sale during that Time nor do I believe he was in the most distant Manner connected with Commerce at that Time or any subsequent Period.”
Further, Parsons said that Heron had many times provided him with accurate intelligence about the strength and plans of the British forces stationed in New York.
Letters to General Oliver de Lancey
In London in 1882, Dr. Thomas Addis Emmett of New York purchased two volumes of letters that had been in the estate of General Henry Clinton, a British commander-in-chief of American forces from 1777 to 1782.
Clinton had a front row seat to the internal British politics that surrounded the Crown’s attempts to retain control of America. His correspondence includes many complaints about lack of cooperation within the military and many frustrations at British military operations. He also requested more than once that the king relieve him from his post. The Crown did not acquiesce.
The letters’ major value to historians was in fleshing out the behind-the-scenes political chaos on the British side of the Revolution. But the records also reveal a string of attempts to find intel from the many British loyalists who remained in America.
Published as “Secret Service Record of Private Daily Intelligence” of General Clinton, historians pored over the letters for new revelations about the war, and it wasn’t long before they focused on some curious letters between Heron and Clinton’s aide, General Oliver de Lancey.
Heron wrote several letters to Clinton outlining details about the colonial military, including troop strength and the mood of the soldiers.
In one letter he suggested that Clinton should not rule out attempting to sway General Samuel Parsons to the British side. At one point Heron attempted to convince Clinton that the British government should attempt to bribe Parsons into switching sides. And some historians suggested that several letters Parson’s wrote to Heron describing troop preparedness were actually written with the intent of being passed on to Clinton.
Another issue that dogged Parsons: Heron had given Parsons a letter intercepted from Benadict Arnold at one point. In the letter, Arnold accepts the British terms to become a traitor to the American cause. Because Arnold wrote the letter in such veiled language, Parsons said he interpreted it as merely a business letter with nothing suspicious. He sent it on for delivery to the British in New York.
The letters prompted a quick response from historians wanting to set the record straight.
Defending Samuel Parsons
After sorting through the correspondence, historians generally believe that Samuel Parsons was not a spy, per se. And William Heron was a spy, but not for the British. He spied on behalf of America.
On this last point there is no doubt. Heron gathered intelligence from British forces on his travels through New York and funneled it to George Washington. Washington maintained a robust network of spies throughout the revolution to gather intelligence on the enemy. This intelligence proved invaluable. For example, Washington might well have never attempted the attack on Trenton in 1776 had he not known of the condition of the British and German forces.
But was Heron an equal opportunity spy, providing information to the British as well? Almost certainly not. Historians have examined the intelligence that Heron provided to the British. They conclude it was out of date at the time he sent it and of little, if any, value.
Heron passed the information along as part of a ruse: pass on information of little value to the British in order to access valuable information that could be delivered to Washington and the Continental Army.
If there is one stain on Heron’s character it’s his soliciting a bribe from the British. There’s no record that was part of any plan and may have been Heron’s own idea to perhaps make a bit of money on the operation.
Final Word On Samuel Parsons Spy
The final conclusions historians have reached on Samuel Parsons and William Heron’s spying allegations relies on how their countrymen treated them after the war.
While many loyalists had to flee America after the war, Parsons and Heron both retained positions of privilege within the government.
The Congress named Parsons as one of the leaders of the Western Connecticut territories (now Ohio). He travelled there to acquire property for himself and his family. Parsons died in 1789 on a surveying trip in Ohio.
Heron, meanwhile, served in the Connecticut legislature for many years before he died in 1819
The Passage of the Delaware, Thomas Sully, Museum of Fine Arts. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.
The Battle of Long Island by Domenick D’Andrea. This image or file is a work of a U.S. National Guard member or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.