Anna Strong (spy)

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Anna Nancy Smith Strong
Allegiance United States of America
Operation(s) Culper Ring

Born (1740-04-14)April 14, 1740
Died August 12, 1812(1812-08-12) (aged 72)
Setauket, New York
Nationality American
Residence Setauket, New York
Spouse Selah Strong
Occupation spy

Anna Smith Strong (April 14, 1740 – August 12, 1812)[1]:202 of Setauket, New York, was an American Patriot and a possible member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution.


Anna's father was Colonel William Smith, son of Henry Smith and grandson of Colonel William Smith, a justice of the supreme court established in New York in 1691.[2]:503 He was clerk of Suffolk County, New York, and judge of the Common Pleas court for the county for several years before the American Revolution.[2]:503 Anna's mother was Margaret Lloyd Smith, daughter of Henry Lloyd of Lloyd's Neck.[2]:503 Anna was described in an 1839 book by Benjamin Franklin Thompson on the history of Long Island as "a lady of much amiability and worth."[2]:503

Strong's husband, Selah Strong (December 25, 1737 - July 4, 1815), was related through his mother Hannah to General Nathaniel Woodhull and Abraham Woodhull, the "Samuel Culper " of the Culper Ring of American spies during the revolutionary war.[3]:173 Selah was a delegate to the first three provincial congresses in New York, which convened on May 22 and December 6 in 1775 and in May of 1776.[4]:466 He also was a captain in the New York militia in 1776.[3]:83, 173 According to Rivington's Gazette of January 3, 1778, Selah Strong was imprisoned in the sugar house at New York City as a presumed spy.[5]:582 Family tradition has him later imprisoned on the prison ship HMS Jersey.[5]:582 Later works mention only his imprisonment on the prison ship.[6]:124 Tradition says Anna brought him food.[7]:529 Author Ryan Ann Hunter states that Anna eventually got Selah paroled through the influence of Tory relatives.[8]:41 Upon his release, he spent the rest of the war in Connecticut with the family's younger children while Anna stayed on Long Island.[8]:41

The Strongs' children were Keturah S. (a daughter who married James W. Woodhull), Thomas Shepherd, Margaret, Benjamin, Mary, William Smith, Joseph, George Washington, and another Joseph. Mary and the first Joseph both died young, while Thomas later became a judge.[1]:202

Formation of the Culper Ring[edit]

On August 25, 1778, Continental Army Major Benjamin Tallmadge convinced General George Washington that Abraham Woodhull of Setauket on Long Island would make a good agent to gather intelligence in New York City, the British Army's headquarters and base of operations during the American Revolutionary War.[3]:75 For a short time, Washington continued to support Tallmadge's superior Brigadier General Charles Scott as chief of intelligence. Contrary to Tallmadge, Scott favored single missions by agents, usually officers, across enemy lines.[3]:78

After the failure of one of Scott's intelligence missions to New York City—during which three Continental Army officers were discovered and executed in September of 1778—Washington gave Tallmadge the assignment to set up a network of spies and couriers in New York City. Scott soon went on furlough and was replaced by Tallmadge as chief of intelligence.[3]:79 In October 1778, Tallmadge started the New York City operation: Woodhull began to make trips into New York under the pretext of visits to his sister Mary Underhill, who operated a boarding house with her husband Amos Underhill.[3]:88, 90 Woodhull's reports were written under the alias "Samuel Culper" (later "Samuel Culper Sr.";[3]:75 Tallmadge was called "John Bolton".[3]:75 On October 31, 1778, Woodhull was questioned threateningly at a British checkpoint.[3]:88 Woodhull hoped to pass on the work in New York to Amos Underhill but Underhill was unable to make clear or useful reports.[3]:90, 92 Woodhull was obliged to continue his visits, although he became increasingly anxious that he might be discovered as time passed.[3]:101

In June 1779, Woodhull engaged Robert Townsend ("Samuel Culper, Jr.") to gather intelligence in New York City.[3]:132 Since Townsend was engaged in business there, his presence was expected to arouse less suspicion than Woodhull had. He also had access to British officers through the authorship of a society column in a Loyalist newspaper and his tailoring business, as well as his interest in a coffeehouse with Tory newspaper owner James Rivington, also a secret member of the ring.[3]:150–154 [9]:763

A network was then established in which Townsend would pass intelligence to a courier, Jonas Hawkins or Austin Roe, who would take it 55 miles (89 km) to Setauket and pass it on to Woodhull, usually via dead drop.[9]:217 Woodhull would evaluate and comment on it and pass it to Caleb Brewster, who took it across Long Island Sound to Tallmadge, who would then usually add a cover letter with comments. Tallmadge found that personally taking the message to Washington was too time consuming, so he eventually began to send these reports to Washington via dragoons and then by relays of dragoons.[9]:217

According to widely accepted local and family tradition, Anna Strong's role in the ring was to signal Brewster, who ran regular trips with whaleboats across the Sound on a variety of smuggling and military missions, that a message was ready. She did this by hanging a black petticoat on her clothesline at Strong Point in Setauket, which was easily visible by Brewster from a boat in the Sound and by Woodhull from his nearby farm after he began to operate almost exclusively from home.[6]:124[9]:217[10]:38[11]:83 She would add a number of handkerchiefs for one of six coves where Brewster would bring his boat and Woodhull would meet him.[7]:172[8]:42[12]:21 Historian Richard Welch writes that the tradition of the clothesline signal is unverifiable but it is known that the British had a woman at Setauket who fit Anna's profile under suspicion for disloyal activities.[13]:37

In a less scholarly treatment, authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger speculate that even though she had motive to work against the crown, she also had reason not to.[14]:130–131 British law said lands could be confiscated if left abandoned, which forced Anna to remain behind when her husband left for Connecticut.[14]:130–131 For this reason, they opine, it is possible Anna would not have wanted to risk losing their home.[14]:130–131 Her children were also with her, so her arrest would have left those children parentless.[14]:130–131 Additionally, her family was already under close scrutiny since her husband was a known dissident.[14]:130–131 They offer no facts about Strong and her activities in support of these opinions or anything to contradict other sources noted here.

Missions to New York[edit]

Woodhull had to continue to visit New York for meetings with Townsend, who occasionally needed to be encouraged to continue his work or to discuss instructions or information.[3]:170, 172, 187–188 In October 1779, Woodhull was attacked by four armed men who searched his clothes, shoes and saddle but did not find the letter from Townsend that he was carrying.[3]:172, 173 Woodhull told Tallmadge that this occurred and asked him to keep it secret so that others in the ring would not be intimidated.[3]:173 He also wrote to Tallmadge that he would soon be visiting New York again and " the assistance of a 355 [lady] of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all."[3]:173

Historians Alexander Rose, Mark Anthony Phelps and Kenneth Daigler write that the lady identified only as "a 355", 355 being Tallmadge's substitution code for "lady", was Anna Strong.[3]:173[7]:529[15]:189 Men traveling alone might come under suspicion as spies and be stopped and searched but a man traveling with a wife drew less suspicion and might not even be stopped, much less searched.[3]:173[7]:529 Anna had her own reason to visit New York to visit her husband aboard the prison ship where he was confined and to bring him food if possible.[3]:173[7]:529 Her main service on their trips would have been to divert attention from Woodhull.[3]:173

Work with Brewster[edit]

On one of his trips to Setauket, Brewster was waiting for Woodhull in Strong's back garden.[3]:234[7]:529 While waiting, he surprised a passing British lieutenant, pulled him off his horse and had the opportunity to capture or kill him.[3]:234 He refrained from doing so in order to avoid drawing suspicion on Anna by leaving the impression that Brewster and his men were thieves.[3]:234[7]:529

On February 4, 1781, the double agent, or simple self-dealing mercenary, William Heron told British intelligence chief Major Oliver De Lancey of the Seventeenth Light Dragoons that private dispatches were being sent from New York City by some traitors to Seutaket "where a certain Brewster received them near a certain woman's."[3]:247 Since the British were never able to catch Brewster and get him to disclose the woman's name, Anna's identity remained secret.[3]:247


Selah Strong was on Washington's list of persons to be reimbursed for expenses that they incurred in connection with their activities for the Culper Ring. Rose and Phelps state that the reimbursement must have been for expenses incurred by Anna since Selah was imprisoned for much of the relevant time period.[3]:265[7]:529

After the war, Selah Strong was a state senator in New York between 1792 and 1800 and a member of Council of Appointment in 1794.[5]:582 He was the first judge of Suffolk County between 1783 and 1793 and county treasurer between 1786 and 1802.[5]:582 He was a supervisor between 1784 and 1794 and President of Board of Trustees of Brookhaven, 1780-1797 (1780 is almost certainly a typo for a later date) but then he didn't stop saving his country.[5]:582

No information has been found concerning Anna's activities after the end of the war other than that she and Selah lived quietly in Setauket for the rest of their lives.[3]:277 She died on August 12, 1812.[1]:202

In popular culture[edit]

In AMC's Revolutionary War spy thriller period drama series, TURN: Washington's Spies, based on Alexander Rose's historical book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring (2007),[16] Heather Lind plays Anna Strong.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Robison, Jeannie Floyd Jones; Bartlett, Henrietta Collins (1917). Genealogical Records: Manuscript Entries of Births, Deaths and Marriages Taken from Family Bibles, 1581-1917. New York: Colonial Dames of the State of New York. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d Thompson, Benjamin Franklin (1839). History of Long Island: Containing an Account of the Discovery and Settlement; with Other Important and Interesting Matters to the Present Time. Long Island, NY: E. French. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Rose, Alexander (2007). Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring. New York: Bantam Dell. ISBN 9780553383294. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015.  First published in hardcover in 2006.
  4. ^ Ross, Peter (1905). History of Long Island: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Volume 2. New York: Lewis. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Mather, Frederic Gregory (1913). The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut. Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Company. ISBN 9781556133428. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Baker, Mark Allen (2014). Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut: From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 9781626194076. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Frank, Lisa Tendrich (2013). An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598844443. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c Hunter, Ryan Ann (2013). In Disguise!: Undercover with Real Women Spies. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781442467262. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c d Hastedt, Glenn P. (2011). Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: A-J. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781851098071. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  10. ^ Naylor, Natalie A. (2012). Women in Long Island's Past: A History of Eminent Ladies and Everyday Lives. Charleston, SC: The History Press. ISBN 9781609494995. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  11. ^ Crowdy, Terry (2011). The Enemy Within: A History of Spies, Spymasters and Espionage. New York, NY: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 9781780962245. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  12. ^ Owen, David (2002). Hidden Secrets. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books. ISBN 9781552975640. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  13. ^ Welch, Richard F. (2014). General Washington's Commando: Benjamin Tallmadge in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 9780786479634. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Kilmeade, Brian; Yaeger, Don (2013). George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. New York, NY: Penguin. ISBN 9780698137653. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  15. ^ Daigler, Kenneth A. (2014). Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 9781626160507. Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 
  16. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "TCA: AMC Picks Up 'Halt & Catch Fire' & 'Turn' To Series". Retrieved 22 Apr 2015. 

External links[edit]

Anna Strong at Find a Grave