Robert Townsend Account Books – About the Project


In the 1920’s, Morton Pennypacker began what was to become his lifelong quest: to collect everything written about Long Island and by Long Islanders. During this time he befriended the last two residents of Rayhnam Hall, the ancestral home of the Townsend Family in Oyster Bay Hamlet, N.Y. Acquiring the contents of a trunk full of documents belonging to Robert Townsend (1753-1838), he carefully analyzed the account books kept by him in New York City during the American Revolution. Working with a top forensic handwriting expert of the time, they compared the handwriting contained in them with that in the letters to George Washington during the same time period, housed at the Library of Congress.

This led to their discovery that the writer of both were one and the same, thus ending part of a 140+ year mystery as to the names of the Culper Spy Ring, Washington’s first spy network, operating out of New York. Robert Townsend was known to Washington only as “Culper Jr.” Later, working with the account book of Abraham Woodhull, of Setauket, in Brookhaven Township, N.Y., was he able to identify said Woodhull as “Culper Sr.” These discoveries resulted in Pennypacker’s two books: “The Two Spies: Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend,” published in 1930, and the more comprehensive “General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York,” published in 1939 (a small second volume to the latter, which consists primarily of documentation found by Pennypacker, was published in 1948).

In 1930 Pennypacker donated his fairly substantial collection to the East Hampton Library, who promptly built the first room of the Long Island Collection, which is now a world class repository of a wide variety of historical material, covering the island from New York City to Montauk.  Culper Spy Ring scholars and   enthusiasts have utilized the manuscript material here for years, but it was the addition of our dedicated volunteer, Frank Sorrentino, that spurred our focus on really doing justice to these important documents.
For the past two and a half years, Frank has been carefully transcribing this material, and adding invaluable context to them with his knowledge in colonial currency and 18th century bookkeeping practices. We’ve greatly enhanced these accurate, reliable transcriptions with his excellent introductions (to each individual account book), extensive appendices (i.e. individual personal and firm names found in them), and much more. Additionally, Town of Brookhaven Historian and Setauket native Barbara Russell is doing the same with our Abraham Woodhull account book. Combined, and in legible, searchable, edited, and indexed format, these important documents are now easily utilized and made sense of.

We are busily working on publishing this work, which will also include our exhaustive research to retell the Culper Spy Ring story and how it relates to the story of the New York and Long Island region in the American Revolution generally, detailed information on the people found on the pages, custom maps, etc., through the use of original documents such as these.