Although there were thousands of enslaved people of color in New York during Liss’s lifetime, very little evidence of their individual lives was recorded. A bill of sale with an enslaved person’s name, a description of a runaway, or the record of when a person was freed might be all that remains of an entire life. Many enslaved people lived and died without their name ever being written down. While the timeline below may seem long, it is a testament to how much has been discovered about the remarkable life of Liss.
— Claire Bellerjeau

  • Nov. 5, 1753

    Robert Townsend is born in Oyster Bay.

    Collection of the Town of Oyster Bay

  • 1763

    Estimated year of Elizabeth's birth in Oyster Bay

    Room interpreted as slaves quarters at Raynham Hall Museum

  • May 16, 1765

    Richard Palmes begins an apothecary business in Boston

    The Boston Newsletter, May 16, 1765

  • June 22, 1769

    Alexander Robertson is blacklisted for selling banned goods.

  • Aug. 14, 1769

    Richard Palmes listed as member of the "Sons of Liberty"

    Massachusetts Historical Society

  • March 16, 1770

    The Boston Massacre. Richard Palmes is an active participant, weilding a cudgel against the British soldiers.

    "Death of Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre" by James Wells Champney

  • 1775

    At age 22 Robert begins working in New York City for the auction house of Templeton and Stewart. He witnesses the sales of African American slaves, some of which are children.

    New York Gazette, Feb. 6, 1775

  • 1775 to mid-1776

    Samuel Townsend serves in the Provincial Congress of New York, readying for war. He takes an Oath of Secrecy to never reveal their plans.

  • July 9, 1776

    Samuel is present in White Plains for the first reading and ratification of the Declaration of Independence in New York.

  • Aug. 24, 1776

    Robert is appointed Commisary for General Nathanial Woodhull.

  • late Aug., 1776

    Samuel carries Woodhull's urgent letters to Washington in New York City requesting two regiments of soldiers to engage the British forces

  • Aug. 27, 1776

    The Battle of Long Island is lost - Long Island is now occupied by the British.

  • Sept. 10, 1776

    After being arrested and then freed, thanks to a large bribe offered by his wealthy in-law, Samuel signs an Oath of Allegience to King George.

  • Sept. 16, 1776

    Nathan Hale comes to Huntington, New York from Connecticut to operate as a spy for Washington.

  • Sept. 21, 1776

    After only five days, Hale is captured by the British and admits to being an American spy.

  • Sept. 22, 1776

    Nathan Hale is executed by hanging in New York City for being a spy.

  • late 1776

    American spy David Maltbie arrives in Oyster Bay from Connecticut. He is captured in Oyster Bay but escapes.

  • Oct. 15, 1777

    Colonel John Graves Simcoe takes command of the Queen's Rangers

  • Aug. 25, 1778

    Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge recruits Abraham Woodhull as a spy for Washington. Robert Townsend is likely his key informant in New York City.

    Library of Congress

  • June 27th, 1778

    Solomon Townsend is sworn as a patriot of America by Benjamin Franklin in Paris. At the same time, Richard Palmes is serving as a bodyguard to John Adams in Paris.

  • Nov. 19th, 1778

    The Queens Rangers occupy Oyster Bay and Col. Simcoe lives in the Townsend home.

    Simcoe's room at Raynham Hall Museum

  • Feb 14, 1779

    Simcoe writes a Valentine's Day poem to Robert's sister Sally

    "Sally's Valentine" by Mort Kunstler

  • March 20, 1779

    John André stays at the Townsend home, visiting his friend Simcoe. He writes to Sir Henry Clinton and hints about "a certain event" about to happen

    Collection of Yale University Art Gallery

  • April 8, 1779

    Peggy Shippen marries Benedict Arnold

  • April 1779

    Robert becomes business partners with Henry Oakman and they operate a shop on Hanover Square. Having a partner allows him more time to collect intelligence

    Royal Gazette, May 3, 1780

  • May 18, 1779

    Simcoe and his troops leave Oyster Bay and Liss escapes with them

  • May 26, 1779

    Robert writes to his father Samuel about Liss' escape

    Collection of the Friends of Raynham Hall Museum

  • June 29, 1779 

    Robert, age 26, writes his first spy letter to Washington as "Culper, Jr."

  • July 1779

    Elizabeth is enslaved by a British officer in New York City

  • Aug. 15, 1779

    Abraham Woodhull aka "Culper, Sr." writes about a 355 - the code for lady - "think by the assistance of a 355 of my aquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all."

  • Nov. 27, 1779

    Robert warns Washington of a British counterfeiting scheme

  • June 29, 1780

    Washington agrees to give Arnold command at West Point

  • July 20, 1780

    The Culper spies warn of British knowledge of the French fleet’s arrival

  • July 24, 1780

    André and Arnold plan to hand over West Point fort to the British

  • Aug. 18, 1780

    Simcoe meets André and Sir Henry Clinton in Southampton. They tell Simcoe about the plot to take West Point and he agrees to participate with his regiment

  • Aug. 23, 1780

    Simcoe arrives in Oyster Bay, after a long hot march from the East End. They stay for one month

  • Sept. 23, 1780

    John André is captured by American militiamen

  • Oct. 2, 1780

    John André is executed by hanging for being a spy

  • Oct. 1780

    Benedict Arnold rounds up over 40 suspected spies in New York City. Robert flees the city and goes into hiding for several months

  • March 28, 1781

    Robert signs a lease for new shop and apartment in Peck Slip

    Collection of Mystic Seaport Archives

  • Aug. 7, 1781

    Entry in Robert's account book for the purchase of "hourhound for tea for Elizabeth"

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • May 3, 1782

    Entry in Robert's account book for purchasing a thimble and thread for "Lis"

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • early Aug., 1782

    Elizabeth asks Robert to repurchase her, so that she does not have to evacuate with her British enslaver. She is now 3 months pregnant

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • Aug. 14, 1782

    Robert pays his father 70 pounds to "for a Negro wench"

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • Aug. 26, 1782

    Samuel records the payment of 70 pounds for "Liss" from Robert's personal account

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • Sept. 19, 1782

    Robert writes his last spy letter to Washington, and hand delivers it to Benjamin Tallmadge in Westchester

  • Jan.1, 1783

    David Maltbie is arrested in New York City for being a spy but is never tried

  • Feb. 19, 1783

    Elizabeth gives birth to Harry at Robert's apartment on Peck Slip. Harry is later described as "mulatto", or mixed race

  • July 31, 1783

    Richard Sharwin dies at age 46

    Royal American Gazette, July 31, 1783

  • Nov. 25, 1783

    Evacuation Day. The defeated British Army departs New York City

  • Aug. or Sept. 1783

    Robert sells Elizabeth and Harry to widow Ann Sharwin, with a verbal agreement that he will take her back if Ann wants to leave New York

  • late Dec. 1784

    Ann Sharwin marries Alexander Robertson

    Independent Journal, Dec. 25., 1784

  • Jan. 1785

    Elizabeth causes a "derangement" and "separation" in the new marriage of Ann and Alexander Robertson

    Collection of the Alexander Robertson School

  • late Jan. 1785

    Elizabeth leaves New York City on board Capt. Tinker's Packet, the Lucretia, bound for Charleston, with Elisha Hopkins of the firm Hopkins & McLane, who brokered her sale

    South Carolina Gazette, Jan. 25, 1785

  • Jan. 25, 1785

    Elizabeth arrives in Charleston aboard the Lucretia

  • Jan. 25, 1785

    The first meeting of the New York Manumission Society is held in New York City

  • Feb. 2, 1785

    Elizabeth is sold to Capt. Richard Palmes in Charleston

  • Feb. 1785

    Robert joins the New York Manumission Society (NYMS)

  • March 13, 1786

    Richard Lushington writes to John Jay about the kidnapping of George Morris, and the letter is reprinted in the papers

  • March 16, 1786

    A warning to free Blacks in New York City about Captain Tinker's kidnappings

    New York Packet, March 16, 1786

  • late 1786

    After discovering Elizabeth's fate, Robert confronted Alexander Robertson and took Harry (then aged 4) from him

  • Jan. 4, 1787

    Richard Palmes' house listed for rent outside Charleston describes where Liss lived for two years

    Columbian Herald, January 4, 1787

  • Jan. 17, 1787

    Robert and Solomon write the first letter to Richard Lushington and John Kirk asking them to buy Elizabeth and send her back to New York

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • March 1, 1787

    Solomon writes business letter to Adam Gilchrist, and mentions the pending repurchase of Elizabeth

    Collection of Gibbs Museum of Art

  • March 22,1787

    Robert and Solomon write second letter to Lushington & Kirk, acknowledging their their refusal on moral grounds, and let them know they will ask Adam Gilchrist to repurchase Elizabeth

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • March 22, 1787

    Robert and Solomon write to Adam Gilchrist and ask him to buy Elizabeth and send her back to New York

    Collection of East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

  • April 12, 1787

    In Adam Gichrist's relpy letter he agrees to buy Elizabeth from Palmes

    New York Historical Society, Townsend Family Papers

  • May 21, 1787

    Robert's name is listed as a current member of the NYMS

    New York Morning Post, May 21, 1787

  • 1789

    Samuel, Sarah, Sally Townsend and "Elizabeth, a black woman" appear in Baptist Church record in Oyster Bay

    Collection of the Town of Oyster Bay

  • April 23, 1790

    George Washington's five-day visit to Long Island, including a visit to Oyster Bay

  • Nov. 24, 1790

    Samuel Townsend dies at home in Oyster Bay, age 73. Now Robert is the administrator of the estate, which includes twelve enslaved persons

  • 1790

    The first Federal Census records "Free Elizabeth" living at David Richard Floyd-Jones mansion, "Fort Neck House"

  • 1795

    Robert helps Edward (Jupiter Hammon's nephew) obtain his legal freedom

  • 1795 or later

    The Townsend Slave Bible records names and information about some of those enslaved by Samuel Townsend

    Collection of Friends of Raynham Hall Museum

  • March 1796

    Robert sells off the bulk of the estate's land and possesions at auction

  • June 16, 1802

    Richard Palmes dies at sea

    Norwich Courier, June 16, 1802

  • Aug. 21, 1804

    Robert sells Harry to Jotham Weeks, on the condition that Harry is freed when he turns 24

  • Jan. 1813

    Robert's nephew, Dr. Peter Townsend, draws a small sketch of Robert, the only know image of him during his life

    Collection of Friends of Raynham Hall Museum

  • Jan. 4, 1827

    Legal slavery ends in New York

  • March 17, 1838

    Robert dies in Oyster Bay

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