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“Most people focus on the Civil War era,” she said. “Most people focus on the South. But this is really our only northern America’s founding era story that has a complete life.”
Bellerjeau has been researching the life of Elizabeth, who went by Liss and was born to the Townsend Family in Oyster Bay around 1762. At that time, New York was the epicenter of slavery in the North.
Bellerjeau writes about Liss in her new book, “Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution.”
WATCH | Sneak peak of historian’s research on Liss
Robert Townsend, who was born 10 years before Liss, was one of George Washington’s most trusted spies against the British. And although the Townsend family were staunch patriots, their home in Oyster Bay became a resting place for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Liss would have had to serve the British officers who stayed there.
“In one letter, Robert writes about Liss that her only fault was being too fond of the British officers,” Bellerjeau said.
In May of 1779, Liss escaped with British Colonel John Graves Simcoe. She was 17 years old. Simcoe was an early abolitionist and later helped end slavery in Canada.
Bellerjeau said Townsend tried to figure out where Liss was, but somehow she was re-enslaved in New York City to another British officer.
When the war ended, the British officer had to return to England. Liss returned to Townsend and asked him to repurchase her. She was three months pregnant.
According to Bellerjeau, Townsend let Liss live in his apartment in Manhattan and allowed her to give birth there. Her son, Harry, was half white. It’s not known who the father was.
Bellerjeau said Liss and Townsend, who was beginning to have anti-slavery beliefs, decided to have Liss live and work with a family friend who was recently widowed and who lived in Manhattan.
Townsend made the widow, Ann Sharwin, agree that if she ever wanted to sell Liss or Harry, or if she left New York City, she would contact him to let him know.
“It didn’t work out that way,” Bellerjeau said.
Sharwin remarried a wealthy man named Alexander Robertson, and they quickly divorced over something that may have involved Liss. Robertson sent Liss away to be sold in Charleston, but he kept Harry, who was 2 years old, in New York City.
Liss ended up being bought in Charleston by Richard Palmes the man who is credited with starting the Boston Massacre, in which a group of nine British soldiers killed three people of a crowd of several hundred.
Palmes was a member of the Sons of Liberty and was known as a violent and brutish man.
Bellerjeau said two years later, when Townsend found out what happened, he went to Robertson’s home and interrogated him about where Liss could be. Townsend also took Harry, who was now 4, and brought him back to Oyster Bay.
Townsend wrote letter after letter trying to find Liss and eventually was able to have her smuggled back to Oyster Bay.
The 1790 census lists a woman in Oyster Bay as “Free Elizabeth” right across from the name Robert Townsend, Bellerjeau said.
Bellerjeau said she believes Liss and her sister Hannah were granted their freedom in 1803. The town clerk in Oyster Bay recently found their manumission certificates.
Bellerjeau believes Liss spent the rest of her life working as a free woman for a wealthy family in Massapequa, but she has very few details about what the rest of her life looked like.
“I really want your viewers to look,” she said. “I believe there could be more about her.”
Singer Vanessa Williams is trying to help as well and wrote the foreword to Bellerjeau’s book. Williams’ ancestors are from Oyster Bay.
Bellerjeau said she is developing a curriculum to teach Liss’ story to elementary and middle school students.
“We can use her story as a way to understand America’s founding through the eyes of a woman of color who was enslaved,” Bellerjeau said. “We really haven’t had a way to do that before this.”
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