During the Revolutionary War, there were numerous attempts to entice leaders of the American rebels to return to their British heritage. Members of Congress were the objects of British efforts to entice America’s leaders to join the British side. Benedict Arnold and Col. Rudolphus Ritzema turned traitor, Robert Howe was accused of treason, Philip Schuyler was called a Tory, Arthur St. Clair was accused of giving up Fort Ticonderoga for personal gain, and George Washington endured a tirade by a former of chaplain of Congress imploring him to return his affections to the country of his birth. In a similar vein, Samuel Parsons, a major general from Connecticut, was accused of being “a spy for the British Army.” Was Parsons trying to change sides like Arnold or, like Robert Howe, was he merely the speculative subject of correspondence between a Tory and British general Henry Clinton?
Samuel Parsons was born in 1737 in Connecticut, his father a prominent local minister. He attended Harvard College and became a lawyer. He married into the famous Mather family, and served as a member of the colonial assembly and a King’s attorney. In the coming conflict with Great Britain, Parsons’ demonstrated his Whig credentials in writing as early as 1773:
The idea of inalienable allegiance to any prince or state, is an idea to me inadmissible; and I cannot but see that our ancestors, when they first landed in America, were as independent of the crown or king of Great Britain, as if they hade never been his subjects; and the only rightful authority derived to him over this people, was by explicit covenant contained in the first charters.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he was a colonel in the militia and when the Continental Army was organized he became the commander of the 6th Connecticut Regiment. He served prominently in the army throughout the early campaigns, proving himself a courageous and able commander.
During the battles around New York in 1776, David Bushnell came to Parsons with his submarine Turtle and explained that the chosen operator, Bushnell’s brother Ezra, had become sick and they needed a new man. Parsons suggested his brother in law, Ezra Lee, to man the little submersible and Lee operated the vessel in its unsuccessful mission against the British fleet.
Sent to Connecticut in an independent command in 1777, Parsons planned the successful raid on Sag Harbor led by Return Meigs on May 23, 1777. He also planned and led an unsuccessful attack on Setauket August 22, 1777. He commanded West Point for a brief period but remained primarily in the Connecticut area. He led and organized raids against the British occupation on Long Island and defended Connecticut against the raids of the British on Connecticut and New York.
Parsons suffered many physical ailments and was often depressed, requesting to be relieved on several occasions. To his credit, he served until after Yorktown, but his dissatisfaction was obvious and some Tories believed he could be won over to the British cause.
Beginning in September of 1780, a Tory named William Heron wrote to the British commander in chief in New York, Sir Henry Clinton, through Loyalist Oliver Delancey that Parsons was “ready to convey all intelligence” to the British about American activities in the area. He also told Clinton that within six months he would have Parsons turned if certain requests were fulfilled, including a preferment for Parsons’ son in the Royal Navy.
Heron was an Irishman who attended Trinity College in Dublin. He was a teacher as well as a surveyor and engineer. A leader in Connecticut, Heron was a member of the Assembly who served on several important committees but also was a well-known Tory. Oddly enough, despite being labeled a Tory, he was allowed to continue his normal daily activities without obstruction by the Patriots. He was given passes by the British to travel to New York City and corresponded with the leaders of the British occupation as well as the leaders of the American Loyalists. The British, as well as Americans including Gen, Benedict Arnold, trusted his motives and Heron traveled freely between the lines apparently for business reasons.
The British soon tired of his promises of intelligence and the entrapment of Parsons. Parsons made no personal contact with any British officers and the intelligence Heron provided was usually outdated or easily obtained without skullduggery. The British ceased their correspondence and dealings with Heron in late 1781. To them he must have seemed a blowhard who promised much but could provide little.
But it was not all that it seemed. “… Squire Heron, an ostensible loyalist of Redding Ridge, carried on a correspondence with Clinton … Heron being to Clinton a bitter Tory, but in reality a friend to the colonies.” Parsons wrote to Washington about the services rendered:
When I was last with you I forgot to mention the Name of Mr William Heron of Redding who has for several Years had Opportunities of informing himself of the State of the Enemy, their Designs & Intentions with more certainty & Precision than most Men who have been imploy’d … he has been able frequently to obtain important & very interesting Inteligence … he has frequently brought me the most accurate Descriptions of the Posts occupied by the Enemy & more rational Accounts of their Numbers, Strength & Designs than I have been able to obtain in any other Way—As to his Character, I beleive him to be a consistant, rational, Whig; he is always in the Field on every alarm and has on every Trial prov’d himself a Man of Bravery …
Parsons and Heron also had minor roles in the treason of Benedict Arnold. While going back and forth to New York, Heron was asked by Arnold to take a letter to a Mr. Anderson (the pseudonym of British adjutant general John André). Although the note itself did not incriminate Arnold, when coupled other bits of evidence the note revealed Arnold’s illicit dealings with André. After reading the note, Heron passed it on to General Parsons. Parsons consulted with several people and realized the importance of the letter. He forwarded it to Washington on October 1, 1780. Unfortunately, it was too late. Arnold had already committed his treason and escaped on September 24. Parsons apologized to Washington:
It should have been forwarded earlier to your Excellency but as I supposed it to refer merely to commerce chose rather to make it a subject of private conversation than of letter; on my arrival your Excellency was just leaving camp, so that it was left to … the horrid event to detect his unsuspec[ted]instrument.
Parsons served on the board that condemned John André to death. He remained in command of the Connecticut Division until his resignation in July of 1782. Most of his time was spent in recruiting and garrison duties but he also continued combating enemy raids or making his own incursions on enemy territory. Congress voted thanks to Parsons and his troops for one particular raid on Morrisiana in New York on January 22, 1781.
After the war, Parsons continued his career as a lawyer and served in the state legislature. He was an Indian commissioner in 1785. Parsons became the first judge of the Northwest Territory in 1787 and moved to Ohio, where he drowned in 1789. His body was recovered but his gravesite is unknown.
William Heron was a respected and important member of the Redding, Connecticut community after the war. If he was really a Tory, his fellow citizens seemed to forgive and forget. He served eighteen years in the state legislature after the war and was a prominent member of his local Masons. He sent a letter to George Washington on July 26, 1790, detailing his actions on behalf of the rebellious colonies, the discovery of the Arnold letter, and his friendship with General Parsons; he requested consideration for a federal appointment. Washington did not act on Heron’s request but John Adams did appoint him to a minor office. He died in 1819.
 David R. Hoth, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series Volume 16, July-September 1778 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 304n6.
 Jeff Dacus, “General Robert Howe’s Alleged Treason,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 3, 2017, allthingsliberty.com/2017/10/general-robert-howes-alleged-treason/.
 Martin Bush, Revolutionary enigma, A Re-appraisal of General Philip Schuyler of New York (Port Washington, NY: Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1969), 124-143.
 Reverend Jacob Duche to George Washington, October 8, 1777, in Philander P. Chase and Edward G. Lengel, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 11, 19 August 1777 – 25 October 1777 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 430–437.
 George Bailey Loring, A Vindication of General Samuel Holden Parsons Against the Charges of Treasonable Correspondence During the Revolutionary War (Salem, MA: Salem Press, 1888), 8.
 Samuel Parsons to Samuel Adams, March 3, 1773, in Charles S. Hall, Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons, Major General in the Continental Army and Chief Judge of the Northwestern Territory, 1737-1789 (Binghamton, NY: Otseningo Publishing Co., 1905), 21.
 Loring, A Vindication, 10.
 Ibid., 11.
 Charles Burr Todd, The History of Redding Connecticut (New York: The Grafton Press, 1906), 51.
 Parsons to Washington, April 6, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08096.
 Parsons to Washington, October 1, 1780. Hall, Life and Letters, 307-308.
 “Journals of the Continental Congress,” February 5, 1781, American Memory, National Archives, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc01936)).
 Mark A. Mastromarino, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790 – 30 November 1790 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996) 125–129.
Heron is a classic example of a “double agent” who peddled questionable information to both sides while actually working only for himself. His primary source of information for the British was Parsons and his sources for Parsons were observation and gossip from his visits into British controlled areas. Luckily Parsons was not knowledgeable of most of Washington’s strategic planning.
Also a classic mistake of an Individual confusing a “source” with a “friend”.
A interesting article.
Jeff, a very interesting article and relationship between Parsons and Heron. Further to your point, the Continental Congress promoted Parsons to major general on October 23, 1780, right after he passed Arnold’s letter onto Washington. If there was even a hint of disloyalty, Congress would have not granted such a highly coveted and sensitive promotion given the extreme worry about other traitors.
Is there anything you can tell me about the picture at the top of the article? There are also those who claim it to be a sketch of Gen James Screven and that it hangs in the Midway Museum south of Savannah. I do not profess to know which is correct. I used the photo in a prior article here at the JAR a couple of years back. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/03/james-screven-ambushed/
I found the picture on the website “TURN to a historian” at https://spycurious.wordpress.com/2015/04/12/repulsed-with-disgrace-the-battle-of-setauket/samuel-holden-parsons1/
Rachel Smith is the historian listed at the site but the picture is not referenced
Very interesting article. Thanks. To both Wayne and you, according to Charles S Hall in his 1968 Life and Letters of Samuel Holden Parsons, no portrait of Parsons has every been found, at least to that year. I’ve never found one in my pretty extensive search.
See you both next month.