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Liss, or Elizabeth, (c. 1763- after 1806) enslaved freedom seeker, possibly involved in gathering intelligence for the American cause during the Revolutionary War, was born into slavery on Long Island, New York around the year 1763. Her mother’s name was Pender (c.1745 - ?), but details about her father are unknown. Pender, Liss, and her sister Hannah (c. 1765 – after 1803), were enslaved by two brothers, Samuel Townsend (1717 – 1790), of Oyster Bay, and his brother, Dr. James Townsend (1729-1790), of Jericho. The brothers had each inherited a fifty percent interest in Liss and Hannah from their father Jacob Townsend (1692 – 1742). Samuel was a shipping merchant in partnership with his brother Jacob Townsend (1730 – 1773) importing household goods and foods on five transatlantic vessels. Samuel also served as Town Clerk and Justice of the Peace in Oyster Bay. Both Samuel and James Townsend were members of the New York Provincial Congress, and following the war, Samuel served five terms as a New York state senator.

Samuel and later his estate also enslaved Liss’s son, Harry (19 Feb. 1783 –?), Hannah’s daughter Violet (29 April 1787 – Jan. 1795), Susannah (c.1750 - 1779), her son Jeffery (7 July 1769 - ?), Susan (c.1754 - ?), her daughter Catherine (Sept. 1772 - ?), Lilly (Sept. 1774 – after 1796), her son Nicholas (16 June 1792 - ?), an unnamed child born to Lilly (3 Feb. 1794 - ?), her son William (11 Dec., 1796 - ?), Jane (c.1762 – after 1812), her husband Gabriel Parker (c. 1760 – after 1804), their daughter Rachel Parker (3 Sept. 1786 - ?), John (c. 1740 - ?), Jacob (c.1745 - ?), Priscilla (1763 - ?), her son Amos Burling (1794 – after 1820), and an unnamed man captured at sea and purchased by Samuel at a privateer auction on March 10, 1749. Dr. James Townsend and his estate also enslaved at least two others including Sarah (Feb. 1779 - ?), and  John (Oct. 1785 - ?).

During the war five British regiments occupied Oyster Bay and their commanders billeted in the Townsend home alongside the family, Liss, and other enslaved people. This included the Queen's Rangers and their commander Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, who stayed from Nov. 1778 to May 1779 and in two later visits. Simcoe believed slavery was morally wrong and had requested to command a regiment of formerly enslaved Black people in 1776. While this was denied by the British army, Simcoe and several Queen’s Rangers briefly fought alongside an unofficial British regiment called “The Black Brigade,” commanded by a formerly enslaved man named Colonel Tye (c. 1753 – 1780). After the war, as Governor of Upper Canada, Simcoe would enact the first Canadian anti-slavery law in 1793.

In March of 1779 Col. Simcoe invited his close friend John André (1751-1780) to come for a visit of several weeks, when he would have met Liss. André was aide-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton and today is infamous as the spy who was hanged by the American authorities for his part in the Benedict Arnold treason plot.

Col. Simcoe helped Liss to escape the Townsend household on May 18, 1779, but she was soon re-enslaved in New York City by another British man whose name is not known. During the war Simcoe helped at least three other Black people escape slavery, including a young man named Barney (later Bernard E. Griffiths) and a couple from Charleston, South Carolina, who were sold back into slavery by several members of the Queen’s Rangers.

Now in Manhattan, Liss had contact with Samuel’s son Robert Townsend (1753 – 1838) during the time Robert was operating as the lead spy for General George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. Robert was known as “Culper, Jr.” Around the same time that Liss was entering Manhattan following her escape, a Culper letter contains a reference to a woman referred to by the code for “lady”—the number 355. The letter infers 355 had a unique means of conveying sensitive information without arousing suspicion, pointing to the possibility (though circumstantial) that Liss could have been the agent. Another incident in the fall of 1780 involving two Black enslaved women attempting to expose the Benedict Arnold treason plot may also involve Liss, as a woman described as a “waitress or perhaps Mistress to Col. Simcoe.” (John Lyon Gardiner’s account dated September 21, 1798 in marginalia on the cover page of the pamphlet “Proceedings of the Board of General Officers Respecting Major Andre.”)

When her unnamed British enslaver planned to evacuate in the summer of 1782, Liss appealed to Robert to repurchase her, motivated in part because she was three months pregnant. Robert agreed, purchased Liss, and paid his father £70 for her value. After giving birth to a mixed-race boy named Harry in February of 1783, Liss continued living in Robert’s apartment which he shared with his younger brother William, cousin John, and a white housekeeper named Polly Banvard.

In the summer of 1783 Liss and six-month-old Harry were sold to Ann Sharwin, a recently widowed woman who both Liss and Robert knew, with the verbal understanding that she would not take Liss and Harry out of Manhattan without first contacting Robert so he could repurchase them again for £70. However, when the woman remarried a wealthy widower named Alexander Robertson a year later, (a marriage which was dissolved almost immediately), unbeknownst to Robert, Liss was sold to Charleston, South Carolina, in January 1785 and separated from two-year-old Harry, who remained enslaved in the Robertson household. Liss was transported on the brig Lucretia, a ship captained by a man named James Tinker who was notorious for kidnapping free Black people in New York and selling them into slavery in Charleston.

In Charleston Liss was re-enslaved by Richard Palmes who had been involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770, had served as a Continental Marine, and was once a bodyguard for future U.S. president John Adams. Palmes lived outside the gates of Charleston and was a violent man who was often in legal trouble for bankruptcy. Although her purchase price is not known, Palmes was unable to fully pay for Liss and had an outstanding mortgage on her of £50.

In early 1787 Robert, who had since joined the New York Manumission Society, discovered what had happened to Liss. He confronted Alexander Robertson, obtained details of Liss’s enslavement by Palmes, and brought 4-year-old Harry to Oyster Bay to his parents’ home. He then wrote a series of letters with his older brother Solomon to three Charleston merchants, requesting their assistance in re-purchasing Liss and bringing her back to New York.

Despite several complications, including a 1786 New York law prohibiting the sale of slaves across state lines, it appears Liss was smuggled back to Oyster Bay in the early summer of 1787, perhaps aboard Robert Townsend’s ship, the Betsy. In November 1789 Liss appears in the registry of the Baptist Church of Oyster Bay, adjacent to Samuel Townsend’s name, listed as “Elizabeth, a Black woman.” She may also be the person listed as “Free Elizabeth,” working in the household of David Richard Floyd-Jones in the 1790 Census at a manor called “Fort Neck House” in what is now the town of Massapequa.

Thirteen years later Liss and her sister Hannah were officially manumitted in Oyster Bay on September 3, 1803. The certificate was signed by two of Dr. James Townsend's heirs, his son James Jr. and his daughter Margaret Townsend’s husband William.
One final 1806 Oyster Bay record lists “Elizabeth, Black woman” as a member of the Oyster Bay Baptist Church with the word “dead” added later, indicating that Liss was a member of that congregation for the remainder of her life.


Bellerjeau, Claire and Tiffany Yecke Brooks. Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.
Bellerjeau, Claire and Tiffany Yecke Brooks. Remember Liss. New York, NY: Remember Liss, Inc., 2023.


Claire Bellerjeau

Liss by Lindsey Levine. Collection of Claire Bellerjeau.

Key Events


Estimated year of Liss's birth in Oyster Bay or Jericho. She is enslaved by two brothers; Samuel Townsend of Oyster Bay and Dr. James Townsend of Jericho, who each inherited 50% of Liss and her sister Hannah through their father’s estate.

May 18, 1779

A British commander named Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe leaves Oyster Bay after a six month stay billeting in the home of Samuel Townsend and Liss escapes with them.

July 1779

Liss is enslaved by a British man in New York City, whose name is unknown. The Townsend’s son Robert becomes George Washington’s key spy in New York City, “Culper, Jr.”

Early Aug. 1782

At Liss’s request, Robert Townsend repurchases her for 70 pounds, so that she does not have to evacuate with her British enslaver. She is 3 months pregnant.

Feb. 19, 1783

Liss gives birth to Harry at Robert's apartment on Peck Slip. Harry is later described as mixed race.

Aug./Sept. 1783

Robert sells Liss and Harry to a widow named Ann Sharwin who agrees he will buy them back if Ann wants to leave New York or sell them to another person.

Late Dec. 1784

Ann Sharwin marries a wealthy widower named Alexander Robertson. Within one month the marriage is dissolved, and Alexander Robertson retains ownership of both Liss and young Harry.

Late Jan. 1785

Liss is sold south to Charleston, South Carolina by Alexander Robertson to Captain Richard Palmes, who years earlier was a key participant in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Two-year-old Harry remains in New York.

Summer 1787

With the assistance of the Townsend’s family friend Adam Gilchrist, Liss is smuggled back to Oyster Bay, perhaps aboard Robert’s ship, the Betsy.

Sept. 3, 1803

Liss and her sister Hannah are legally freed by their two remaining enslavers from the estate of Dr. James Townsend.


“Elizabeth, Black woman” is listed as a member of the Oyster Bay Baptist Church with the word “dead” added later, indicating that Liss was a member of that congregation for the remainder of her life.