- Historic Sites
The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
Browne and De Birniere set out the next day, Thursday, February 23, “disguised like countrymen.” They would find that it took more than brown garments and red bandannas to make British officers look like Yankee farmers. Fortunately, they had along Captain Browne’s servant, an enlisted man named John, who appreciated that fact. Without him the mission might have ended the first day.
From the ferry landing in Charlestown the three spies walked past Breed’s and Bunker’s hills, past the lane to Phipp’s farm (where the redcoats would land on the night of April 18), through “Cambridge, a pretty town, with a college built of brick,” and on to Watertown, where the Charles was first bridged. De Birniere noted that Watertown (which had over a thousand inhabitants in 1775) was “a pretty large town for America, but would be looked upon as a village in England.” So far, no one had bothered them. A little beyond Watertown they stopped to eat at Brewer’s tavern.
This is the first indication of how little information they had about country they were passing through. Jonathan Brewer, the landlord, was a staunch patriot who knew all about British officers; he had commanded a ranger company under General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. The two officers sent John off to eat in the kitchen; this must have marked them at once as strangers in democratic New England. Playing their role of surveyors, Browne and De Birniere spread out their maps on the table and called for dinner, “which was brought in by a black woman” whose politeness soon turned to suspicion. One of the “surveyors” observed to her that it was very fine country thereabout, to which the black woman replied: “So it is, and we have got brave fellows to defend it, and if you go up any higher you will find it so.”
This disconcerted us a good deal,” De Birniere admitted. He and Browne decided not to stay at Brewer’s that night. Then they blew the last remnants of their disguise by paying, without argument, an outrageously overpriced bill. Once outside, John told the officers that the woman had told him that she knew Browne was an officer, because she had seen him in Boston five years earlier, and that John himself was a regular. According to De Birniere, John denied it, “but she said she knew our errant was to take a plan of the country; that she had seen the river and road through Charlestown on the paper; she also advised him to tell us not to go any higher, for if we did we should meet with very bad usage.”
What to do? They knew now that their disguise would not fool the yokels, and the black woman could have come no closer to stating their mission if she had read Gage’s orders. But more than the threat of “very bad usage” from the Americans, they feared that “if we went back we should appear very foolish, as we had a great number of enemies in town, because the General had chose to employ us in preference to them.” Armies have always relied on the fact that most men fear the derision of their messmates more than they do the enemy. So they pushed on another six miles. Part of the way they got a ride in a farm wagon, but the teamster and his companion (who they thought was a British deserter) aroused their suspicions by offering to take them all the way to Worcester. They pleaded the need for a drink and got off at the next tavern, the Golden Ball in Weston.
Here their luck improved. The landlord, Isaac Jones, “was not inquisitive.” Better yet, when they asked for coffee, Jones replied they could have “what we pleased, either tea or coffee.” “Tea” was a kind of Loyalist password, for no patriot would ever offer the hated brew (nor would a Tory, if he had not been sure of his men). Jones put them up for the night and recommended taverns in Framingham and Worcester. He probably also warned the soldiers to be careful about revealing their identities, for Jones had already been given a rough time by the local patriots.
The next day was rainy and sleety, but the spies set out for Framingham, nine miles away. The bad weather helped, for few others ventured out. The soldiers made slow progress, because part of the road passed possible ambuscades that had to be carefully sketched. By the time they arrived at Buckminster’s tavern, the three were so wet and dirty that their identities were not so obvious as they had been the day before. Furthermore, they had learned not to send John off to the kitchen, “for we always treated him as our companion, since our adventure with the black woman.” They felt safe in Buckminster’s inn, so they probably did not know that Joseph Buckminster was a member of the Framingham Committee of Correspondence, a kind of executive committee for the town patriots.
Saturday, February 25, dawned fine. The travellers resolved to push on all the way to Worcester, about thirty miles farther. They took along a lunch of boiled tongue and cherry brandy so that they could avoid going into any tavern where questions might be asked. They made good time, for most of the country was open, and it was not until they were four miles from Worcester that they had to stop to sketch a dangerous pass.