- Historic Sites
A Spy For Washington
“Loyalist” John Honeyman bought cattle, kept his eyes open —and may have made the surprise victory at Trenton possible
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Honeyman was not among the prisoners taken at Trenton. He had discreetly slipped off to New Brunswick after his meeting with Rail. But word of his arrest and escape from Washington’s encampment had reached his home village. A crowd of patriots surrounded the house when a rumor spread that he was hiding there. Honeyman’s eldest daughter, fane, then ten, remembered that night in vivid detail for the rest of her life. She heard the crowd threaten to burn the house unless her father came out. Mrs. Honeyman, her children huddled behind her, denied he was there or that she knew where he was. The crowd closed in. Mrs. Honeymnn asked the name of the leader. A soldier came to the door. By the light of a candle Mrs. Honeyman let him read a letter she unfolded.
It was dated “American Camp, New Jersey, Nov. A.D. 1776” and ordered that “the wife and children of John Honeyman, the notorious Tory, now within the British lines, and probably acting the part of a spy” were to be protected from harm. But this protection did not extend to John Honeyman.
The soldier had seen Washington’s signature on other papers. He decided it was authentic and persuaded the crowd to go home.
John Honeyman apparently played out his lonely and dangerous role of “Tory and British spy” to the end of the war, for his family saw little if anything of him. But no details are known of his activities after the Battle of Trenton.
It was a precarious and thankless job, as Washington realized better than anyone. From Valley Forge on January 20, 1778, in a letter to Governor William Livingston of New Jersey, concerning secret agents working lor the Continental cause, he wrote:
“You must be well convinced that it is indispensably necessary to make use of these means to procure intelligence. The persons employed must bear the suspicion of being thought inimical; and it is not in their power to assert their innocence, because that would get abroad and destroy the confidence which the enemy puts in them.”
As this was written, John Honeyman was really in trouble. He had been indicted by the colonial government of New Jersey for high treason, punishable with death, and locked in Trenton fail.
Yet fifteen days after his arrest he was released on bail, a most unusual procedure considering the gravity of the charge. And the man who stood his bond was a leading patriot, Jacob Hyer, a colonel in the New Jersey Militia! When Honeyman mine up loi trial, he vas quietly released.
On June 9, 1778, his neighbors testified against him at an inquisition and he was indicted again lor aiding and comforting the enemy. He pleaded not guilty and again the unseen hand of high-tip protcction reached out. Hc went free.
The next year, 1779, the possessions of many Tory sympathixers were being confiscated and sold by the Revolutionary government of New Jersey. On March 10 an advertisement appeared in the New Jersey Gazette of Trenton, announcing that Honeyman’s (iriggstown cltects would be sold on April 8. The sale never took place.
Then came the peace in 1783, and Honeyman came back home to stay. He billed the government for “three horses and a mare” that the Continental Army had made off with in his absence. To the surprise of his neighbors, he collected, too. No other Tories were being treated so generously.
Jane Honeyman, who had been born with clubfeet, was almost grown now. A tall girl, quiet and sensitive, she was sitting on the porch one day after the war’s end and had the thrill of her lifetime.
She saw a mounted party of Continental officers in bright uniforms come up the road, trailed by a queue of curious neighbors. They turned into the Honeyman yard and George Washington, grave as always, walked up on the porch. Holding out his hand to John Honeyman, he thanked him for his service to the country.
Suddenly, the shadow of dark disapproval the family had been living under all these years was gone. Young fane could hold up her head proudly at last with the best of the villagers.
John Honeyman lived to be 93 and became a prosperous farmer in the neighboring village of Lamington, where he moved from Griggstown ten years after the war. There were reports that the government rewarded him for his services, but the incomplete records of the time fail to support them. He had five sons and two daughters. Except for Jane, they were either born afterward or were too young during the war years to be curious about their father’s absence. Even with his sons, later, he stubbornly avoided glamorizing his war experiences. Mary, his wife, was not so reticent, nor was Jane.
His grandson, John Van Dyke, was fifteen when Honeyman died. He had spent many memorable summer days on the farm with his grandfather, taking long walks together through the woods and fields, passing lazy evenings around the fire with the gentle old man who never talked much but had a strange quality of serenity and dignity that even the child couldn’t miss. It was afterward, from his Aunt Jane, who never married and came to live with the Van Dykes after her father died, that he got the full story as she had lived parts of it and gotten the rest from her mother.
As a young lawyer, Van Dyke went back to Griggstown and found the officer who in his youth had led the party of patriots that surrounded the Honeyman house. This man knew the complete story of Honeyman’s mission at Trenton. As he finished telling it to Van Dyke, he added a postscript: “He did more for the cause than many who are shining heroes today.”