Project Description

Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island

Espionage played a vital role during the Revolutionary War in Rhode Island, both when the British and later the French occupied Newport and the rest of Aquidneck Island. The British and Americans each employed spies to discover the secrets, plans and positions of their enemy.

  • Lieutenant John Trevett of the Continental navy sloop Providence dressed as an ordinary sailor, grew out his beard, and went from tavern to tavern in Newport gathering intelligence.
  • William Taggart became a patriot spy and enlisted the help of his son to pass messages from Middletown to the American army at Tiverton.
  • Metcalf Bowler became a traitor on the order of Benedict Arnold, as he spied for the British while professing to be a patriot leader in Providence.
  • Disguised as a peddler, Ann Bates spied for the British during the Rhode Island Campaign.
  • When caught in Exeter, John Hart was hanged as a spy.
  • Tories regularly escaped from Newport to disclose to the British secret service crucial information about French naval plans, with a key spy becoming caught in an ice pack.

Author Christian M. McBurney, for the first time, unravels the world of spies and covert operations in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War.

Book Details:

Publisher:  History Press

159 pages (of which the main text is 122 pages), 40 images and maps.  Paperback.  Retail price, $19.99.

Book Availability:

Providence:  Brown Bookstore

Newport:  Newport Historical Society Gift Shop at Brick Market

South County:  Wakefield Books; Kingston Hill Book Store; South County History Center Gift Shop (Kingston); Savoy Books (Westerly); Picture This (Wakefield)

To view and buy the book on, click here.


McBurney tells a series of fascinating stories about the spies and their families, many of them prominent Newporters, in his book.
Sean Flynn, The Newport Daily News
According to Rhode Island born historian Christian McBurney, New York and Pennsylvania may have witnessed more spy activity in the Revolutionary War, but Rhode Island was not that far behind…’no theater of war produced such rich stories of spies and spying as Rhode Island.’ That’s a pretty big brag for a state as small as ours, but McBurney does make his case very well. The fact that Newport was a major North American port at the time had a lot to do with that, but there are a few towns around the edges that turned up some surprising tales of intrigue and treason.
Joe Kernan, Cranston Herald
Through meticulous research, Christian M. McBurney has revealed many . . . covert operatives, often ordinary citizens in every other respect. The result is a lively and detailed collection that will inform and entertain anyone interested the Revolutionary War as experienced by individual participants.
Don N. Hagist, Author, The Revolution's Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs