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Biographies Unit Biographies

James Armistead (Lafayette) 1748?–1830
Patriot Spy

In the summer of 1781, a young enslaved man named James Armistead took a great risk for freedom. Armistead lived in Virginia, where American troops under General Lafayette were facing British troops under General Cornwallis. Lafayette needed spies to find out where Cornwallis would move his army next. With the permission of his slaveholder, Armistead volunteered to be a spy.

Armistead got work in a British camp as a forager, a person who gathers food from the countryside. His job allowed him to move freely between the British and American camps. The British grew to trust him so much that they asked him to spy on the Americans! As a double agent, Armistead gave useful information to Lafayette while giving false information to the British. His activities contributed to the British defeat at Yorktown. After the war, Lafayette wrote a letter praising Armistead for his “Essential Services.” In 1787, Armistead was freed by the Virginia legislature. He changed his name to James Lafayette.

Comprehension Check

In what way did James Armistead help the American war effort?

Critical Thinking

Why do you think James Armistead changed his name to James Lafayette?