Hidden History: Virginia slave spied to help lead America to Revolutionary War Victory


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — On the banks of the York River stands a monument marking America’s victory over the British during the Revolutionary War.

It stands just feet from a national park, which commemorates the battlefields where the most important battle during the war was won: The Battle of Yorktown.

Centuries after the war ended, we’ve been taught about the war heroes, George Washington and the French, Marquis De Lafayette and Rochambeau, who came to the Americans’ assistance.

But there’s one man who played a crucial part in making sure that battle even happened.

“His contributions to winning the war is immeausrable,” said Stephen Seals, who is an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.

Seals has worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for nearly 12 years and enjoys his job.

“I jump out of bed and say ‘I get to go to work’ with a smile!’ I believe I get to make our country better every day by sharing our history,” he said.

And that history includes his portrayal of James Armistead Lafayette, a spy during the war.

Seals says James Armistead Lafayette was born in New Kent County and historians believe it was in the late 1740s.

“We know that most likely he was born enslaved and that he served William Armistead. Through being owned by Armistead, he ends up meeting the Marquis,” he said.

Seals says the Marquis De Lafayette came from France in 1777 when he was only 19 years old. He met James Armistead Lafayette four years later.

“Somehow they bond and somehow the agreement was made between them that James was going to make his way to the British lines, acting like a runaway, and share information from the British to the Marquis and American forces,” he said. “At the time they made the agreement, they did not imagine the info he would bring.”

Historians believe it was information that General Cornwallis, commander of the British Forces, who was in Portsmouth, was making his way to Yorktown and not North Carolina as presumed, according to Seals. He says that belief comes from the letters the Marquis wrote to Washington, who was in command of the American forces.

Seals says 21,000 troops were able to cut Cornwallis off at Yorktown and secure a war-changing victory.

“That victory at Yorktown is what truly lead us Americans [to] believe we would have our own country,” he said.

And James Armistead Lafayette’s contributions are something that surprise many who visit Colonial Williamsburg and Seals.

“They’re unbelievably surprised. They don’t expect to hear these sorts of stories,” he said. Seals says that it gives them hope knowing that slaves like James Armistead Lafayette were still able to make some type of decisions in their lives.

“People hear that story and many of them are proud that this was the type of work done to ensure our freedoms,” he said.

Although he risked his life for the American forces, James Armistead Lafayette wasn’t freed right away. Seals says he fought the legislature for years before it was granted to him in 1787.

Around this time, he added “Lafayette” to his given name, Armistead. He moved back to New Kent County and bought 40 acres of land.

He died in 1830 but not before seeing the Marquis one last time when he returned in the 1820s.

Seals believes that James Armistead Lafayette’s contributions extend beyond the war.

“We have records of what he did. There were numerous enslaved people that made the choice to either help the British or American Forces. Because of the records we have on him, we’re able to know the others as well because of him,” he said.

Seals said it’s also believed that James Armistead Lafayette impressed the British so much, they sent him back to spy on the Americans, but he gave the British information that was skewed because his loyalty remained with the Patriots.

Seals portrays James Armistead Lafayette at Colonial Williamsburg, where they are currently celebrating 40 years of Black Interpretation.

He believes his role is important to show visitors that the history they learned is more diverse than what’s been taught and that minorities played a bigger role.

“I hope that when people see these exhibits or interpretations, that so many of us do here, I want them to see just how complex and rich our history is,” he said. “Every person you see walking on these streets today considers themselves American. Their ancestors, the ones who came before them, helped make this country what it is today. They feel a pride in the victory of Americans, that don’t look like them. That there’s never a black kid that goes to a museum, like I did growing up, and not see myself in my own history. I never want another black kid or a child of color to experience that again,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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