America’s First Valentine and George Washington’s Spies

America's first Valentine quote picture

The beginning of America’s first Valentine, presented on Long Island on February 14, 1779

Valentine’s Day and President’s Day have something in common. America’s first Valentine is tied in with George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring! Washington might never have gotten to be president – and America might never have become a country – without his spies.

This Valentine had quite a setting behind it: British occupation, our desperate fight for freedom, and loyalties divided between faith, country and romance.
It was presented by Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe to Miss Sarah Townsend on February 14, 1779. Simcoe was the commander of the Queen’s Rangers, a sector of His Majesty’s Army known for its skill and brutality. Simcoe was brutal; torturing, terrorizing and even imprisoning and hanging some residents of occupied Long Island.

But Simcoe (age 27) apparently had a heart, and he gave it to 19 year old Sarah Townsend.

Here’s the declaration of love he presented to her:
Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!
Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well, where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine to fix thy power with spells divine;
Thou know’st what powerful magick lies within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires, and Heaven’s own joys around inspires;
Thou know’st my heart will always prove the shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne two ways that lead are only known—
Here gay Variety presides, and many a youthful circle guides
Through paths where lilies, roses sweet, bloom and decay beneath their feet;
Here constancy with sober mien regardless of the flowery Scene
With Myrtle crowned that never fades, in silence seeks the Cypress Shades,
Or fixed near Contemplation’s cell, chief with the Muses loves to dwell,
Leads those who inward feel and burn and often clasp the abandon’d urn,–
Say, awful God! Did’st thou not prove my heart was formed for Constant love?
Thou saw’st me once on every plain to Delia pour the artless strain—
Thou wept’sd her death and bad’st me change my happier days no more to range
O’er hill, o’er dale, in sweet Employ, of singing Delia, Nature’s joy;
Thou bad’st me change the pastoral scene forget my Crook; with haughty mien
To raise the iron Spear of War, victim of Grief and deep Despair:
Say, must I all my joys forego and still maintain this outward show?
Say, shall this breast that’s pained to feel be ever clad in horrid steel?
Nor swell with other joys than those of conquest o’er unworthy foes?
Shall no fair maid with equal fire awake the flames of soft desire:
My bosom born, for transport, burn and raise my thoughts from Delia’s urn?
“Fond Youth,” the God of Love replies, “Your answer take from Sarah’s eyes.”

Sarah shared her home with Simcoe, but it was not by choice. Her family owned the largest house in Oyster Bay, and when the Queen’s Rangers burst into town Simcoe claimed it as his quarters. The peaceful Quaker family was allowed to stay – in fact, they were required to serve him and his men. However, this didn’t spare Sarah’s father from being imprisoned, for failure to pledge allegiance to the crown.


Portrait of John Graves Simcoe, painted in 1791 by Jean-Laurent Mosnier, in the Collection of the Toronto Public Library

There are a lot of facts we don’t know about this situation. Much has been speculated, and fictionalized (most recently on AMC’s TURN.) Ironically, we know more about George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, who operated on Long Island and in Manhattan and were largely responsible for Washington’s eventual victory, than we do about the personal relationship between John and Sarah. Did she respond favorable to his overture? There is no way to know for sure. Clearly Simcoe struggled with his heart’s desires, for the Valentine refers to his dilemma of loving an enemy. Clearly the Valentine meant something to Sarah, for she kept it always. It was found in her possessions after her death at age 82.


Nor is there any way to know for sure whether Sarah helped The Culper Spy Ring, except for a bill for a horse she once ordered, to carry a message to her brother in Manhattan. Robert Townsend was a reporter for The Rivington Gazette, New York’s loyalist newspaper. He was also a merchant who sold dry goods. Presumably, Sally was sending a request to her brother for merchandise. But Robert was secretly Culper Junior, Washington’s top spy. It was he who provided the crucial information Washington needed, largely because British soldiers bragged to him to see their names in print! But the possibility is strong that Sally sent information at least once to her brother, tipping him off to what she’d heard at home. A house guest of interest was Major John Andre, British head of spies, who was Simcoe’s close friend. Sarah probably got quite the earful on his visits, especially because of Simcoe’s soft spot for her. She may have been his Achilles heel.
But we don’t know. Which is why I never wrote a book about Sarah and Simcoe. Historical fiction is fine for some, but not for me. I’m dedicated to presenting the truth.
The truth is, both Robert and Sarah Townsend never married anyone. He was most likely consumed with guilt over breaking his vow to God. (Quakers are not supposed to lie.) She is presumed to have had a broken heart over Simcoe – and perhaps she felt like she’d betrayed the love of her life. Yes, he was a cruel bastard. But you know how some women love their “bad boys.”

After the war, Simcoe returned to England and married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim in 1782. Robert returned to the Townsend home in Oyster Bay, and eventually he and Sarah lived there alone: each others consolation for what they’d experienced and done.
You can visit Raynham Hall, the Townsend’s homestead where this excitement took place. I highly recommend it!

If you’d like to know more about The Culper Spy Ring, I provide all the details in UPON SECRECY:

Upon Secrecy

To purchase:

Upon Secrecy quote

The title UPON SECRECY comes from one of George Washington’s spy letters.

If you live in the NYC area, come see me at SCBWI-Metro NY’s Professional Series on March 10. I’ll be speaking about my methods of researching and writing about the humanity in American history, such as in the story of Washington’s spies.

Here’s the link for tickets:

Bye for now.

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