James Armistead Lafayette: What We Know And Don’t Know

July 12, 2021 Journal

James Armistead Lafayette Notes Edited

by Richard Ingram, Chair, Lafayette Alliance

Bust of James Armistead Lafayette sculpted by Kinzey Branham

Early Years
James was born December 10, 1748, in New Kent County, Virginia. Some sources suggest he was born in 1760, or that his birthplace was Elizabeth City, North Carolina; this is less likely
James was enslaved to Colonel John Armistead II. He and his first wife Agnes were known for public service. It is not known how James came to be owned by them.
William Armistead, Jr. was born January 5, 1754. James was brought up as manservant to William; William’s father John thought William would learn better with a companion; James was that companion. They both learned to read and write in French and English. The Armisteads owned taverns and stores. Educated slaves and children could help with this work.
John Armistead died in 1779 leaving his estate, including James, to 25 year old William.
As a New Kent County farmer William sold supplies to the American Continental Army.
In 1780 records show William Armistead sold thirty slaves. He also sold cattle, horses, sheep, and fodder.
Census data from Richmond, Virginia, in 1782, record: William Armistead, Jr. 28 years old; four slaves, one age 16; Suzanna Armistead age 20, either his wife or his sister; three other slaves; and two horses.
The American Revolutionary War
The Virginia Committee of Safety recommended to the Virginia Convention meeting in Williamsburg that it call up six regiments for defense, and provide clothing, food, and supplies. This was precipitated in the fall, 1775, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore proclaimed slaves free who took up arms against “The Insurgents.” Thus formed the Williamsburg Public Store, William A. Ylitt as purchaser and William Armistead, Jr. the assistant. In a777 at age 23 William became Commissary of Military Supplies for Virginia with an annual salary of 300 pounds and expenses for one servant which may have been James. In May, 1779, Admiral George Collier landed troops in Hampton Roads and ran raids; Jefferson as Governor of Virginia feared Williamsburg as capitol too vulnerable, and in 1780 moved the Capitol to Richmond.
On January 4, 1781, Benedict Arnold landed at Westover Plantation with 1600 troops, including Hessians and Simpcoe’s Queen’s rangers.
On January 6, 1781, Arnold set fire to Richmond.
On February 20, 1781, Washington ordered Lafayette and 1200 Continentals to Virginia “to trap Arnold.”
Lafayette needed information about British troop strength and strategy.
Lafayette set foot at Yorktown, Virginia, March 14, 1781; he surveyed Arnold’s works at Portsmouth, and retired to Williamsburg on March 23, 1781.
General Phillips arrived with British troops at Lynnhaven Bay, March 25, 1781.
April 28, 1781, Lafayette met Jefferson at Richmond; his 900-1000 Continentals arrived just in time to thwart Phillips’s attempt to enter Richmond.
Lafayette remained in Richmond as of May 24, 1781. On May 27, 1781, Cornwallis was at Bottoms Bridge on the Chickahominy River on the Williamsburg Road. Near this time Arnold returned to New York.
Cornwallis arrived in Williamsburg June 25, 1781. On July 4, 1781, he left Williamsburg; on July 12, 1781, he was at Suffolk; on July 24, 1781, he marched to Portsmouth.
Lafayette was back at Richmond by July 15, 1781.
August 1, 1781, Cornwallis began abandoning Portsmouth and occupying Yorktown and Gloucester Point; evacuation of Portsmouth was complete by August 18, 1781.
September 7, 1781, Lafayette marched to Williamsburg, twelve miles from Yorktown.
One source, unverified, says James heard slaves could apply for freedom after serving in the Continental Army; he asked for permission to serve with Lafayette, or at least this is one plausible way this could have played out; William in this instance must have given consent. On the other hand, Lafayette may have observed James and extended an invitation through William. James in any event volunteered at age 33. He did not sign on officially with the Continental Army.
James impressed Lafayette with his ‘aptitude.’ He served Lafayette as forager, laborer, courier, and spy.
As a spy James knew he could be hung on either side of the line if caught since he could not have on his person any identifying papers.
James reportedly joined the camp of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold at Portsmouth as scout and forage, even providing information to Lafayette that almost resulted in Arnold’s capture. This is unverified.
James was in British camp as a server at Portsmouth by July 7, 1781; Arnold presumably was in command. By the end of July James was servant to Cornwallis as Cornwallis was back at Portsmouth by July 24, 1781.
Cornwallis also appreciated James’s aptitude, and asked that he infiltrate American lines and spy on Lafayette.
Lafayette wrote Washington July 31, 1781, about a source, presumable James, who provided valuable information. James is not explicitly identified.
August 25, 1781, Lafayette again wrote to Washington crediting a source, presumable James, with finding out that Cornwallis planned to fortify Yorktown (Cornwallis with 5000 troops and 800 cavalry began to evacuate Portsmouth August 1, completely by August 18, 1781). James was not explicitly mentioned, presumable as it would compromise his cover.
One source suggested James would “move frequently between British camps,” document troop strength, and then deliver the information to other American spies who took it to Lafayette. This network of spies at Yorktown involving James is unverified.
On July 18, 1781, according to one source, unverified, said William Armistead was accused of neglecting his job. Virginia Governor Thomas Nelson pointed out that Lafayette suffered as consequence, and ordered a hogshead of spirits to be procured by Armistead and sent to Lafayette.
At Lafayette’s camp at Yorktown, after the surrender, October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis came to Lafayette’s camp as courtesy. Cornwallis happened to see James there. He recognized him. “Ah, you rogue,” Cornwallis said, “then you have been playing me a trick all this time.”
In 1782, Jean Baptiste Le Paon’s portrait of Lafayette at Yorktown includes a Black man in ornate costume generally said to be James. This is not likely. James was a spy and it is unlikely he would be dressed in such garish fashion.
James did not qualify subsequently for manumission because he did not enlist, wear a uniform, or carry a gun.
Virginia passed the Manumission Act of 1782. This applied to any slave who had carried arms in the American Revolutionary War. James was technically not a soldier: he did not wear a uniform; he carried no arms; and he did not formally sign-up. A 1783 Virginia law again stipulated manumission for soldiers, not spies. After the war James remained enslaved to William Armistead, Jr.
William Armistead, Jr. was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from New Kent County in 1784. In August of 1784 James travelled with William to Richmond. General Lafayette spoke to the Virginia Legislature November 16, 1784, calling on it to provide the blessings of liberty on all its citizens. It is likely William solicited Lafayette’s help in petitioning the legislature for freedom for James. On November 21, 1784, Lafayette wrote out a testimonial verifying the valuable service James provided during the War.
On December 4, 1784, James submitted a petition to the Virginia General Assembly for emancipation. The Assembly adjourned before the committee to which his petition had been referred could report. Or perhaps as a spy he did not qualify as a soldier and debate bogged down on details. The originals of the petition and Lafayette’s testimonial have been lost.
November 30, 1786, James filed a second petition for emancipation. This was referred to the Committee on Proposition and Grievances which ordered a bill drafted in favor.
On December 25, 1786, the House of Delegates unanimously passed James’s petition for emancipation.
On January 1, 1787, the Virginia Senate unanimously passed the act granting James freedom.
On January 9, 1787, Governor Edmund Randolph, signed off on the emancipation petition. James was free and thereafter assumed the surname Lafayette. He had never used the surname Armistead.
On February 7, 1787, William Clayton of New Kent County was appointed by the Virginia legislature to evaluate the value of James.
In March, 1787, the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts issued warrants to William Armistead for 250 pounds in payment for James’s freedom. The State typically paid 100 pounds at the execution of bondsmen convicted of capital crimes.
After emancipation he called himself James Lafayette. He himself had never used the surname Armistead.
After emancipation he moved nine miles south of New Kent and began farming. He married. Her name was Sylvia. He had at least one son. New Kent County tax records show he owned two horses and three slaves, one greater than or equal to 16, and one less than 16. One source suggested he may have purchased slaves who were relatives to give them freedom, but this is unverified. Tax records in 1788 show he had four slaves less than sixteen years old.
In 1816 he purchased forty acres of the Philemon Woodyard Estate: $41.70 for thirty acres and $13.90 for ten acres. He signed “James Fayette.”
In 1818 tax records show “Sylvia” as his wife.
On December 28, 1818, James petitioned for a pension for service r3endered in the War. The Virginia legislature gave him a $60 lump sum for immediate relief, and $40 per year. On the petition his age is listed as 70, which would have made his birthdate 1748. James travelled to Richmond every six months to collect his pension.
In 1819 Virginia passed legislation prohibiting the education of slaves.
In 1824 the Richmond Compiler reported that James Lafayette wanted to go to Yorktown to see Lafayette on his Farewell Tour, but needed funds. This report was printed as far away as Bangor, Maine.
The Richmond Enquirer reported that Lafayette on his Farewell Tour, October 19, 1824, at Yorktown, Virginia, recognized James in the crowd, called his name, stopped his carriage, limped off (he had slipped on ice in Paris in 1803, breaking his left femur which healed badly), and embraced his friend. They never met again.
In 1824 John Blennerhassett Martin painted a portrait of James Lafayette.
In 1828 a novel “Edge-Hill” was published. Written by James E. Heath, James is featured in a subsidiary hero role.
On March 19, 1830, James collected his last pension payment.
Most sources say James died August 9, 1830, in Baltimore. How and why Baltimore is unknown. Another source says he died on his farm in New Kent County on August 9, 1830. Yet another, that he died in 1832 in Virginia. His age, depending on whether he was born in 1848/1860 or died in 1830/1832, would make him anywhere from 69-72 or 81-84. One source said James Parkinson of Richmond was James’s legatee and received James’s land.
On April 1, 1832, a free Black in Baltimore Peter Coleman testified he knw James and that he died in Baltimore.
Primary Source Evidence

  1. July 31, 1781: Lafayette to Washington about “valuable information.”
  2. August 25, 1781: Lafayette to Washington again about “valuable information.”
  3. November 21, 1784: Testimonial from Lafayette.
  4. November 30, 1786: The Manumission Petition, Virginia General Assembly.
  5. December 28, 1818: Pension request to Virginia legislature.