John Brown of Pittsfield – Spies


Colonel John Brown (October 19, 1744 – October 19, 1780), often known as John Brown of Pittsfield because of his common name, was a Patriot, spy, soldier, and military leader, in the American Revolutionary War. He played a significant role as a courier between the Thirteen Colonies and Province of Quebec prior to the outbreak of the war, and then participated in military actions in Quebec and the frontiers of New York, where was killed in action on his 36{sup|th} birthday.

According to historian Christopher Ward, “Brown was one of those remarkable characters that one finds hidden in the crannies of history, almost unknown even to historians.”


Born to Daniel Brown in Sandisfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, he graduated from Yale University in 1771, where he first met Benedict Arnold. He was a close friend to a classmate, David Humphreys, who also went on to serve in the Continental Army.

In March 1775, as a member of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, he was sent to Montreal to begin communications with citizens there interested in taking up the Patriot cause. Meeting in April with Thomas Walker and other leading British-American merchants in Montreal unhappy with the British government and the terms of the Quebec Act, he was ultimately met with supportive inaction.

He and his brother Jacob went on to serve with Benedict Arnold during the war, participating in the important capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. In July, General Philip Schuyler sent him back to Montreal for a report on the military situation there. In August he returned, reporting that the British had only 300 soldiers at Fort Saint-Jean, but were improving its fortifications and building boats. In mid-August he again went north to meet with James Livingston, a Patriot sympathizer near Chambly. On August 25, General Richard Montgomery received a letter from him indicating that the British had two war vessels nearly ready for launching on Lake Champlain. Following receipt of this letter, Montgomery launched the invasion of Quebec. Brown went on the serve under Montgomery and his successors in that campaign.

On September 17, 1775 Brown with 80 men opened action north of Fort St John but was driven back by 200 British and Canadians but not before he destroyed a key bridge and captured supplies en route to the Fort. He met with Ethan Allen at Longueuil on September 23, where they hatched a plan to capture Montreal. For reasons unknown, Brown failed to hold up his part of the plan, and Allen was later captured in the Battle of Longue-Pointe. While serving under Montgomery, he was instrumental in warning Montgomery of low troop morale and the possibility of mutiny during the siege of Fort Saint-Jean. On October 18, 1775, Brown joined with James Livingston, 50 Americans, and 300 Canadians, to lay siege and capture the British fort at Chambly. This precipitated the end of the siege at Saint-Jean, and opened the route to Montreal. Brown and his troops crossed to the north shore of the St. Lawrence, isolating Montreal from Quebec City.

In action during the Battle of Quebec, Brown and Livingston were responsible for diversionary tactics intended to distract the British defenders of the city. These tactics failed, and the attack ended in disaster, with Montgomery killed and Benedict Arnold wounded.

He was killed in action on his 36th birthday near the ruins of Fort Keyser in Stone Arabia, NY, on the Mohawk Valley frontier.