Spy for the Marquis de Lafayette
Lafayette was born into slavery about 1748, probably on the property of his owner, William Armistead, in New Kent County a few miles east of Richmond. No references to James during his lifetime identified him as James Armistead or as James Armistead Lafayette, but some later writers incorrectly assumed that he had been named James Armistead.
After the Revolution
Two weeks later James submitted a petition to the General Assembly to be emancipated for his service during the war, but despite Lafayette's affidavit, the assembly adjourned before the committee to which it had been referred reported. The petition and the original of Lafayette's certificate are lost. James filed a second petition on November 30, 1786, and the House of Delegates passed an act freeing him from slavery on December 25, 1786, and the Senate followed suit on January 1, 1787. James then took Lafayette as his surname. He resided in New Kent County, where about 1816 he bought two tracts of land that totaled forty acres.
James Lafayette evidently became a familiar figure in Richmond, to which he traveled twice a year to collect his pension. A report in a Richmond newspaper early in the autumn of 1824 referred to him as "a very venerable and respectable free black man" and stated that he hoped to travel to Yorktown in October to greet his old commander, who was beginning a tour of the United States, but feared he was too poor to equip himself properly for the trip. When Lafayette visited Richmond late in October, though, James Lafayette was there, and during a procession to Capitol Square, the marquis recognized him in the crowd, called to him by name, and embraced him. Four years later when James E. Heath, the auditor of public accounts, published Edge-Hill, or, The Family of the Fitzroyals, A Novel, a two-volume fictional account of the Revolution, he made James Lafayette a subsidiary hero and on the last page quoted verbatim Lafayette's statement about his services. The artist John Blennerhasset Martin painted a portrait of James Lafayette about that time and printed copies of it with the marquis's testimony about his Revolutionary War service.
Lafayette died in Baltimore on August 9, 1830. The place of his burial is not known.
ca. 1748 - James Lafayette is born into slavery on the property of his owner, William Armistead, in New Kent County.
Spring 1781 - The slave James Lafayette serves as a double agent, spying on the British for the Americans while pretending to spy for the British.
November 21, 1784 - The marquis de Lafayette writes a statement certifying that the slave James Lafayette had served the American cause at Yorktown.
November 30, 1786 - James Lafayette files a second petition to the General Assembly asking to be emancipated in recognition of his service during the American Revolution.
December 25, 1786 - The House of Delegates passes an act freeing James Lafayette from slavery for his service during the American Revolution.
January 1, 1787 - The Senate of Virginia passes an act freeing James Lafayette from slavery for his service during the American Revolution.
ca. 1816 - James Lafayette buys two tracts of land in New Kent County totaling about forty acres.
December 1818 - James Lafayette successfully petitions the General Assembly for a pension based on his service during the American Revolution.
1828 - The novel Edge-Hill by James E. Heath is published. James Lafayette, an African American spy during the American Revolution, is featured as a subsidiary hero.
August 9, 1830 - James Lafayette dies in Baltimore.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, J., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James Lafayette (ca. 1748–1830). (2016, March 10). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lafayette_James_ca_1748-1830.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, John and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James Lafayette (ca. 1748–1830)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 10 Mar. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 9, 2016 | Last modified: March 10, 2016
Contributed by John Salmon and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Salmon is historian for Virginia Civil War Trails, and author of The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. He also helped author the National Park Service's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment (2006).