Lorenda Holmes was born and raised in New York City as a member of the highest social circles. Before the start of the American Revolution, she lived a quiet life, and considered herself a faithful and loyal subject of the English government. She was not alone. The Loyalist population of New York was a constant threat to George Washington’s encampment in New York City in 1776. The Continental Army was surrounded by people willing to do whatever it took to defeat them. Thousands of New York men joined the British Army as it gathered on Staten Island. Loyalist women like Lorenda were barred from combat, but they found other ways to support their country.
Before the Continental Army arrived, Lorenda lived with her Aunt Mary Smith on Dock Street. But within weeks the Americans seized their home and forced them out. Now homeless, the two women moved in with their friend Mrs. Mortier, near Greenwich Street.
Lorenda was eager to do her part to stop the Americans. She volunteered to be a courier, a person who carried letters and news to the British ships in the harbor. Washington had banned couriers, because they carried American secrets to their enemies, but Lorenda was fearless. One night, she used her many connections in the city to learn the password the Americans used to keep enemies from moving in and out of the city and went down to the docks, where she signaled the British man-of-war Asia with her handkerchief. American soldiers saw what she was doing, and threatened to shoot her if she didn’t stop. But Lorenda, “knowing their cowardice” and confident that her sex and gentility would protect her, kept signaling. The captain of the Asia saw her and sent a boat to get her, ordering the Royal Marines to protect her in case the Americans decided to try to shoot her. When the British boat could not get close enough to dock because of the tide, Lorenda jumped out to it, hurting her side.
After successfully completing this mission, Lorenda became a target for the Patriots who lived in New York. She moved to Eastchester, north of the city, to be out of reach of their rage. She returned in June, telling the Americans she was there to help her aunt, but in truth she was once again carrying letters for the British. She had come to help a man called Mr. Ryan. He was a leather goods dealer in trouble with the Americans for refusing to accept paper money in exchange for supplies for the Continental Army. Lorenda was bringing him instructions on how he could escape the city and where he might find safety, but when she got to his house, the Ryan family was already in a panic. Someone had told the Patriots of their plans, and they were expecting a mob to attack them any minute. Mr. Ryan fled alone, leaving Lorenda with his bedridden, pregnant wife. Within hours, a mob stormed the house and tore it to pieces looking for Ryan.
Lorenda was captured by the mob. She was brought before the Committee of Safety, a group of Patriot New Yorkers who oversaw the government of the city and were responsible for finding and punishing Loyalist spies. When she appeared, one of the committee members yelled out “O we have got the damned Tory and the penny post at last.” They made her strip for a search and then posted her naked in a window as punishment for her crimes.
After this brush with the Patriot mob, Lorenda went to the home of Mrs. Mortier to meet her aunt, only to find that it had been taken as General Washington’s personal headquarters. She was again taken prisoner, this time with her aunt. They were there when the Hickey plot to assassinate Washington was discovered. By Lorenda’s account, she and her aunt were suspects. But nothing could be proved against them, so Washington gave them the password and let them escape in the dead of night. During the confusion of the attack of the Rose and Phoenix on July 12, Lorenda escaped New York once more. She returned to Eastchester, where she passed the summer in relative quiet.
Lorenda was eager to do her part to stop the Americans. She volunteered to be a courier, a person who carried letters and news to the British ships in the harbor.
The British landed at Throgs Neck, near Eastchester, in November of 1776. Lorenda guided sixteen Loyalist men through the woods around Eastchester so they could join the British Army. The Americans were furious when they learned about it, and while they could not officially prove Lorenda had been part of the plot, that same evening an officer broke into her home and ordered her right foot be held to hot coals until it burned, saying he would “learn her to carry off Loyalists to the British Army.”
When British defeated the Americans at White Plains, Lorenda and other Loyalists sought safety by joining the Royal Army in its march toward Fort Washington. Lorenda remembered this march as extremely cold and hard. After fifteen days, the British captured the fort and granted all of the Loyalist refugees, including Lorenda, safe passage back to the city. But New York was still full of angry Patriots, and her friends urged her to sail to England immediately for her own safety. She was forced to leave behind everything she owned.
Once in England, Lorenda did her best to start a new life. Her New York social connections gave her introductions to genteel London society. She met Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife, who on two occasions gave her gifts to help support her. Her Aunt Mary joined her in England in 1783, following the evacuation of New York at the end of the war. The two women lived together for the rest of their lives.
Life was not easy for Lorenda and her aunt—they struggled with severe illness and money shortages. After her aunt died in 1789, Lorenda petitioned the Lords of the Treasury. She asked for over £2,000, to make up for the real estate and personal goods she lost during the war, including two enslaved women. Her petition included a detailed account of her wartime experiences in her own words, which is how we know so much about her story. Whether some parts were embellished to make her case more sympathetic is nearly impossible to know for sure, but what is clear is that she lived an extraordinary life and provided invaluable service to her nation.