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The enigmatic life of Robert Land

John Conway
Posted 8/25/23

According to records, only four men were hanged for treason in the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Robert Land was very nearly the fifth.

Land, the Justice of the Peace in …

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The enigmatic life of Robert Land


According to records, only four men were hanged for treason in the state of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Robert Land was very nearly the fifth.

Land, the Justice of the Peace in the Cushetunk settlement in the Upper Delaware River Valley prior to the war, was working as a spy for the British, carrying dispatches between New York City and Niagara, when he was captured by the Americans, court martialed, and sentenced to be hanged. George Washington himself saved his life, informing authorities that as a civilian, Land was not subject to military justice,  and ordering that he be held over for a civil trial. While he was being held for that civilian court, Land managed to escape.

This story of Land’s arrest, trial, and subsequent escape, is a fascinating tale, with many unexpected twists and turns, but it is just one of many of a similar nature in the enigmatic life of Robert Land.

Writing in the “The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography” in 1955, John M. Coleman notes that he found it “difficult to obtain reliable information” about Robert Land, “perhaps it is more difficult because there are so many apocryphal stories about [him].”

For example, Coleman writes, “there is a persistent tradition that he was born in Tiverton, Devon, England, and came to this country with his brother twenty-five years before the Revolution. On the other hand, enlistment papers in his name, dated 1758, indicate that he was born in New York State, and enlisted as a private in a detachment of New York troops during the Seven Years’ War. A third possibility is that he was one of the Connecticut settlers in the Upper Delaware Valley, or at least an employee of the Delaware Company, which claimed the northern part of Pennsylvania for Connecticut.”

It is generally accepted that Robert Land was living in Cushetunk by 1763, and that his family eventually included his wife Phoebe Scott Land-- who some claim was an aunt to General Winfield Scott, although others dispute that notion—and their eight children.

To add further to the enigma, Robert Land has been variously described as “one of the most respected men in the Cushetunk settlement,” and as “one of the greatest villains in these parts,” and while both descriptions might conceivably be true, depending upon one’s sympathies in the war for independence, there is just not much that is known about Land with any certainty.

He was apparently bitter enemies with his fellow Cushetunk resident, the patriot Bezaleel Tyler, who testified against Land on at least one occasion, and may or may not have burned down his home. Tyler claimed under oath that one night he had searched Land’s Cushetunk home for letters sent from General Howe to the commander on the Niagara frontier that he had reason to believe Land was transporting, and failing to find them he accused Land’s wife, Phoebe of concealing them. Though she denied it, he told her she was as much an enemy as her husband.

Tyler did not mention in his testimony that the Land home was burned to the ground shortly after his search, though to this day it is not clear by whom. The family— Phoebe and the children; Robert was not at home-- was able to escape the conflagration unharmed only because of a warning issued by a friendly Native American who crept into the house in the dark of night and alerted one of the children of the impending danger. The Land’s neighbors, the family of the Tory, Bryant Kane, did not fare nearly so well. They were massacred and their home burned to the ground that same night.

These are just some of the stories that serve as the foundation for this columnist’s book in progress, “The Cushetunk Spy: The Enigmatic Life of Robert Land,” scheduled for release in 2024. The stories will also be part of a special program entitled “The Cushetunk Spy,” presented by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, as part of the Bold Gold Media Speaker Series at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History on Saturday, September 2, at 2 p.m.

The program is included in the price of admission to the Fort, which is located at 6615 State Route 97 in Narrowsburg. Fort Delaware is owned by Sullivan County and operated by The Delaware Company. It is open Thursday thru Sunday from 10 to 5 until Labor Day, and then weekends in September and October. Visit The Delaware Company’s website (thedelawarecompany.org) for more information. 


John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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