The Quill Letter

I’ve spoken before about the secretive communication methods used during the Revolutionary War – see The Masked Letter and Fire or Acid – and here’s another, decidedly lower-tech example: The Quill Letter. The idea was simple and effective: messages were delicately written on long, extremely thin strips of paper, then rolled up and inserted into the hollow quill of a flight feather. A spy would then deliver the message discreetly, fairly safe in the knowledge that if he was intercepted en route, such a small document could easily be swallowed. Below is one such letter, written by General William Howe to General John Burgoyne in 1777, in which Howe informs him of his plans to invade Pennsylvania.

The images are from the Clements Library.

Transcript follows.


Lieut. Gen. Burgoyne

New York, July 17th. 1777. Dear Sir, I have received yours of the 2.d ins.+ on the 15th, have since heard from the Rebel Army of your being in possession of Ticonderoga, which is a great Event carried without loss. I have rec.d your two letters viz.+ from &Quebec your last of the 14th May, & shall observe the contents. There is a report of a messenger of yours to me having been taken, & the letter discover.d in a double wooden canteen, you will know if it was of any consequence; nothing of it has transpired to us. I will observe you in writing to you, as you propose in your letters to me. Washington is waiting our motions here, & has detached Sullivan with about 2500 men, as I learn, to Albany.- My intention is for Pensilvania where I expect to meet Washington, but if he goes to the Northw.d contrary to my (…) and you can keep him at bay, be assured I shall soon be after him to relieve you. After your arrival at Albany, yr movements of the Enemy will guide yours; but my wishes are that the Enemy be drove out of this Province before any operation takes place in Conecticut. S.r Hen.y Clinton remains in the command here, & will act as occurrences may direct. Putnam is in the Highlands with about 4000 men.- Success be ever with you. Yours.