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How Port Richmond Congregants
Joshua Mersereau and His Two Teenage Sons,
Joshua III and John La Grange,
Saved America

To 18th

Century 4

Plaque on today's Reformed Church  

Joshua, the father, was educated at what is now Columbia College and practiced law in New York City. He was also a successful businessman with his brother, John, on Staten Island.  In 1756 they founded the first stage coach line between New York and Philadelphia and ran a tavern with the title of the "Blazing Star." They made regular runs across Staten Island from the water's edge of today's Port Richmond Avenue ( once known as Mersereau's Ferry) to today's Rossville neighborhood.  the popular route was frequented by an old family friend named George Washington.  

Early in July, 1776, when New York fell, Mersereau's property was taken and or destroyed by the British invaders.  Included were the family home, several valuable buildings, a large sloop and a new two‑mast ship that was ready for sea -- with a combined value of $30,000 ($814,000 ca. 2020).  He narrowly escaped capture.    His horses, which had been used by the stagecoach line, were turned into Washington’s service.  He moved his family to Manhattan.  When Manhattan fell to the British, Joshua moved them to New Brunswick, N.J.   

While George Washington was retreating through N.J., he asked Joshua Mersereau to allow his son, 

John La Grange, who was about 19 at the time, to remain behind on Staten Island and act as a spy.  

Brothers Joshua, Jacob, and John Mersereau, and Joshua's sons, John La Grange and Joshua III,

became key operatives in a spy ring that gathered vital information on the strength of British forces,

troop deployments, and invasion plans from behind British lines on Staten Island and in parts of New Jersey.

Washington reported to Congress that

"I have people constantly

on Staten Island,

who give me

daily  information

of the operations

of the enemy.

These are

brave men."

John La Grange Mersereau stayed on Staten Island when the others fled.  He had a defective right arm and allowed himself to be underestimated. It was said that he would cross the water to New Jersey, his papers in a bottle towed behind the little boat. If he was captured all he had to do was cut the cord. With a signal system of lights he would tell his compatriots in New Jersey where the information had been hidden.  John did successful espionage for 18 months.


When he eventually came under suspicion, John La Grange escaped and rejoined the American army.  He was never able to serve with troops in the field because his withered arm made it impossible to hold a musket, but for courage he was unsurpassed.

Joshua III, 17, replaced his brother - moving back and forth in a skiff hidden by day in a relative’s cellar.

Joshua Mersereau III

painted in old age.

The Central Intelligence Agency cites

Joshua Mersereau's work

for George Washington 

as a Founding Father of American Intelligence.

Joshua's Most Important Mission 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze,  1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Excerpt from an 1801 account of Joshua Mersereau's mission:

Lord Cornwallis, who halted with the rear division within six miles of Trenton, intended crossing a body very early the next morning . . . and got the troops in readiness and the artillery prepared to cover the landing. . .  to [take] the boats that had been collected there {Corriel's ferry] by the Americans and left under a guard of only about ten men. 


In the vicinity of this place, a large sunken Durham boat (which could carry 100 men) lay concealed under a bank.  This had been discovered and taken away by Mr. Mersereau, so that the British were disappointed in their expectation of finding it.


Men had been employed in time for taking off all the boats from the Jersey side of the Delaware; but Mr. Mersereau's attention would not admit of his confiding wholly in their care and prudence.  He therefore went up the river to examine whether all the boats were really carried off or destroyed, upon discovering the above sunken one, which had escaped the observation of the men . . . he had the water baled out, and sent her off. . . 


. . . Had Lord Cornwallis crossed into Pennsylvania as he proposed,

the consequence would probably have been fatal to the American cause.


December 25-26, 1776 Washington “Crossed the Delaware” and victory resulted.

Joshua was an impressive man. He was six feet tall, weighed about 250 pounds and had red hair. His most impressive feature though, was his character.  The Mersereaus returned to Staten Island after the war.  But later relocated when, for his service, Joshua was granted 96 acres in Tioga County, N.Y.  He was a member of the Provincial Assembly in New York State from 1777 to 1786.


His brother, John, was Clerk of the Court of Richmond County in 1784 and Col. Jacob was an attorney.

 Col. Jacob Mersereau (1730-1804)

was an active member of the Port Richmond 

congregation even after the Revolution.

His mother was a Corsen.


The Colonel visited his family occasionally.

Once he was nearly caught.

He escaped by jumping on the roof of a shed and running into the swamps near his farm,

in present day Westerleigh.  The British dogs

took up the trail of rabbits instead.

Mersereau homestead in Butcherville

(today's Westerleigh) erected about 1680

demolished 1913.

Cornelius, according to one witness, was removed from his property and "suffered everything but death."

To 18th

Century 6

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