By his own recollection James, an enslaved man from New Kent County was born in 1748 and was owned by William Armistead Jr. by 1781. It is likely that James had been owned by one of Armistead’s forbearers or extended family.
In 1781, General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, sent the twenty-four-year-old French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia in an effort to stop the British forces headed by General Charles Cornwallis. A 1784 affidavit from the Marquis states that James became a skillful spy whose exploits influenced the outcome of the American Revolution. It is unknown how James and the Marquis became acquainted. Lafayette spent time in Williamsburg, Richmond, and New Kent; in his role as Commissioner of Stores, Armistead was in all three of those locales. In some manner, James asked Armistead to allow him to serve Lafayette in his efforts against the British. Armistead agreed and James began what would become an important and lengthy relationship with the French general.
James’ activities as a spy are not extensively documented. James certainly provided information to help Lafayette in his pursuit of first Benedict Arnold and later Cornwallis. In a letter to George Washington dated August 25, 1781, Lafayette credits an informant with finding out that British forces were fortifying at Yorktown and that they had sixty vessels sailing on the York River. By early in September American and French forces positioned the French navy on the Chesapeake Bay, bottling up the York River. Meanwhile, Washington and his troops had marched south to Williamsburg to join Lafayette, preparing to rout the British by land and sea. With large French siege cannons in position by early in October, the combined American and French forces began shelling the British position. After ten days of the barrage, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781. The victory at Yorktown ultimately led to the end of the Revolutionary War and winning recognition of the new nation’s independence in 1783.
In 1784, Lafayette, while praising James’ support of the American cause, said that his “intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered,” and that James had “perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him.” In 1786 James provided further information in his own petition to the General Assembly, stating that he often risked his life while serving the Marquis “to frequent the British Camp, by which means he kept open a channel of the most useful communications to the army of the state.” James also explained that he “conveyed inclosures, from the Marquiss into the enemy lines, of the most secret & important kind” and that had they been discovered, would have endangered his life.
After the British surrender at Yorktown, James’ work as a spy was done, and he went back to his enslaved status. In the years following the war, many Americans came to realize that slavery was inconsistent with the doctrines upon which they based their own struggle for independence. In May 1782 Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law enabling slaveholders to emancipate their slaves. In October 1783, the General Assembly decided to free slaves who had served in the military, either in the Continental Army or state militia, or those who had served in the military as a substitute for a free person. Because his service was as a spy and not an enlisted soldier, James was not automatically qualified for manumission. However, slaves could be freed based upon service record with General Assembly approval.
Following the war, Armistead took a larger role in public life and was elected to the General Assembly in 1784. In all likelihood, James accompanied Armistead to Richmond for the 1784-1785 session. On November 21, 1784, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the state capital and wrote a testimonial on behalf of the enslaved James, vouching for services performed and advocating for a reward and recognition. The text of that document states:
This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of. Done under my hand, Richmond, November 21st, 1784.
An entry in the Journal of the House of Delegates, dated December 4, 1784, reveals that James submitted a petition asking to be freed. It is unclear how the General Assembly’s delegates reacted to James’ petition; it may have been tabled or rejected, but his freedom was not granted.
James submitted a new petition to the General Assembly in 1786, once again asking to be freed, and this time it was granted. After being awarded his freedom for his service during the American Revolution, James, now using the surname Fayette or Lafayette, returned to New Kent County, Virginia. In 1816 James Lafayette was living on forty acres of land. Just two years later, however, Lafayette appealed again to the Virginia General Assembly, this time requesting financial relief. In response to his claim of being now “poor and unable to help himself,” the body granted him $60 and placed Lafayette on the Commonwealth’s regular pension list, guaranteeing the veteran an additional $40 each year for the rest of his life.
In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette and James Lafayette met once more. In that year, the Marquis returned to the United States for a celebratory tour. In Richmond, the Marquis was to be feted in grand style. While riding through the streets of Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly recognized James Lafayette, halted the procession, and warmly greeted his former comrade, embracing him on the street.
James Lafayette died a few years later in August 1830, in Baltimore, Maryland.