James Armistead was born into slavery in 1748 in New Kent County, Virginia. During the American Revolution, his owner granted him permission to volunteer with the patriot forces under the command of the French officer, the Marquis de La Fayette. Despite his low status, James Armistead’s intelligence and dedicated work ethic came to the attention of the French commander, who sent Armistead into the British camps as a spy.
James Armistead was able to infiltrate the camp of General Cornwallis, becoming a trusted servant – so trusted that Cornwallis sent him back to the Americans as a spy for the British. Bringing valuable information to the French and American allies, Armistead’s assistance led to the successful Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781.
James Armistead went on to buy his freedom using money granted to him by the Virginia Legislature in Richmond where his owner was one of the delegates. He adopted the surname Lafayette and farmed 40 acres in New Kent County, Virginia, until his death in 1830.