Painting by John Trumbull of the Battle of Bunker Hill. 184.2 x 274.5 cm Oil on canvas Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT

Knowlton’s Rangers was a reconnaissance and espionage detachment of the Continental Army established by George Washington. Named after its commander, Thomas Knowlton, the unit was formed in 1776. It is considered the United States of America’s first organized intelligence service organization, as well as the first American Ranger unit formed after America declared its independence from the United Kingdom.

Thomas W. Knowlton

Thomas W. Knowlton was born on November 22, 1740, in West Boxford, Massachusetts1. When he was eight, his family relocated to a farm in Ashford, Connecticut1. His formal learning was limited to the narrow course of study generally characterizing instruction in the common schools at that time.

At the age of fifteen, Knowlton served in the French and Indian War with his older brother Daniel. He enlisted in Captain John Durkee’s company and is known to have joined Daniel on scouting missions into enemy territory. He later served in Captain John Slapp’s 8th Company, where he served with Throope Chapman. He served during six campaigns in the war and was promoted to lieutenant in 1760. He also fought in Israel Putnam’s company against the Spanish during the British expedition against Cuba in 1761.

French authorities surrendering Montreal to British forces in 1760. Musée Virtuel du Canada.

By August 1762, Knowlton had returned home and married Anna Keyes. He and his wife raised nine children. At the age of thirty-three, Knowlton was appointed a Selectman of Ashford, Connecticut.

The American Revolution

On April 18, 1775, British Army General Thomas Gage dispatched a contingent of British troops to Lexington and Concord, about fifteen miles from Boston, Massachusetts. This action led to the outbreak of hostilities that became the American Revolution. On learning of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the militias of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire communities mobilized their members. Thomas Knowlton joined his militia, the Ashford Company, which became part of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, along with the men from Windham, Mansfield and Coventry, Connecticut. Knowlton was chosen unanimously as captain and led 200 men into Massachusetts.

Thomas Knowlton (The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill cropped)

Knowlton’s Rangers

On August 12, 1776, General of the Army George Washington promoted Knowlton to lieutenant colonel. He was ordered to select a group of 130 men and 20 officers from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts regiments to carry out reconnaissance missions. The famous American spy, Captain Nathan Hale, of Coventry, Connecticut, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. The Rangers were not a permanent unit. They were assembled for specific missions and then returned to their original regiments when those missions were completed.

Knowlton’s Rangers, outfitted as a light infantry regiment, played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War, participating in numerous battles and providing vital tactical intelligence. Their significant contributions have led to their recognition as the forerunners of contemporary special operations forces, including the Army Rangers and Delta Force. The “1776” inscribed on the seal of the US Army’s intelligence service is a tribute to the year Knowlton’s Rangers was established.

The “1776” on the United States Army Intelligence Service seal refers to the formation of Knowlton’s Rangers. Graphics credit: SuperWIKI / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

Battle of Harlem Heights

On September 16, 1776, Knowlton’s Rangers were scouting in advance of Washington’s Army at Harlem Heights, New York. While reconnoitering the British outposts they were engaged by elements of the light infantry brigade commanded by Major General Alexander Leslie. The rangers managed a successful retreat and later mounted a counterattack with the support of three companies of Weedon’s Regiment led by Major Andrew Leitch. General Washington ordered Knowlton to fall on the enemy’s rear, while a feint in front engaged the British troops’ attention. In the face of heavy enemy fire, Knowlton rallied his troops to carry on the attack. He fell mortally wounded in front of his men.

The Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776, New York Public Library Digital Library.


Knowlton’s Rangers are considered the United States of America’s first organized intelligence service organization, as well as the first American Ranger unit formed after America declared its independence from the United Kingdom.

Knowlton’s Rangers played a significant role in the American Revolutionary War. Their contribution to intelligence gathering and their participation in key battles underscore their importance in the formation of the United States. Today, their innovative methods and courageous spirit continue to serve as a model for modern special forces and intelligence agencies.

A plaque commemorating the Battle of Harlem Heights and death of Colonel Knowlton, on the Mathematics Building at the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, near the spot where he fell. The plaque was erected by the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York. The battle primarily took place around West 120th Street. Photo: Wikimedia by Beyond My Ken / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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