The history books have highlighted the American Revolution with major and minor heroes, some sticking in our minds while others faded into the history itself. In the early days when I was a teacher in the Orange school system, the name Crispus Attucks was written in the social studies books as the first person killed in the American Revolution during the Boston Massacre. He was depicted as a black man but historians are now in disagreement about whether he was indeed a free man or an escaped slave but most agree that he was of Wampanoag and African descent.
As a Wampanoag, he would have been part of the tribe living in Rhode Island. Despite the lack of clarity of his ethnic origin, Crispus became an icon of the anti-slavery movement in the mid 19th century. As the abolitionist movement gained strength in Boston, supporters supported the idea that Attucks played a heroic role in the history of the United States. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, history described him as a slave of Deacon William Brown. In 1750 Brown advertised for the return of a runaway slave giving a reward of 10 pounds for his return.
It would not go unnoticed that a slave, answering to his description, became a sailor and whaler, spending much of his life at sea and working around the docks along the Atlantic seaboard. In the fall of 1768, British soldiers were sent to Boston in an attempt to control the colonials in the unrest that followed the Stamp Act but these attempts only increased the tension between them. After dusk on March 5, 1770, a crowd of colonials confronted a sentry who had scolded a boy for complaining that an officer had not paid his bill at the barber.
Townspeople gathered throwing snowballs and debris at the soldiers and a group of men set out toward the Old State House, armed with clubs. Attucks was among this mob and when a soldier was struck by a piece of wood, he fired killing 5 colonists one of whom was Crispus Attucks. John Adams successfully defended most of the accused British soldiers against a murder charge with two being found guilty of manslaughter. The soldiers faced hanging but were instead branded on their thumbs. In his arguments, Adams called the crowd “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negros and molattoes, Irish teagues* and outlandish Jack Tarrs.”**
Wow, that was some argument! As we all know, John Adams did not stay on the side of the British for long. In 1998, the Unites States Treasury released The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Silver Dollar featuring Attucks on one side. There are places and schools named in his honor around the country with Attucks Middle School in Houston, Texas, Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City Missouri, Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana among others.
Although, Crispus Attucks may appear to be a rare instance for the Revolutionary War, we only have to go to Stratford, CT for another, Jack Arabus. Jack was a slave of a wealthy merchant and during the days of the war, an individual could pay another to take his place and it was Jack’s owner who indeed struck an agreement to send him in his son’s place. Of course Jack accepted the offer because it meant that he had bought his freedom and thus he entered the Colonial army in place of the son of his merchant master. He fought mightily and after 6 years of service, returned to Stratford, his home. At this, his former owner rescinded the offer because service aboard his merchant ship was too valuable to give up. The merchant did not return the 10 pounds he had received from the Town of Stratford for Jack’s service, a mighty blow to the Revolutionary coffers.
Angry and disillusioned Jack ran away but was quickly captured and jailed in New Haven. The merchant sued for the return of his “property” but a Yale lawyer, Chauncey Goodrich took up Jack’s defense. In a landmark decision, the judge in the case ruled that Jack was free the moment he left to fight for the cause of liberty. Many of the 300 black slaves who fought for Connecticut during the Revolution gained their freedom as a result of Jack’s case. Jump Ship to Freedom, written by James and Christopher Collier is the second book of the Arabus trilogy which begins in 1787, a few weeks after Jack Arabus’ death.
The book focuses on his son Daniel who hopes to buy his and his mother’s freedom using the notes, worth $600 that he left them…the payment for his military service. In the process of forming a new government under the Constitution, a decision would be made whether or not to honor the notes.
Wallingford African-Americans also joined forces for the Revolution. Many of these soldiers were also slaves whose owners promised them emancipation if they fought in the war. The agreements were somewhat informal and subject to being rescinded as with Jack Arabus. It would appear that black men preferred the dignity of being a soldier to the humiliation of being a slave, risking their lives knowing that possible freedom lay before them but slavery was sure if they stayed.
One of the more interesting black soldiers was Chatham Freeman owned by Noah Yale in Wallingford, CT. He too was given his freedom if he took Yale’s son’s place in the service of his country. Chatham enlisted in the army on June 2, 1777 serving as a private in the 6th Regiment. During his 3 years in the service, he found himself in some very difficult situations including those along the Hudson River. Upon returning to Wallingford, Freeman found his freedom was withheld as Yale revised the agreement. Chatham wanted to marry Yale’s slave Rhea but he would only allow the marriage if Chatham agreed to another 7 years of slavery. The marriage took place in 1782 but freedom was to come a good deal sooner as records in Wallingford show that his emancipation and that of his wife and child was granted in 1782.
Freeman proved not only a good soldier but also a successful landowner. He was one of the few slaves to own property in the town, buying a quarter acre in the area which is near today’s Hartford Turnpike. He paid 15 pounds which most likely came from his pension which up until 1818 was only given to soldiers that were injured. Many soldiers of African descent came from Wallingford with surnames of Liberty and Freedom, taken in hopes of achieving what their names described. Some of the names listed in the rolls did not include a surname but Job, Prince, Sampson or nicknames, long forgotten.
During the Revolutionary War Connecticut found it difficult to recruit new members for the army so it adopted the forming of “colored” soldiers. A battalion of blacks was soon enlisted with Captain David Humphreys of Derby. Some objections were made by the officers in accepting these recruits but they proved to be loyal and efficient soldiers. Captain Humphreys was attached to General George Washington and it soon became the regiment sought after by the very officers that had been in disdain of the new members.
The following is a reduced payroll list of the 2nd company, 4th regiment attached to David Humphreys: Jack Arabus
Fifty-Six members fought under the leadership of David Humphreys. His loyalty to George Washington, as his Aide de Camp was rewarded when the General asked General Humphreys to receive the sword from General Gates when the British surrendered.
*refers to Irish Catholics, one explanation
**refers to seamen