Abridged excerpt from Patriots of Color at Battle Road
By GEORGE QUINTAL JR.
On the first day of the Revolutionary War, April 19, 1775, at least 26 patriots of African heritage engaged the British on the Battle Road. One was wounded on the first firing of the day at Lexington, and one was wounded and then taken prisoner on the last firing that day at Charlestown Neck. The status of these men was: 11 free, 10 slave, five unknown. At least another 34 patriots of African heritage responded to the Lexington Alarm but could not arrive in time to join the fight. Their status was: seven free, five slave, 22 unknown. It is truly astounding that, of these sixty men, twenty-four were in the elite minuteman companies!
How could an enslaved man or woman ever find a path out of bondage? The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln and formally signed and put into effect on January 1, 1863, is well-known throughout the country. Much less well-known are the thousands of emancipations that occurred in New England long prior to 1862, many happening one at a time. In the course of the research for my book, seven paths to emancipation were identified:
MANUMISSION BY SLAVE OWNER
Before government decrees freed large numbers of slaves en masse, slaves were being freed singly or in small groups by the slave owners themselves, a process called manumission. This included freedom granted in a slave-owner’s will. Petitions had given people pause to reflect upon the practice of slavery: 1
… We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. We cannot but hope … that you will have the same grand object, we mean civil and religious liberty [for us] ... The divine spirit of freedom, seems to fire every human breast on this continent …
A personal examination of conscience spread throughout New England, especially after the events on the Battle Road. However, a rule of law from the era prevented even more manumissions: 2
The extreme caution taken by towns in general … to prevent the settlement of paupers obliged a person who desired to free his slaves to give bonds that the freed persons should not become public charges. This requirement, no doubt, deterred some from giving freedom to their slaves, who were fully conscious of the injustice.
This rare document describes the manumission of a slave named Cuff, in Lincoln on May 28, 1776, who prevailed upon his owner to set him free: 3
Know all men by these presents that I, John Hoar of Lincoln in the County of Mid. lx In the colony of Massachusetts Bay in New England Gentleman – in consideration That my Negro man Servant named Cuff Hath been a good and faithfull Servant Unto me – and he now desiring to be made Free: I do therefore by these presents for my Self fully and absolutely free him and Dis-Charge him the sd Cuff to act for himself So long as he behaves and conducts himself Regularly and well – without the denial Or contridiction of me his s.d master
Witness my hand Lincoln May 28th 1776
Benjamin Danforth Abijah Pierce
PURCHASE BY SLAVE HIMSELF
As it was evidently the practice in that era that a child would inherit upon birth the status of the mother, husbands were even known to purchase the freedom of their fiancées/wives in order to guarantee freedom for their children. Barzillai Lew, later a patriot veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, did indeed do this, purchasing his wife circa 1767 for $400. 4
An extremely rare document describes the self-purchase of slave Salem Poor, later a patriot hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, of his own freedom in Andover in 1769 for £27. 5
RUNNING OR WALKING AWAY
Slaves would sometimes take the initiative and just run or walk away. One such slave who ran away was Jack Briant, who had served in the Continental Army at the Siege of Boston. 6 His name appeared in a run-away slave ad: 7
Ran away from the subscriber, on the 24th of February, a Negro fellow, named Jack, of a small stature, has lost his upper teeth; had on when he went away, a blue coat, with large white buttons. Whoever will take up said Negro, and convey him to the subscriber in Stoneham, shall have three dollars reward.
Another story involved two slaves, Asel and Eber Wood, who had walked away from their owner, Capt. Elisha Allis of Hatfield, to join the Continental Army in Cambridge during the Siege of Boston in 1775. Reading between the lines of his petition, it seems like Allis was genuinely and deeply saddened by their leaving him but conceded to their request to let them stay and join the Army, even to the point of arming and clothing them for that service. Both former slaves fought, as free men, at the Battle of Bunker Hill shortly after they joined the Army. 9
DE FACTO FOR CONTINENTAL ARMY SOLDIERS
The only known law to free enslaved men upon enlistment was passed by the Rhode Island Assembly in 1778: 10 Upon passing muster, a slave would be ‘… immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE, as though he had never been encumbered with any kind of servitude slavery.’
All who entered the Continental Army, regardless of color, received the same bounty; a common practice of slave owners then was to allow their slaves to enlist in the Continental Army for three years, receive their bounty and then grant them freedom. 11 Continental Army service thus became a great cleansing agent, eradicating slavery in the ranks. 12
AD HOC DECREES
Captain Ebenezer Allen, an officer in the Green Mountain Boys, had a regional command in Pawlet, Vermont in late 1777. That November, Continental Army forces had captured some British soldiers as prisoners on the west shore of Lake Champlain. With the British captives was a slave named Dinah and her daughter Nancy. Captain Allen took direct action, summarily granting them both freedom. 13
Another example is that of Colonel William Shepard who, in 1782, being angered by a slave owner sending his elderly slave to the Continental Army, summarily freed that slave, discharged him from serving and gave him the bounty as his own. 14
Vermont had declared itself an independent republic, not attached to the new United States, in January 1777. 15 That same summer, in July while in the midst of a British invasion, the Vermont Constitution enacted trail-blazing language that abolished slavery in that region. 16 The first state attached to the United States to abolish slavery was Pennsylvania in 1780, but it was a gradual phasing out, not an outright abolishment. 17
The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (also covering the District of Maine, then part of Massachusetts) contained the wording: “All men are born free and equal ...” 18 Though prompting large numbers of slaveowners to release their slaves, that wording was unfortunately not an outright prohibition of slavery. Lawsuits would necessarily follow to clarify the intent.
Slaves in Massachusetts ‘were admitted as witnesses even on capital trials of white persons and on other suits of slaves for freedom; they might even sue their masters for wounding or immoderately beating them.’ 19 After the Constitution of 1780, lawsuits claiming that the wording did indeed outlaw slavery started to appear before courts. One of these pivotal lawsuits was the case of Mumbet, the first female slave to successfully sue for her freedom in Massachusetts, in 1783, effectively ending the practice there altogether. 20 Her attorney’s daughter, who had been raised by Mumbet, attributed the heart-stirring words below to her. 21 In the end, she lived her last forty-six years a free woman.
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me & I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it – just to stand one minute on God’s earth a free woman - I would.”
In 1850, the U.S. census for the first time enumerated no slaves in New England. More than two hundred years of slavery here were finally ended.