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Part 4 – African Americans in the Cockpit of the Revolution

New Jersey is recognized historically as the site of significant battles and related military and political activities during the war of the American Revolution. People of color were closely tied to these machinations and fought on both sides of the war and found ways to advance their own freedom struggle. Hodges (1999:140) notes that “Blacks in New York and New Jersey … viewed the Revolution as a triangular conflict” between Patriots, Tories, and people of color. 

The Somerset Decision

Revolutionary conflicts between slaves and masters started in 1772 with the Somerset Decision, in which Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery would no longer be tolerated in Britain (Hodges 1997:94). Word of this decision inspired many to fear or hope that the ruling would be applied in the American colonies. Fishman (1997:103) reports that there was black uprising in Perth Amboy in 1772 that was perhaps a response to the decision. Hodges (1997:94) notes that in 1774 ninety-two slaveholders in Shrewsbury and Middleton in Monmouth County signed a petition to the Governor which “describes blacks in the county as ‘Increasing in Number and Impudence’… and ‘running about at all times of the Night Stealing and Taking and Riding Peoples Horses.’” Such night meetings continued into 1775 prompting fears that the “Domestics” would rise up and “cut the throats of their Masters.” The Committee of Safety in Shrewsbury ordered that all meetings of Negroes be broken up and that their guns and ammunition be confiscated. In February 1776 the committee ordered that “all slaves either negroes mollatos or others that shall be found off their masters’ premises any time of the night after the daylight is done shall be Taken up [and] delivered to the Minute Men to be kept under Guard until he shall receive fifteen stripes on the Bare Back” (in Hodges 1997:94-95). Clearly, in these years, enslaved persons were actively finding ways to meet and develop concerted action all the while terrifying white masters in ways that they likely enjoyed as a sort of freedom.

British offer freedom to escaped slaves

There was a second decision that inspired African Americans to actively seek freedom and further disrupted the normal state of affairs. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to “indent[ur]ed servants, negroes … willing to serve His Majesty’s forces to end the present rebellion” (in Hodges 2019:34). Those who responded this call became known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Similar promises of freedom were made and advertised in newspapers by General William Howe and Henry Clinton in 1776 and 1779. Inspired by these declarations “hundreds of enslaved New Jerseyans fled their Patriot and Loyalist masters during the war to join the British forces in New York” (Hodges 2019:35). Critical of Clinton’s offer, one New Jersey poet wrote:

A proclamation of late he send

To thieves and rogues who are his only friends

Those he invites; all colors he attacks

But deference pays to Ethiopian Blacks (in Hodges 1999:150).


Regardless, white apprehensions about offering freedom to captive Africans who ran away is clear. Not only did slaveholders not want to lose their property, but the gathering of slaves with plans for escape or revolt led to acts of repression. In Elizabeth in 1779, fears that “negroes had it in contemplation to rise and murder the inhabitants. Many of them are secured in goal” (in Fishman 1997:105).

These fears were not without merit since the evidence for self-emancipation and retaliation is abundant. Fishman (1997:107) and Hodges (1999:144-45) both mentioned that after General Howe’s Hessian troops entered New Barbados in 1776 that “blacks fled their masters to work within the British lines.” Fishman (1997:106) notes that newspaper advertisements between 1775 and 1782 record “106 slave and 139 indentured New Jersey-related runaways.” Some of these men and women escaped as the British passed through northern New Jersey in the later part of 1776, during which “over fifty slaves” from Bergen, Essex, Somerset, and Middlesex counties fled to the British to gain their freedom  contributing to what was taken to be a “wave of revolt” (Hodges 1997:95). Self-emancipations continued throughout the war. Some of those known by name include Samuel Smith, James and Catherine Van Sayl, Aaron and Sarah Jones, and Oliver Vinson (Hodges 1999:95-96).

Some of these men and women appear to have contributed to several retaliatory acts. Following the Patriot retreat in November 1776, “Torries and fugitive blacks sacked the homes of Patriots in Schraalenburgh in Bergen County … [and] raided the Bergen county Townships of Closter, Tenafly, and Tappan to secure cattle and forage.” Also, in 1776, a former slave fighting with British in Newark murdered Thomas Hayes, slashed his uncle, and stabbed Nathan Baldwin (Hodges 1999:145). 

There was push back against these acts of self-emancipation. Patriots submitted ads to sell 113 slaves between 1776 and 1782, some of whom were Loyalist property (Hodges 2019:41). In some cases, the sales were of men and women caught away from their homes and thus assumed to be on the run. To curb these abuses, the New Jersey legislature “took action against these self-appointed enslavers in Continental uniforms” by imposing a fine £5000 on the kidnappers and setting the slave free (Fishman 1997:104). Patriots are known to have entered Tory property to confiscate goods and slaves. In Monmouth County Tories claimed the loss of twenty-nine slaves during the war. 

The British also engaged in slave kidnappings. Fishman (1997:108) reports that “the British kidnapped a sizable group of Black people and impressed them into labor or military service.” One estimate states that 250 slaves in total were taken. Examples include slaves taken along with livestock and a wagon in Monmouth County and slaves taken in a door-to-door search in Paterson. 

Quaker abolitionists

Not all whites were as abusive towards African Americans. In the spirit of the Revolution’s focus on liberty, many New Jerseyans adopted an anti-slavery stance. One of the earliest voices to this effect were the Quakers who made up a sizable portion of the population in West Jersey, though many lived in the East Jersey as well. The Quaker anti-slavery stance was voiced in the Quaker Minute decision of 1755 which asked church members “Are Friends clear of importing and buying Negroes and do they use those well which they are possessed of by Inheritance or otherwise endeavoring to train them up in the Principles of the Christian Religion?” From this year forward Quakers debated and urged members to free their slaves, disowning those who did not. 

The Quaker Samuel Allinson took to the legislature and the Governor to urge that New Jersey abolish slavery, though he met sharp resistance form slaveholders. They argued that free blacks were depraved and thus would be more of a problem than those who were enslaved. A draft bill which would have eliminated the surety fee of manumission was proposed, but it also forbade “free blacks from entertaining enslaved people and threatened heavy fines. Any free black could be sold into indentured slavery for nonpayment of debts, interracial marriages were punishable by fines of one hundred British pounds, any black [slave or free] who assaulted a white person would be whipped. Free black, mulattos, and Indians were prohibited from voting, holding office, or testifying against whites” (Hodges 2019:36). This bill was never brought to a vote due the interference of the war, yet the racist and proslavery bent of its intent is clear. 

Some non-Quakers were also advocates for abolition, including Jacob Green, a Presbyterian minister in Morris County. In 1776, Green laid bare the basic contradiction he saw in the Patriot cause: 

What a dreadful absurdity! What a shocking consideration, that people who are strenuously contending for liberty should at the same time encourage and practice slavery! And being thus guilty, expose themselves to the judgement of Heaven! May slavery cease in America! Well may the West India islands be afraid of their slaves where that unnatural inequity is so abundantly practiced (in Fishman 1997:114). 

Repeating similar sentiments from the pulpit two years later, he was met with Patriot retaliation in the form of a mob who gathered to intimate him and then after he spoke ransacked his church.

Black loyalist retaliation

Still, the strongest and most vital forces fighting against slavery were African Americans themselves. I have already mentioned that many took the opportunity to escape their bondage during the war and that others engaged in retribution, but the most potent Black action was taken by those who served both sides as soldiers and laborers. Stories of Black Loyalists in New Jersey are in fact some of the most interesting and important. 

One loyalist story begins in 1775 when the Quaker congregation in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County asked one of their members to free his slaves. This was John Corlies, who owned four slaves (his mother owned two others). Corlies stated that his slaves “have no learning and he is not inclined to given them any” and thus he felt no need to set them free. The congregation disowned Corlies in 1778. Among those present at these discussions was a slave named Titus, who was just about to become 21 years old, the age when Quakers would have set young men free. Hearing that he would not be freed, Titus chose to self-emancipate, which we know because Corlies put an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering a reward for his return. 

Advertisement of the self-emancipation of Titus Corleis, aka Colonel Tye. Pennsylvania Gazette, November 12, 1775.

Advertisement of the self-emancipation of Titus Corleis, aka Colonel Tye. Pennsylvania Gazette, November 12, 1775. 

Titus may have escaped all the way to Virginia to join Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. Whether or not he did, he re-enters New Jersey history as Colonel Tye serving in the British army at the Battle of Monmouth in 1779. Over the next year, Colonel Tye led multiple raiding parties consisting of both black and white soldiers from Staten Island into Monmouth County. These raids included sacking and burning Patriot homes and netting the Loyalists dozens of cattle, horses, clothing, furniture, as well as people. In one raid, Tye is said to have captured and freed two slaves. In others he captured or killed Patriot officers and militiamen. His group of dozens of black men, Queen’s Rangers and other refugees came to be known as a “motley band” and their exploits reported in New York newspapers. Tye’s story ends when he was shot during a raid on the home of Captain Josiah Huddy who had been leading raids on Staten Island. Even though Tye was shot only in the wrist, he quickly developed lockjaw and died. He died knowing that Huddy was captured, but he did not live to see Huddy hanged by the hand of another black loyalist (Hodges 1997:96-104).  

Another well documented Black Loyalist is Major Tom Ward who led a team of woodcutters, foragers, and raiders based at the blockhouses built at Fort Lee and Bergen Neck. His group was credited with facilitating the escape of twenty-nine enslaved persons from New Barbados in Bergen County in June 1780. Hodges (199:152) describes the process this way: “their method was to flee with the interracial guerilla bands sent out to forage in Bergen County. Blacks could leave through ferry landings at Fort Lee, Bull’s Ferry, and Fort Delancey at New Barbados Neck, where blockhouse manned by refuges and black soldiers guarded access to New York City …. Protected by the blockhouse fugitive blacks rolled logs down a natural gorge at Weehawken, tied the logs together, and floated them across the Hudson River to freedom.” Ward’s Blacks continued to terrorize the Bergen countryside and help other slaves escape. He is reported to have hired three slaves to kill a creditor. These poor souls were caught and then hanged north of Brown’s Ferry Road; “their bodies left hanging in the air for weeks, an act of desecration that terrified blacks viewed as preventing their souls from returning to Africa” (Hodges 1999:153). 

Hodges (1998:44) declares that the most feared black unit was the Black Brigade, who were the last to leave New York in 1783. One observer described them as “fitted for and inclined towards barbarities[, ] lacking in human feeling and are familiar with every corner in the country.” Several of these soldiers were from Bergen County including Close Herring of Tappan, John of Hackensack, Lewis Freeland or New Barbados Neck, and his wife Elizabeth Freeland form Paramus. Hodges (1998:49) also notes that many had served for years after escaping their master at a young age. John “was but 13 when he left his mater in 1776. Isaac Taylor … left John Van Horn in 1775 at the age of 14.”

Former slaves who were likely members of the Black Brigade who served in the British militia in Bergen Neck were court-martialed in 1782 for the murder of Cornelius Nissee of Bergen County. 

William Grant, one of the men on trial, confessed that a former slave named Sisco, whom they called Colonel, advocated that group should ‘go out  … and take a rebel.’ The nine left their camp, seized two Bergen residents and marched them a few miles before releasing one. Sisco ordered the group to shoot the other, Nissee, at which time Grant objected. Another prisoner, Caesar Totten, stepped in and shot him the chest while a second shot came from Daniel Massis’ gun. The group them took Nissee’s money, clothing, and shoes, hid the body with branches and leaves, and traveled back to camp” (Gigantino 2015:50-51). 

During the trial it was discovered that another of accused, Harry Scobey, had been enslaved by Nissee. Scobey was seeking revenge because Nissee had sold his wife out of New Jersey.    

Despite the turn in the tide of the war in 1781, Ward’s brigade continued to plunder Bergen County positions in Hackensack and Closter. Ward’s Blacks are also credited in 1782 with murdering one Captain Hessius from Totowa Falls after he enquired about self-emancipated slaves in New York City. Ward’s overall success at maintaining control over the blockhouses and the Bergen Neck region even earned him a visit from Prince William Henry (later King William IV) in 1782. 

Many other Black Loyalists contributed to the British cause in exchange for their freedom. In New York, Black loyalists, many of whom were from northern New Jersey, “worked as laborers in the Quartermaster General’s Department for the wagon master, or in the Forage and Provision Departments of the Army.” Black loyalists were paid for this work, which would have supported their continued backing of the British who were guarding their freedom. Other opportunities for work including working on British privateering vessels or for the Royal Chimney Sweep (Hodges 1999:149). Hodges (1999:151) also describes how a cultural life emerged among the formerly enslaved in New York. There were “Ethiopian Balls,” horse races, as well as regular activities at taverns all of which were interracial affairs.

African American Patriots

While the American cause was generally proslavery, African Americans did serve the Patriots in multiple capacities. Military service was one way. At least two regiments of African Americans fought in New Jersey. Fishman (1997:111) reports that 400 black troops played a decisive role at the Battel of Red Bank in Gloucester County. Another 700 black soldiers fought with Patriots at the Battle of Monmouth. 

In some instances, Patriots sent slaves as replacements for themselves to serve in the militias, and the slave would be free upon completion of their service. One enslaved man, Samuel Sutphin, joined the militia in Somerset County in place of his master, Casper Berger, who had recently purchased Sutphin for that purpose. Sutphin served for four years, seeing conflict in New York City, Long Island, and upstate New York, where he was shot in the leg. After the War, Sutphin expected to be freed but he was instead sold twice more. He only gained his freedom after meeting the demands of his last owner Peter Sutphin, which included 20 years of labor (Hodges 1999:140-41). The case of Oliver Cromwell in Burlington County had a happier result. After serving from 1777-1781 in place of his master he was freed and received a federal pension. Peter Williams, Sr. escaped from his Tory master and served in the Patriots (Moss 1950:301). He was emancipated by the state after the war and moved to New York City where he became the custodian of John Street Methodist Church. His son, Peter Williams, Jr., became a very well-known anti-slavery cleric in the city (Hodges 2019:43). 

Labor outside of military service is also known. The former slave Cyrus Bustill of Burlington County was known as the “Baker of the Revolution” since he baked all of the bread for Washington’s army at the port of Burlington. Others labored anonymously in the iron furnaces and forges in the New Jersey Highlands producing cannon balls, shot, and agricultural tools. Some were wagon drivers serving both the military as well as Patriot smugglers. Agricultural work was of course essential in providing food for the troops (Fishman 1997:111-113). 

While the outcome of the Revolutionary War is clear with today, with the Americans winning and establishing a new nation, much of the turmoil of the war and its impact was slow to be resolved. One of the key points of contention was the freedom of enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans. Some New Jersey slaveowners adopted the spirit of liberty and saw the Revolution as a time for change. Moss (1950:301-302) notes there state and municipal acts freeing African Americans who served in the ware. One act refers to Peter Williams mentioned above. Another was Cato freed by act in 1789. IN Cudjo was freed and given an acre of property on Newark for serving place of his master Benjamin Coe.   Fishman (1997:114) notes that “at least 38 slaves were manumitted in Burlington County” without surety bonds between 1776 and 1782. Future Governor Joseph Bloomfield freed his fourteen slaves on July 4, 1783 in a public display. Still, the power of the slaveowners is clear in the fact that thousands of people of African descent remained enslaved in New Jersey, as I discuss in the next section. 

Black Loyalists escape to Canada

Those who escaped their bondage by joining the British were likely quite concerned by the outcome of the war. George Washington saw these former slaves as stolen property and sought to return them to their masters. General Carleton who led British New York disagreed and honored the original British offers of freedom in exchange for their service. “Under pressure from Washington, he agreed to list each black émigré from New York City, providing names, ages, brief descriptions, origins status, and date of arrival …. The list of 3,000 included 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children … Almost 60 percent of blacks leaving New York City at the end of the war did so in family units, a huge jump over colonial era patterns for fugitive slaves” (Hodges 1999:156). More than 100 of these escapees were from Bergen County, six from Middlesex County, more than thirty from Essex County, and twenty-four from Monmouth County. Those known by name included Joseph and Betsy Collins of Hackensack; the eight-member Van Nostrandt family from New Barbados Neck; and Nicholas and Lena Clause; Sarah Stevens and her son; and John and Nancy Van Bruyek and their daughter Sarah of Tappan. Single women, including Susan Herrin and Dinar Blauvelt of Tappan and Polly Richards of Acquakanonck. Left for New York City” (Hodges 1998:45). These émigrés travelled from New York to Nova Scotia and some then went to Sierra Leone in Africa. The list of these 3,000 individuals as well as other data about them has been published (Hodges 1996; Black Loyalist 2019).