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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Five (continued)
Dogs, War, and Ghosts

Supposed to be Gone to the Enemy

Although violent death, disease, starvation, imprisonment, and cruelty were dangers faced by fugitive slaves during times of war, there was also opportunity. War disrupted the daily lives of tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of people. It brought chaos, confusion, panic, and privation. It took away those who normally oversaw the social order. It put large numbers of strangers on the roads. All of this generally caused people to remain close to home, for fear of being caught up in the violence, or victimized by opportunists. But for those persons for whom home itself was a place of bondage, privation, and violence, this sudden upsetting of the social order represented a possible escape.

The increased danger was balanced by a corresponding decrease in social order. If fighting was drawing near, that also meant that enemy troops were drawing near—troops that might consider harboring the slave of an enemy. An increase in strangers on the road meant that fugitives might stand a better chance of being ignored by fearful citizens when they passed by. Shifting battle lines caused civilian populations to move to safety, often leaving homes and buildings open to foraging and rest. These and other opportunities enticed many slaves to run away during times of war, trusting that their resourcefulness and luck would help them avoid the obvious dangers of open fighting.

Early in the conflict with France, the slave of Richard Colegate, in Kent County, Delaware, escaped. Colegate described the runaway, James Wenyam, as a “Molatto Man…of middle Stature” who had “swore when he went away to a Negro Man, whom he wanted to go with him, that he had often been in the back Woods with his Master, and that he would go to the French and Indians, and fight for them.” A few years after Wenyam’s escape, in 1751, the slave of Nicholas Everson, in New Jersey, escaped after sharing similar plans. This slave, named Tom, “Had on when he went away, a red coloured watch coat, without a cape, a brown coloured leather jacket, a hat, blue and white twisted yarn leggings.” Everson also noted that he “speaks good English, and Low Dutch, and is a good Shoemaker.”

But what set this runaway apart from similar runaways were his apparently well-developed plans to join with some Native American peoples along the Susquehanna. Everson was told that Tom “intends to cut [his] watch coat, to make him Indian stockings, and to cut off his hair, and get a blanket, to pass for an Indian; that he enquired for one John and Thomas Nutus, Indians at Susquehanna, and about the Moravians, and the way there.”

The next year, Maryland slaveholder Henry Waggaman reported the escape of his slave Jehu, who he said, “looks much like an Indian, and will endeavour to pass for such, when it suits him, having a striped Indian match coat with him, which supposed he will make use of for that purpose.” Waggaman felt that Jehu would “endeavour to get amongst the back Indians, if he can,” and offered a reward if the man was caught in Pennsylvania.

Four slaves, Bood, Bristol, Jack, and Tom, made their escape from various masters in New Jersey in 1759 and were thought to be traveling together in Pennsylvania, on their way to join with the Indians. The owners, in their advertisement for the return of the slaves, wrote “It is supposed they all went away and will travel together, and they are gone to some of the Indian towns upon Sasquehannah, the Molatto, Bood, having been entertained by the Indians there several months, some years ago; they took two guns, two or three hatchets, and several blankets with them.”

All the slaves in these advertisements, which span several years and states, were reported to be heading for Native American settlements along the Susquehanna, on the Pennsylvania frontier. These escapes occurred at a time of increased strife between settlers and Indians, which suggests the journey must have been particularly hazardous. Most had contacts, or previous experiences, and all outfitted themselves with clothing and gear that would be appropriate to life in a Native American settlement. Though fighting and raids were not constant through this period, they occurred often enough that the danger was real and ever present. They must have known that dark skin was not enough to garner sympathy from potentially hostile Native Americans, as it was well known that black slaves were frequently killed in raids on white settlements. Did they all have friends among the tribesmen? Certainly Tom and Bood, both New Jersey slaves, had names or prior experiences that suggested they could expect a warm welcome, but what about the others? Were they just taking their chances, preferring the possibility of a violent death at the hands of a hostile tribe, to a life of otherwise certain bondage?

Henry William Steigel, the legendary glassmaker and iron master, employed free men and slaves at Charming Forge, in Womelsdorf, Berks County. One of these slaves, a “Mulattoe” man named Joe, decided to take his chances along the frontier near the end of the French and Indian War. Joe ran away on 17 October 1763, from Charming Forge, well equipped, according to Steigel, with “an old Castor Hat, Bearskin Jacket, and striped Linsey one under it, check Shirt, Cotton Stockings, and new Shoes, and has both Breeches and Trowsers with him, as also a Gun, Tomahawk, and a Pair of Boots.” Although he does not give a reason for his assumption, Steigel noted in the ad, “It is supposed he is gone to join the Indians beyond the Mountain.”47

Steigel must have believed that Joe hated white society, to make such assumptions. This escape occurred in a period in which most white settlers harbored a deep hatred and fear of Native Americans. These feelings remained strong with the memories of brutalities and massacres of only a few years before. There had been a lull in the fighting, but charred and blackened farms still dotted the nearby landscape as reminders of the recent horrors. Then in the spring, it had all started anew. Panic swept through the countryside around Harris’ Ferry in July as news of fresh atrocities filtered in. A company of Paxton Township men was attacked by Indians while on reconnaissance in August, and several were killed. In October, the same month that Joe left Charming Forge, “to join the Indians,” Paxton rangers discovered the mutilated bodies of ten settlers from Connecticut at Wyoming, along the North Branch of the Susquehanna.48 New, fresh rage, and fear, settled in.

Fear of the Native Americans continued through the Revolutionary War, as the British allied with certain Native American tribes to harass colonial settlers in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Fugitive slaves, as they had done in previous decades, continued to make their way away from white masters and toward Native American settlements. A black man captured in Burlington, New Jersey just before the war, who gave his name as Willis Brown, told the jailor he had for years been a preacher among the Indians. This particular alliance, however, began to diminish, as other opportunities were presented.

The advance of enemy troops often caused much panic and chaos that created an ideal moment for opportunistic slaves. A man and woman from the upper south took advantage of just such a moment in the summer of 1779, making their way north as far as York, where they looked for refuge with the wrong farmer. Robert Jones, whose farm was just outside of York, advertised that he had captured "a Negroe man and woman, [who] can speak but very bad English, so as they cannot be well understood, but from what can be gathered from their dialect, it is apprehended they left some part of Maryland or Virginia about the time the enemy made their last excursion into the said States.” Jones offered to return the wayward slaves to “Whoever owns the said Negroes, by applying to Robert Jones aforesaid, on his plantation, proving property, and paying charges."49


And still more opportunities appeared, the most significant of which was quite unexpected. Only a few months after the capture of Willis Brown, word spread among slaves all along the eastern seaboard, in states north and south, of another chance for freedom, proclaimed publicly by the British royalists. This was not just the name of a contact that might provide temporary shelter, or directions to a native village that might welcome a weary fugitive. This was a royal proclamation, signed and sealed by John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia, and it promised freedom in very clear terms, in exchange for joining his ranks. The effect on the enslaved population was electric, and it became common knowledge among slaves within days or weeks. Most learned of it through the overheard gasps of dismay and shocked discussion among their owners, who met in small groups privately and in large groups publicly to denounce this outrage.

For common outrage was its intent. Dunmore knew all too well the one suppressed fear that all slaveholders held in common: slave insurrection. The fear was not baseless, as slave uprisings in New York in 1712, a supposed uncovered plot in that same city in 1741, and an uprising in Stono, South Carolina in 1739 could all attest. More recent slave revolts were well within recent memory in the British Caribbean, particularly in the territory of Berbice in British Guiana in the mid-1760s, led by the charismatic slave leader Cuffy, and regular rebellions in Jamaica. The Pennsylvania Gazette, which was widely available throughout the Mid-Atlantic colonies, carried regular reports, fresh from incoming ships, of brutal rebellions, murdered slaveholders and ravished womenfolk, and ultimately, of shockingly bloody government reprisals against conspirators upon the restoration of order.

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation preyed upon these fears, stating “And I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be.” Dunmore dated his proclamation 7 November 1775, and published it on 14 November.50 The effect was as immediate as it was dramatic. Fugitive slaves began reporting to his commanders within days.

There were two related but very different concepts in this portion of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, and it depended upon the listener as to which one stood out more. Slaveholders, whether loyalist or not, as well as most whites in the colonies, heard “Negroes…willing to bear arms,” and took this to be the potential realization of their worst nightmares. They were shocked that an agent of the King would make such a proposal, blatantly raising the stakes in an increasingly bitter dispute between the crown and the colonists. Correspondents with the army in Williamsburg sent back cynical reports of how the plan to recruit runaway slaves was meeting with failure due to Dunmore’s inherent treachery, and that slaves were finding the promises hollow:

A considerable number at first went to him, but upon their masters taking the oath of allegiance, they were immediately told they must return. Some runaways, however, remained, but these were kept constantly employed in digging entrenchments in wet ground, till at length the severity of their labour forced many of them to fly. Those that were left behind have made several attempts to get off, but such is the barbarous policy of this cruel man, he keeps these unhappy creatures not only against their will, but intends to place them in the front of the battle, to prevent their flying, in case of an engagement, which, from their utter ignorance of firearms, he knows they will do.

Within a month, the Virginia colonial government, in assembly in Williamsburg, had issued its own proclamation in response to Lord Dunmore. In language of indignation, the representatives of the people declared, “if, by his single flat, he can strip us of our property, can give freedom to our servants and slaves, and arm them for our destruction, let us bid adieu to every thing valuable in life, let us at once bend our neck to the galling yoke.” Unwilling to do so, the proclamation reinforced the representatives’ belief that Dunmore had zealously overstepped his bounds, and they would not stand idly by while it happened. They promised, “We shall all acquit ourselves like freemen, being compelled, by the disagreeable, but absolute necessity, of repelling force by force, to maintain our just rights and privileges.” To that end, the assembly concluded with a declaration:

Whereas Lord Dunmore, by his proclamation, dated on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November 1775, hath offered freedom to such able bodied slaves as are willing to join him, and take up arms, against the good people of this colony, giving thereby encouragement to a general insurrection, which may induce a necessity of inflicting the severest punishments upon those unhappy people, already deluded by his base and insidious arts; and whereas, by an act of the General Assembly now in force in this colony, it is enacted, that all Negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of clergy: We think it proper to declare, that all slaves who have been, or shall be seduced, by his Lordship’s proclamation, or other arts, to desert their master’s service, and take up arms against the inhabitants of this colony, shall be liable to such punishment as shall hereafter be directed by the General Convention. And to the end that all such who have taken this unlawful and wicked step, may return in safety to their duty, and escape the punishment due to their crimes, we hereby promise pardon to them, they surrendering themselves to Col. William Woodford, or any other commander of our troops, and not appearing in arms after the publication hereof. And we do further earnestly recommend it to all humane and benevolent persons in this colony, to explain and make known this our offer of mercy to those unfortunate people.

The full consequences of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, as far as the Virginia colonists were concerned, should now be evident to any slaves considering the offer. Runaway slaves who immediately, with the publication of the declaration, put down their arms and surrendered to the colonial forces would be fully pardoned. Those who remained under arms in British service would be treated as if they were mounting an insurrection against their masters, and would be put to death when captured, without benefit of clergy. To make sure that these drastic measures would be understood, and presumably to scare slaves who might still be considering running away to the British army, the declaration urged “all humane and benevolent persons,” clearly referring to those who owned slaves, “to explain and make known this…offer of mercy.” Offers, threats and counter threats were all being aimed at the lowly runaway slave, who was seen by both sides as little more than a pawn in this struggle for power in the new world.

But even in the same dispatches that spoke of abused, deserting slaves, and referred to blacks in general as “those unfortunate people,” the correspondents had to make this acknowledgment: “Since Lord Dunmore’s proclamation made its appearance here, it is said he has recruited his army, in the counties of Princess Anne and Norfolk, to the amount of about 2000 men, including his black regiment, which is thought to be a considerable part, with this inscription on their breasts: - ‘Liberty to Slaves.’”51

While white colonists heard in Lord Dunmore’s proclamation only threats of slave insurrection, the slaves themselves were more attuned to one particular word, which to them rang loud and clear: “free.” It was a powerfully seductive word wrapped in a simple and relatively straightforward promise: “I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms.” No indentures, no bequests to “heirs and assigns forever,” no more decades of bondage for no gain. Yes, it obviously involved a term of service to “His Majesty’s Troops,” but the tone of the proclamation made even that commitment smack of a short-term obligation. After all, Dunmore clearly stated that he wanted to “speedily” reduce the colony to its proper sense of duty. How long could the fighting last?

Army life no doubt compared quite favorably, in the eyes of a slave, to his current condition. The increasing numbers of troops posted in towns or encamped around the countryside, whether colonist or royals, provided ample opportunity for slaves to observe them at their daily routine. Certainly the food seemed sufficient and the uniforms appeared many times better than the cast-offs and poor quality clothing worn by slaves. Much of the clothing worn by slaves was made of cheaper tow linen, osnaburg—a coarse cotton cloth—or special “Negro cloth,” which covered several types of cheap cloth produced in Great Britain and brought to the North American colonies to be made into slave clothing. Pennsylvania merchants even advertised specially produced “Negro hats” and “Negro shoes,”52 all of lesser quality than regular head or footwear. By comparison, soldiers wore fine hats and sturdy boots.

Of course, better clothing and the possibility of fighting figured less prominently in the decision by a slave to join the army than did the prospect of being freed for having done so. Freedom was the motivating factor, rather than practicality, or even revenge on former masters. It was the same motive that drove thousands to run off in the decades prior to this offer. Although British commanders would have welcomed twice or three times the number of fugitive slaves that actually responded, and would have promptly employed them in backbreaking labor, it is probable that Lord Dunmore’s intent was not so much to raise an army of former slaves as it was a slap in the face to the slaveholding colonists. It also added injury to insult by preying on the colonist’s fear of a general slave uprising, as noted earlier.

Among colonists in rebellion, Dunmore achieved exactly the effect he intended, as they were forced to divert manpower so that the “rivers will henceforth be strictly watched.” But among the slaves in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the effect of the proclamation is less easy to determine. It caused a lot of excitement, as some began to talk openly about possible plans to take advantage of the offer, and it seemed as if nearly every slave was aware of it. Unlike the threats of punishment by death for slaves caught fighting against their owners in Virginia, Pennsylvania legislators did not propose or pass any similar declaration. Obviously, most northern slaves did not run away to the British forces, and although “a considerable number” did go, evidence exists that their motives for doing so were mixed.

If Lord Dunmore’s “Black Regiment,” as it came to be known, symbolized the noble goal of “Liberty to slaves,” according to the motto on its uniform, that humanitarian motive for running away and taking up arms against colonial soldiers for the purpose of African liberty did not endure well with all fugitive slaves who enlisted with the British forces. The formerly enslaved Harry, a black man who “Ran away on the 26th of February [1778] with the British light infantry at Salem,” New Jersey, was believed by his former owner, Robert Johnson, to have plans to “leave the soldiers and go into the country, and may perhaps endeavor to pass for a freeman.” At Elk Forge, near Elkton, Maryland, Pennsylvania ironmaster Thomas May advertised for a runaway named Dick, who in September 1777 “joined the British then at Head of Elk.” Apparently, Dick did not remain with the royal troops, as by 1782 May thought that Dick was “now hovering about Philadelphia, or in the Jersies.”

Philadelphia slaveholder William Ball lost three slaves to the British, including Tom, a skilled silversmith. Ball reported that the thirty-six-year-old Tom served on the frigate Captain Watt, then left and was seen at Christiana Bridge in Delaware. He thought that Tom would travel south and seek work in silversmith’s shops as a free man. Another of William Ball’s former slaves, the thirty-year-old Toney, served as the personal servant of a British officer. When Ball tried to retrieve Toney, the officer, identified only as “Capt. Averne of the British grenadiers,” protected him. Toney later became the servant of “Capt. Cannon, of the 57th grenadiers.” The third escaped slave, forty-year-old Jacob, worked as a carpenter for the British army. All three, thought Ball, would soon “leave the British army and strole [sic] about for work as freemen.”

As the British army pulled out of Philadelphia in 1778, many slaves followed, some in British service and some not. Robert Bass, of that city, reported the loss of sixteen-year-old Tony, who Bass characterized as “a notorious rogue.” Tony left Bass “the morning the British left Philadelphia.” Another slave who used the British withdrawal as a means to get away from his owner was twenty-three year old Cato, who ran away in September 1778. His owner, Joseph Mitchell, of Chester County, eventually found him with “Lieutenant Nesbit of the 17th regiment,” who returned Cato to Mitchell. Cato, however, would not be so easily foiled in his attempts, and escaped the same night he was returned to Philadelphia, and, as Joseph Mitchell described it “went to the British army again.” Perhaps the British used him as a musician in one of their regiments, as Mitchell reported that the man “can play on the violin and fife.” Whatever job he found with the British, whether as an officer’s servant, or as a musician, Cato must not have been satisfied with army life, because Mitchell advertised that the former slave left “before the army did.”53

Another slave who took his chances on the road in a probably attempt to reach the British military was tradesman Cuff Dix. Dix was one of thousands of blacks who were enslaved at iron foundries and forges across Pennsylvania and Maryland. Pennsylvania iron makers made extensive use of slaves, employing them not only as laborers and woodcutters, but also in the more exacting jobs of colliers, and forge men. Cuff Dix must have exhibited to his owner, Mark Bird of Berks County, considerable responsibility and talent for iron making, because Bird used Dix as a hammer man at his Birdsboro Forge. This was an important position, requiring a very strong and capable person.

Despite holding a position of importance, Cuff Dix was still a slave, and he must not have been treated well enough by Bird to overcome the hardships and inequalities of that relationship, because he ran away frequently. Bird’s lack of trust in this key worker at an important forge is evident by the iron collar and iron chains that Bird forced Dix to wear. Even though Cuff Dix was not a large person—Bird described him as being five feet, five inches in height and “well set,” probably indicating a muscular build—Bird obviously found it necessary to keep him well fettered, which is a significant clue that reveals the uneasy relationship between Pennsylvania slaveholders and even their most valuable slaves. Cuff Dix was wearing chains and irons around his legs when he escaped from the forge in September 1774.

Bird offered a reward of five pounds sterling if Dix was recovered outside of Pennsylvania, and three pounds if captured within the colony. Cuff must have been captured or returned of his own volition, but made another escape attempt in May 1775. Bird immediately placed an ad, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on 24 May, seeking to recover Dix. It was not successful. Dix had been away for five months when Bird ran another ad, noting that Dix had “an iron collar round his neck,” but “it is likely that he soon got that off.” The following month, Cuff Dix was captured in Chester County, where he had passed considerable time working as a free man, perhaps with plans to make his way to Philadelphia eventually. He had not been returned to Birdsboro Forge for much more than six months before he again escaped and Bird again responded by placing this telling ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette:

Three Pounds Reward.
Run away from the Birdsborough Forge, in Berks county, Pennsylvania, on the 16th of June, 1776, a Negroe Man, commonly called Cuff Dix; he is an active well made fellow, and a most excellent hammerman; he is about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high, fond of liquor, understands English well, though he stammers in his speech; there is an iron ring in one of his ears, which if he can take out, a hole will remain it, large enough to receive the small end of a pipe stem, in which case he will probably endeavour to conceal the hole by filling it up; he wore, when he went away, a small old hat, light coloured homespun jacket, tow shirt and trowsers. He has often run away, changed his name, denied that the subscriber was his master, and been confined in several goals in this province; he was employed the greatest part of last summer by a person near Dilworthtown, in Chester county. Any person who shall harbour said Negroe shall be dealt with as the law directs, and his name not omitted in a future advertisement. As Negroes in general think that Lord Dunmore is contending for their liberty, it is not improbable that said Negroe is on his march to join his Lordship's own black regiment, but it is hoped he will be prevented by some honest Whig from effecting it. Any person who shall bring said Negroe home to his master, or secure him in any goal, so that he may be had again, shall receive the above reward, and reasonable charges, paid by Mark Bird.

If Cuff Dix joined the British army, as Bird supposed he had done, he did not remain more than eight months, as he was again caught and imprisoned in New Castle, Delaware, in March 1777. The story of Cuff Dix and his repeated escapes ends here for lack of further documentation, although the escapes may not have ended. When Mark Bird registered his slaves in 1780, as Pennsylvania law required, the talented hammer man Cuff Dix was not among the slaves he listed as property.54

Female slaves, although they could not be enlisted as soldiers, also took their freedom and went over to the British lines. According to Benjamin Quarles' book The Negro in the American Revolution, the British in Philadelphia used African Americans in a company of "Black Pioneers." This unit was commanded by Captain Allen Stewart and consisted of black men, women, and children. According to Quarles, this was not a combat unit like the previously mentioned Black Brigade, but was used for general labor. Records from September 1778 report the uniform worn by this unit as consisting of a great coat, hat, sailor jacket, white shirt, and winter trousers.

Women would have supported the unit by washing, cooking, tending fires, nursing, and other duties. Some of these women were wives accompanying or following their husbands and mates to Philadelphia, while others were single women who saw opportunity and protection working in military service. Daniel Larrew of Middletown, Bucks County, advertised for the return of escaped slave Jude, who had run away in January 1778. Larrew suspected that she was with the British because "she was frequently seen in Philadelphia while the British troops lay there, and it is supposed she is lurking in this State, or in the Jerseys, yet."

Two more women who escaped from Pennsylvania slaveholders to join the British in Philadelphia were Rachel and Peg, both of Chester County. Rachel, a thirty-year-old Mulatto woman, ran away from Thornbury Township farmer and iron maker Persifor Frazer in March 1778, taking with her a considerable wardrobe that included a black bonnet, three short gowns and one long gown, and three pairs of shoes. Given that she was making her escape near the beginning of the cold and wet month of March, Rachel had shown good planning sense to include extra clothing and shoes.

Rachel probably found it easier to escape because her master, Persifor Frazer, was imprisoned by the British in Philadelphia, having been captured as a rebel officer the previous year. Her escape and journey to the British army, only days before Frazer broke prison and made his way back home, must have been a particularly stinging blow to the Frazer family, who had endured abuse and raids from nearby royal troops.

Returning home and finding his female slave gone, Persifor Frazer advertised for her return, offering a ten-dollar reward. Barely three weeks passed before another slave, nineteen-year-old Peg, also ran away. Neither woman was recovered that year, and in December, Frazer advertised for both, increasing the reward and commenting that they “were seen in Philadelphia. As it is very probable one or both of them may have become weary of their acquaintance in the British army, and may be strolling somewhere in this or the neighbouring states, any person who shall take up and secure either or both of them, so that they may be had again, shall receive Forty Dollars Reward for each and reasonable charges if brought home.” But no one did “take up and secure” Peg.

For some reason, Frazer stopped looking for Rachel. Perhaps she was captured or returned to Chester County on her own, or perhaps Frazer had other reasons to stop pursuing her, but he continued to seek the runaway Peg. In his advertisements, Frazer notes that she was seen with Rachel in Philadelphia and both apparently had either business or friends with the occupying British army there. He ran another ad solely devoted to finding Peg, in July 1779:

Run away about 14 months ago, and went into Philadelphia, whilst the British troops were there, a young Negroe wench, named Peg, about 20 years old, very lusty of her age, was born in Chester county, there is a great reason to believe she is in, or at no great distance from Philadelphia, possibly in the Jerseys, as she was seen last winter in the market. Whoever takes up and secures said Wench, so that I may have her again, shall have One Hundred Dollars Reward, and all reasonable charges paid, on applying to Colonel William Henry, in Philadelphia, or the subscriber, in Thornbury, Chester county. Persifor Frazer.
Any person who harbours or conceals her may depend upon the severest prosecution.

Frazer’s warning in the final line shows a certain impatience and anger at this woman who eluded him for fourteen months and betrayed him to his enemy. Note also that the reward offered by Frazer had increased substantially, from forty dollars, in December 1778, to one hundred dollars, in July 1779, evidence of the inflationary pressures caused by the war. Peg was causing Captain Persifor Frazer considerable expense in his determination to recover her, and it seems he still refused to believe that she would stay with the hated British so long. He preferred to believe she was “strolling somewhere in…the neighbouring states,” or hiding out in New Jersey. But he was wrong.

Peg, who preferred the name Polly, stayed with the British forces for at least five years. Her name appears on the document "Inspection Roll of Negroes, Taken on Board Sundry Vessels at Staten Island and Bound for Nova Scotia," dated 1783. Historian Debra L. Newman culled the names of Philadelphia women identified in that list for her article "They Left with the British: Black Women in the Evacuation of Philadelphia, 1778.” One of the entries Newman found is for "Polly King, 28, stout wench, formerly slave to Fraser of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Left him about five years ago. Robert King, 4, born free within British lines."

Polly (Peg) escaped slavery and was considered free with the British. She bore a free son, Robert King, about a year after her escape from Persifor Frazer, but her husband is not identified in the records. In the article, Newman wrote, "Between the 1778 evacuation of Philadelphia and 1783, these women, as did many hundreds more, travelled with the British troops. They were employed in various service details, such as washing, cooking, sewing, and cleaning for the troops...After following the British for five years, these black women moved to Nova Scotia. The British authorities gave some land grants in Shelborne Township, and some continued to serve as servants, but for new masters. Many found Nova Scotia winters harsh and farming difficult, so in 1792 and again in 1800 a number of these same men and women moved to Sierra Leone."55

Although colonial slaveholders felt that their escaped slaves would take their leave of the royal services as soon as a chance presented itself, many, like Peg, did not. The lure of fighting for freedom held true for some, while others doubtless were simply happy in the army. Lancaster borough slaveholder William Parr registered his slave Cato, aged about twenty-three years, as “a slave during life, runaway and supposed to be gone to the enemy.”

In Paxton Township, Lancaster County, before the formation of Dauphin County, in what would be Harrisburg, Irish-born tannery owner Jacob Awl realized that his twenty-five-year-old slave Joe had run away. Joe took off in early December 1777, apparently headed for Philadelphia, where the British were in winter quarters. Although Awl was a patriot who put up funds to equip local militia forces in the fight against the British, he did not betray his anger over the defection of his servant to the enemy when he placed and ad for his recovery. Awl described Joe simply as “a thick well set fellow, speaks the English and German tongues well,” described the coat, jacket, shirt and breeches that the missing slave wore, and noted that he took with him a six-year-old black mare, “big with foal.”

Awl had not yet recovered Joe by 1780, when he registered him with the county clerk, according to law, as a slave, but neither had he given up ownership rights, registering the missing man with the note "run away some time ago."56 There is no evidence that Awl ever recovered Joe. Perhaps this slave made it to Howe's Army and fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War in the Black Brigade, or labored in the Black Pioneers, as did many escaped slaves. Perhaps Joe was one of the many blacks evacuated from Philadelphia and resettled in Nova Scotia, to begin live anew as a free man.


Colonel Tye

Advertisement for the 1775 escape of enslaved man Titus, from New Jersey.

Neither Cuff Dix nor Joe, nor any of the runaways mentioned above, made a name for themselves while under British service, regardless of the strength of their commitment or the length of their stay. Some toiled at the backbreaking labor of digging fortifications, or suffered through the dirty job of cleaning sewage from the streets, or sweated among the never-ending cook fires and laundry tubs, before quietly slipping away, much as they had done to get there, to take their chances and try their luck among the free black population in the town. Royal army life, with its severe regimentation, strong class distinctions, poor food, harsh punishments, long days, frequent outbreaks of disease, mud, dust and bugs, was not for everyone. But many did stay, determined to serve as long as their freedom was guaranteed. A few excelled and advanced under British military commanders, and at least one fugitive slave made a name for himself, was feared by patriot farmers in the area in which he operated, and lived to see his exploits reported in local newspapers. He was called Colonel Tye.

Ty, with his party of about 20 blacks and whites, last Friday afternoon took and carried off prisoners, Capt. Barns Smock and Gilbert Vanmater; at the same time spiked up the iron four pounders at Capt. Smock’s house, but took no ammunition. Two of the artillery horses, and two of Capt. Smock’s horses were likewise taken off.
The above mentioned Ty is a Negroe, who bears the title of Colonel, and commands a motly [sic] crew at Sandy Hook.

The news report above was from the 21 June 1780 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, and it only hints at the trouble that Colonel Tye (or Ty) caused for patriot forces in New Jersey. By this time, he was fairly well known in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, having conducted guerrilla raids in Monmouth County for nearly a year prior to his audacious raid on militia commander Captain Barnes Smock’s fortified home.

Leading his small mixed race unit, Tye conducted commando style raids to harass militia and rebel leaders in Eastern New Jersey, often achieving complete surprise, taking captives, who were then sent to British prisons in New York, spreading fear, and making away with provisions, livestock, and military supplies. Tye’s reputation grew quickly, and despite being disparaged as the commander of a “motly crew,” patriot militia forces in Monmouth County suffered severe damage not only to their military capacity, but to their morale as well.

Colonel Tye was Titus, the escaped slave of Monmouth County Quaker John Corlies. Corlies had not yet manumitted his four slaves, as directed by the local Quaker meeting, which might have figured heavily in the decision by twenty-one-year-old Titus to escape on 8 November 1775, just one day after the issuance of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. Titus made his way south and joined with the British forces, serving in a combat regiment and earning the attention and respect of his commanders. It was there that he was given the ceremonial title of Captain Tye.

Several years later, Titus would return to Monmouth County at the head of a band of irregular soldiers, both black and white, to lead raids of reprisal against patriot militia, but particularly against old masters. Taking advantage of his knowledge of the land, and the natural cover presented by the cedar swamps, Tye and his men conducted their daring campaign supported by the British, but also largely on their own behalf, from July 1779 until his death from an infected wound in September 1780. After the death of their leader, Tye’s men continued their guerilla campaign until the end of the war.57



While many thousands of runaway slaves found freedom in the British army under the provisions of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, many others served the side of the colonists in rebellion, and fought faithfully and bravely in patriot units. The New England states saw a considerable number of African American men volunteer to fight, many of them slaves or former slaves, in presumed exchange for their freedom.

One such man, a Connecticut slave, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777 with the consent of his master, who received the enlistment bounty paid by the government. The former slave served with distinction, survived the war and was “discharged with badges of honor,” only to be claimed years later by his former master as a runaway slave, never manumitted. The man sued for his freedom and the court ruled, “As at the time of enlistment, no person but a freeman could by the resolutions of Congress be enlisted into the Continental army, the consent of his master to the enlistment amounted in law to compleat [sic] manumission.”

In Pennsylvania, fugitive slaves who attempted to join Continental forces or patriot militia would have been returned to their owners. However, in rare instances, enslaved persons may have bargained with their owners, offering to enlist in exchange for freedom. Such might have been the case near Carlisle when Lieutenant John Pratt enlisted thirty-year-old Hercules Johnston, “a mulatto,” into the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment, on 25 February 1782. Listed on the docket at number seventeen, Johnston is described as “5 Feet 8 inches high, born in Paxtang, Lancaster county, short black curled hair, a blemish on his left eye, yellow complexion, by trade a hammerman.”58

Could this man, who was enlisting in Carlisle with the story that he was born in Lancaster, be the elusive Hercules, who repeatedly ran away from iron maker William Bird’s Birdsboro Forge two decades previously? Bird’s Hercules was close to the same height, at five feet ten inches, but would have been ten years older; however, recruiters were as bad as slaveholders at estimating the ages of blacks. More intriguing are other similarities—both men were forge workers, both had a blemish on one eye, and Bird’s Hercules spoke fluent German and was believed to be hiding among the Germans in Lancaster County. This places him closer to Paxton Township, the birthplace cited by the enlisting man, Hercules Johnston.59 We also have no evidence of any slaves or free blacks named Hercules in Paxton Township, other than John Harris’ Hercules, who was long dead by this time. Could this newly enlisted Continental Army soldier be the fugitive iron forge slave Hercules from Berks County?

Although we can only speculate, based on certain similarities, it would not be unusual for a fugitive slave to try to hide out in the army.
Although Pennsylvania had significant numbers of free blacks, mostly in Philadelphia, during the war, and large numbers of enslaved blacks who could have served as substitutes for their masters in state regiments, few were actually enlisted in militia units, in comparison with other northern and New England states.

In a 1974 pamphlet produced by the National Archives, historian Debra L. Newman extracted all the identifiable records for African American patriot soldiers. Pennsylvania shows only two listings, both of which are the same name and therefore probably indicate records relating to the same soldier: Cato Johnston, a private listed with both the First and Second Pennsylvania Regiments.60 It is interesting to note that the only soldier listed for this state bore the same surname, with the same distinctive spelling, as the man who enlisted in the Fourth Regiment in Carlisle. Though there were other African Americans with the surname Johnson listed in other state and Continental regiments, the spelling variant Johnston appears only in Pennsylvania, in these listings. What could the link be, if any, between Cato Johnston of the First/Second Regiment, and Hercules Johnston, of the Fourth Regiment? With so few surviving records, we may never know, but if one of the men was born near present day Harrisburg, the possibility exists that, because of the shared surname, both have central Pennsylvania connections—an unusual, and until now unrealized, distinction for area blacks in this time period.

For those runaways that did not heed the call of Lord Dunmore, or enlist in patriot forces with the hope of winning their freedom by fighting for white independence, the Revolutionary War still offered several opportunities to fugitive slaves who were able to take advantage of them. To an enslaved person planning to escape from the horrors of bondage, any resource that would improve the chance of escape had to be considered. Extra clothing, food and a horse were always good to have, if possible, but money to cover the unexpected expenses could mean the difference between freedom and capture.

In 1777, an eighteen-year-old man called York, the slave of merchant and innkeeper Matthias Slough of Lancaster, saw a chance to improve his odds of successfully escaping, at the expense of a captured German mercenary. York, or “Roger,” as he preferred to be called, somehow managed to get an assortment of coins from one of the Hessian prisoners of war then being housed in the military barracks in Lancaster Borough. When York made his escape on 17 July, according to the ad placed by Slough, he had “one English guinea, two Spanish milled dollars, and two Continental dollars,” all stolen from one of the Hessian prisoners.61 Matthias Slough registered several slaves according to law beginning in 1780 and in subsequent years, but none named York or Roger,62 so the acquisition of these five coins may have made the difference for the daring teenaged escapee.

Later in the war, escaped slave Simon found safety by falling in with some allied troops in Delaware. His owner, Samuel Maffitt of Cecil County, Maryland, described the runaway, who he thought would go by the name “Johnson,” as “about 27 years of age, nearly 6 feet high, course featured, a little pitted with the smallpox.” Someone had spotted Simon, or Johnson, at Christiana Bridge, in New Castle County, Delaware, marching with some “straggling troops belonging to the French army, on his way, as is supposed, to New York.”63

This union of fugitive slave and foreign foot soldiers occurred about a year after the French helped to defeat Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and just weeks before Benjamin Franklin led a team of American diplomats to begin peace negotiations with the British in Paris. The British commanders had been preparing for months to evacuate New York for Canada and England. Perhaps Johnson saw, in the approaching end to the war, nothing more than a continuation of his own bondage in Maryland, and decided to make his escape while he still could—while large numbers of men were still on the roads, headed north to end the thing.

Maryland saw many slaves making their escape under cover of the British withdrawal in the final stages of the war. A brief mention of this phenomenon appeared in the regional newspaper the Pennsylvania Gazette in March 1781, as it was reported that two British ships were lying off the mouth of the harbor at Annapolis, and that they were receiving “run away Negroes, a number having already gone on board.”64

Women, too, took advantage of the changing fortunes of war, to make their escape when an opportunity presented itself. A “Negro Wench named Hannah,” described as “about thirty years of age,” escaped from owner John Ewing in Cecil County, Maryland, and made off with an Irish immigrant named John Williams, who had enlisted in the Octorara Company of Maryland militia. Williams had deserted from his company and met up with the newly escaped Hannah,65 and together the pair ran away from lives that did not meet with their idea of liberty and happiness.



As in the Revolutionary War, African American slaves saw great opportunity in the invasion of the South by Northern troops during the Civil War, and ran away to follow President Lincoln’s blue clad soldiers back to freedom in the North. Those who settled in large contraband camps, such as the one described above in Alexandria, generally fared far worse than those who accompanied Northern troops all the way back to Northern towns and cities.

Such was the case of a twenty-seven-year-old runaway slave from Georgia by the name of George Washington, who joined up with the Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry at some point in their campaigns south of the Mason-Dixon line. Washington probably worked for his keep with the regiment, perhaps caring for the horses or working as a servant to one of the officers, and he stayed with the horse soldiers, following these troops back into Pennsylvania after the war and settling near Harrisburg when the men of the regiment were mustered out there.66

An escaped slave from Virginia, who later established himself in Harrisburg as the patriarch of the Burrs family, made his escape and, along with two other runaways, eventually found his way to the camp of Company I of the 187th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment. There, the three men met a teenaged private named Aaron Landis, who gave them what aid and comfort he could manage, including information that helped them make their way north. Both Burrs and Landis survived the war, and coincidentally both settled in Harrisburg, where they renewed their acquaintance.67

Military service was a route of escape for seventeen-year-old North Carolina slave Ephraim Slaughter, who enlisted in Company B of the Third North Carolina Colored Infantry. This unit was later designated the Thirty-Seventh Regiment, United States Colored Troops. Like many of the men of this regiment, Slaughter moved north following the war and settled in Harrisburg.68

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47. Pennsylvania Gazette, 31 July 1746, 9 May 1751, 2 July 1752, 21 June 1759, 3 November 1763.

48. James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 285-286.

49. Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 July 1775, 28 July 1779.

50. Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1979), 33-36.
For an example of reporting of Caribbean slave rebellions in the Pennsylvania Gazette, see 7 January 1762. For examples of government reprisals reported in that same newspaper see 5, 26 June, 4 September 1760.

51. Pennsylvania Gazette, 13, 27 December 1775.

52. Pennsylvania Gazette, 26 January 1764.
Shoe merchant William Ross, at his store in Strawberry Alley in Philadelphia, stocked a complete line of footwear, including “shoes for Negroes.” Among other items advertised for sale by William Rutherford at James Mackey’s store on Front Street in Philadelphia was “negro cloth” (Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 January 1743). In the decade prior to the Revolutionary War, merchants James and Drinker advertised “Welch Negroe cottons and plains” for sale at their Water Street store (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1 October 1761). By 1780, merchant William Sitgreaves was still offering “blue and white Welch plains, suitable for Negroe clothing.” (Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 October 1780). For imported “good cheap Negroes’ hats” see the advertisement from Water Street merchants John Ryan and Edmund Nihell (Pennsylvania Gazette, 5 November 1741).

53. Pennsylvania Gazette, 20, 25 August, 1 September 1778, 6 February 1782.

54. Ibid, 23 November 1774; 24 May, 11 October, 15 November 1775; 17 July, 16 October 1776; 12 March 1777.

55. Ibid, 12 December 1778, 7 July 1779; Pennsylvania Packet, 3 November 1778; Debra L. Newman, "They Left with the British: Black Women in the Evacuation of Philadelphia, 1778," Pennsylvania Heritage 4, no. 1 (December 1977): 23.

56. Pennsylvania Packet, 17 December 1777; Pennsylvania Gazette, 20 September, 15 November 1780; "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780."
Although his slave Cato had “gone to the enemy,” William Parr had the consolation of knowing that another slave, twenty-four-year-old Jack, whom he described as a “Mulatto Man,” was serving the patriots’ cause as a sailor on board the ship Jolly Trooper, a fact that he noted with Jack’s slave registration.

57. Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 November 1775, 21 June 1780; Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865 (Lanham, MD: Madison House, 1997), 91-101.

58. Egle, Notes and Queries, 43:219.

59. Pennsylvania Gazette, 22 June 1758, 2 August, 8 November 1759, 29 May 1760.

60. National Archives and Records Service, List of Black Servicemen Compiled From the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Compiled by Debra L. Newman, Special List no. 36 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1974), 3-28.
Pennsylvania records are listed on page 13. It appears from observations made at the time that significant numbers of African Americans served in the Continental Army, and in particular in New England units. Local militia units generally had a lower percentage of African American recruits, and many Pennsylvania militia units were noticeably devoid of black soldiers. (Charles Patrick Neimeyer, The Revolutionary War [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007], 63-64.)

61. Pennsylvania Gazette, 30 July 1777.

62. "Slaves in Lancaster County in 1780;" "The Slave Records of Lancaster County Collection.”

63. Pennsylvania Gazette, 18 September 1782.

64. Ibid., 28 March 1781.

65. Pennsylvania Packet, 17 June 1778.

66. Bureau of the Census, Tenth United States Census, 1880, Swatara Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Samuel P. Bates, “9th Cavalry, 92nd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers,” History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-65 (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1868-1871) 3:241; Glise, History of Paxton, 34.

67. A. Martin Landis, “Born for Service to His Country,” Bugle 9, no. 1 (January 1999): 3; John Weldon Scott and Eric Ledell Smith, African Americans of Harrisburg (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2005), 27; Burrs enlistment card, microfilm M554 roll 68, National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, (accessed 10 February 2008); Calobe Jackson, Jr. and John Weldon Scott, interview with author during a tour of Lincoln Cemetery, Penbrook, PA, 26 August 2002.

68. Ephraim Slaughter tombstone transcription, Lincoln Cemetery, Penbrook, Dauphin County, PA.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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