Norwell, Massachusetts: Nexus of Black Patriotism
December 23, 2021
The leafy, lilly-white Massachusetts town of Norwell is a remarkable nexus of early Black American patriotism. The Black heritage of the town’s Wildcat community is typically outlined by a brief blurb explaining how it was land originally settled by newly-freed people enslaved by the Clapp family and an African American neighborhood formed around them—and that’s it. However, the more we dig into the lives of the people of this community, the more we see a dynamic early free Black community on the South Shore, as we begin to recognize in my earlier post about Venus Manning.
Charles and Simeon Granderson
The aforementioned Clapp family had several enslaving branches. Cuffee, the enslaved servant of Deacon Joseph Clapp, married Flora, the enslaved servant of Thomas Clapp. The couple were emancipated, chose the new last name Granderson, and had two sons—Charles and Simeon Granderson. These two sons migrated to Adams, Massachusetts in Berkshire County where they enlisted for three years’ service in the Continental Army. They served in Col. Seth Warner’s regiment; before this regiment was adopted in the United States Army, it was local Vermont Militia known as the Green Mountain Boys which was once led by Ethan Allen. The unit fought at Hubbardton and Bennington; were present at Burgoyne’s surrender after Saratoga; and, afterward, the regiment was stationed near Lake George to protect the frontier. During this time, Charles Granderson was taken prisoner by the British in 1779. A Scituate/Norwell man was taken as a POW in the Revolution and it was one of the town’s Black patriots; he remained in British custody until 1782, two years after he was to be discharged with his brother Simeon.
A wonderful independent documentary was made about the Grandersons and it expands on the life of the family after the brothers return home from the war. I strongly recommend The Cuffee Origin, a collaborative production by The Norwell Historical Society, the Norwell All Are Welcome Committee, and Norwell Spotlight TV. This documentary is based on the research of Pattie Hainer and written by Wendy Bawabe and is how I first learned about the Granderson family.
Freemans, Gunderways, and Winslows
Norwell was carved from the southern parish of Scituate and incorporated as South Scituate in 1849. The community changed its name to Norwell in 1888. Early in its history, Scituate and neighboring North River communities held a significant enslaved population as the North River shipbuilding industry thrived in colonial times. The industry always demanded labor and shipbuilders were happy to supplement the demand with enslaved people. Such a prosperous town needed a proper physician, and in 1719 Scituate “voted a settlement of £100 to encourage [Dr. Isaac Otis] to remain in Town.”
Isaac Otis was a slaveholder; he enslaved Gad Willis, Phyllis, and Phyllis’s five children including a son named Asher. Asher, born in 1754, was sold or was given away as a child to Justice Nathan Cushing, Esq. who was a member of the famous Scituate/Norwell “family of judges.” In 1777, 19-year-old Asher left Cushing’s household to join the Continental Army for 4 years of service. During his hitch, he marched to places such as Bennington, Vermont, and Tarrytown and West Point in New York. There has yet to surface a manumission document or a record of how Asher won emancipation, but it was not uncommon for enslaved New Englanders to have claimed or purchased liberty through Revolutionary service. When Asher married Mattakeesett Indian woman Dinah Comsett during a 1780 break in service, he registered his intention under a new name: Asher Freedman.
The Freeman name remained prolific in the Wildcat neighborhood such that a 1928 history of the North River notes the family’s ever-presence, and among this group were three other Freeman veterans. Warren Freeman and William Freeman, Asher’s great-grandsons, were brothers who fought in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Sadly, Warren died of consumption in 1868 and William died in 1891 from chronic health problems due to malaria contracted during his service.
To add a layer, Asher Freeman wasn’t the only Revolutionary great grandfather of Warren and William Freeman. Their great-grandfather Richard Gunderway of Pembroke served a year in the Continental Army. Gunderway descended from a free Black family whose patriarch was manumitted in Plymouth around 1720. He was living with his wife on the Mattekesett reservation at the time of the war and his children would move to Norwell and have resided on the South Shore for more than 200 years since, more than 300 years in total.
And through a different linage, Richard Gunderway is great-grandfather to Pvt. Benjamin Franklin Lee, who served in Company G of 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Furthermore, circumstantial evidence suggests that Benjamin might be the great-grandson of an African American Revolutionary veteran named Jupiter Lee, but further investigation is required. Benjamin was also the brother-in-law to 54th soldier Richard S. Winslow of neighboring Hanover. Benjamin lived to age 65 but died in a tragic house fire that killed him and his niece. Benjamin Lee grew up in the house of his father, George Lee, who inherited a share of the house from Venus Manning.
The third veteran great-grandson of Asher Freeman was Lemuel Freeman, a cousin of William and Warren. Lemuel served in both the 45th Mass. Infantry and 58th Mass. Infantry; he died as a result of wounds suffered at the Seige of Petersburg, Virginia. Curiously, Lemuel was not in a “Colored Troops” unit. The 45th and 58th regiments were supposed to be all white. Soldiers “passing” as white in order to fight in white Civil War units is an underexplored phenomenon, but, increasingly, genealogists and cemetery historians are discovering Black men who fought in “all-white” units.
In all, Norwell sent at least eleven African American soldiers to the civil war, eight of whom are buried at First Parish Cemetery.
Norwell’s Incredible Black Heritage
The legacy of Black residents of the North River region extends to the 1640s: their enslaved labor contributed to the prosperity of the region, their service in the Revolution helped birth a nation, and the descendants of these unrecognized founding fathers and mothers went on to fight for the emancipation of their brethren and for the preservation of the Union. This is a heritage that extends as long the blue-blooded Yankee families and it passes through enslavement, the American Revolution, and the Civil War.
Massachusetts and the prosperous South Shore do not exist without enslaved Black people and their descendants.
I built out further bibliographic information in the following WikiTree profiles:
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Copyright Wayne Tucker 2023. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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Thank you for doing this research and providing some great information Mr. Tucker!
Richard, thank you (as always) for the kind words. I need to update the links as I’ve done some further research into Sgt. Lemuel Freeman. Interestingly, Richard Winslow was the best man at Lemuel’s wedding to Diana Freeman.
That is amazing, i will be sure to utilize what you again have provided. Keep up the great work.
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Thank you for following this trail. I grew up in Norwell and recognize many of the sites you mention–but had no inkling of the deeper story. It also helps me better understand why 1st Parish might have called Rev. Samuel May (served 1836-1842), who was even then a known abolitionist (as well as Louisa May Alcott’s maternal uncle). Looking forward to learning more from you.
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Hi, Kathleen –
Thank you for reading and commenting. One of my forthcoming newsletters sheds further light on Black history and early civil rights activism in Norwell, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Both the Rev. Samuel May and the Rev. Caleb Stetson were noted abolitionist ministers who served Norwell’s First Parish; the latter brought Sojourner Truth to the church in 1854, per The Liberator: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/book_viewer/commonwealth:5h7425456#?&cv=1&h=Scituate
I hope you’ve seen some of the other stories about Norwell. I’m particularly fond of abolitionist Venus Manning. Although I’ve found quite a bit about Venus, she lived in Boston & Roxbury for ~35 years. Those years are largely unaccounted for, and I wonder what her relationship was to the noted Black Boston abolitionists.
Thank you again! Please be in touch if I you have any questions.