The Abington Patriot Who Witnessed a British Spy’s Execution

April 11, 2022

Major John André was the head of the British Secret Service during the American Revolution. So how does a Black Abingtonian connect a seemingly indistinct document found at Abington’s Dyer Memorial Library & Archives to the execution of this notorious spymaster and co-conspirator of Benedict Arnold?

Nestled in one of the Dyer’s archival collections of colonial-era documents is a list of “the names of three years men from the Town of Abington hired in the year 1781.” The task that these men were hired for was three years service in the Continental army. The document is a bounty list; it’s a list of men due a bounty—a cash bonus paid by towns above a soldier’s monthly salary as a recruitment incentive to aid towns in meeting their state-mandated quota of soldiers. 

The value of this genealogical gem is obvious; it is contemporaneous proof that a set of Abington ancestors served in the Revolutionary army. But what sets this bounty list apart is its testimony to the existence of one soldier listed as “Primus Cobus, Negro.” 

3% of Massachusetts Revolutionary soldiers were Black, Native American, or a mix of both heritages. Slavery was still legal in Massachusetts and many Black Massachusetts soldiers were enslaved at the time of their enlistment. Abington sent four enslaved men to fight in the Revolution:

Cuff Rosaria, Sr.
Cuff Rosaria, Jr., and his younger brother
Silas Rosaria
and Brister Gould.

Cobus, as best as historians can tell, was a free person of color when he joined. We don’t know if he was born enslaved or if his parents were free people at the time of his birth. And he may not have been a resident of Abington, as lucrative bounties attracted service-aged men from neighboring towns looking to maximize their incomes. 

Active research scene at the DML&A, April 2022.

In tracing Primus Cobus’s origin story, one tantalizing coincidence that should be investigated further is the existence of a potential ancestor in the Black Hingham French and Indian War veteran named Primus Cobb. Beyond the similarities in names, the intergenerational legacy of early African American military service in Plymouth County fits a pattern modeled by families such as that of Abington French and Indian War veteran Cuff Sr. and his patriot sons Cuff Jr. and Silas and enslaved Norwell Revolutionary vet Asher Freeman and his three great-grandsons who later served in the Civil War. We don’t know if Primus Cobus hails from Abington, Hingham, or another surrounding town, but we do know he was owed a bounty from the town of Abington.  

Returning to the bounty list, identifying this document was an out-of-body experience and the question I immediately asked myself was “is Primus Cobus even real?” I could not believe what I was looking at. The Dyer, as luck would have it, is rich with reference material that bears further witness to our man. Primus appears on page 104 of the indispensable Abington and the Revolution as “Primus Cobbus”—note the double ‘b’ as if “Cobbus” derives from “Cobb.” This is also a clue to check alternative spellings in the Dyer’s copies of the magnificent seventeen-volume Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War where Primus appears under the surnames “Cobus,” “Cobas,” and “Coburn.”

p. 696
p. 664
p. 693
Images from the DML&A’s copy of Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: Vol. 3. (C-COR)

In a direct quote from Primus Coburn’s pension declaration, we find that Primus “was frequently on guard at ‘Tatoway’ where Major André was imprisoned, that he was present when the Regiment was drawn up and surrounded him at his execution.”

Coburn.
Primus Cobus appears in this muster roll for the 2nd Mass. Regiment, Capt. Drew’s Company for September 7, 1780. FamilySearch.org

Irrespective of which surname Primus carried on the day of his birth and which last name he enlisted under in Abington, after the War of Independence he was Primus Coburn. Searching for Primus Coburn is the key that unlocks Primus’s Revolutionary War pension file in the National Archives. The jackpot documents in these files are the declarations that veterans made describing their Revolutionary service in their own words. Using Primus’s declaration, the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors entries, and genealogical research we can construct a narrative of Primus’s service.

Primus joined the Continental army in June of 1780 at age 16; he originally hitched on for six months, but we see in 1781 he becomes a “three years man” and enlists for a full tour of duty. He first marched to West Point, New York, and while there, Primus suffered a “slight” leg wound. Later, while serving near Alexandria, Virginia, a second leg wound became so infected that surgeons considered amputation. Primus’s condition improved, but this injury from the war proved to be a life-long disability that hindered steady employment. Primus earned an honorable discharge and his unit was given permission to wear a “V” on their arm as a badge of honor. 

We don’t know if Primus ever returned to Abington, as he filed his 1818 pension application from Baltimore where he was settled with his wife Lydia and her niece. No other children were reported, but census records show 3 other people in his household. Primus Coburn died in 1820 when he would have been approximately 56 years old. 

An impressive narrative so far, but Primus left us one last stand-out detail from his military career. Major John André, the aforementioned spy, was imprisoned in present-day Rockland County, New York. In September of 1780, André was carrying secret documents written by famous traitor General Benedict Arnold regarding Arnold’s plot to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British for £20,000.

If George Washington was the American savior, then Benedict Arnold was Judas Iscariot. Arnold was the most talented field general on the Continental side and was perhaps Washington’s closest friend and ally. In 1777, General Arnold’s leadership at Saratoga proved decisive and without it, the Continental army may have lost those crucial battles changing the outcome of the war.

Major André left his meeting with Arnold and was traveling back to Manhattan. Near Tarrytown, he was stopped by three Continental soldiers and upon interrogation and detention, the documents were discovered. Arnold, while waiting to receive Washington for breakfast, learned of André’s arrest and fled his headquarters on the east bank of the river; he then boarded the HMS Vulture and permanently defected to the British army. 

Reading Massachusetts Soldiers & Sailors of the Revolutionary War at the DML&A

Because André, a British commissioned officer, was not traveling in uniform but instead traveling in plain clothes, he was not held as a prisoner of war. Rather, he was tried and convicted of being a spy, and the penalty for espionage was death.

In a direct quote from Primus Coburn’s pension declaration, we find that Primus “was frequently on guard at ‘Tatoway’ where Major André was imprisoned, that he was present when the Regiment was drawn up and surrounded him at his execution.”

Although the historical record shows that André was executed at Tappan, New York, Primus’s account rings true. His unit was in fact at Tappan with General Washington and shortly after André’s execution, Washington ordered the camp moved to nearby Totowa, New Jersey. 

Selfie. André sketched this self-portrait the day before his execution. Yale University Art Gallery.

Analyzing this moment, scholar Judith L. Van Buskirk notes in her book Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution, that “Coburn was part of a unit that another veteran of color described as a black company. It could be that André’s last glimpse of this world included a group of black soldiers watching his ultimate defeat from a prominent position around the gibbet.”

What a way to end an illustrious military career. And let’s further reflect on the fact that Primus was 16 years old at his June 1780 enlistment. We can imagine, then, that at the time that Primus witnessed this September execution he was the equivalent of an Abington High School student beginning his senior year.

This is the remarkable story of Abington sending an African American teenager to fight for independence on her behalf, of Primus suffering a life-altering wound and sacrificing a piece of his body for his nascent country, of a young soldier witnessing a historic execution, and of a disabled veteran seeking benefits that he was owed but did not live long enough to fully utilize.

This story pulls from numerous primary and secondary sources, but it sprung to life with an archival find. And this find wasn’t an accident; it required the skillful work of the Dyer archivist who organized the collection of papers, the expertise of the Dyer staff in recommending the collection to me for its potential, and the curiosity to plumb the mysteries hidden in the Dyer’s stacks.

Because of this collaborative effort, and because readers like you have taken the time to read and share this, Primus Cobus/Coburn no longer languishes anonymously in a file box. Remember Primus on Patriots Day.

Are you curious? Perhaps you have a hidden veteran Abington ancestor? You never know what you’re going to find at the Dyer. 

Visit the Dyer Memorial Library & Archives

Download Primus Coburn’s full Revolutionary War pension file here.

More stories:

Creative Commons License
Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Key words: Revolution, American Revolution, Revolutionary War, Abington, Massachusetts, Plymouth County, African American, Black Patriots, Black Revolutionary War Veterans, Primus Cobb, Primus Cobus, Primus Cobas, Primas Coburn, slavery, slavery in Abington, slavery in Plymouth County, slavery in Massachusetts, slavery and the Revolution

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