Abington Legend Cuffy Rosaria
April 11, 2022
Cuffy Rosaria deserves folk hero status in his Massachusetts hometown; he has the rare distinction of appearing both in a runaway slave ad and in Revolutionary War muster rolls.
Cuffy boldly resisted tyranny and abuse. He was the patriarch of a cohort of five men of color who fought for Abington in the Revolution. He fathered two biracial sons who served three-year tours in the Revolution. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill—a no-turning-back moment in American history. And with a surname tangled up in ten different spellings, his genealogy and his fate prove quite elusive.
Cuffy Rosaria sought liberty decades before 1775.
28 years before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, we find a 1747 ad in the Boston Evening-Post documenting Cuffy’s earliest known act of resistance: “Ran away from the Rev. Mr. Samuel Brown of Abington…a Mulatto Fellow named Cuffy.”
This ad memorializes Cuffy’s brave act for eternity and we are lucky to have it; insights into African American lives in places like colonial Abington and Plymouth County typically only leak into modern consciousness via church records, court records, or probate files where people are shown as property. Unlike other sources, runaway ads share intimate details with modern readers; this ad gives us a physical description of Cuffy, an account of his wardrobe, and we glean insight into his health history.
We learn that in 1747 Cuffy was:
…about 20 Years of Age, of short Stature, pretty well fe[d], and has a Scar or two upon his Neck, under his Shirt Collar, was occasioned by the King’s Evil. He had on when he went away a short brown double breasted Jacket, with a greenish Cast, and Pewter Buttons, and an under Jacket of striped Linnen and Wool, also Linnen Trowsers…Note, his Hair is cut off.
Rev. Brown’s description supplies modern imagination with enough detail such that an artist could create a portrait of this young man. Incidentally, Britannica tells us that King’s Evil was the common name for “scrofula…or struma, a tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands, once popularly supposed to be curable by the touch of royalty.”
Cuffy was obviously apprehended.
We know this because the ad placed by Brown, Abington’s first minister, is not the only source for insights into Cuffy’s life. In addition to being one of the 12 adults enslaved by Rev. Brown and later Josiah Torrey, Cuffy is one of five Abington men identified as Black or mixed Black and Wampanoag heritage who fought for American independence.
If you’re surprised that there was an enslaved population in colonial Abington and that Abington sent five men of color to serve in the Revolution, you are not alone—but what’s further surprising is that these histories are hidden in plain sight. We find these “forgotten patriots” (a term I first saw used by the Daughters of the American Revolution) in common books that are decades old, and some over a century old.
Found at the Dyer Memorial Library & Archives is the 1975 publication Abington and the Revolution and Earlier Wars (AATR), a thoroughly-researched compilation of historical anecdotes, ephemera, and relics of Revolutionary Abington as they appeared in 1975. The Abington “forgotten patriots” appear ten times in the 123-page book.
Cuffy after Brown
Cuffy’s resistance and thirst for freedom was evident not only in his attempted escape but also through the sabotage of Josiah Torrey’s draught animals. Closer to the Revolution, Benjamin Hobart recounts this oral tradition about Cuffy in his 1866 History:
[Cuff] used to drive Mr. [Torrey’s] team, carting plank and lumber to Weymouth Landing. He was frequently taken up and fined for criminal acts. On one occasion he was sentenced to be whipped with a certain number of stripes at the Whipping Post. After the clerk of the town had put them on, Mr. Torrey, who stood by, requested him to add three more for him, for he was an ugly fellow. The clerk refused, saying he had done his duty according to the sentence of the justice. Mr. T. took the lash and added three severe strokes more. Cuff, after being released, walked away muttering, and saying, “[Torrey] shall lose three of his oxen for these three strokes;” and so he did. One ox was overheated by him in going to Weymouth, driven into the river and foundered, and died in consequence. He broke the leg of another by throwing a stone at him. A third was killed in the woods by “some accident done on purpose.” He was so obstinate and unmanageable that Mr. Torrey put an iron collar around his neck with a hook riveted to it hanging down in front. When the collar around his neck was riveted together, Cuff shed tears which he was never known to do before. When inquired of out of town about the collar, he said it was put on by his master to prevent his having the throat ail, which was very common in Abington. The hook, he would conceal under his waistcoat.Hobart, Benjamin (1866). History of the Town of Abington, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, From its First Settlement. (p.254) Boston: T.H. Carter and son.
*NB: This Josiah Torrey (b.1720 – d. 1783) had no children or descendants; he should not be confused with any Torrey family members from the nineteenth century.
Not-so-fun fact: the Abington town whipping post was stationed on Abington town green, which would have occupied the confluence of Washington and Bedford Streets that lies in front of the United Church of Christ and the old Masonic Hall.
Of course, the shortcomings of oral tradition and Hobart’s authorial racism are clues that we should not take every detail as gospel truth. However, Hobart’s narrative reaffirms that a.) Josiah Torrey was a cruel, abusive enslaver, and b.) Cuffy was bold and defiant. His reputation for tenaciously resisting captivity, exploiting his agency, and seeking liberty was well earned.
Further biographical details of Cuffy’s life are found in the Dyer’s transcriptions of the Cyrus Nash Papers by way of a Massachusetts Historical Commission report about the property at 429 High Street. The report mentions a long-gone house that occupied the property and, after the death of widow Pettingill, the “old house was then the home of Cuffy Rosier, a slave of Squire Josiah Torrey who lived farther north on this road…[at] 247 High Street.” The site of these slave quarters where Cuffy lived with his wife, Indian woman Dinah (née Lamb) Nummuck, would have sat close to the current town line of Abington and Whitman (formerly Abington’s south ward).
Cuffy in the Revolution
At the outset of the Revolution, we find Cuffy—now 48, presumably still short, and hopefully still well-fed—in the rolls for Capt. Hamlen’s Company starting on May 1, 1775, twelve days after the Lexington Alarm. But this would not be Cuff’s first go at military service. As noted in AATR, the enslaved Cuffy “volunteered” for service in the French and Indian War. By this time in 1755, Rev. Samuel Brown had died and his widow moved from the old parsonage to her father’s farm with her second husband, Josiah Torrey, taking her bequest of enslaved people with her. Torrey sent at least three enslaved men to fight in the French and Indian War; of those men, Cuffy returned to marry Dinah and have two sons, but David Dwight and Micah (last name unknown) died in the line of duty.
Since we don’t have Cuffy’s words, we don’t know the degree to which Cuffy’s Revolutionary service was “voluntary.” Did Cuffy see enlistment as a welcome escape from Josiah Torrey’s Abington slave-labor farm? Was there hope sparked by town-wide talk of liberty and did Cuffy see military service as an avenue to provide better opportunities for his wife and adult sons? Although these questions remain unanswerable, history is clear about the movement of Cuffy and the rest of New England’s militiamen during the spring of 1775.
The Siege of Boston commenced as the British army retreated from Lexington and Concord. The New England militiamen pursued the British army and bottled them up on the small Shawmut Peninsula by building encampments at Chelsea, Cambridge, and Roxbury. British naval superiority allowed travel in and out of the port, but General George Washington soon arrived with a mandate to form a Continental army; forces multiplied, fortresses were improved, and the British were trapped.
10,000 residents fled the town of Boston while 1,000 loyalists filed in. The civilian population of the town shrunk to below 4,000 at one point and a smallpox epidemic ravaged the remaining residents and British soldiers alike. The siege ended when American General Henry Knox imported captured canon from victories at Ticonderoga and Crown Point and in March of 1776 General John Thomas‘s troops used this artillery to surreptitiously fortify Dorchester Heights. Conceding that he was outgunned and at a geographical disadvantage, British General William Howe chose retreat, and 11,000 British soldiers and 1,000 loyalists shipped up to Halifax. This event is commemorated every March 17th in Suffolk County as Evacuation Day.
The pivotal event between repelling the British at Concord and the evacuation of Boston, of course, was the Battle of Bunker Hill. Before George Washington assumed command in Cambridge in July, Massachusetts General Artemas Ward ordered his troops to build a fortification in Charlestown. A short distance across the harbor, General Howe saw the Breed’s Hill fortification as an aggressive encroachment on the British position and he and his generals decided that the Patriots’ action could not go unchallenged. On June 17, 1775, Howe launched the bloody attack on the American redoubt. Although the dogged British troops eventually secured the fort, the losses they sustained were immense and victory was pyrrhic. Furthermore, any hope of a peaceful end to the American rebellion that began on Lexington Green had vanished.
Cuffy was at camp in Roxbury on the day the British attacked Bunker Hill. Although Cuffy was not on the front lines, Roxbury was proximate to the action and Connecticut Col. John Trumbull was also stationed there.
“From the upper windows of Thomas’s headquarters, near the meeting-house, Charlestown was in full view, though at too great a distance for the naked eye to discern what was doing on the day of the Bunker’s Hill battle,” Trumbull begins in one account of the day.
In a second account, he tells us: “I was out at daybreak, visiting the piquet-guard of the regiment, which was posted in full view of Boston and the bay behind it, when I was startled by a gun, fired from a small sloop of war, lying at anchor between the town and Lechmere’s point.”
It became obvious to commanders at Roxbury that hostilities had erupted across the harbor. Cuffy Rosaria and his fellow soldiers were on alert. Trumbull continues:
It was about three o’clock when the firing suddenly increased, and became very heavy and continuous; and soon after, with the help of glasses, the smoke of fire-arms became visible along the ridge of the hill, and fire was seen to break out among the buildings of the town, which soon extended rapidly, and enveloped the whole in flames. We could ascertain by the receding of the smoke on the ridge of the hill, that our troops were losing ground, but we had no correct information of the result of the battle of Bunker’s Hill, until late at night.
In the mean time, when the firing became frequent and heavy, the troops in Roxbury were ordered under arms, and to their posts. Gen. Spencer’s regiment was drawn up on their parade, in full view of the enemy’s lines, and it was not long before we attracted their attention and their fire. Several of their heavy shot passed over us, and we were soon ordered to fall back to the hill above the meeting-house.
The regiment fell back to the summit of the hill, and we there passed the night on our arms. Charlestown, at that time, contained perhaps six hundred buildings of various sizes, almost all of wood, and lay full in our view, in one extended line of fire.
At night, Trumbull notes, “the action kept up” and he describes the “frequent fire of shot and shells in the direction of Cambridge.” Nightfall provided a viewing advantage for the troops like Cuffy, now on alert at the Roxbury high ground. Trumbull provides this vivid vignette:
The roar of artillery fired at—the bursting of shells (whose track, like that of a comet, was marked on the dark sky, by a long train of light from the burning fuze)—and the blazing ruins of the town, formed altogether a sublime scene of military magnificence and ruin. That night was a fearful breaking in for young soldiers, who there for the first time, were seeking repose on the summit of a bare rock, surrounded by such a scene.Trumbull, John. (1841). Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull: from 1756 to 1841. New York &: Wiley and Putnam.
Cuffy was not a young soldier and he had certainly endured violence both in his previous military service and during his bondage on two Abington slave-labor farms. Nonetheless, his adrenaline must have been flowing and, although 3.5 miles away, he would’ve been fully aware that war was raging. I know my anxiety level would have shot through the roof; was Cuffy worried that the bloodshed would spread to Roxbury? We can only imagine.
African Americans at Breed’s Hill
Cuffy Rosaria was not the only African American at Roxbury Camp and he and his Black brothers in arms were in good company; more than 100 men of color fought in combat at the Battle of Bunker Hill. This, too, is no new revelation. Just as Col. John Trumbull used his pen to explain life in Roxbury that day, he turned to the paintbrush to give us an artistic interpretation of the brutal clash on Breed’s Hill.
In his famous painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775, a version of which hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Trumbull depicts the visages of two Black men. While there is no consensus on the true identity of these men, there are some who imagine the African American man under the flags is either Peter Salem or Salem Poor.
Salem Poor was famously commemorated by a stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service for the bicentennial. Long celebrated, this once enslaved man performed heroically at Charlestown while assisting the wounded and he may have fired a final volley that killed British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie. Poor’s superior officers submitted a petition to the Massachusetts legislature lauding his outstanding battlefield courage.
Peter Salem, as lore has it, was the soldier who killed British Major John Pitcairn. Salem was emancipated weeks before the war and, like Pitcairn, fought at Lexington and Concord. Salem has been immortalized in numerous artworks and woodcuts.
We learn through Cuffy’s entry in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors that his Revolutionary service lasted for “3 mos., 1 week, 1 day.” Counting out from May 1st, this would translate to August 8, 1775. A transcript of the Cyrus Nash Papers, a voluminous personal diary of Abington history held by the Dyer Memorial Library & Archives, records Cuffy Rosaria’s death as August 6, 1775. On one hand, this could mean that Cuffy died seven weeks after Bunker Hill at the Siege of Boston.
On the other hand, we have a muster roll index card for a 54-year-old Cuff Rozery of Abington, dated 1781, showing service at West Point in Col. John Greaton’s 3rd Regiment. This age of 54 years comports with the ages for Cuffy given in the runaway ad and the French and Indian War record—all three documents point to a 1727 date of birth. It would be irresponsible to suggest that Cuffy is a Highlander, but I don’t currently have an explanation for the discrepancy.
Either way, Cuffy Rosaria’s legacy did not end at Roxbury. His sons Cuffy and Silas would enlist in the Continental army in 1777 and serve full three-year hitches. Cuffy’s family is a tricky genealogical puzzle to piece together since I find ten different versions of the Rosaria/Rosier surname across multiple sources. It was clear that Cuffy, Jr. was very likely Cuffy Rosaria’s son despite the surname variations. But it was long unclear if Silas, who appears under the variation of “Rositer,” fit into the family.
It is Silas Rosaria/Rosier/Roso’s detail-rich Revolutionary War pension file, which contains documents drawn up by Silas’s widow Phebe Wamsley and her daughter Zerviah Gould Mitchell, that confirmed the family lineage. On two occasions it is stated that Cuffy, Sr. was Silas’s father.
There is no visible memorial for Abington’s five forgotten patriots.
In roaming any antiquarian graveyard in Massachusetts, we see medallions and flags placed by the Sons of the American Revolution to mark Patriot gravesites. What we rarely see are headstones and SAR medallions for our forgotten patriots. These memorials are conspicuously absent for Abington veterans Cuffy Rosaria, Cuffy Rosaria, Jr., Silas Rosaria, Brister Gould, and Primus Cobus/Coburn.
The hands of these men both helped to build Abington and carried arms on her behalf. It’s past time that these soldiers get their due.
Perhaps you have a veteran Abington ancestor? You never know what you’re going to find at the Dyer.
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Copyright Wayne Tucker 2022. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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