Wealthy Hanover resident Joseph Josselyn left an extensive will. His 1787 probate file is 74 pages long and on the second-to-last page we find the bequests to Josselyn’s wife, including an item leaving her “the service of My Negro Man Cuffe during her Natural Life.” This is a curious bequest: we are taught that the Massachusetts Constitution abolished slavery in 1783. Why, then, does a human appear in Josselyn’s 1787 will?
The Judicial and gradual approaches to emancipation in New England created gaps and loopholes that could be exploited by slave owners, kidnappers, and government officials. This problem was most clear in Massachusetts. The 1783 decision Commonwealth v. Jennison did not abolish slavery. Rather it stipulated that slavery was contrary to the Massachusetts constitution and had no standing in the law. Worded in such a way, judicial emancipation placed the onus of ending enslavement on the slaves themselves. If an enslaved person could not access the courts or run away, such as vulnerable children and the elderly, they remained effectively enslaved. Often owners would refer to the enslaved people living in their households as indentured servants, a category that was still legal. Although the 1790 U.S. Census did not enumerate any slaves for Massachusetts, evidence suggests that most enslavers just listed their slaves as servants or census takers did not bother to record them. This use of legal loopholes and subterfuge meant slavery lingered in Massachusetts until the mid-1790s if not later.
Hanover death records show that Joseph Josselyn held at least two other people in slavery: Phillis, who died in 1742, and an unknown person who died in 1756. In Joseph Josselyn’s will, Cuffee was the only human to appear as moveable property. Josselyn also petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for compensation for his service of his enslaved Indian “Servant” Prince Osgood during the French and Indian War.
Mrs. Josselyn died in 1801 and it is unclear if Joseph Josselyn’s bequest was enforced and if, without legal resources to represent himself, Cuffee was coerced or convinced to stay as a servant in the widow Josselyn’s household. Local historians do mention Cuffee further:
From being trafficked as a child out of his homeland, to slavery in Hanover, to “barbarous” pauper auctions: life was not easy for Cuffee.
Bidders at pauper auctions competed for two prizes. First, by agreeing to board and support the pauper for the year, the bidder received a sum of money from the town. Naturally, if the bidder did not spend the entire sum on food and support for the pauper, the bidder kept the surplus. Secondly, the bidder was entitled to the pauper’s labor without having to pay her or him. This was made explicitly clear by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1822:
A town has undoubtedly a right to the services of a pauper to aid in his support. So has any person who may have become liable for his support by virtue a contract with the town.
If you’ve read Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery, you know that the period after the American Revolution was a time of recession and many New England men were leaving farms to seek wages in more industrialized areas. White men were flooding the job market and racism was rampant. Mellish tells us that white workers at times resorted to violence to intimidate their Black competitors to protect job prospects. The segregation laws created during slavery stayed on the books for decades. It is not surprising, then, that the formerly enslaved people who were often illiterate, landless, and competing against white men in a racist job market, people like Cuffee Josselyn, would end up on the pauper rolls.
This was the case in neighboring towns as well. A look at census records concerning the Scituate almshouse, which stood at what is now the site of the Cushing Center in Norwell, we see that many of the Black families who appear in the colonial-era records of the town have members living in the almshouse in the early 1800s.
Unfortunately, the most widely-cited scholarly source for pauper auctions is Benjamin Klebaner’s Pauper Auctions: The “New England Method” of Public Poor Relief, which was published in 1955. Rest assured that it did not take race into account nor did it acknowledge the proximity of the rise of pauper auctions to the decline of slavery in Massachusetts.
Pauper auctions were not a race-based practice. Still, the system of auctioning off people, splitting up families, and requiring paupers to perform labor that they did not own while enriching someone else plainly echoes slavery and it was a system ripe for abuse.
Without additional scholarship, it is impossible to say if African Americans were over-represented on late 18th/early 19th Century Massachusetts pauper rolls. And we should certainly acknowledge the barbarity faced by white paupers, especially those in vulnerable categories such as children, the disabled, widowed mothers, and the elderly. But there is no reason to believe, until scholarship says otherwise, that, given the racial climate of the post-Revolutionary era, Black paupers did not face unique sets of challenges when navigating the slavery-to-pauper pipeline.
Taking what we learn from Cuffee Josselyn’s story and Dr. Hardesty’s analysis, we turn a critical eye to Hanover’s 1790 U.S. Census data. Here we learn:
17 out of 184 Hanover households housed people of color, or 9.2%.
Only 2 households were solely people of color; Joseph Nicholson and his family of 4 and single man Charles Turner. The remaining 15 households listed a white man as head of household.
35 people out of a population of 1,084 were nonwhite, or 3.2%. This is more than double the state-wide population of people of color, 1.4%.
The overlap in surnames from my Hanover Slavery Census—Bailey, Barker, Bass, Brooks, Estes, Jacob, Sylvester, Turner, and Tilden—is conspicuous. Zaccheus Estes is the grandson of Quaker Matthew Estes who held 5 slaves. Remember that Estes bequeathed to his daughter Sarah his “negroes,” but Sarah manumitted only Bilhah. Zaccheus lived with 4 people of color. Slaver Job Tilden housed 3 people of color; it strains credulity to believe he did so out of benevolence.
Ezra Damon housed 7 people of color; note with interest that Cuffee Josselyn died in 1831 at the home of Thomas Damon. It seems the Damon family may have been in the pauper business. And what to make of the names of those who were boarding “other free persons” who do not appear in the slavery census? What is the relationship between the white head of household and the people of color living under the same roof? More research is required to determine who were paupers, who were compensated for their labor, and who suffered in conditions resembling de facto slavery.
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.
*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.
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.
How does slavery tie into the founding of Abington, Mass., and what does the town’s first minister have to do with a forgotten woodland grave site that holds a Revolutionary War Veteran and Wampanoag royalty?
The leafy, lilly-white Massachusetts town of Norwell is a remarkable nexus of early Black American patriotism. It’s a place where Black Revolutionary War veterans left slavery, started, and whose descendants served in the Civil War.
Key words: American Revolution, Massachusetts in the Revolution, Forgotten Patriots, Black Patriots, African American Patriots, Slavery in Abington, Massachusetts, Slavery in Plymouth County, Slavery on the South Shore, South Shore Slavery, General John Thomas, Roxbury, Massachusetts, Slavery in Roxbury, slaves, enslaved, slave, Cuff Rosier, Cuff Rosaria, Cuff Roserea, Cuff Rocery, Cuff Rosary, Cuff Rozery, Cuff Rosercy, Cuff Roserey, Cuff Roso, Silas Roso, Silas Rosary, Silas Rosercy, Silas Rositer, Silas Rozery, Dinah Lamb, Dinah Nummuck, Nummock, Wampanoag, Indians in the Revolution, Native Americans in the Revolution, Indians in Abington, Native Americans in Abington, runaway slave ad, Squire Torrey, Roxbury in the Revolution, Numucke
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:
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.
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.”
Irrespective of which surname Primus carried on the day of his birth and which last name he enlisted under in Abington, he was Primus Coburn after the War of Independence. 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; without it, the Continental army may have lost those crucial battles, changing the war’s outcome.
Major André left his meeting with Arnold and was traveling back to Manhattan. Near Tarrytown, three Continental soldiers stopped him, and upon interrogation and detention, the documents were discovered. While waiting to receive Washington for breakfast, Arnold learned of André’s arrest and fled his headquarters on the river’s east bank; he then boarded the HMS Vulture and permanently defected to the British army.
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.
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.
How does slavery tie into the founding of Abington, Mass., and what does the town’s first minister have to do with a forgotten woodland grave site that holds a Revolutionary War Veteran and Wampanoag royalty?
The leafy, lilly-white Massachusetts town of Norwell is a remarkable nexus of early Black American patriotism. It’s a place where Black Revolutionary War veterans left slavery, started, and whose descendants served in the Civil War.
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
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.
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:
In which Founding Father Robert Treat Paine and merchant Elkanah Watson, Sr. get crushed in court by Caesar, a Black man, and his attorney Benjamin Kent. Caesar accused Watson of assaulting him, unjustly imprisoning him, and enslaving him.
Paine was one of the four Massachusetts signers of the Declaration of Independence and, in his official capacity as Massachusetts Attorney General, was the chief prosecutor of record in Commonwealth v. Jennison, the third trial in the Quock Walker case that lead Massachusetts to abolish slavery by statute in 1783. Paine’s Deputy Attorney General was Caesar’s Benjamin Kent, Esq.
Senior Watson made his money by trading with the West Indian slave societies and the junior Watson is well-known, as Wikipedia puts it, as “a visionary traveler and writer, agriculturist and canal promoter, banker and businessman”. But J.L. Bell suggests that the junior Watson may have some memory issues.
The court case in question dates back to the French and Indian War. “Ceasar was living in Plymouth in 1758” enslaved by Elkanah Watson “when Great Britain and France were at war. The British sent 27,000 men into Canada to attack the French fortress of Louisburg and among them was a contingent from Plymouth that included Ceasar Watson.” Frank Mand wrote for Wicked Local in November 2016. He continued, “[s]omehow, as the British bombarded it with cannon and lay siege to it, Ceasar managed to get into the fortress, meet the French commander – the Chevalier de druCour – and convince him to do something extraordinary. On 1 July 1758, the Chevalier issued a certificate to Caesar Watson granting him his freedom.”
However, the French fort fell and Caesar returned to Plymouth and remained in bondage under Elkanah Watson for more than a decade.
In 1771, though, Caesar made his move. He took Elkanah Watson to court for:
…assaulting the plaintiff at Louisbourg on 1 August 1758 and imprisoning him “in a vessel, where he was with force as aforesaid, close confined by the said Elkanah fo the space of thirty days from that time. And the said Caesar further saith that the said Elkanah afterwards, towit on the first day of September , he the said Elkanah at Plymouth aforesaid with force and arms again assaulted, and bound and imprisoned and unjustly held him at the said Caesar in bondage and servitude to him the said Elkanah for a long time afterwards…whereby the said Elkanah has made great but unjust gains, and many other wrongs and injuries he [did to] Caesar during the time…wherein the said Elkanah has unjustly restrained him the said Caesar of his Lawful liberty, all which is against our peace, and to the damage of the said Caesar as he saith the sum of one hundred and eighty pounds. Appealed by deft…
Elkanah Watson’s appeal fared no better and it’s worth noting that Watson did not retain Paine on appeal, rather he enlisted the services of John Adams. And that’s not Caesar’s entire story.
Strikingly, his narrative becomes more remarkable when we examine events previously to his freedom suit. A few years after Louisbourg, Caesar married Hester Winslow (enslaved by Edward Winslow) and in 1768 the couple had a daughter Eunice. The industrious Caesar did not want a life of enslavement for little Eunice; when the child was aged 3 months, Caesar asked Edward Winslow for Eunice’s freedom and Winslow granted her manumission. But Winslow would not materially support the child and with both parents being held in slavery, Caesar and Harriet needed to find support for the child
At age 2, the Watsons apprenticed their daughter to Isaac Lobdell of Plympton for 17 years. In exchange, Lobdell agreed not only to provide food, shelter and apparel, but Eunice would also be taught to read and write. Caesar was never not freedom-minded; from Louisbourg to his newborn daughter and to the court system, Caesar Watson spent 12 years plotting liberation for himself and his family.
[A note on Source material: I ran across the court case for Caesar Watson in the Plymouth County court database cited above. The rest of Caesar’s story comes from, as best as I can tell, original research by Dr. Karin J. Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein passed away in 2015. Pilgrim Hall Executive Director Dr. Donna Curtin presented the story at a Select Board meeting in November 2016; that meeting was reported in Wicked Local, from which I pulled the above quotes. This article does not seem to be currently online. Curtin also tells the story in a virtual presentation detailing Plymouth’s first African Americans. The relevant section starts after 42:30 of this Facebook Zoom recording. (I enjoyed the rest of the presentation, too.)
Mand, Frank (2016, Nov 27). “Caesar Watson’s tale highlight of 1749 Courthouse Thanksgiving ceremony”. WickedLocal.com]
Meet Venus Manning of South Scituate, Massachusetts
Updated: January 14, 2022 December 1, 2021
A version of this post appears as an essay in the Norwell Historical Society’s Winter 2022 newsletter, “North River Packet.”
In a digitized copy of a 1928 out-of-print local history book titled Old Time Anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore, a curious picture of a Black woman named Venus Manning exists with no context. Who was this woman who could afford to have her picture taken in the nineteenth century? Readers of Merritt’s book learn nothing beyond the fact that Venus was “An Early Resident of South Scituate,” but Venus, as it turns out, lived an exceptional life that included slavery, shrewd financial skills, and abolitionist activism
A quick search for Venus showed little beyond her birth in 1777. Her year of birth and her first name hint that Venus may have been born into slavery, as Massachusetts did not abolish slavery until 1783, but her freedom status at birth was mere speculation. Thankfully, Venus Manning left a robust probate file that yields clues to a life well-lived. An item in her last will and testament dictates that “…said remainder to be administrated as follows, first to render such assistance to Ichabod, James, Catherine, and Patty Sylvester, children of my deceased brother Fruitful Sylvester.” Venus mentioning her brother Fruitful Sylvester by name unlocks a huge clue to her identity. Historian L. Vernon Briggs tells us in his well-read 1889 “History of Shipbuilding on North River” that Fruitful Sylvester was born in Norwell enslaved:
Venus Manning’s Estate was Impressive. Through Fruitful Sylvester we can build a Sylvester family tree. Venus and her brother Fruitful had four sisters, Catherine, Edna, Hittie (Mehitable), and Rhoda. Despite Venus and her five siblings being born into slavery, she boasted an impressive estate at the time of her 1860 death and she was amongst the wealthiest single women in the town of South Scituate (Norwell). Her estate was appraised at $3,375.95; if an online inflation calculator is to be believed, this would be $112,000 in 2022 dollars. Furthermore, in 1859 and 1860, Venus was taxed at a higher rate—$19 dollars—than most of her fellow South Scituate residents. Her wealth accrued because, no doubt, beyond Fruitful Sylvester, none of the Sylvester siblings had children; subsequently, the siblings were able to transfer money and property to their survivors. Venus was the last of the six Sylvesters standing.
Venus worshipped, married, and banked in Boston. Acknowledging that Venus may have inherited some wealth from her siblings should not discount Venus’s own industriousness. Records from 1805 – 1841 show that Venus was baptized, married, and banked in Boston; she later resided in neighboring Roxbury. Records from Baldwin Place Baptist Church report Venus’s Baptism in 1805. She married Thomas Manning at the same church in 1809. And extant records from the Provident Institution for Savings show both Venus Manning and Thomas Manning making deposits.
Venus was financially literate. Her probate file further reveals that, upon return to her hometown and presumably after her husband’s death, she held dividend-paying accounts at the Scituate Savings Bank and the South Scituate Savings Bank, and she also owned and collected dividends on three shares in the Boston and Albany Railroad. Beyond that, she held a $200 note against the town of South Scituate. The note against the town is further attested to in South Scituate’s annual report for 1860.
Strikingly, Venus had a philanthropic streak. The two most frequent places that Venus appears in the record are donations to the Baptist Missionary Society and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the latter of which she was a Life Member. Furthermore, her will left $200 to the Methodist Society of South Scituate, and $200 to the Boston’s Baldwin Place Baptist Church for the expressed purpose to “promote the cause of abolition of slavery in these United States.” This is yet another one of countless unwritten examples of African Americans pushing from below to pressure white society for abolition.
Thomas Manning largely remains a mystery: Beyond his marriage to Venus Sylvester in 1809, there is a Thomas Manning listed as making a deposit to the Provident Institution for Savings in 1831. Of course, it may be a mere coincidence that a man with the same name as Venus’s husband uses the same bank as Venus. But it’s a lead. And it’s further interesting that this Thomas Manning’s occupation is listed in the bank register as “mariner.” Sailing often offered the best opportunity for African American men to earn money and Thomas working in the notoriously dangerous trade could offer explanations as to where Venus’s money came from and why it is hard to track Thomas Manning’s death.
Despite Venus not having children, she had a family tree. Not much is known about her husband and it appears she returned to South Scituate a widow, but her will indicates that she viewed Norwell’s African American community as extended family. Besides the children of her brother Fruitful, Venus’s probate file mentions many other people, including members of the Lee, Gunderway, and Winslow families. One notable beneficiary is Benjamin F. Lee, a Civil War veteran who served with the famed Colored Troops of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Additionally, Venus left her share of her house to Benjamin’s father, George Lee. This house would have stood on a six-acre property at approximately 246 Circuit Street at the corner of Pine Street.
I built out Venus and Fruitful’s family tree on WikiTree to link everyone from Norwell’s Wildcat community that was mentioned in her will; if you want to explore further notes on the Sylvester siblings and to see Venus’s connections to her to friends and neighbors in Norwell’s Black community, start with the profile I created for Venus.
Find-A-Grave lists Venus Manning as being buried in Norwell’s First Parish Cemetery, but there was no photo. Additionally, I was disheartened to find that Venus does not appear in the well-known “Old Cemeteries of Southeastern Massachusetts” book which contains transcriptions of headstones in cemeteries across Plymouth County. The book had an entry for Fruitful, but not Venus. I feared Venus’s final resting spot may have been lost to the ages. Doubtful but nonetheless diligent, I visited First Parish Cemetery and was rewarded. Venus rests alongside Fruitful Sylvester and the rest of her family!
Postscript: In a beautiful postscript to Venus Manning’s life, we find this note in an 1864 issue of The Boston Advertiser. It details a $100 gift from “the Venus Manning Fund” for “the relief of the suffering Freed Colored People of the Mississippi Valley.”
This language concerning the “Mississippi Valley” is from the Massachusetts Freedman’s Aid Society that provided support for the formerly enslaved who migrated to Boston and for Black educational programs across the country.
Venus Manning was born into slavery before the Revolution and, through a purposefully-lived life, she was an abolitionist who improved life for once-enslaved people in the post-Emancipation United States. 162 years after her death, Venus Manning is reshaping how we remember the impact of Black families and Black women had on early Norwell, and she is also reshaping who we remember as abolitionists.
What else can we learn about Venus? Venus seems like an absolute legend; there are many gaps to be filled in between the scant but fascinating details known about her life. Who were her parents? What happened to Thomas Manning? What was her life like in her Boston and Roxbury years? Where did she learn her financial acumen?
If anyone comes across further details of Venus Manning’s life, please contact me and let me know!
SOURCES: For a traditional bibliography of the sources linked in this story click here.
Isaac Little of Pembroke sued Stephen Andrews of Taunton (prev: Duxbury and Rochester) for a refund on the sale of an enslaved man Primas.
Andrews knew that Primas was “unsound and unhealthy”, being afflicted with consumption. Little, ignorant of this fact, claims not only fraud but injury, as Little paid out doctor’s bills and funeral costs. Furthermore, Primas “languished and died” within 4 months and did not provide the plaintiff Little “one day’s work”. Little recovered his original £35 expenditure, but “prayed judgment might be made up for the remaining debt” in the continuance.
Josiah Stertevant (Sturtevant) of Plymouth brought suit against Isaac Howland of Tiverton for £200 damages for defrauding him when Howland delivered Sturtevant a “negro boy named Primas and warranted and avouched that [Primas] was then in sound and good health”. As it turns out, Primas was “diseased” and had “a swelling in his throat”. Primas “languished and within three months” he died. Jury verdict for the defendant indicating that the jury believed that Howland did not “fraudulently” “deceive” Sturtevant when Primas was sold.
Imposing himself on her for the said John her husband
Guiney, “a Negro Slave of Joshua Drew of Plymouth…broke up that part of…Drew’s house in which Rebecca, wife of Jonathan Davenport, dwells and wickedly attempted to debauch…Rebecca by imposing himself on her for the said John her husband, whereby [she] was previously affrighted and put in great fear and terror of her life”. Guiney pleaded guilty and the court ordered him “whipped 25 stripes at the cart’s tail”, to pay charges, and stand committed.
What does this mean? Did John send Guiney to commit sexual violence against his wife?
The sentence of whipping immediately executed upon her
Sarah Boyce of Pembroke, “singlewoman” gave birth to “a bastard child” in 1716 and confessed that “Squire, a negro man, was the father”. The “court ordered her to be publically whipped 10 stripes and to pay fees and charges”. Furthermore, Boyce birthed a bastard child the previous May and confessed, “that Richard, a negro man…of Marshfield…was the father”. Again, the “court ordered her to be publically whipped 10 stripes and to pay fees and charges”, which combined with the previous charges totaled 33s.8d. The sentences of whipping were immediately executed upon her.
Above the case of Sarah Boyce, a married couple is fined £4; beneath is the case of Cornelius Clarke, charged with fornication with Susana Stevens. After pleading not guilty, the case was dismissed on payment of 19s. There are two more cases of fornication on this page and the following page, but Sarah Boyce is the only one of the many fornicators that received corporal punishment…although we don’t know if the fathers of Sarah Boyce’s children faced any punishment.