African-Americans: Colonial and Revolutionary War Waypoints E-mail
Updated April 2, 2013

Colonial and Revolutionary War Waypoints

The Years from 1619 to 1798

Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2013 by Bob Sweeny
All Rights Reserved

Before Revolution     Patriot Side     British Side     At King's Mountain     After the War     Suggested Reading     Links


Prior to the Revolution


Dutch land 20 Africans at Jamestown, Virginia: 17 men and 3 women. Purchased by the colony, they were "distributed" as indentured servants, since they were baptised. Under English law, their baptism made them free.


Virginian Hugh Davis found guilty of "defiling his body" by "lying with negro."


Massachusetts imports slaves, although they are normally called servants, not slaves, north of Maryland.


John Punch and two white indentures run away and are caught. Their indentures are lengthened, but Punch':s is made for life, making him, in effect, a slave.


Maryland recognized slavery.


Virginia declared that baptism does not make a slave free.


The Carolinas recognized slavery.

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New York recognized slavery.


A Quaker Meeting spoke out against slavery as being against the Golden Rule.


George Fox, William Penn, and George Keith published the first antislavery tract.


South Carolina required planters to have one white servant for each six blacks. This requirement was the same as in Jamaica and Barbados.

In Massachusetts, Reverend Cotton Mather advocated literacy for African-Americans and started free schools that featured bible study.


By 1700, indentured servitude declined in popularity, and slavery increased. The number of slaves increased, and Britain became a major slave trader.

In Pennsylvania, three Quakers advocate "mental improvements" for African-Americans.

From 1700 to 1750, John Woolman traveled among Quakers, seeking their "Christian" treatment of their slaves. At the same time, fellow Quaker Anthony Benezet advocated abolition and taught African-Americans to read.

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In Massachusetts, Samuel Sewell's The Selling of Joseph advocated ending slavery, the first American book known to do so. There was little support for abolition in Massachusetts, since Puritan Church membership gave slaves the right to vote.

In London, Church of England clergy formed the Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.


The Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts founded a negro school in New York.


The Society for Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts founded a negro school in Charleston, South Carolina.


Georgia recognized slavery. The number of slaves in greatest in the Southern colonies that grow commercial crops, such as rice, indigo, and tobacco. The lowest African-American population in the South in 1750 is in North Carolina.

Increasingly, African-Americans were trained for crafts, although Northern colonies regularly banned black craftsmen and merchants to minimize competition.

The individual colonies indepently established codes of slave conduct with infrequent interference from Britain. The harshest code was in South Carolina, where the provisions were based on the codes in the British Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Barbados.

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A slave in Massaschusetts, Jenny Slew, sued her master on grounds he restrained her liberty. Similar suits occurred elsewhere in Massachusetts.


Anthony Benezet founded a school with mostly African-American students.

Five years before Lexington and Concord opened the Revolution, African-American Crispus Attucks was killed in the Boston Massacre.


Pennsylvania taxed imported slaves.

A group of slaves in Massachusetts petition the legislature unsuccessfuly for their freedom.


England overturned a 1771 Massachusetts law outlawing the slave trade. The Crown acts to protect British shipping interests.

Connecticut and Rhode Island prohibited the import of slaves. Virginia and North Carolina restrict slave imports.

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Patriots in the Revolution

Militia Service

In the French and Indian War, many African-Americans served in the militia of the colonies. New York and Connecticut had African-Americans in 25 militia companies.

Early in the Revolution, African-Americans were generally kept out of the militia. As manpower shortages occurred, the prohibitions on African-Americans in the militia were often overlooked.

Army Service

Acceptance of African-Americans varied throughout the Revolution. Often an African-American's name was not recorded, only a "Negro man." African-Americans usually served mixed with whites. Only a few African-Americans served in the dragoons (cavalry) or artillery. Usually, an African-American was a private, an orderly, or in a support role as wagon driver, forager, in the commissary, a drummer, servant, cook, or waiter.

Navy Service

African-Americans also served in large numbers in the Continental Navy, the state navies, and aboard privateers (private vessels licensed by the colonies or Congress to act as armed ships attacking British, mostly, merchant ships. As with the militia and army, service was driven by manpower availability.

In the Continental Navy, African-Americans served usually as "officer's boys" or "powderboys." In Virginia and Maryland, they often served as pilots. In all the states, they served as seamen.

In Virginia, a slave, Caesar, served as a pilot on the schooner Patriot. Another Virginia pilot, Minny, died attempting to board a British ship in the Rappahannock River.

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Five years before Lexington and Concord opened the Revolution, African-American Crispus Attucks, along with four whites, is killed in the Boston Massacre.


Virginia's William Flora served with distinction as a sentinel at Great Bridge, a battle that was a loss for Virginia's Royal governor. Following Great Bridge, Governor Dunmore abandonned Norfolk and Virginia.

The Continental Army excluded free or slave African-Americans. When those already serving ask to reenlist, George Washington asked Congress to allow their reenlistment.


With the exception of Virginia, the states excluded African-Americans from their militia. (Virginia did limit freemen to serving as drummers, fifers, or pioneers.) However, difficulty in recruiting soon caused states and the Continental Army to ignore the bans.

The Continental Congress prohibited import of slaves in all 13 colonies.


Abandonning its earlier policy, the Continental Army allowed the enlistment of African-Americans.

Virginia actively recruited African-Americans for the Continental Army, enlisting by the end of the war up to 500.

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755 African-Americans served in the Continental Army. The New England regiments had a greater proportion than other regions. Connecticut had the largest number of African-Americans serving. In the South, Virginia had the largest number.

In the Battle of Rhode Island, the 3-month-old First Rhode Island withstood three British assaults to ensure victory.

1779, 1780

The Continental Congress urged Georgia and South Carolina to raise slave batallions, since white recruitment failed to raise the numbers required. The proposal of Congress would pay the owners $1,000. The slaves would receive $50 and their freedom. Both Georgia and South Carolina rejected the idea.


The most famous black privateer, James Forteu, serving aboard the Royal Louis, was captured in held captive in New Jersey. Later he was a successful sailmaker in Philadelphia, leaving an estate of $100,000. He was also a prominent abolitionist.

James, of New Kent County, Virginia, spied on deserter, and now British General, Benedict Arnold.


Rhode Island freed its slaves and required educating the children of the freed slaves.

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British Side in the Revolution


Possibly 1,000 African-Americans served with the British and Loyalist forces as soldiers, mostly in the South. Perhaps another 10,000 served as laborers and craftsmen. Many served as spies, seamen, and pilots.


Virginia's Royal governor, Lord Dunmore, declared free all slaves who joined the British army. He was driven from Williamsburg soon after, but 700 slaves joined his army.


Sampson guided the British in the unsuccessful British assault on Charleston.


Henry Clinton offered freedom to slaves living within the British lines.


Britain evacuated over 15,000 former slaves at the end of the war. Tragically, Britain also sold some African-Americans into slavery in the Caribbean.

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In Patriot Army at King's Mountain

Dr. Bobby G. Moss has identified five African-Americans who served in the Patriot army at Kings' Mountain:

  • Essius (Esaius) Bowman  From southwest Virginia, he was one of the seven or more men Draper says shot Ferguson. Except for Draper's mention, nothing else is known about him.
  • John Broddy  He was described as a servant for William Campbell, but he was the only slave in the Patriot army known to be present. Draper describes how he rode within 200 yards of the battle. He was also described as resembling Campbell and is thought to be the source of reports that Campbell was not at the battle. Late in life, John Sevier and Isaac Shelby questioned whether Campbell joined in the fighting. Draper assumes this came about from jealousy. Draper quotes at least one of Sevier's men as certifying Campbell was in the thick of the battle. No comments from John Broddy are known to exist.
  • Andrew Ferguson  He was born in July, 1765, in Virginia. At age 13 or 15, the British seized him and his father. They escaped. He was drafted in 1780 at age 15. He served in ten battles that year and the next. He was wounded at Camden and Guilford Court House. He served in the major southern campaigns of 1780, including the Patriot militia victories at Musgrove's Mill and King's Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Court House. He died in 1856 in Bloomington, Indiana.
  • Primes (Primus)  He enlisted in 1777. He was captured at Charleston and paroled. He violated his parole, was captured again, paroled, and again rejoined the army! He was wounded at Camden. He also served at King's Mountain, Cowpens, Guilford Court House, Eutaw Springs, and Yorktown. He died in 1848 or 1849 in Roane County, Tennessee.
  • Ishmael Titus  He was born a slave in Amelia County, Virginia, about 1743. He was sold twice, finally to a man in Roane County, North Carolina (possibly Rowan County). He was freed for substituting for (serving in the army in place of) his master's son. After serving that enlistment, he reenlisted. He just missed Camden. He did serve at Deep River, King's Mountain, and Guilford Court House. He was captured by Tories and aided Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, also a Tory prisoner, to escape. He was living in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, in 1832.
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After the Revolution


As the war nears its end, Pennsylvania abolished slavery.

A Methodist assembly in Baltimore called for an end to slavery and for itinerant ministers to free their slaves.


The Articles on Confederation, the first document setting up a multistate government for the U.S., provided that freemen in one state are free in all the states. However, only the white population is counted for representation purposes.


The Silver Bluff, South Carolina, Baptist Church is formed, the first African-American Baptist church in the United States.


Jefferson proposed prohibiting slavery west of the Mississippi, but this failed.


The New York Manumission Society founded the African Free School.

The Northwest Territory prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River.

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The Consitution requires that nonslave states must respect the slave status of slaves from slaveholding states, counted slaves as 3/5th of a person when determining population for representation in Congress, and provided that Congress could not prohibit the importation of slaves for 20 years.

While abolition of slavery is discussed, the belief is that slavery is ending. Southern states oppose abolition on both economic and social grounds.


A national conference of abolitionist socities met. Ten states, including Maryland and Virginia sent representatives.


Joseph Willis, an African-American, preaches the first American sermon west of the Mississippi in Louisiana.

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Suggested Reading

This account is based, in part, on information from these sources:

  • The Negro in the American Revolution, by Benjamin Quarles, 1961, University of North Carolina Press, the graddaddy of all studies on African-Americans in the Revolution
  • The Patriots at King's Mountain, by Dr. Bobby Gilmer Moss, Scotia-Hibernia Press
  • African-American Patriots in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, by Dr. Bobby Gilmer Moss & Michael C. Scoggins, 2004, Scotia-Hibernia Press
  • Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, by Ira Berlin, 1998, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
  • American Slavery 1619 - 1877, by Peter Colchin, 1993, Hill and Wang
  • Blacks in Colonial America, by Oscar Reiss, 1997, McFarland & Company
  • King's Mountain and Its Heroes, by Dr. Lyman D. Draper, 1881, Reprint by Overmountain Press

Check the park bookstores for these titles.

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Related Links

  • American's page on African-Americans offers a nice summary with good detail on Lord Dunmore's efforts and the all-black Continental Army regiments. There are a wealth of source documents and links to interesting Web sites.
  • Royal's page for Loyalist African-Americans is another gem.
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This page is copyright © 2004, 2005, 2013 by Bob Sweeny