“Forgotten Soldier” at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

The exhibition Forgotten Soldier at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia features the “Inspection Roll of Negroes” from the holdings of the National Archives. Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, senior registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.

“Forgotten Soldier” exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, 2019. (Photo courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

Mary Perth, Boston King, Moses Wilkinson, David George, and Harry Washington were among the thousands of African Americans who escaped slavery during the Revolutionary War. Their names and other important information were recorded in official records of the United States and Great Britain as they boarded British ships evacuating New York Harbor at the end of the war in 1783.   

Approximately 3,000 names were recorded in ledger books: the American “Inspection Roll of Negroes” and the British “Book of Negroes.” The first name recorded is George Black, 35, freed by Lawrence Hartshorne on April 23, 1783, and the last on November 30, 1783, is Bettsey Mann, 5 years, Born free within the British Lines.

For most, their destination was the British colony to the northeast, Nova Scotia. Despite British promises of equality and fair treatment, they found hardship, hard living, racial discrimination, and sometimes violence. In 1792, more than a thousand of these African Nova Scotians went on to board 15 ships for a very dangerous trip to the Sierra Leone Company’s settlement on the west coast of Africa in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Many died along the way.  

The ledger books are featured in the exhibition Forgotten Soldier at the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, VA. The exhibition explores the complex history of African Americans’ involvement in the Revolutionary War—on both the American and British sides of the conflict.

Both the American and British volumes on display in the “Forgotten Soldier” exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, 2019. (Photo Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

The “Inspection Roll” was submitted to the Continental Congress and is now among the holdings of the National Archives of the United States in Washington, DC, and the “Book of Negroes” came from the National Archives at Kew in London. In 1783, they probably stood open on the same table or adjoining tables on a dock in New York harbor. Today, they are being publicly displayed together for the first time since.   

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, commented, “the ‘Inspection Roll of Negroes’ in the National Archives of the United States and the ‘Book of Negroes’ in the National Archives of the United Kingdom were on the docks of the New York harbor in 1783 as the Revolutionary War came to a close. I am grateful to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation for bringing these historic documents together at Yorktown 236 years later, and honoring the thousands of African Americans recorded in these volumes, which document their search for freedom.   

Considering the rarity of information on 18th-century African American slaves, these records are considered treasures of African American genealogical history. Among the persons whose names were recorded, some were previously free, some had escaped slavery, and some were still enslaved to their loyalist masters. They were men and women, young and old, singles, couples, and families.

In addition to names, the ledgers tell us ages; brief descriptions such as “stout fellow,” “likely boy,” “all worn out,” and “blind and lame”; names of their former owners; vessel names and their captains; destinations; and other valuable information. Forgotten Soldier brings these two records together for the first time since they were created on the docks of New York in that fateful year.

November 7, 1775

On November 7, 1775, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, royal governor of the British Colony of Virginia, issued a proclamation inviting the slaves of rebellious Americans to escape to British lines and become free. Later in the war, Generals William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton published similar proclamations of freedom.

Through the course of the war, tens of thousands of enslaved people escaped to British lines, many taking up arms, and others providing additional support to the British armed forces. They were provided certificates of freedom such as the following:

This is to certify to whomever it may concern, that the Bearer hereof ____________ a Negro, resorted to the British Lines, in consequence of the Proclamations of Sir William How, and Sir Henry Clinton, late Commanders in Chief in America; and that the said Negro has hereby his Excellency Sir Guy Carleton’s Permission to go to Nova-Scotia, or where else [he/she] may think proper.  By Order of Brigadier General Birch

Others chose to join the American army in the hope of obtaining their freedom.   

April 1783

In April 1783, the victory of American and French forces against the British at Yorktown, Virginia, was 18 months in the past. In London, the government of Lord North, the prime minister, fell, and Parliament moved towards peace with its former colonies.

On November 30, 1782, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens signed the Preliminary Articles of Peace in Paris. In the Articles, George III and his government officially recognized the independence of the United States for the first time, agreed to the new country’s boundaries from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from Canada to Florida, and promised the release of prisoners and the evacuation of British posts. Article 7 reads:

All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Britannic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States, and from every post, place, and harbor within the same; leaving in all fortifications, the American artillery that may be therein; and shall also order and cause all archives, records, deeds, and papers belonging to any of the said states, or their citizens, which in the course of the war may have fallen into the hands of his officers, to be forthwith restored and delivered to the proper states and persons to whom they belong.

Henry Laurens was a wealthy South Carolina planter, slave trader, and former President of the Continental Congress. In 1779 Congress appointed him as an envoy to the Netherlands. The following year, en route to Amsterdam, Laurens was captured at sea, charged with treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. After his release at the end of 1781, he joined Franklin, Adams, and Jay to negotiate the peace, but arrived when the Preliminary Articles was almost ready for signing. It was Laurens who proposed the insertion of the Article 7 clause prohibiting the “carrying away any Negroes…”   

May 1783

News of the Preliminary Articles of Peace reached Congress and General Washington in early spring of 1783, and on April 18, 1783, Washington issued a proclamation announcing an end to hostilities. The news had also made its way to Washington’s counterpart, General Sir Guy Carleton, the commander of British forces in North America. 

To Carleton fell the awesome task of organizing the departure of British forces from New York and other British posts throughout the country, as well as American loyalist allies and formerly enslaved people who had been made free under the Dunmore Proclamation and other British orders. To help facilitate the process, Washington and Carleton met May 6 on Staten Island. The following is an excerpt from Washington’s summary of the meeting in his letter to Carleton of the same date:

In the course of our Conference on this subject, I was surprised to hear you mention that an Embarkation had already taken place, in which a large Number of Negroes had been carryed away—… I cannot … conceal from your Excellency, that my private opinion is, that the measure is totally different from the Letter & Spirit of the Treaty—But …leaving its decision to our respective Sovereigns, I find it my duty to signify my Readiness, in Conjunction with your Excellency, to enter into any agreement, or take any measures which may be deemed expedient, to prevent the future carrying away of any Negroes or other Property of the American Inhabitants.

In response, Carleton took a different view on the Letter & Spirit of the Treaty:

I enclose the copy of a order which I have given out to prevent the carrying away any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants…As I had no right to deprive them of that liberty I found them possessed of, an accurate register was taken of every circumstance respecting them, so as to serve as a record of the name of the original proprietor of each negroe, and as a rule to judge of his value; By this open method of conducting the business, I hope to prevent all fraud and whatever might admit of different constructions is left open for future explanation or compensation.

This business carried on in this public manner and the orders nominating persons to superintend embarcations, published in the Gazette I had no reason to think either the embarcation or any circumstance attending it could have been matter of surprise to your Excellency on the 6th May. I then however learned with concern that the embarcation which had already taken place, and in which a large number of negroes had been conveyed away, appeared to your Excellency as a measure totally different from the Letter and spirit of the treaty. The negroes in question I have already said, I found free when I arrived at New York, I had therefore no right as I thought, to prevent their going to any part of the World they thought proper.

The issue affected George Washington personally. Harry Washington, listed as “formerly property of General Washington,” was one of several persons who had once been enslaved in, and had escaped from, Mount Vernon.

Born in 1740, Mary Perth was the slave of John Willoughby of Norfolk, Virginia, a loyalist, therefore she was not eligible for freedom under the Dunmore Proclamation. In the chaos of war, she escaped and made her way to New York. Her Inspection Roll entry reads Mary Perth, 43, stout wench, formerly the property of John Willoughby of Norfolk, Virginia, left him 7 years ago, General Birch Certificate. In 18th century English, a “stout wench” was interpreted as a healthy/strong female servant.

In Nova Scotia, the black loyalists were promised their freedom, supplies, and land. They were free, but most never received the promised land grants. The lucky ones had “a single apartment built with sods whee men, women, children, pigs, fleas, bugs, mosquitos and other domestic insects mingle in society.” (The Black Loyalist Directory, Graham Russell Hodges, editor.)

Tensions developed between black and white loyalists. Former white soldiers rioted against free blacks in Shelburne in 1784.  Blacks were punished severely for minor infractions, including whipping.  

In Sierra Leone, Mary Perth operated a farm with her husband Ceasar and later a boarding house, voted in community elections, and had a right judged by a jury of her peers. Perth later traveled to London to work for Zachary MacCauley (British abolitionist and father of historian Thomas MacCauley). She died in 1813 or later after returning to Nova Scotia. 

David George and Moses Wilkinson (listed as “blind and lame”) were popular ministers in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone. 

To learn more about black loyalists, visit African Nova Scotians in the Age of Slavery and Abolition. For more historical context about the British anti-slavery movement and the Sierra Leone Company, read Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings.  For a fictional treatment of the Nova Scotia/Sierra Leone black loyalists, see Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes.  The lead character, Aminata Diallo, is partially modeled on the life of Mary Perth.  

I am especially grateful to Martha Katz-Hyman, Jane Hohensee, Katherine Egner Gruber, Lisa Bishop, Matt Knight, Tracy Perkins, and Peter Armstrong at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation for the all they did to organize Forgotten Soldier and to facilitate our loan.  My NARA colleagues Patrick Kepley, Richard Hunt, Stephanie Greenhut, Jane Fitzgerald, Abigail Aldrich, Rachel Bartgis, and Dong Eun Kim provided essential support.  

Visit the National Archives DocsTeach for related records.

6 thoughts on ““Forgotten Soldier” at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

  1. The writings over the old script are beautiful, I would definitely gonna visit the museum when I am around the place, thanks for sharing yet another history lesson 🙂

  2. very good historical record, even though it’s not very complete. but this can be memorized lessons and inspiration for us who are still there

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