Local Enslaved Men Fought in Revolutionary War
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In an era when cities and towns across the nation are reexamining the heritage of their black citizens, it is fitting for Jamestown to do the same.
There is a deep and rich history in Jamestown, but the stories of its black and Native American veterans from the Revolutionary War have never been acknowledged. Two of these men are the only local soldiers to lose their lives in that war. Jamestown has commemorated the service of its white soldiers for centuries, and it can now add the missing soldiers of color to that roster.
At least seven Jamestown soldiers of color fought in the Revolutionary War. They joined the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a unit reconstituted in 1778 exclusively of black and Native American slaves and freemen by the fledgling rebel government to bolster its inadequate number of white recruits. Enslaved men purchased by the state regiment were then set free in exchange for serving a full enlistment.
Howland Avenue commemorates the farm of John Howland, which stretched from the east shore to Southwest Avenue, south of Narragansett Avenue. The Howland family descended from Job Howland, a Quaker yeoman who settled in Jamestown in 1703. When Job died in 1763, his possessions were inventoried, including furniture, pots, clothes, and “a Negro boy named Robin,” appraised at 1,000 pounds sterling. Records reveal Robin Howland was of mixed Native American and black heritage. This enslaved boy, Robin, and Dick, who was likely his brother, were bequeathed by Job Howland to his son, John.
During the Revolution, John Howland left Jamestown in 1777 to the safer environs of Warwick, bringing Robin and Dick, now young adults, with him. Dick escaped from his owner that same year, as reported in a runaway slave notice in the Providence Gazette. Robin did not, however, and was sold to the state regiment in 1778.
Howland, as a private, mustered with Capt. Thomas Arnold’s black and Native American company in Col. Christopher Greene’s regiment, and within weeks found himself fighting in the biggest military engagement in the state’s history: the Battle of Rhode Island. The battle was fought in Portsmouth between about 5,000 New England troops and similarly sized — but superior — British and Hessian forces. Howland was thrown into a brutal fight on Butt’s Hill in Portsmouth with, like almost everyone in the black regiment, no battle experience, minimal training, and meager equipment. Despite these shortfalls, the Americans retreated in order, and the black regiment of 125 men lost only three soldiers. After the battle, they decamped about Rhode Island.
In 1781, they marched to Yorktown, Va., where in the final major battle of the war, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment successfully stormed Redoubt No. 10, although its commander, Capt. Stephen Olney, took a bayonet to the stomach and almost died.
Here is when Howland’s story takes a darker turn. In December, two months after the victory, the troops headed north toward Philadelphia, but with poor hygiene and cramped quarters, disease spread across the camps. That month, 43 soldiers from the regiment died. On Dec. 13, 1781, Howland died at a hospital in Wilmington, Del., likely of smallpox, and was interred.
More than a decade later, in 1792, the Jamestown Town Council noted in a probate case that the deceased Robin Howland was “a Negro man that once belonged to Mr. John Howland and enlisted into the Continental service in Col. Greene’s regiment and there deceased.” A century later, however, the council only would remember his owner when it created Howland Avenue.
Robin’s surviving brother, Dick, who apparently successfully escaped slavery, was never heard from again.
Born in 1763, John Bristol was the son of an enslaved father, Bristol Hull, who worked on one of the Hull family farms in Jamestown. The different last names may reflect a common custom of freedmen in which sons would take their father’s given name as a surname instead of keeping the master’s last name.
When the farmer, Robert Hull, died in 1769, his inventory appraised John’s father to be worth 45 pounds sterling. His son, John Bristol, described alternatively as “Indian” and “colored,” joined the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment in 1780 after it had merged with the 1st regiment into a racially integrated unit.
Like his comrade, Robin Howland, Bristol marched to Yorktown, fighting in the battle against the British, then marched north. He died Jan. 22, 1782, just a month after Robin Howland, in a Philadelphia hospital, likely of the same illness as his compatriot.
A worker on the Remington farm, which was located where the Hodgkiss Farm is today, Jabez Remington was born enslaved in Jamestown in 1759. His owner, Benjamin Remington, was a deputy of Jamestown in the General Assembly, and his body lies peacefully under his gravestone at the common burial ground. His slave’s life, however, was far from peaceful, and his final resting place is unknown.
Muster rolls described him as 5 feet, 1.25 inches tall, a 19-year-old laborer with black hair and black complexion. He was delivered to Capt. John Dexter’s company of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in March 1778, “appraised and valued at 120 pounds.”
Once mustered in the regiment under Greene, Remington set about training for the Battle of Rhode Island, in which he later fought. In January 1780, he mustered in Newport, now free of the British, and later transported facines of wood for breastworks from North Kingstown to Jamestown.
Records of Remington’s remaining years in the war are sparse, but indicate severe deprivation and hardship, as troops often lacked adequate food, clothing, and shoes. While he did not desert, which happened frequently, he was court-martialed twice, once for stealing a sheep, then reinstated. In May 1781, he likely fought with his comrades at a battle in Croton River, N.Y., where Greene was “cut to pieces” in a loyalist attack. He later fought in the Yorktown siege, which due to a French naval blockade, ended in the surrender of the British and all but finished the war.
Next, Remington marched in a final expedition with 500 troops in the bitter February winter of 1783 to Oswego, N.Y., in a failed attempt to take Fort Ontario. Like many of the African-American troops, he became lame, losing five toes from frostbite, and was honorably discharged in June at the end of the war with a pension for invalids of 1 pound, 10 shillings per month.
Javin Hazard of Jamestown was sold to the state regiment by his owner, Robert Hull Hazard, for 110 pounds sterling in August 1778. He was recorded as “Mustee,” which means having both African and Native American heritage, like many slaves in Jamestown. The Hazard farmhouse where he worked was located just off today’s Tashtassuc Road on Rub Street until it burned down in 2007.
Quam Howland was born in 1761 to Hester Howland. He and his mother were owned by Job Howland and appraised together at 800 pounds sterling in Job’s inventory. They worked on one of the two Howland farms, and Quam joined the Continental Battalion in July 1780. He survived the war, and by 1790, headed a household of seven in Jamestown. n Amintus Weeden was enslaved by John Weeden and served as an assistant to the commissary of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment in North Kingstown. He applied for a soldier’s pension, but was denied, never having been formally inducted.
Thomas Dick, a Native American living in Jamestown and New Shoreham, served in Capt. Amos Greene’s company in 1779. He later moved to the Brothertown Indian lands in New York in the early 1800s, serving the tribe as a peacemaker and church elder. He then moved to Wisconsin with his tribe under pressure from white settlers and the U.S. government.
The defense of Rhode Island during the war of independence was due in no small part to soldiers like these seven men from Jamestown, two of whom never returned, and those among them who had been enslaved, gained their freedom by the end of the war, though only at great cost.
Robin Howland's Records
The mark of Robin Howland on a U.S. Army payroll record in June 1779. After fighting in Yorktown, he died of smallpox in 1781. COURTESY OF HERITAGE AUCTIONS
Originally published in the Jamestown Press.
About the Author:
Peter Fay is a public historian and board member of the Jamestown Historical Society. He researches, writes, and lectures about Rhode Island history. He also is currently helping develop a public memorial to recognize the role of Newport in the history of the slave trade.