Runaway Slave Attempted to take Freedom Into His Own Hands
In 1832, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, died at his home in Maryland. His death represented for many the passing of America’s Revolutionary generation, and with them, the spirit of the Revolution itself. The anxious desire throughout the country to revitalize the “Spirit of ’76” did not go unnoticed by the members of the United States Congress. Availing themselves of the opportunity to enact popular legislation in an election year, Congress passed a new Pension Act in 1832 to honor the aging veterans of the Revolutionary war who had fallen on hard times. Due to the advanced ages of the possible applicants, the actual number of pensions was expected to be relatively small, and their duration relatively short. By the early 1830s, the youngest of the Revolutionary War veterans would have been in their late sixties, and most would have been well into their seventies or even older. This made the Pension Act an inexpensive and convenient way to express concern for the preservation of Revolutionary ideals. Yet few representatives could have imagined the different types of responses they would receive from around the nation. Among the hundreds of applications for pensions were those of several dozen African-Americans who served in the Continental Army. These applicants provided an unexpected twist in the execution of the Pension Act, and none more so than the application of Jehu Grant, a native of Rhode Island then in his late seventies.
From Jehu’s testimony in 1836 that he was “upward of eighty years of age,” he must have been born during the middle part of the 1750s. By this reckoning, Jehu would have been a young man in his early twenties at the time of the Revolution, which is consistent with his statement that in 1777 he “was then grown to manhood, in the full vigor and strength of life.” At this point in his life, Jehu was a slave owned by Elihu Champlen of Narraganset, Rhode Island. Unlike most other places in the northern United States, Narraganset had a substantial African-American population, because Rhode Island was one of the primary commercial links in the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves. As with most young men in his position, Jehu was well aware of the political struggle between the colonies and Great Britain. For many African-Americans, the Revolution stirred hopes of their own personal emancipation. Jehu appears to have shared those yearnings, for when he “saw liberty poles and the people all engaged for the support of freedom,” he “could not but like and be pleased by such a thing.” He revelled in the “songs of liberty that saluted my ear, thrilled through my heart.”
The road to freedom for many slaves sometimes depended upon the political leanings of their master. If the master proved a Patriot, a slave might opt for running away to the British lines, as Boston King of South Carolina did. If the master proved a Loyalist or Tory, the slave might run away to the American army to enlist. Jehu suspected his master of being a Loyalist, and he was “confident” that Champlen “furnished the enemy when shipping lay nearby with sheep, cattle, cheese, etc., and received goods from them.” To Jehu this provided the justification for becoming a fugitive and joining the American army. His desire to enlist was augmented by his fear of being sold by his master for service aboard British ships. In August 1777, Jehu decided to run, and headed for the neighboring town of Danbury where “whole companies of colored people enlisted.” He joined Captain Giles Galer’s regiment of the Quartermaster’s department for a term of eighteen months, and was placed as a teamsterwith a wagon and horses team. This meant that Jehu was part of the backbone of the Continental Army’s supply system, in which he remained until the onset of winter. He moved to lower New York state, there to take a position along the Hudson River above the British lines. During the winter months, he served as a waiter to John Skidmore, whom Jehu refers to as the “wagon master general.” Because he was stationed in New York, Jehu missed the terrible winter at Valley Forge, Pa. and the subsequent Battle of Monmouth in N.J. In June 1778, Elihu Champlen finally caught up with his fugitive slave. Jehu had eight more months on his enlistment, but the Continental Army returned him to his master, effectively branding Jehu’s service as unlawful.
After the Revolution, Joshua Swan purchased Jehu from Elihu Champlen, agreeing to emancipate Jehu after a specified period of service. In the 1780s and 1790s, arrangements like Jehu’s, which mimicked the practice of indentured servitude, became a common method in the Northern states by which slaves became free African-Americans. Upon Jehu’s release, he finally married, and raised six children in Milton, Rhode Island. Jehu had hoped that his pension request would be approved by the U.S. government.’ Unfortunately, he received a letter in 1834 from the commissioner of Pensions, informing him that his “services while a fugitive from my master’s service was not embraced” by the terms of the 1832 Pension Act. Jehu argued in 1836 that his master had been a Tory, and that surely his service in the army demonstrated a patriotism that would excuse his being a fugitive slave of a Loyalist. Furthermore, he argued that “I have since compensated my master for the injury he sustained by my enlisting,” and he felt confident that “God has forgiven me for so doing.” The government, however, could not forgive Jehu’s actions. Sectional considerations and the debate over slavery had already become national issues by the 1830s and it would have been nearly impossible for any commissioner to have granted a pension to a former fugitive slave, no matter what the reason for his running away. Jehu lived the rest of his life “supported by the benevolence of friends” and his surviving children. He died soon after, having been denied his pension and “the well-known liberality of government.”
Primary Source Documents Documents: Jehu Grant
The following selections are from John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War of Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 26-28
Pension Application of Jehu Grant, 1832
That he was a slave to Elihu Champlen who resided at Narraganset, Rhode Island. At the time he left him his said master was called a Tory and in a secret mannr furnished the enemy when shipping lay nearby with sheep, cattle, cheese, etc., and received goods from them. And this applicant being afraid his said master would send him to the British ships, ran away sometime in August 1777, as near as he can recollect, being the same summer that Danbury was burnt. That he went right to Danbury after he left his said master and enlisted to Capt. Giles Galer for eighteen months. That, according to the best of his memory, General Huntington and General Meigs’s brigades, or part of them, were at that place. That he, this applicant, was put to teaming with a team of horses and wagon, drawing provisions and various other loading for the army for three or four months until winter set in, then was taken as a servant to John Skidmore, wagon master general (as he was called), and served with him as his waiter until spring, when said troops went to the Highlands or near that place on the Hudson River, a little above the British lines. That this applicant had charge of the team as wagoner and carried the said General Skidmore’s baggage and continued with him and the said troops as his wagoner near the said lines until sometime in June, when his said master either sent or came, and this applicant was given up to his master again, and he returned, after having served nine or ten months.
Jehu Grant’s letter of appeal to the Commissioner of Pensions, 1836
Hon. J.L. Edwards, Commissioner of Pensions:
Your servant begs leave to state that he fowarded to the War Department a declaration founded on the Pension Act of June 1832 praying to be allowed a pension (if his memory serves him) for ten months’ service in the American army of the Revolutionary War. That he enlisted as a soldier but was put to the service of a teamster in the summer and a waiter in the winter. In April 1834 I received a writing from Your Honor, informing me that my “services while a fugitive from my master’s service was not embraced by said Act,” and that my “papers were placed on file.” In my said declaration, I just mentioned the cause of leaving my master, as may be seen by a reference thereunto, and I now pray that I may be permitted to express my feelings more fully on that part of my said declaration.
I was then grown to manhood, in full vigor and strength of life, and heard much about the cruel and arbitray things done by the British. Their ships lay within a few miles of my master’s house, which stood near the shore, and I was confident that,my master traded with them, and I suffered much from fear that I should be sent aboard a ship of war. This I disliked. But when I saw liberty poles and the people all engaged for the support of freedom, I could not but like and be pleased with such thing (God forgive me if I sinned in so feeling.) And living on the borders of Rhode Island, where whole companies of colored people enlisted, it added to my fears and dread of being sold to the British. These considerations induced me to enlist into the American army, where I served faithful[ly] about ten months, when my master found and took me home. Had I been taught to read or understand the precepts of the Gospel, “Servants obey your masters,” I might have done otherwise, notwithstanding the songs of liberty that saluted my ear [and] thrilled through my heart. But feeling conscious that I have since compensated my master for the injury he sustained by my enlisting, and that God has forgiven me for so doing, and that I served my country faithfully, and that they having enjoyed the benefits of my service to an equal degree for the length [of] time I served with those generally who are receiving the liberalities of the government, I cannot [but] feel it becoming me to pray Your Honor to review my declaration on file and the papers herewith amended.
A few years after the war, Joshua Swan, Esq., of Stonington purchased me of my master and agreed that after I had served him a length of time named faithfully, I should be free. I served to his satisfaction and so obtained my freedom. He moved into the town of Milton, where I now reside, about forty-eight years ago. After my time expired with Esq. Swan, I married a wife. We have raised six children. Five are still living. I musr be upward of eighty years of my age and have been blind for many years, and, notwithstanding the aid I received from the honest industry of my children, we are still very needy and in part are supported from the benevolence of our friends. With these statements and the testimony of my character herewith presented, I humbly set my claim upon the well-known liberality of government.
Most respectfully your humble servant
Jehu + Grant
For Further Reading:
Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (2016).
Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1996).
William Pierson, Black Yankees (1988).
Phillip Foner, Blacks in the American Revolution (1976).