Revolutionary War reenactors in Valley Forge, PA. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service.
This article is a follow-up to a previous Black Revolutionary War Patriots article, and it tells the stories of their lives after the war.
Around 450 men from Windsor fought in the Revolutionary War. Of those, I have been able to identify seven as Black using documentary records.They are John Brister, Samson Cuff, Edward, Barzilla Henry, Oliver Mitchell, Plymouth, and Providence. All of these men enlisted from Windsor, which means they were almost certainly living here before the war. After the war, with the exception of Edward (who died during the war in 1778) and Providence, all left evidence that they returned to Windsor, at least for a few years each. Impressively, all except Edward lived into their 80s.
Oliver Mitchell’s handwritten list of family births and deaths, included in his pension application. Courtesy of Ancestry.com
Before getting into the postwar period, I’d like to take some time to talk about Oliver Mitchell, who I only mentioned briefly in my previous article. Since publishing it, I’ve learned much more about his wartime activities through his military pension application, which contains detailed firsthand accounts of his experiences and relationships over a long period of time. In order to prove that he served in the war, Mitchell supplied his own narrative to the government and solicited letters from soldiers he served with to corroborate his story.
Oliver Mitchell was literate, and he wrote in his pension application that he was born in Simsbury in 1762 and moved with his family to Windsor when he was two years old. This suggests that he was free for most, if not all, of his life. He was only 16 years old in 1778 when he joined the Continental Guard stationed at Windsor.
Windsor’s Colonel Roger Newberry “was authorized to raise a new guard,” in Mitchell’s words, which was tasked with protecting the hospital and army stores kept in town. Apparently, the military stored a large amount of medical and other supplies in Windsor, but there was no single building here big enough to store everything, so they dispersed the supplies among several buildings in town, probably barns and large houses. Oliver Mitchell was assigned as a sentry for these storehouses. This Continental Guard or Hospital Guard, as it was also called, consisted of an officer and 12 men, and Mitchell served in this role for more than a year and a half.
We can piece together a decent picture of Oliver Mitchell’s life after the war because he lived in Windsor and East Windsor the whole time, and in so doing, he left behind a lot of records. In fact, he lived among and worked with many white families whose records and other materials were given to Windsor Historical Society’s archival collections by their descendants. He shows up in Windsor church records, land deeds, account books, and even personal recollections.
Oliver Mitchell married his wife Rachel around 1784, when he was 22 years old. They had five children together, but sadly, Rachel died in 1796. The next year, Mitchell re-married a white woman named Anna Wright. Anna wrote that they were married by magistrate Josiah Bissell Esq. in Bissell’s house. Their marriage was never documented in town vital records, but Anna and their neighbors affirmed the fact in their statements that helped Oliver’s pension transfer to Anna after he died.
Oliver Mitchell’s account in Levi Hayden’s business ledger, showing Oliver bought things like cider, salt, and brandy from Hayden, and paid by boating bricks and other goods for him, once as far as Saybrook. WHS collections 1976.20.2.
Oliver Mitchell first bought property in Windsor in 1797, on the banks of the Connecticut River near Bissell Ferry Road. This location makes sense because he made a living making boats and transporting goods via his own boat. Windsor historian Jabez H. Hayden recalled Mitchell in his 1901 book, Historical Sketches. Hayden remembered being a boy and calling at Oliver Mitchell’s house to ask whether the ice on the Connecticut River was safe to cross. Jabez Hayden is also the source for the story of Mitchell’s death. He recounted that the veteran had gone to Hartford “in his rowboat to draw his pension. After collecting his pension, he started his return trip. When he got about eight miles from home, rowing against the current, his oars ceased to ply. The boat drifted to shore. Our friend Oliver Mitchell was dead.”
At the time of his death, Mitchell owned a spyglass and a silver watch, which not many people, Black or white, owned at the time. His descendants continued to live in Windsor for multiple generations. I imagine these descendants crossing paths with other Black Patriots’ children in town. John Brister, Samson Cuff, Barzilla Henry, and Plymouth all returned to live in Windsor after the war. Perhaps the Bristers and Mitchells sat next to each other in the upper-level pews at First Church.
John Brister and his wife Lilly had nine children. Brister was the only Black head of a household in Windsor in the 1790 federal census. The family lived on Windsor Avenue approximately where Island Road intersects today, but by 1800 they had left Windsor for Barkhamsted. He lived in Litchfield County for the next 20 or so years, during which time he applied for a Revolutionary War pension because he was in need of financial assistance. He passed away in Hartford in 1824, around age 86.
1798 map of Windsor, showing the location of John Brister’s home on Windsor Ave., where he lived according to the 1790 U.S. census.
Samson Cuff, our Windsor resident who fought in the all-Black Connecticut 4th Regiment 2nd Company, probably left town a little earlier, relocating to Otis, MA. In his pension record, he stated in 1820 “that I am by occupation a husbandman, that I am infirmed, and that the number of family residing with me is none.” Indeed, Cuff seems to have never had children or gotten married, and in proving his need for a pension, he also revealed that he has no personal property—no furniture, no housewares, certainly no real estate—to his name. A sorrowful state for a veteran of the Revolutionary War, but not an uncommon one. Samson Cuff died in 1842 around age 83.
Barzilla Henry was still living in Windsor in 1788, when he won a court case against John Merriman of Wallingford. The court records provide facts but no context, so all we know is that Henry accused Merriman of physically assaulting and imprisoning him for 24 hours for unknown reasons. Interestingly, Josiah Bissell, probably the same Josiah Bissell Esq. who married Oliver and Anna Mitchell, promised to pay Henry’s court fees if he lost the case, indicating some kind of meaningful relationship between the two of them. After Henry and Merriman argued their sides, Justice of the Peace Henry Allyn ruled in favor of Barzilla Henry and charged Merriman to pay Henry about £4 in damages.
Excerpt from a Barzilla Henry vs. John Merriman court record, 1788. Courtesy of the Windsor Town Clerk’s office.
The following year, the U.S. government awarded Henry with 100 acres of bounty land as payment for his Revolutionary War service. That land was probably somewhere in Ohio, which was a bit far from home for convenient use, so a decade later, he sold it off, as did many other veterans with bounty land. Unfortunately, Henry disappeared from the records after this, so the rest of his life remains a mystery.
There were 36 free people of color in the 1790 Windsor census, including the five in John Brister’s family at that point. Barzilla Henry could very well have been one of the 31 other free people of color who lived in white households. Unfortunately, the 1790 census only names heads of households and then merely lists the number of people in the house, so it’s impossible to positively identify who lived where. Oliver Mitchell was the head of his own household in East Windsor that year.
Barzilla Henry, Samson Cuff, John Brister, and Oliver Mitchell and were all likely free men when they first enlisted in the Continental Army. Providence and Plymouth were probably enslaved when they did so, if we are to extrapolate a state of bondage based on slave naming conventions and lack of surnames. We don’t know whether their enslavers formally agreed to emancipate them in exchange for their service, but both men did in fact become free. It is poetic that they both took the surname of Freeman after they served their country in its fight for independence.
After the war, Providence Freeman moved to New London County, settling in Colchester. His pension records suggest he grew up enslaved in New London as well, so he appears to have returned home after earning his freedom. In 1806, when he was 66 years old, he married a woman 48 years his junior, Azuba Ran, and together they had one or two daughters.
When the U.S. government passed the Pension Act of 1818, Freeman applied. As part of the application, he wrote (or dictated, as he signed his name with an “X”) a letter explaining that he had “been a laborer, but am wholly unable to work, by reason of a very bad rupture in my body and other bodily infirmities.” He was 78 by then. He also declared that he owned only two small chairs, a kettle, three knives and forks, a “poor table”, and a skillet. He did receive his pension, and after his death in 1824 at age 84, his pension transferred to his wife Azuba.
Excerpt from Providence Freeman’s pension application, 1820. This statement names his family members, indicates his need for pension assistance, and lists his possessions and their values. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Like Providence, Plymouth started his service with an assigned surname of “Negro,” appearing in muster lists from 1777-1782 as “Plymouth Negro.” But by 1783, Plymouth Negro vanished from the records, and “Plymouth Freeman” suddenly appeared with a 1777 enlistment date, despite not having any previous records under that name. Both Plymouths also served in the same regiments. I am using these facts to assume that Plymouth Freeman is the same man as Windsor’s Plymouth.
Plymouth Freeman mustered out of the military at West Point in 1783, after earning the Badge of Merit for his six years of service. There is a long gap in the records until he finally reemerges, still in Windsor, in 1799, when he signed an agreement (with an “X”) with Windsor tanner Jerijah Barber. Freeman and another man, Charles Johnson, made a deal with Barber that would allow them to live on and farm Barber’s land in exchange for some of the food they grew.
Excerpt from an agreement between Jerijah Barber and Plimouth Freeman and Charles Johnson, 1799
The following year, in 1800, Plymouth Freeman, like Barzilla Henry, sold the 100 acres of bounty land he had likewise earned from the government. After fulfilling his contract with Barber that same year, Freeman moved to Cazenovia, New York, about 20 miles outside Syracuse. Perhaps he already had a wife and son by then, or perhaps he started his family after settling in New York. In any case, he made his life there, probably farming. He may have learned to read, as indicated by the notices in the local newspaper in the 1800s that listed Plymouth Freeman among those who had mail to pick up at the post office. Finally, he died in 1829 at the age of 87.
Courtesy of the Fayetteville-Owahgena DAR Chapter of Fayetteville, NY.
In 2022, a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter near Cazenovia honored Plymouth Freeman with a historic marker, erected near where he lived. At the marker’s unveiling ceremony, the past DAR chapter regent said this in her remarks:
“Plymouth’s role, like the role of thousands of others, was critical in obtaining our freedom. We can be certain that Plymouth knew the deep, innate desire for freedom, more so than any of us can imagine…he served faithfully and honorably, earning the respect and admiration and appreciation of his commanding officers. This is a fact, and for this we will be forever grateful to Plymouth Freeman.”
We are of course grateful to Freeman and all the other Revolutionary War veterans, though their service is only one part of their stories. Each had lives before the war, and most but not all lived through it. Some left children and family lines that continue today. Others died impoverished and alone. Individually and collectively, they left a legacy of bravery and patriotism and helped build a country.
Once again, thanks to library volunteer Iniya Raja for her invaluable research assistance.
By Michelle Tom, librarian/archivist, 2023