Three Incredible Little-Known Figures of the Revolutionary Era in America
Three American Revolutionaries your textbooks never told you about.
By Dr. Woody Holton
Peter and Bonnie McCausland Professor of History
University of South Carolina
Not all enslaved Americans of the colonial era grew rice and tobacco. All along the East Coast, Blacks were forced to serve as river pilots, entrusted with the safety of ship, cargo, and crew. During the American Revolution, numerous African American pilots used their skills to win their freedom. In July 1775, one of them, Joseph Harris of Hampton, Virginia, escaped and offered his services to Mathew Squire, captain of HMS Otter, who desperately needed help navigating Chesapeake Bay.
On September 2, a hurricane convulsed the Atlantic coast, driving Squire’s and Harris’s ship aground near Hampton. Harris borrowed a canoe from a slave and paddled his captain across the mile-wide mouth of the James River to the safety of the British fleet, anchored near the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
The Patriots who controlled Hampton seized Squire’s grounded vessel. When he demanded it back, they insisted that he first return the property he had stolen: his “Ethiopian director,” Joseph Harris. He refused, and on October 27, a squadron of small Royal Navy craft attacked Hampton in what would become the first Revolutionary War battle fought south of New England.
The captain of Joseph Harris’s boat drove it too close to Hamptons’ defenders, who captured it and most of its crew—but not Harris or his captain, who swam to another of the attacking vessels. That made twice in two months that Harris had escorted his captain to safety. Now that he and other fugitive slaves, including those serving in an “Ethiopian Regiment,” had proved their value, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, made the Anglo-African alliance official. On November 15, 1775, he issued an emancipation proclamation similar to the one Lincoln would publish four score and seven years later. In it, he promised freedom to any Patriot’s slave “able and willing” to bear arms for his king. Thousands heeded the call.
Dunmore’s offer to African Americans infuriated whites, especially in the South. They blamed the governor, not the slaves, and the Anglo-African alliance became the single most important factor driving white southerners from merely seeking autonomy within the British empire to demanding total separation from the nation that had, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”
About the time Congress adopted the Declaration, Joseph Harris died aboard a British warship in Chesapeake Bay, apparently of disease.
In 1753, when George Washington first crossed the Appalachian Mountains to the region around modern Pittsburgh, it was to deliver an eviction notice. A French army had occupied what is now western Pennsylvania, and Washington’s British employers wanted them gone.
Accompanying Washington on the last leg of his western trek was a Seneca warrior named Guyasuta. His job was to hunt game for the British, and his and Washington’s paths would cross again.
In the French and Indian War, which started the very next year, the Senecas sided with France. In July 1755, when a nominally French army consisting mostly of Native Americans decimated Gen. Edward Braddock’s expeditionary force eight miles east of the future site of Pittsburg, two of the survivors, on opposite sides, were Guyasuta and Washington.
Guyasuta also joined in Pontiac’s Uprising (1763-1764), a Native American revolt against the British. But he played an even larger role in negotiating a settlement that was favorable to the natives. In a May 1765 conference, he observed that the British had only treated indigenous Americans fairly when the had to compete with the French for their support. “As soon as you conquered the French,” he reminded a British Indian agent, “you did not care how you treated us, as you then did not think us worth your notice.”
The removal of the French threat enabled the British to crack down on their own American colonists as well, and in the ensuing Revolutionary War, the Senecas fought on their side. Indeed, in 1782, when Parliament decided to make peace with the former colonists and asked the Senecas to do the same, Guyasuta held out, leading a mixed band of native warriors and white Loyalists in the last major incursion into Pennsylvania—at Hanna’s Town on July 13, 1782.
Esther DeBerdt Reed
You know Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross, but what about the Philadelphian who founded America’s first national organization of women, loosened the purse-strings of Lafayette, stood her ground against George Washington, and got posthumously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson?
Esther DeBerdt Reed was born in Britain and came to America only in 1770 with her new husband, Pennsylvania’s Joseph Reed, whom she had met during his years studying law in London. Five years later, Joseph became an aide to George Washington but then forfeited his confidence by criticizing him in a letter to another Continental Army officer that fell into Washington’s hands.
By early 1780, Joseph was president of the Pennsylvania executive council, the highest position in the state. But he was still trying to angle his way back into his former commander’s good graces. Esther proposed to advance that cause with a grand gesture on behalf of the beleaguered, even mutinous, Continental soldiers. The women of Philadelphia would go door-to-door collecting funds from other women to be disbursed to the troops. They soon found hundreds of donors, including the fabulously wealthy Lafayette, who gave a thousand guineas on behalf of his wife back in France.
Washington welcomed the women’s campaign, but he also suggested changes. The funds should be deposited in a Philadelphia bank recently founded by Joseph’s political rivals; it urgently needed support. And when the women were ready to make their gift, they should not just hand the money to the soldiers, who might use it to get drunk. Instead, the women should buy cloth and sew shirts for the troops, most of whose clothes were in tatters.
Esther boldly informed the commander-in-chief that she did not like either of his changes. Since the Philadelphia bank was new, its banknotes would be worth less than the money she and the other women deposited. Moreover, merely fitting the soldiers out with shirts, which the army owed them as their employer, would defeat the women’s whole purpose of giving each man an “extraordinary gift.”
Washington gave in to Esther’s objection to using her husband’s enemies’ bank. But he was clearly rattled at her refusal to give the soldiers shirts instead of cash. He once more insisted on that change.
Part of Esther’s purpose in undertaking the campaign had been to improve her husband’s relationship with the commanding general, and both Reeds realized that it now threatened to do just the opposite. Esther gave in, and by the end of 1780, she and the other women had sewn 2,000 of them.
Esther Reed did not live to witness this accomplishment. She died on September 18 at the age of thirty-three, apparently of dysentery. In a rare eighteenth-century obituary for a woman that actually mentioned her accomplishments, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin’s old newspaper, described the women’s campaign in loving detail and speculated that Reed may have damaged her health by “imposing on herself too great a part of the task.”
At the start of the campaign, Reed had written a broadside (single-sheet document) justifying the women’s extraordinary activism. She pointed to the examples of European queens who had extended “the empire of liberty”—a phrase no one had previously used except as a synonym for Heaven. Reed and the other women later spread their movement into other states by sending her broadside to the governors’ wives, including Martha Jefferson, partner of Thomas. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Governor Jefferson, who also received the Philadelphia broadside from another source, wrote a letter later that year in which he is universally credited with coining a description of the United States that is still frequently quoted today: “empire of liberty.”
Originally published by History News Network, 09.05.2021, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.