African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things

Khalid Elhassan - August 3, 2018

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
An ad placed by Titus Cornelius’ master after his escape, offering a reward for his return. Wikimedia

Titus Cornelius, AKA Colonel Tye

Titus Cornelius, better known as Colonel Tye, was born a slave around 1753 in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He grew up toiling in the farm of a Quaker owner named John Corlis, who parted company with his denomination’s growing opposition to slavery. The few Quakers who did own slaves were in the habit of teaching their bondsmen how to read and write, then freeing them at age 21. Not so Titus’ master, who not only refused to educate his slaves, but was a cruel master to boot.

Slavery was gradually declining in New Jersey, and Titus’ master became one of the last few slaveholders in Monmouth County. Titus grew up getting routinely whipped for trifles, and seeing other slaves enduring the same treatment from Corlis. When Titus reached age 21, the age when most owners in the region – particularly Quakers – typically freed their slaves, it became clear that Corlis had no intention of freeing him.

So Titus decided to free himself by running away in 1775. Fortuitously, he escaped one day after Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, had issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who escaped their American masters to serve the British. So Titus made his way to the Virginia Tidewater region, where the new freedman changed his name to Tye.

He settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and initially made his living performing a series of odd jobs. Eventually, Tye enlisted in Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, took to his new life under arms like a fish to war, and distinguished himself. The fortunes of war eventually returned him to New Jersey, and he ended up in the birthplace where he had been enslaved, Monmouth County, as a freedman under arms in British service. There, he would distinguish himself, and earn his place in history as Colonel Tye.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Colonel Tye as portrayed in PBS’ ‘Slavery and the Making of America’. Wikimedia

Colonel Tye’s Guerrilla Activities in Monmouth County

Titus Cornelius had escaped slavery in Monmouth County, New Jersey, changed his name to Tye, enlisted with the British, then returned to his birthplace under British arms. In his first combat experience, the Battle of Monmouth, June 28th, 1778, Tye distinguished himself by capturing a Patriot captain of the Monmouth militia, and returned with his captive to British held New York City.

Having grown up in Monmouth County, Tye had intimate knowledge of the local geography, which made him well suited to the guerrilla warfare that wracked the region. While the Redcoats and the Continental Army fought each other in formal pitched battles, a nasty civil was simultaneously being fought between Loyalist and Patriot militias and armed bands throughout much of the colonies.

The guerrilla warfare was intense in New Jersey, a border region sandwiched between the British stronghold in New York, and the Patriot capital in Philadelphia. In Monmouth County, things got particularly vicious, as Patriot vigilantes took to hanging Loyalists and confiscating their property. That prompted William Franklin, New Jersey’s Loyalist governor despite being Benjamin Franklin’s son, to sponsor Loyalists in fighting fire with fire.

In July of 1779, Tye led a racially integrated Loyalist guerrilla group in a daring raid on Shrewsbury, NJ, in Patriot territory, that captured dozens of cattle, horses, as well as two prominent local Patriots. Tye and his men eventually set up a base that they named Refugeetown in Sandy Hook, at the northern end of the Jersey Shore. From there, they conducted a series of nighttime raids that targeted prominent and wealthy local Patriots, particularly slaveholders.

Tye proved himself a successful guerrilla leader in the summer of 1779, as he led his men in a hit and run campaign that terrorized and enraged the local Patriots, seizing food and provisions, destroying property, and freeing numerous slaves. It was during this period that Tye became known as Colonel Tye – an honorific bestowed upon him by the British, albeit not an actual rank.

By the winter of 1779, Colonel Tye, after having distinguished himself in combat, had joined the Black Brigade – a unit of about two dozen black Loyalists. They fought alongside the Queen’s Rangers – a white Loyalist unit that was eventually integrated by incorporating into its ranks the Black Brigade, and black Loyalists from some other units.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Black Loyalist reenactors. Pintrest

The Black Brigade

By 1779, the war in the northern colonies had entered a stalemate. So units such as the Queen’s Rangers and the Black Brigade fought to defend the Loyalist stronghold in New York, while the British shifted their military focus to the southern colonies. The Black Brigade continued Tye’s guerrilla campaign of raiding into Patriot held territory in Monmouth County and the surrounding region.

In addition to arming Tye and his men, the British paid them bonuses in gold for their raids and other successful military operations. The Black Brigade rustled cattle and other livestock, then drove it across British lines to feed Loyalist forces. Additionally, they seized valuables, and captured prominent Patriots, whom they took to New York as prisoners.

One type of raiding for which Tye and his men needed little encouragement or financial reward from the British was that against slave owners. The Black Brigade fell upon slaveholders with a special relish – paying particular attention to the farms and holdings of the brigade members’ former masters. They freed numerous slaves, or otherwise facilitated their escape into freedom behind British lines. They then helped transport the escapees to a new life as freedmen and freedwomen in Nova Scotia or other British holdings.

Tye and his men were particularly dreaded by their foes. As rumors flew that the Black Brigade planned to lead blacks in massacring whites in various parts of New Jersey, many Patriots were gripped by panic. As one commented: “The worst is to be feared from the irregular troops whom the so-called Tories have assembled from various nationalities- for example, a regiment of Catholics, a regiment of Negroes, who are fitted for and inclined towards barbarities, are lack in human feeling and are familiar with every corner of the country“.

Fearful Patriots in Monmouth County set up an Association of Retaliation, and persuaded the Patriot governor to declare martial law. Throughout the opening months of 1780, the Black Brigade’s raids increased in both frequency and intensity, as the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists descended into a cycle of tit for tat killings. In September of 1780, Tye led a raid against a particularly vicious Patriot militia leader named Joshua Huddy, who had become infamous for his habit of executing Loyalist prisoners. The raiders succeeded in capturing Huddy, but he was then freed in a surprise Patriot counterattack. During the ensuing fight, Tye was shot in the wrist – a minor injury in of itself, but one which soon became infected. He died of gangrene and tetanus a few days later.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
The capture of New Jersey Patriot militia captain Joshua Huddy. Wikimedia

Stephen Blucke Led the Black Brigade, Then Founded Birchtown, Nova Scotia

The origins and eventual demise of black Loyalist Stephen Blucke (circa 1752 – circa 1795) have long been shrouded in mystery. The historical record shows him taking over the command of the Black Brigade after the death of Colonel Tye in 1780, and successfully leading it through the end of the war. After the war, he went on to found Birchtown in Nova Scotia.

The details surrounding the rest of his life are decidedly sparse, other than that he was born in the British island of Barbados to a white father and a black mother sometime around 1752. At some point, exact year unknown, he arrived in Britain’s American Colonies, where he married a woman named Margaret, and the couple eventually adopted a daughter, Isabel.

When the Revolutionary War erupted, Blucke was swayed by British promises to free all negroes who voluntarily joined them, and became a black Loyalist. He joined the Black Brigade in the late 1770s, and distinguished himself while serving in its ranks. In 1782, he took command of the unit after the death of its leader, Colonel Tye, from wounds sustained in a failed attempt to capture bloodthirsty militia leader Joshua Huddy.

Blucke successfully led the Black Brigade for the remainder of the war, even after the British surrender at Yorktown. On March 24th, 1782, Blucke and his men completed Tye’s final (and failed) mission, and took part in the capture of Joshua Huddy. The Loyalists finally avenged themselves on Huddy by hanging him in the Navesink Highlands in Monmouth County, NJ, on April 12th, 1782.

After the war, Blucke joined the exodus of Loyalists, and ended up in Nova Scotia. There, in 1784, the governor commissioned him a lieutenant colonel in the province’s black militia. Blucke was also tasked with scouting for land in which to settle fellow Black Loyalists, and decided on Birchtown. There, he built himself a comfortable and spacious home, and took up a career as a schoolmaster. Then, one night, he simply disappeared. It was speculated at the time that he must have been killed by wild animals, as torn clothes resembling his were found in the town’s outskirts.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
Thomas Peters. Wikimedia

After Fighting For the British, Thomas Peters Went On to Become the Founding Father of a Country

Thomas Peters was a Yoruba born in today’s Nigeria, circa 1732. He was captured by slavers and transported across the Atlantic, where he was sold in then-French Louisiana. After three escape attempts, he was sold to a North Carolinian, who took him to work in his flour mill near Wilmington, NC. In 1776, Peters fled his master, made it to British lines, and enlisted in the Black Pioneers.

He distinguished himself while serving under fire, was twice wounded in battle, and rose to the rank of sergeant. After the war, he was among the thousands of Black Loyalists transported by the Royal Navy to Nova Scotia, where he settled with his family in Annapolis Royal. He became a recognized leader of Nova Scotia’s black communities, representing their concerns to provincial authorities.

Peters met and befriended abolitionist Granville Sharpe, who advocated the resettlement of freed blacks in Africa, and was converted into an enthusiastic recruiter for the project. In 1791, Peters travelled to London, where he lobbied the government and helped convince it to establish a colony for the resettlement of Black Loyalists in Sierra Leone.

He then returned to Nova Scotia, where he convinced over a thousand blacks to sail across the Atlantic to what became Freetown, Sierra Leone. Adjusting to the new settlement proved to be no easy task, and diseases and the climate took their toll on the settlers while they adjusted to local conditions. Many felt duped, and blamed Peters, causing him to lose much of his influence with the settlers. Soon thereafter, he was accused of theft, and a resentful black jury convicted him – an inglorious end to an eventful life. Today, he is honored in Sierra Leone as one of that country’s founding fathers.

African American Loyalists During the Revolutionary War: 10 Significant People, Events, and Things
A freed slave fighting for the British during the American Revolutionary War. Pintrest

The Fate of the Black Loyalists

In October of 1781, an allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of general Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was to be the war’s final major pitched battle, as the British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and the mounting costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace.

From the Black Loyalists’ perspective, that was calamitous news, because it meant that the side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had prevailed. Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters found themselves bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether the Crown would actually honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators had added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, forbidding the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included the runaway slaves who had fought for the British.

After the war ended with the signing of the peace treaty in 1783, the fate of the Black Loyalist escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders. According to the terms of the treaty, the British were bound to deliver their black comrades in arms to their former masters, but the British on the ground refused to do so.

In addition to basic decency and honor, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters“. The British commander in chief concurred, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it“.

That incensed George Washington, and it was touch and go for a while whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the ire of the slave owners, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to Black Loyalists. The documents entitled their bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/She may think proper.” In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to Black Loyalists, taking them with them when they evacuated the state.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Black Loyalist – Washington’s Revolution (Harry, that is, not George)

Black Past – Peters, Thomas, (1738-1792)

Black Then – Stephen Blucke: Black Loyalist and Birchtown Founder

Bright Hub Education – Famous African Americans Of the Revolutionary War

Canada’s Digital Collections – The Black Pioneers

Horne, Gerald – The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014)

Kolchin, Peter – American Slavery: 1619-1877 (1993)

Online Institute For Advanced Loyalist Studies – A History of the Black Pioneers

PBS – George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry

Selig, Robert A. Colonial Williamsburg, Summer, 1997 – The Revolution’s Black Soldiers

Virtual Museum of Canada – Margaret and Stephen Blucke

Wikipedia – Colonel Tye

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