Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review of Forgotten Patriots—African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies

Forgotten Patriots—African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies

My review of Forgotten Patriots—African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies. Edited by Eric G. Grundset. (Washington, DC: National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, 2008).
Published in College & Research Libraries, July 2010.

Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies hopes to inspire in readers an interest in African American, American Indian, and mixed descent soldiers in the fight for Independence, as well as the work of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). DAR booklets on the subject led to the first edition in 2001. Seven years later, this 872-page tome expands the list of soldiers and sailors five-fold to 6,600 names.

The book defines the perimeters of military service from the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 to the final evacuation of the British from New York City on November 26, 1783. The Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware chapters include sections on notable minorities preceding the conflict during the Boston Massacre in 1770, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774.

Following an introduction that provides context and explains documentation challenges, the book organizes its findings into chapters that include historical commentaries, maps, illustrations, sources, patriot names, and bibliographies. Chapters focus on Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. A chapter entitled the Old Northwest is comprised of Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio. Additional chapters cover miscellaneous naval and military records, foreign allies, and the West Indies.

Seven appendices include a map of the slave population based on the 1790 census, Documenting the Color of Participants in the American Revolution, Names as Clues to Finding Forgotten Patriots, the Numbers of Minority Participants in the Revolution, a glossary, a master list of source abbreviations, and DAR contact information.

Copies of original documents from the National Archives and Records Administration provide readers with examples of various types of papers useful in research endeavors. However, the grayscale reproductions are hard to read due to their size, condition, and handwriting. While some documents include captions, transcriptions would have also been helpful.

Forgotten Patriots notes that the list of patriot names may be open to interpretation because racial terminology and meaning has changed over time. Description information is inconsistent, even within the same document, while some states like Maryland and Virginia did not record racial data. Other states, like New York, lost records of this period after natural disasters. Often the examination of private, local, state, and federal archives, as well as census records from 1790 to 1830 helped identify race. Decisions on minority ethnic background were based on a combination of name analysis, military occupation, and rank.

Names of clear African or Native American derivation were often a clue to ethnic background. The use of classical (i.e. Roman or Greek) or literary names for enslaved people was common and distinct from the traditional English or Biblical names of those of European descent. However, using names alone as an indicator of race was problematic. For example, a source lists Africa Hamlin of Pembroke, Massachusetts as a possible African American soldier; later research revealed that he was of European descent and had siblings named Asia, Europe, and America.

The book concentrates on groups defined as African American, American Indian, or “mixed descent” with descriptors such as “mulatto” or “mustee.” Others with African, Spanish, Portuguese, Azorean, Latin American, or mixed ancestry are also included because their names are indicators of African ancestry. The book provides additional terms, such “Negro,” “free,” or “black complexion,” to illustrate how an individual was described in eighteenth-century records. American Indian nations are included when specified. The editor states that a major challenge was that “while there are copious examples where a written description suggests a possible minority patriot when in fact subsequent research proves otherwise, it is much more difficult to identify a minority patriot whose description is devoid of any mention of color and whose name suggests European decadency.…It is well documented that by 1700, individuals of African descent had a presence in virtually every European country, often with names reflective of the local populace” (iv).

This complexity is illustrated with the records of Massachusetts, the most comprehensive state in identifying African American and American Indian soldiers, due to naming conventions and the 17 volume series Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. Even with this comprehensive information, the Massachusetts chapter provides a separate section for men listed with “brown complexions” who were found to be white after further research. The editor explains, “The use of specific colors to describe an individual is usually the observation of a ‘white’ man describing another man and trying to create distinctions between individuals. Because specific and designated terms such as ‘Negro,’ ‘mulatto,’ ‘mustee,’ ‘black man,’ etc., were used to describe individuals of African descent or partial African descent, the use of terms such as ‘ruddy,’ ‘sandy,’ ‘light,’ ‘dark,’ etc. usually refers to someone of European descent in an attempt to describe better then variations in skin tone lumped together by some as ‘white’” (138).

The biggest drawback of the book is its lack of copyediting. Its formatting and spelling errors makes one wonder if the list of patriots could be filled with inaccuracies as well.

Despite this, Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies offers comprehensive information unmatched by other publications. It is recommended for libraries that serve genealogists, especially those interested in the contributions of African Americans and American Indians in the fight for Independence. The book’s low price, especially for a colossal hardcover, also allows family historians to purchase the volume for personal use and a starting point for research.

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