Fifes provided a melodic complement to the drums that provided cadence and conveyed signals to armies in the American Revolution. Like drummers, fifers were not always boys; some men spent their entire military careers playing the fife, showing the importance to the army of that skill.
Fifers were not as numerous as drummers in most armies. This means that there were fewer fifers to desert, and therefore fewer advertisements for fifers who deserted. Here are a few ads that give a sense of the diverse ages and backgrounds of fifers who served in the American Revolution.
Wilmington, New Castle County, July 11, 1775.
Run away, last evening, from the subscriber, an English servant man, named John Alderton, a Barber by trade, about 22 or 23 years of age, about 5 feet high, broad face, middling long chin, thick set, round shouldered, brown short hair, loves strong liquor, very talkative when drunk, pretends to play on the fife or beat a drum, shaves and dresses hair well, and is very cunning; he arrived at Annapolis in September last, and lived some time near that place; had on, when he went away, a jacket of such stuff as the Negroes generally wear in Maryland, an old wool hat, tow shirt, drilling or Russia sheeting drawers, white thread ribbed stockings, new strong shoes, with black buckles, and a cloth under jacket; he is remarkable for size and appearance, and it is believed that he will endeavour to pass for a free man, and offer himself to some of the militia companies for a fifer or drummer. Any person apprehending the said servant, so that his master may get him again, shall have a reward of Six Dollars, if out of this county, and if within this county Five Shillings over and above what the law allows, paid by William Brobson, Barber.
[Pennsylvania Gazette, July 19, 1775]
Twenty Dollars Reward
Deserted from the New Galley, at West River, in Anne-Arundel County, on the 27th of January ult. a certain Henry Peggs, and Englishman, about 5 feet 8 inches and 3 quarters high. Had on a brown coat, black spotted velvet jacket, leather breeches, thread stockings, country made shoes, and a castor hat. He can play on the fife and drum, and has a counterfeit discharge from the galley at West River. Whoever takes up said deserter, and brings him to said galley, shall receive the above reward, from John David, Captain.
N.B. Recruiting officers are hereby forewarned from enlisting the aforesaid deserter.
[Maryland Journal, February 4, 1777]
Deserted from Capt. Abraham Livingston’s Company, Col. James Livingston’s Regiment ‑ John Richards, about 5 Feet 4 Inches high, fair complexion, brown hair, tied in a club, dark eyes; had on a blue coat, faced with red, the button‑hole edged with silver, a Mason by trade, and born in Boston ‑ Also, John Davis, about 5 Feet 7 Inches high, sandy complexion, short light hair, pock‑marked, limps in his gait; had on a light brown coat, with white facings, a Native of Europe. ‑ They enlisted themselves as Drum and Fife Majors, in the Regiment late of General Patterson’s, Capt. Smith’s Company, and are supposed to be gone to Newburg.
Also, deserted from Capt. Timothy Hughes’s Company, Colonel Livingston’s Regiment ‑ Joseph Clark, about 5 Feet 2 Inches, 28 years of age, fair complexion, red curled hair, square built; had on a lightish ‑ coloured coat, a Native of Ireland. ‑ Also Nathaniel Brown, about 5 Feet 7 Inches, about 17 years old, fair complexion, light hair, a likely lad, had on a red British Soldier’s Coat, born in Connecticut. ‑ Twenty Dollars Reward will be given for each of the above Deserters, on their being sent to their Regiment, now lying at Albany, and reasonable Charges paid. Abr. Livingston, Captain
[Independent Chronicle and The Universal Advertiser, February 13, 1777]
Kenneth McLean a Fifer belonging to the Marines serving on Board the Janus a Young lad about 4 Feet 5 Inches who deserted the night of the 19th Instant was seen in Town dress’d in Regimentals, the party who have Inlisted him, are ordered to give him up immediately.
[General Orders, New York, October 21, 1781, Orderly Book July 23, 1780 – November 8, 1781, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI]