Philadelphia Blacks, under the leadership of well-to-do Robert Purvis, organized the Vigilance Committee to aid and assist fugitive slaves in 1837. Purvis’s wife, Harriett Forten Purvis, the daughter of successful Black businessman James Forten, led the Female Vigilant Society. Robert Purvis was referred to by some as the “President of the Underground Railroad.” Also that year was the first gathering of the Antislavery Convention of American Women, an inter-racial association of various female antislavery groups, which became the first independent women’s political organization. The year also saw the founding of the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University, one of the earliest historically Black colleges in the United States.
In 1838, the second meeting of the Antislavery Convention of American Women, gathered in Philadelphia at the newly built Pennsylvania Hall, was attacked by a mob. The mob burned down the hall, as well as setting a shelter for Black orphans on fire and damaging a Black church. Pennsylvania Hall was open only three days when it fell. Pennsylvania Blacks were disfranchised in the revised state Constitution that year, and a Maryland slave named Fred ran away and later became Frederick Douglass.
The following year, Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Francis passed away. He had been born in New Jersey, eventually served in a Massachusetts Continental regiment for one year, and then in the New Jersey militia from 1777 to the war’s end.
Francis entered the world in January 1754, and in his later years testified, “[when] I was of age . . . I was bound [as an indentured servant] by my mother a colored woman . . . [to] one Henry Wambough . . . in Amwell.” His indenture was sold to three other masters, and eventually, at “a little over 13 years of age,” to Joseph Saxton who took him to New York, then to an island in the Caribbean, then back to Salem, Massachusetts, where he was sold one more time. In January 1775 his indenture ended after he had served his last master for “6 years & until I was 21 years of age.”
Still living in Salem, Jacob Francis enlisted in autumn 1775 for one year in Col. Paul Sargent’s 16th Continental Regiment, belonging to Massachusetts. During that term he served at the Siege of Boston and witnessed the battles of Long Island and White Plains. A short time after the fall of Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, Francis and his comrades crossed the river and marched across New Jersey. He noted that,
we got to Morris town New Jersey. We lay there one night then marched down near to Baskin ridge & lay there the next night / that night [December 13, 1776] General [Charles] Lee was taken in or about Baskin ridge I heard the Guns firing—the next morning we continued our march across Jersey to the Delaware and crossed over to Eastown from thence we marched down the Pennsylvania side into Bucks County, it was then cold Weather and we were billeted about in houses our company lay off from the river a few Miles below Coryells ferry [present-day New Hope] & above Howiles [Howell’s] ferry we lay there a Week or two.
The day after Christmas Private Francis and his comrades took part in the Battle of Trenton; here is a portion of his account of that affair:
We received orders to march & Christmas night crossed at the [Delaware] river, down to Trenton early in the morning . . . & came into the North End of the town –We marched down the street from the river road into the town to the Corner where it crosses the street running out towards the scotch road & turned up that street & General Washington was at the head of that street coming down towards us & some of the hessians between us & there we had the fight & the principal firing was. After about half an hour the firing ceased . . . We marched down thro the town toward Assanpink [Assunpink Creek] & cross the Assanpe[nk] on the North side of it & to the East of the Town where we were formed in line and in View of the Hessians who were paraded on the south side of the Assanpink & grounded their Arms
Jacob Francis soon ended his Continental Army career, being discharged at Trenton soon after the battle. The remainder of Francis’s lengthy deposition recounts his militia career; too long to recount here, he did state, “I always went out when it came to my turn to the end of the war . . . & went out once as a substitute for a person who . . . could not and gave me $45 continental money to take his place.”
In 1789 Jacob Francis struck another small blow for freedom. Former slave Philis Duncan testified that she
was present and saw . . . Mary Francis married to . . . Jacob Francis by Cato Finley . . . at the time of said marriage [Phillis] & Mary Francis & Cato Finley all lived with and were the slaves of Nathaniel Hunt where the marriage took place . . . Jacob Francis immediately after his marriage . . . bought . . . Mary of[f] her . . . Master Nathaniel Hunt . . . Mary in a few days left the employ of . . . Hunt & went with her husband . . . have ever since that time lived together as man & wife up until the death of Jacob . . . and raised a family of Children.
The stories and life details often provided in pension accounts are invaluable, but veterans’ reminiscences also shed light on the “small things forgotten”; here is a nice reference to regional differences and continued use of an archaic term from Jacob Francis’s fellow-soldier Moses Stout.
I am acquainted with Jacob Francis . . . I recollect being out and serving a tour of duty of one month in the militia . . . Jacob was out and served with us that month—we went first to bound brook and from that to Pompton & Pyramus and lay there some time I recollect while we lay there there was a scouting party of 50 or 60 men turned out to go down to Hackensack & toward the English Neighbourhood as we called it. [D]own toward Bergen & Paulus Hook Jacob went as one of the party . . . [learned] at that time that Jacob had been out in the New England service among the Yankeys as we then called them. Jacob called his, nap-sack ‘snap-sack’, we told him it was ‘nap sack’ he said that they called it snapsack in the New England troops that he had been with.
Here is the remembrance of this long-serving Revolutionary veteran, from the August 5, 1839 Newark Daily Advertiser, reprinted from the Flemington Gazette.
Another Hero of the Revolution.— In this village, on Tuesday the 26th of July, JACOB FRANCIS, a colored man, in the 83rd year of his age. He has resided in this place thirty-five years; has been an orderly member of the Baptist Church for thirty years; he has raised a large family, in a manner creditable to his judgement and his Christian character, and lived to see them doing well; and has left the scenes of this mortal existence, deservedly respected by all who knew him. Jacob Francis was a soldier of the Revolution—he served a long tour of duty in the Massachusetts militia, and was some time in the regular army in New Jersey; and we have learned from those who knew him in those days of privation of peril, that his fidelity and good conduct as a soldier were the object of remark, and received the approbation of his officers. For the last few years he received a pension from the government; an acknowledgement of his services to his country which, though made at a late day, came most opportunely to minister to his comfort in the decline of life, and under the infirmities of old age.”
National Archives (United States), Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant
Application Files (National Archives Microfilm Publication M804), Records of the Department
of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15, Washington, D.C., reel 1015, Jacob Francis, “a colored man” (W459). See also, John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 390–99, and Larry Kidder, “The American Revolution of Private Jacob Francis,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 6, 2018, allthingsliberty.com/2018/03/american-revolution-private-jacob-francis/
Jacob Francis (W459), National Archives Pension Files.
Jacob Francis (W459), National Archives Pension Files, deposition of Philis Duncan.
Jacob Francis (W459), National Archives Pension Files, deposition of Moses Stout. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996).
Newark Daily Advertiser, August 5, 1839, reprinted from the Flemington Gazette. Historian John L. Bell notes, “This was by far the longest death notice in that issue of the Daily Advertiser, and it was reprinted at least as far away as Cleveland.” John L. Bell, “Boston 1775,” January 9, 2018, boston1775.blogspot.com/2018/01/pvt-jacobgulick-and-pvt-jacob-francis.html.