J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the Matters of Felix Cuff and Ishmael Coffee

At the beginning of this week, the Boston Globe ran two articles about Revolutionary War soldiers from Massachusetts with African ancestry—often the poorest and poorest documented veterans. In both cases, the men are known largely through legal disputes in which they were the objects of arguments rather than as parties themselves. Their own lives, work, aspirations, and voices are difficult to discern.

Stephanie V. Siek wrote about Felix Cuff, who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1780 as the town of Waltham was struggling to supply its quota of soldiers. A man named Edward Garfield then seized Cuff as his property. In a letter to Gen. William Heath (displayed on the Massachusetts Historical Society website), the Waltham selectmen insisted Garfield had let Cuff enlist, and Lt. Eliphalet Hastings (1734-1824) and another recent enlistee named Abijah Fiske took Cuff back to the army. Garfield sued them, Fiske petitioned for protection, and the town indemnified him. Then a different army officer, Col. John Jacobs, told Heath (in another letter on display) that Garfield had a valid claim and he would discharge Cuff to his master’s custody.

Cuff took refuge with two other black men in a cave near Waltham’s Stony Brook. When Lt. Hastings came to take Cuff again (this time presumably to deliver him back to Garfield), the men claimed their freedom under Massachusetts’s new constitution. They took their case into court by suing Hastings for unlawful assault. Again, the town sided with Cuff and refused to defend Hastings in court. It’s conceivable to me that Cuff, Hastings, and the town had come up with this way of getting the soldier’s freedom on the legal record at last, by creating a legal precedent that he couldn’t be seized as property.

For enlisting, Hastings and Fiske are recorded as receiving £1,770 each while Cuff received £1,500 and 60 bushels of corn. Those payments were in Continental paper currency, whose value dwindled rapidly in the early 1780s. After becoming free, Felix falls out of the known records.

Rachana Rathi reported on two genealogists seeking information about Ishmael Coffee, a soldier of “Mulatto complexion” from Medway. His name appears on the military rolls of that town, but he’s best documented through two court cases.

Massachusetts towns had the obligation to support their poor inhabitants, which meant that selectmen spent a fair amount of time arguing that other towns were responsible for certain individuals. In 1810, Medway and Natick went to court over who had to support Coffee’s daughter Roba Vickons. She had married a white man from Natick in 1789, and that transfered responsibility for her from her native town of Medway. Natick contended that that marriage was illegal because she was a mulatto. The court ruled that under Massachusetts law she wasn’t, since her father wasn’t classified as Negro. The Globe article notes evidence that he had some Native American ancestry as well as African.

In 1819, Coffee himself required town assistance. (This was more than forty years after he’d appeared on the Medway military rolls.) In this case pitting Needham against Medway, the crucial question was whether Coffee’s marriage to a white woman was legal. Because he wasn’t labeled as white, they hadn’t been allowed to marry in Massachusetts, so they married in Rhode Island. The court decided:

Now it is a principle adopted for general convenience and security, that a marriage which is good according to the laws of the country [i.e., state] where it was entered into, shall be valid in any other country. And this principle is considered so essential, that even when it appears that the parties went into another state to evade the laws of their own country, the marriage in the foreign state shall nevertheless be valid in the country where the parties live.
It seems like that legal precedent has significance again today.

Both “Cuff” and “Coffee” were versions of the same common African name which means “born on a Friday.” These days we know it best as “Kofi,” as in the diplomat Kofi Annan.

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