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, June 27, 2009

Cuff Dole and Abel Dodge: comrades in arms?

Yesterday I quoted a 4 July 1776 warrant issued for the detention of Cuffee Dole, a black man from Rowley, Massachusetts. Today I’ll discuss the claims and implications surrounding that manuscript, which the Cohasco company has offered for sale. The press release promoting its sale says:

The document places him [Dole] inside George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Called “the Barrack on Prospect Hill,” the house was later owned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and immortalized in a poem.
Washington did make his headquarters in Cambridge, in a house later owned and written about by Longfellow, but that was miles away from where Dole and Dodge were housed. The “Barrack on Prospect Hill” was a barrack on Prospect Hill.

One of the auction sites describing this document says of the justice of the peace who issued it, “Aaron Wood would become a U.S. Senator.” He was a Massachusetts state senator in 1781, before the U.S. Senate was created.

Finally, the press release hypes the significance of this item by saying, “Dole is believed the first African-American to be mentioned in a document of the newly-independent United States.” In fact, Wood had no idea that the Continental Congress, hundreds of miles away, had declared independence; he issued the warrant invoking the authority of “the Province of Massachusetts-Bay.” The date is simple coincidence.

What’s more, the Congress’s actual vote for independence came on 2 July; the 4th was when it approved its public declaration, and the big date on top of that declaration became the anniversary we celebrate. I’d be surprised if people couldn’t find other African-Americans—particularly enslaved ones—mentioned on documents created 2-4 July 1776. It would give me more confidence if the material about this document was less hyperbolic and more accurate.

The warrant has already proven significant in what it tells us about Cuff Dole. As Christine Comiskey found when working on her recent short biography of Dole, we have solid documentation for his later life in that part of Rowley, Massachusetts, now called Georgetown. Above is a photograph of his gravestone; click on the thumbnail for a larger image from Jenn Marcelais’s Very Grave Matter website about New England cemeteries.

(Cuffee Dole is also recalled in Georgetown in the name of a restaurant, which is not inappropriate; like many other African-American men in the early republic, he made his living for a while in the catering business.)

The authoritative Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution lists several references from the Massachusetts state archive showing how Dole served in the Continental Army 15 Aug-30 Nov 1777, and June-December 1780. But this document puts him in Cambridge barracks in March 1776, implying that he served in an earlier campaign as well.

Alas, the warrant offers just a hint at the relationship between Abel Dodge and Cuff Dole. Dodge apparently woke up in the barracks on 30 March, missing eight dollars. How did he decide Dole was responsible? Did Dole take the money because he believed he deserved it, and Dodge accuse him of stealing because he thought the law gave him an advantage over a black man? Did the two men fight? Dodge was 5'9" and thirty-three years old in 1776; Dole was four years younger, an inch taller, and according to tradition in the town of Bradford “of remarkable strength.”

I note that Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors also indicates that both Dole and Dodge served in “Benjamin Adams’s Co., Col. Johnson’s regt.; from 15 Aug to 30 Nov 1777.” So whatever difference arose between them in the spring of 1776, they probably worked it out by the summer of 1777.

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