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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Friday, June 26, 2009

Cuff Dole: wanted man

Boston 1775 reader Rob Velella (who maintains the Poe-a-Day Calendar) alerted me to an interesting press release from the historical documents dealer Cohasco of Yonkers, New York. It describes a manuscript related to Cuff or Cuffee Dole, a black soldier in the Continental Army during the siege of Boston. The item happens to be dated 4 July 1776, and the press release claims that it’s the earliest document about an African-American in the independent United States.

I’ll examine more details tomorrow. But first, more about the document itself. This auction website offers a tiny thumbnail image, and this auction website offers a transcription:

To the sheriff or marshal of the County of Essex or wither of his deputies or either of the Constables of the Town of Rowley in said County or to any or either of them—Greeting.

Whereas complaint has this Day been made unto me the subscriber by Abel Dodge of Rowley in said County Cooper against one Cuff Dole a Negro man of the said town of Rowley that the said Cuff did in the night beset after the Thirty First Day of March last by force of arms steel and take out of Pocket cash belonging to the said Abel as he was sleeping in his Barrack on Prospect Hill in Cambridge one Eight Dollar Bill of the Continental Emission which was the property of the said Abels.

Wherefore you and each of you are hereby required by virtue of the Authority reposed in me the subscriber by the Major [...] of the council of the Province of Massachusetts Bay immediately to apprehend the Body of the said Cuff Dole if he may be found in and present and bring him before me or some other of the justices of the said County of Essex so that he may be [...] and further dealt with according us to law and justice it doth [...] given under my hand and deed this fourth Day of July AD 1776 Aaron Wood Justice of the Peace.
Which makes it highly ironic that the press release is headlined: “1776 Black Document Discovered: A Story of Freedom for July 4th”. This warrant illustrates not the story of a black man’s freedom, but the threat of a black man’s imprisonment. The release’s statement that Dole was “concerned with an eight-dollar bill” is an obvious attempt to dodge that awkward fact.

A little more digging reveals that the document was discovered and published by Christine Comiskey, author of a booklet about Dole issued last year. On 24 Apr 2008, the Georgetown Record described reported:
The second surprise for Comiskey was finding a warrant for Cuffee’s arrest dated July 4, 1776. While fighting in the American Revolution, Dole was accused of stealing $8 from fellow soldier Abel Dodge as he slept in his barracks on Prospect Hill in Cambridge. Comiskey found no further record of the case, and believes the charges were probably dropped.
Comiskey’s book was published by the Georgetown Historical Society (the part of Rowley where Dole lived became Georgetown in 1838) and is available through its gift shop.

TOMORROW: What this document tells us—and what it doesn’t.

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