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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Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Mystery of “William Benson a Negro Man”

On 6 Nov 1775, the Boston Gazette, then being published in Watertown, ran this announcement from the keeper of the jail at Cambridge:
Cambridge, October 20, 1775.

BROKE out of the Goal in Cambridge, the following Prisoners, Thomas Smith, and William Benson a Negro Man. Said Smith is a very noted Thief, hath been in almost all the Goals on the Continent; had on when he broke Goal, a blue Jacket, a Pair of striped Trowsers, sandy coloured Hair about 5 Feet 4 Inches high.

Said Benson the Negro had on when he went away, a dark coloured old Coat, a Pair of old black knit Breeches, about 5 Feet 6 Inches high. Whoever will take up said Prisoners, and return them to said Goal, shall be handsomely rewarded, by

ISAAC BRADISH, Under Keeper.
The name of William Benson caught my eye. I wondered if this might be the black man of that name who appears in the records of the town of Framingham.

That William Benson was born in 1732. His parents, Nero Benson and Dido Dingo, had been kidnapped from Africa to New England. They married in 1721. Nero Benson served in Massachusetts army units around 1725 and died in 1757.

William Benson was sold to a man named John Collins about 1762 but somehow gained his freedom shortly afterward—though he had to fight for it. Collins and two helpers tried to forcibly take Benson back into captivity and resell him. A Middlesex County grand jury indicted Collins in 1764. He formally acknowledged Benson’s freedom and refunded the buyer’s money (or, under another interpretation, bought Benson back and freed him). Under those circumstances, the court accepted Collins’s plea of no contest and let him off with a small fine.

By early 1762 William Benson was husband to Sarah Perry of Sudbury, born in 1747. Or as Shrewsbury warning-out records from 1762 said, “Perry, Sarah, alias Benson, white, called by William Benson, (colored) his wife.”

According to William Barry’s history of Framingham and the town’s published vital records, their children included:
  • Katy or Cate, born 8 Apr 1763, later the wife of Peter Salem.
  • Abel, born in 1766.
  • Polly, born in 1773.
  • Sally, born in 1782.
  • William, who died young.
Traditions in Framingham and Needham say that a black trumpeter helped to summon the militia in one part of the region on 19 Apr 1775. Various authors have named that military musician as Nero or Abel, both recorded in other documents as playing the trumpet. But Nero was dead by 1775, and Abel was no more than nine years old and didn’t mention such service in his military pension application. I’ve posited that William—Nero’s son and Abel’s father—is a candidate for being that trumpeter.

Was the same William Benson locked up in the Cambridge jail a few months later? Unfortunately, I’ve found no more detail on this escaped prisoner. On 9 October the besieging army’s general orders had said:
If any Negroe is found straggling after Taptoo beating about the Camp, or about any of the roads or Villages, near the encampments at Roxbury, or Cambridge, they are to be seized and confined until Sun-rise, in the Guard, nearest to the place where such Negroe is taken up.
That was confinement in a military stockade, not the town or county jail, but it reflects the general hostility toward blacks that Gen. George Washington’s army adopted in that season.

Of course, African-American soldiers were already serving in that army, and at the end of December Washington reversed course and decided they could continue to serve. William Benson’s son Abel became one of those Continental soldiers, signing up in 1780 at the age of fourteen (saying he was sixteen). He received a plot of Framingham land as payment. After Abel’s mother died, his father William came to live there.

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