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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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Asians in the Continental Army

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia just shared a blog post about evidence of Asian soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

This doesn’t mean the thousands of soldiers who fought battles in India when the British, the French, and their local allies went to war there. That’s another seldom-told story.

Rather, interpreter Daniel Sieh quoted two sources showing how Continental Army officers identified certain enlisted men as from South Asia:
  • “Charles Peters…is an East-India Indian, formerly the property of Mr. Thomlinson in Newbern.” —advertisement for deserters, North-Carolina Gazette, 15 May 1778.
  • John Newton, a barber from “Bengaul, yellow complexion, talks good English” —size roll of Capt. Matthias Ogden’s company in the First New Jersey Regiment, 1779-82.
It’s intriguing to note that on 13 July 1776 Dixon and Hunter’s Virginia Gazette included this advertisement for a man named John Newton of the same age and skills as the “Bengaul” in Ogden’s company:
a Servant Man named JOHN NEWTON, about 20 Years of Age, 5 Feet 5 or 6 Inches high, slender made, is an Isiatic Indian by Birth, has been about twelve Months in Virginia, but lived ten Years (as he says) in England, in the Service of Sir Charles Whitworth.

He wears long black Hair, which inclines to curl, tied behind, and pinned up at the Sides; has a very sour Look, and his Lips project remarkably forward. He left his Master on the Road from Williamsburg, between King William Courthouse and Todd’s Bridge, where he was left behind to come on slowly with a tired Horse (which I have been informed is since dead) but has never made his Appearance at Home. . . .

He has been at Richmond, Williamsburg, and in other Parts of the Country, in the Service of Mr. George Rootes of Frederick, and Colonel [Thomas?] Blackburn of Prince William, of whom I had him; and as he is a good Barber and Hair-Dresser, it is possible he may endeavour to follow those Occupations as a free man.
The same notice appeared in other Williamsburg newspapers through September, some referring to Newton as simply “an Indian by birth.” (I first learned of that first ad through Ned Hector’s webpage.)

Sir Charles Whitworth was a Member of Parliament remembered for his use of statistics.

As for Charles Peters, Sieh writes:
Historian Justin Clement has done extensive research into Peters’s years of servitude, court battle for freedom, and subsequent military service. At his querying, historian Todd Braisted discovered that Charles Peters was born around 1757 in Madras (present-day Chennai, India). We can posit that he was born in territory controlled by the British East India Company, and that he was sent as an enslaved person to the Carolinas, where he joined the Continental Army and gained his freedom.

Unfortunately, Peters’s story gets a bit murky after his desertion, and while he occasionally appears in later records, we are still researching what happened to him next. He may have rejoined the Revolutionary forces in time for the reorganization of the North Carolina Line in the spring of 1778. We have tantalizing evidence that Peters participated in the Siege of Charleston, became a prisoner-of-war, and even joined a Loyalist regiment, after which time he died in Kingston, Jamaica.
I must note that, according to the 7 Aug 1783 Pennsylvania Packet, a “pioneer” in the Duke of Cumberland’s regiment named Charles Peters was killed on Jamaica; his murderer, Pvt. John Griffin, was hanged in June 1783.

As Sieh says, both Peters and Newton came to America enslaved. Both had been assigned British names that don’t indicate Asian origin; we need other sources to learn where they came from. And both made multiple moves to gain their freedom.

(It’s a delight to see so many familiar names contributing to the research on these two men: John U. Rees, Don N. Hagist, Robert A. Selig, and Todd W. Braisted.)

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