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 12, 2014

The Travels of Pompey Fleet

After the Boston printer Thomas Fleet died, his 1759 estate inventory didn’t include his slave Peter, suggesting that that woodcut carver had already died as well. But that estate did include two boys: thirteen-year-old Pompey and ten-year-old Caesar.

Isaiah Thomas also mentioned those boys in his history of printing, saying:
Fleet had also two negro boys born in his house; sons, I believe, to the man just mentioned [the woodcut artist], whom he brought up to work at press and case; one named Pompey and the other Cesar; they were young when their master died; but, they remained in the family and continued to labor regularly in the printing house with the sons of mr. Fleet, who succeeded their father, until the constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, made them freemen.
However, at the time of the evacuation, the new Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and the judicial decision that made slavery unenforceable in Massachusetts in 1783, Isaiah Thomas was living in Worcester. His information about these Fleet brothers may not have been reliable.

I’ve found Pompey Fleet one place in Boston’s records. In December 1773 he married Chloe Short, a free black woman who had arrived from Grafton sometime in late 1771 or early 1772. At the time he was listed as a “servant [i.e., slave] of Elizabeth Fleet,” Thomas’s widow. And that’s the last I’ve found of Chloe.

Instead, it appears that Pompey Fleet freed himself in 1776. His name appears in “The Book of Negroes,” the list compiled by British military authorities of black Loyalists leaving New York at the end of the war. That manuscript states includes these entries:
Ship Three Sisters bound for Port Roseway [captain] John Wardell

Pompey Fleet, 26, short & stout, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Thomas Fleet, Boston; left him at the evacuation of Boston. GBC.

Suky Coleman, 21, slight make, (Alexander Robertson). Formerly slave to Mr. Teabourlt, Philadelphia; left at the evacuation of Philadelphia. GBC.

Sam Fleet, 5, small boy, (Alexander Robertson).
(Here’s an image of the copy supplied to the American government.)

The “Book of Negroes” says Pompey Fleet left the younger Thomas Fleet and Boston in 1776. The British military’s record of that departure lists only heads of household and no one who might be Pompey Fleet. He could have attached himself to the military or to a family; the printer Margaret Draper left with four other people, for example, though she had no children. A 2009 article for the Loyalist Trails U.E.L.A.C. Newsletter says that in 1783 Pompey Fleet had a certificate testifying that he had served the Crown for seven years, but I don’t know the basis for that statement.

Alexander Robertson was, the “Book of Negroes” says, “in…Possession” of Pompey Fleet and others in 1783. Isaiah Thomas wrote of Robertson, “I have been informed that he was, unfortunately, deprived of the use of his limbs, and incapacitated for labor. He was, however, intelligent, well educated, and possessed some abilities as a writer.” In 1783 Robertson was co-publisher of the Royal American Gazette in New York, so Pompey Fleet was probably working in that newspaper’s print shop. The other co-publishers were Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks from the Boston Post-Boy and Robertson’s older brother James, who had worked briefly for John Mein in Boston in the late 1760s. Thus, Pompey Fleet had probably become acquainted with those printers while still working for the Boston Evening-Post.

In 1778, James Robertson had followed the British army to Philadelphia and printed the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette there for a few months. Did Pompey Fleet go with him and meet Suky Coleman in that city? Was little Sam Fleet their son? That would correspond to about when Sam was born. Of course, Suky would have been only sixteen at the time. But perhaps we shouldn’t rely on the ages listed in “The Book of Negroes”; since Pompey was thirteen in 1759, he was thirty-seven in 1783, not twenty-six.

The Three Sisters headed to Port Roseway, an old name for Shelburne, Nova Scotia. There the Robertson brothers and Mills reestablished their Royal American Gazette, though Alexander died in December 1784 at age forty-two. James Robertson left Nova Scotia in 1789 and eventually returned to Scotland.

It’s not clear if Pompey Fleet worked for any of those printers in Nova Scotia. In 1784 he was listed as the head of a family across the bay from Shelburne in the black community of Birchtown. That was a rough settlement, poorly supported by the British Empire. (The photograph above shows a ”pit house” of the type many families had to build to survive their first winters, recreated at the Birchtown Museum.)

In 1791 over a thousand Birchtown settlers took up an offer to move to the new British colony in Sierra Leone. The document transcribed here lists “Pomphrey Fleet,” Sukey Coleman, and Sam Fleet together among the inhabitants electing to travel to Africa. And I don’t know what happened to them there.

TOMORROW: The younger brother, Caesar Fleet.

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