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 12, 2022

The Mysterious “Negro Co. from Sharon”

Earlier this spring, my eye was caught by a description of this document on the Internet Archive:
Muster roll of Negro Co. from Sharon.
The document is a Revolutionary War muster roll in the collection of the Boston Public Library.

The document and description also show up on Umbra Search, aggregating material related to African-American history from thousands of library catalogues.

I knew about the Rhode Island regiments that recruited from men of African and Native descent. But I also knew those were exceptions to how the Continental Army operated, and after a couple of years commanders decided to spread out the veterans of those regiments among others. On the enlisted level, all sources say, the Continentals were integrated.

So what was up with this “Negro Co. from Sharon”?

I looked more closely at the document. None of the men is designated as “Negro.” None have names that suggest they had been enslaved, such as Quock, Prince, or Caesar. In fact, the label “Negro Co[mpany]” appears nowhere on this paper.

Here’s what I’m sure happened. The commander of this company was Capt. William Burley of Ipswich. In February 1780 he was captured by Crown forces in the Battle for Young’s House outside New York that I happened to write about back here. Burley’s name still appears first on this muster roll, but he was listed as a prisoner of war.

The regimental commander, Col. Benjamin Tupper from the part of Stoughton became Sharon in 1775, therefore took direct command of Burley’s company. In British regiments, the colonel often had a company assigned to him, though a captain-lieutenant or lieutenant usually did all the real work. The Continental Army didn’t follow that pattern after the first months of the war, but this was a special case.

In September, Col. Tupper reported, “There is a very considerable deficiency of Officers in the Regiment,” and recommended several men for commissions. Recognizing the need, Gen. George Washington gave blanket approval for new officers.

Nevertheless, at the end of 1780, when Lt. Nehemiah Emerson of Haverhill made out this muster roll, Tupper was still the acting company commander. Emerson therefore labeled this listing as “the Colo. Company”—the colonel’s company.

At some point a cataloguer looked at that abbreviation and interpreted it to mean “the colored company.” Then or later, that language was updated to “the Negro company.” And that label hung around in the cataloguing data long enough to catch my eye and make me scratch my head for a while.


Tom B said...

So does the library know it is not what it appears to be? Is there a letter or note of explanation for future generations? It makes perfect sense, great catch. Much like simple mistake made in official documents we see on Ancestry.com that from that point on change family names, relations etc forever.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t know what the Boston Public Library’s own catalog says about this document because I haven’t found it in the online resources. Nor in Digital Commonwealth’s collection of scans from the B.P.L. It’s possible the mistaken interpretation was corrected a while back and simply lived on in the Internet Archive catalog.