William Stives Full Biography
When I was born about 1760, most New Jersey Black people were enslaved, but I grew up free or was freed at some point in my youth. Not much is known about my life until I was eighteen years old when in February 1778, I enlisted for the duration of the war as a fifer in the company of Captain Richard Cox of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, then suffering through the harsh winter encampment at Valley Forge. I immediately began learning the skills I would need in the army and how to play the tunes on the fife that told the soldiers what to do or entertained them on their marches.
Washington’s army left Valley Forge in June and crossed the Delaware River at Coryell’s Ferry (today’s Lambertville). We then marched across Hopewell Township to near the house and farm of John Hart, who had signed the Declaration of Independence. We camped out in the northeastern part of Hopewell for several days and I became acquainted with the area of the Sourland Mountains, and felt I would like to make my home there.
The army then marched to intercept the British army that had departed Philadelphia to cross through New Jersey to New York. The first battle my regiment fought in after I joined it was at Crosswicks Creek early during that British march. Soon after, we fought the British in the day-long battle, in horrendous heat, on June 28 at Monmouth.
I really wanted to be a regular infantryman rather than a musician and after about a year, I was able to make the change. My regiment participated in the campaign led by General John Sullivan during the summer and fall of 1779 against the Iroquois Indians primarily in New York State. We greatly outnumbered our opponent and the fighting was minor, with only one real battle, at Newtown, New York, on August 29, 1779. Mostly our army just marched through the Iroquois homeland burning their villages and destroying their crops. We were surprised to see that they lived very much like people of European descent did and not like savages as we expected.
The following winter, the worst winter of the war years, my regiment lived in log huts at the Jockey Hollow encampment outside Morristown. The following spring, we fought in the Battle of Springfield to defeat a British incursion into New Jersey.
When the Continental army reorganized on January 1, 1781, my company transferred to the 1st New Jersey Regiment. On April 11, 1781, I detached to Captain Aaron Ogden’s Company of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Barber’s Battalion of Light Infantry in camp at Head of Elk, Maryland. This was an honor and I soon participated in the siege and Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, where we defeated General Cornwallis.
I remained in the army until discharged at Newburgh, New York on June 5, 1783 when the army was disbanded and my discharge paper noted with honor my more than five years of quality service.
At the end of my army service, I was 29 years old and wanted to settle down and start my family. I married Catherine Vanois of Somerset on November 15, 1789. Together, Catherine and I raised ten children. In several ways our country also had a new beginning that year. The United States Constitution went into effect and my old General, George Washington, was elected the first President.
I purchased my first farmland in 1791 from Ralph and Jane Drake in the Sourland Mountain area in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County – the area I had been attracted to during my military service. I purchased additional parcels of land in 1791 and 1806. Catherine and I joined the Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell on September 21, 1799 and I was a member for forty years.
In 1820, I applied for a Revolutionary War veteran’s pension. I was a sixty-year-old farmer greatly incapacitated with a lame leg and suffering from rheumatism. Catherine was fifty and in tolerable health, but had a crippled hand. I was granted my pension and lived for about twenty more years.
I died on August 24, 1839 at the age of 82 and my obituary appeared in a local paper, the Princeton Whig. While it mostly told of my church membership and military service, the last sentence made me proud. It read, “his deportment in private life was well worthy of imitation, both as a man and a Christian.” It was reprinted in The Emancipator published in New York City and the editor used it to comment on the injustice and “cruelty of American policy and the guilt of American Christians and statesmen” under whom “He and his sons were oppressed and proscribed out of all their civil rights and privileges, and made politically mere beasts of burden, and HE had purchased the country with his sacrifices, toil and blood.”
For more information on William Stives and his family, see: Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, Lambertville, NJ: Wild River Books, 2018. This biographic sketch of William Stives would not have been possible without their research and inspiration.
William Stives’ Pension Application File S33728 also contains much information about him.
This Revolutionary Neighbor was created with funds from the National Park Foundation.