The story of my birth and early life has not survived and I first appear in history as the slave of Dr. Absalom Bainbridge who lived on the main street in Princeton. I was one of several slaves owned by the doctor and his wife and just one of the many enslaved persons living in Princeton. At the time of the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, Dr. Bainbridge had decided to serve the British as a Loyalist rather than support the Revolution and left Princeton with the retreating British soldiers. I remained in Princeton and then went to Long Island where Dr. Bainbridge had gone. I ran away from him in August 1778 and returned to Princeton where I was advised to join the Continental Army in order to obtain my freedom at the end of the war. At war’s end I worked as a freeman for a short time but was then claimed as a slave by a man living near Princeton. With the help of several white men, I was able to petition the State legislature and they granted me freedom in 1786. I was one of just three enslaved men who gained freedom by serving in the Continental Army.
Learn More About Prime
The story of my birth and early life has not survived and I first appear in history as the slave of Dr. Absalom Bainbridge who lived on the main street in Princeton. I was one of several slaves owned by the doctor and his wife and just one of the many enslaved persons living in Princeton. Among my many duties for Dr. Bainbridge was making purchases for him from local merchants. One of the few places my name is recorded is in the ledger book of merchant Thomas Patterson. I went down the street to his store a number of times during the early years of the Revolution to buy items such as thread or cloth for Mrs. Bainbridge. In his ledger, Mr. Patterson noted who made the purchases and several times he wrote my name and an identified me as “Dr. Bainbridge’s man.” This was a bit unusual because most of the time he simply identified an enslaved person as “Negro” without giving a name. Dr. Bainbridge also owned a woman and Mr. Patterson simply used the term “wench” to record her purchases for the doctor.
At the time of the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, Dr. Bainbridge had decided to serve the British as a Loyalist rather than support the Revolution. At that time he was in his mid-30s and he and his wife had a three-year-old son named William. When it became apparent on January 3 that General Washington’s army was badly defeating the British soldiers at Princeton and they were rapidly leaving town, Dr. Bainbridge hurriedly left town with them and went to New Brunswick. I remained in Princeton where Mrs. Bainbridge’s father, John Taylor, also a Loyalist, looked after their property. At some point I went to live at his house in Monmouth County.
In April, Mrs. Bainbridge sold me to her father for £70, along with a horse and a riding chair at £15 each for a total of £100. This sale had to be approved by General Israel Putnam, who General Washington had put in command at Princeton because it involved the property of a Loyalist. As an enslaved person I was not considered to be a human being, rather just a piece of property. I then was taken to Long Island in 1778 where I lived for a short time again with Dr. Bainbridge who by then was serving the British as a doctor. Like other slaves, I really wanted my freedom and the talk I heard about the Revolution often included the word freedom. In August, I ran away from Dr. Bainbridge and returned to Princeton where I knew people. Dr. Bainbridge put a notice in the paper that described me as being 23 years old, five and a half feet tall, and having hair “of a remarkable light colored woolly kind.”
When I returned to Princeton I was taken into custody as confiscated Loyalist property and became a “slave of the State of New Jersey”. The local man dealing with the fate of Loyalist property who became responsible for my fate, Jacob Bergen, believed keeping me in bondage and selling me would go against what the patriots were fighting to achieve for themselves. Although there was no official guarantee that it would be so, he recommended I serve in the Continental Army for the rest of the war to gain my freedom. I took that advice and served as a wagoner until 1783 when the war ended. When I was discharged, I believed myself to be a free man and I worked as a day laborer in Trenton until 1784. However, Mr. John VanHorn who lived near Princeton seized me and claimed that he had purchased me from John Taylor and I was his slave. I had to make several efforts in court to try to win my freedom and I was assisted by Trenton lawyer and former college professor William Churchill Houston. In November 1786, I petitioned the New Jersey legislature for my freedom. My petition noted that another slave, Peter Williams, had also served in the Continental Army while his master helped the British as a Loyalist and Peter had been freed by an act of the legislature. My request was granted in words the legislature used to limit the freedom to me and not to slaves in general. I was one of only three enslaved men freed by the New Jersey legislature in reward for serving in the military during the Revolution.
After the State of New Jersey legislature granted me freedom in 1786, the remainder of my life is a mystery. My story reveals how difficult it was to not just obtain freedom but how easy it was for a black man to be returned to slavery. My freedom required constantly being on guard, seeking the help of the court, and the constant help of white men who wanted to see me free.
Art: Joe Barsin