Sunday, February 6, 2022

"They Received Several Volleys of Cannon & Grape Shot fom the Enemy" - A Snapshot of Lexington's Patriots of Color

Given this is Black History Month, the Nerds felt it was more than appropriate to reflect upon those Patriots of Color who hailed from Lexington.

According to research conducted separately by Minute Man National Park and historian George Quintal Jr., somewhere between twenty to forty colonists of the approximately 4,000 who fought along the Battle Road on April 19, 1775, were of African descent or Native American.

Admittedly, the Nerds strongly suspect the number is actually higher and are actively researching this topic.

With that said, we often receive inquiries as to whether there were enslaved or free Black men who served in Lexington’s militia company during April 19, 1775 or afterward. As a preliminary matter, enslaved and free Black and Native American men were historically excluded from required militia service prior to the American Revolution. In 1652, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law requiring all African-Americans and Indian servants to undergo military training and serve in the militia. Four years later, fearing a slave revolt, Massachusetts reversed the law and prohibited African-Americans from providing military service in support of the colony. This discriminatory practice remained “on the books” throughout much of the 18th century, exceptions were often made (as we will see below). Thus, when war broke out, many men of color were the first of many to take up arms against the Crown and continued to do so throughout the conflict. By 1783, an estimated 5,500 African and Native American men served as part of the cause for liberty.

So what about Lexington? During the American Revolution, there were at least five enslaved men and one to two Black freemen that served with the Lexington Training Band, the official name of the militia company of the town. The enslaved men included Prince Estabrook, Pompey Blackman, Samuel Crafts, Cato Tuder and Jupiter Tree.


Special thanks to Antoine Watts for permission to use this image.

Prince Estabrook is perhaps the most well known of the enslaved and free Black men who fought on April 19th given he was wounded at the Battle of Lexington. Estabrook would continue to serve throughout the war, most notably with the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment. Pompey Blackman and Jupiter Tree also served in the Lexington militia and were recruited in 1777 to serve in Captain Edmund Munro’s Company, Colonel Bigelow’s 15th Massachusetts Regiment, General John Glover’s Brigade. The men saw combat at Saratoga, Monmouth and Rhode Island. Samuel Crafts and Cato Tuder also enlisted with the Continental Army although their respective regiments are not known at this time.

In regard to Lexington’s two Black freemen, Eli Burdoo was born in Lexington on July 15, 1755. He was the only child of Moses and Phebe (Banister) Burdoo. Eli’s father was also a freeman. According to a 1750 property tax valuation, his wealth fell exactly in the middle of Lexington residents for assessed wealth. Sadly, Eli’s mother died in 1756. His father was killed in 1759 in Canada while fighting the French. It is unknown who stepped forward to care for the orphaned child, but someone from Lexington did as he is not listed on the town’s “poor list”. Eventually, Eli Burdoo was taken in by his uncle and fellow freeman Philip Burdoo Jr.

At the time of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Eli was 19 years of age. He was a private in Captain John Parker’s Lexington Company. According to his 19th Century pension application, he was present at the Battle of Lexington and fought for the remainder of the day with Parker’s Company. In the weeks after Lexington and Concord, Burdoo served with a temporary militia company raised by Lexington and dispatched to Cambridge to support the siege lines. He also mobilized as part of Lexington’s response to the “Bunker Hill Alarm” on June 17, 1775. When General Burgoyne invaded the Northern Colonies from Canada in 1777, Eli once again answered the call and enlisted in a militia regiment “to reinforce the Northern Army”.


Image source: Minute Man National Historical Park

Silas Burdoo, Eli’s cousin, is a bit of a conundrum when it comes to his relationship with Lexington. Silas was born on February 14, 1748. He was the son of Phillip Burdoo Jr., a freeman and laborer…and the same man who took in Eli. Silas’ grandfather was either a freeman or may have purchased his freedom. Regardless, by the 1740s, he had amassed enough wealth and property that Lexington’s tax rolls valued his property above that of his immediate neighbors.

Silas’ father was also economically successful and often participated in fur trapping expeditions with Lexington’s Edmund Munro.

Unfortunately, Silas Burdoo was not as fortunate. According to existing records, by the early 1770s Silas was possibly landless, worked as a hired hand and would often move back and forth between Lexington and Cambridge.

Silas Burdoo was 27 years of age on April 19, 1775. According to historical research conducted by the Nerds, as well examining the 19th Century pension application of Silas, it is likely he did not serve with Captain John Parker’s Lexington Company. Instead, he served with an unknown militia or minute man company only identified as “Captain Boardman’s Company”. It is possible this unit hailed from either Woburn or Cambridge.

In the aftermath of April 19th, Silas, like many men from Lexington, enlisted in Captain John Wood’s Company, Colonel Gerrish’s 25th Regiment of the Massachusetts Grand Army. According to Silas’ pension application, he served as part of a reserve force at the Battle of Bunker Hill. According to his pension application, he was able to observe the fight at Bunker Hill, was exposed to continuous artillery bombardments and spent the evening digging defensive works on nearby Prospect Hill.

“The Regiment took up a line of march for Bunker Hill in Charlestown and Capt. Wood’s Company, to which he belonged, proceeded as far as Charlestown Common, in plain sight of Bunker Hill, where the celebrated Bunker Hill Battle was then raging. That at Charlestown Common, they received several volleys of cannon & grape shot from the enemy, and after the American Troops were driven from Bunker Hill, he returned in sd Woods company to Cambridge and after refreshing, immediately proceeded to Prospect Hill, near Bunker Hill, where he stood on guard during the night whilst the American Troops were entrenching and fortifying the place.”

Silas again enlisted for service in 1781 when he joined a militia regiment attached to the Hudson Highlands. While there, he participated in foraging and patrol operations.

After the war he moved first to Ringe, New Hampshire and then Reading, Vermont. He was considered a well-respected business man by his community.