John Freeman, an African American Revolutionary War soldier from Ipswich

Nearly 4,800 African Americans were counted in the 1776 Massachusetts census, with over 1,000 living in Essex County. On Nov. 12 General Washington issued a general order, “Neither negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign are to be enlisted.” Washington partially rescinded that order a month later, allowing “free negroes who are desirous of enlisting.” Early in 1777 Massachusetts included Negroes in the list of draft eligibles.

The first black person to die for the Patriot cause was Crispus Attucks, who was killed in the Boston Massacre by British soldiers. Two of the most famous black soldiers of the Revolution were Salem Poor of Andover, and Peter Salem of Framingham, who are credited with mortally wounding British officers at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Black men weren’t required to enlist, and in 1777, a white man, Joshua Giddings of Ipswich received remission from the draft after testifying that he hired Fortune Ellery, a Negro, to serve in his place, testifying that he was “at great expense in hiring said Fortune to engage in the public service to which services he was not obliged, being a black man.” (View document). Fortune Ellery received manumission papers from Nathaniel Haskell of Gloucester which read, “I remised released and set free this negro whose name is Fortune.”

Peter & Jane Freeman of Ipswich

Francis Wainwright house
The “Old Brick” at 2 East St. was built for Francis Wainwright and was later the home of Capt. Thomas Staniford.

Peter Freeman was an black enslaved man in Ipswich who was probably born around 1730 . Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that in 1751, “Peter took to wife, Jane, servant of Thomas Staniford.” The word “servant” was a less objectionable phrase than “slave,” but they were nonetheless the property of their masters.

Capt. Thomas Staniford, “Gentleman,” purchased the mansion house of Francis Wainwright, which stood at 2 East Street, on Feb. 28, 1740 (83:4) and occupied the house until his death in 1778 (Pro. Rec. 353 : 206). The inventory of Staniford’s estate, filed Dec. 9, 1778 (353:316) indicated it to be a fine mansion, but no slaves or servants were listed among his possessions at the time of his death. (Source: Thomas Franklin Waters, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony Vol. 1).

Author Bruno Giles traced the descendants of this Freeman family in “Peter and Jane (___) Freeman of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and their Descendants in Maine: An African-American Family” in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 163, P. 245, published in 2009. Peter Freeman senior is believed to have been born about 1726 of unknown parentage. His marriage intentions to Jane were recorded in Ipswich May 11, 1751 as “Negroes, servants belonging to Mr. Staniford and Mr. Lord.” No surnames were listed. Jane was baptized at Ipswich, April 3, 1743 as a “servant to Phillip Lord.”

The Ipswich Vital Records provide the birth dates for Peter and Jane’s children:

  1. Peter Freeman, baptised Oct. 20, 1751. He died before June 1757 when a second son named Peter was baptized.
  2. Jane Freeman, baptised Dec. 17, 1752; married Phillip Wilson.
  3. Lydia Freeman, baptised June 28, 1755; married Caesar Freeman.
  4. Peter Freeman, baptised June 25, 1757; died before 16 May 1762 when the third son Peter was baptized.
  5. John Freeman, baptised July 29, 1759; married Leah Griffin.
  6. Peter Freeman, baptised May 16, 1762; m. Margaret Bowers.
The late 17th Century house built for Deacon John Staniford is on the left at 26 East St. The 1/4 acre lot and small home of Peter and Jane Freeman was behind the house, on Spring St. The brown sign in the empty corner lot points to Rev. Daniel Boone Park and Dow’s Park at the top of Spring Street. This would be an appropriate location for a plaque honoring a documented black Ipswich family and John Freeman’s service in the American Revolution.

The Freeman home

A short distance from the mansion of Capt. Thomas Staniford, the oldest part of the house at 26 East St was built in 1687 for Deacon John Staniford, Capt. Staniford’s grandfather. It is known locally as the “Polly Dole house” and the former home of John Updike. The house stayed in the Staniford family until Daniel Staniford sold it in 1811.

On Aug. 12, 1760, John Henderson sold to Peter Freeman, “Laborer”, a small dwelling and a quarter acre around the corner on Spring St. (160: 192). Peter Freeman’s “small dwelling” and quarter lot appear to have been behind the house at 26 East Street, across Spring St. from the John Henderson house (also still standing). Captain Thomas Staniford owned a lot adjoining to the north (ref). Neither John Henderson, his wife Deborah, nor John or Peter Freeman appear to have been literate; they left only a mark for their seal, instead of a signature. The purchase and the word “Laborer” suggests that Staniford manumitted Peter Freeman and his family before 1760, but they may have continued to work for the Staniford family.

It is improbable that Peter Freeman Sr. was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and no evidence has yet been discovered. Black persons were not required to enlist, and Bruno Giles noted that he died between 1761 when their youngest child was born, and July 1778, when the marriage intentions of Mrs. Jean or Jane Freeman of Ipswich and Mr. Anthony Griffin of Brunswick were recorded at Brunswick, Cumberland County, Maine. They were married at Ipswich in August 1778.

Jane’s sons John and Peter Freeman continued remained in Ipswich and joined their mother in Brunswick a few years later. The heirs of Peter Freeman Sr. (Peter Jr., John, John’s wife Jenny, Caesar Freeman and Lydia, sold the lot and house to Samuel Colman, April 27, 1784 for 40 pounds (160: 192). Colman mortgaged to Thomas Manning, Nov. 29, 1816 (212: 149). The 1816 deed lists abutters and confirms that the Freeman lot and house were on Spring Street, to the rear of the house at 26 East Street.

John Freeman, Revolutionary War soldier

Bruno Giles wrote, “On August 11, 1832, John Freeman of Bath, Maine, appeared in court there to obtain benefits for his war service. He swore in court that he was 72 years old, according to information from his parents and others, but has no record of his age. He says he lived and enlisted in Ipswich, Mass., into the militia of the Revolutionary War in the year 1777, to go to Rhode Island in defense of the country. His company immediately marched to Rhode Island where he did some guard duty. An alarm was given that Providence was to be burnt and his regiment marched there. He stayed there until he had served six months and was discharged. He says that during this service, Burgoyne was taken and soon after his return to Ipswich, he again enlisted in the militia under captain (Abraham) Dodge, and was marched to Prospect Hill in Cambridge to guard the prison belonging to Burgoyne’s Army. Here he continued in service for three months and was discharged. Soon after his services as a soldier, he moved to Brunswick, Maine and later to Bath.”

The court documents read: “John Freeman, aged 84 years, of York, July 4, 1820. Private in the Mass. line (Co. & Regt. not given). Original declaration made Apr. 13, 1818. Pension No. 8,585. Affirmed. Family: Esther Freeman, wife, aged 82.” (*Maine Genealogy Archives).

Rhode Island

According to Thomas Franklin Waters, an Ipswich Committee reported on Jan. 21, 1777, that 67 men had been enrolled in the coast defense of Providence and the Northern Army. During this period John Freeman testified that he was under the command of “Prince.” This was Capt. Asa Prince of Salem, whose company was part of Colonel Danfort Keyes’ regiment in the Rhode Island alarm

From an article in Wikipedia: “Many enslavers shirked their duty to serve and sent their enslaved men to serve in their place. As Frederick Mackenzie reported on June 30, 1777, the rebels “find it so difficult to raise men for the Continental Army, that they enlist Negroes, for whom their owners receive a bounty of 180 dollars, and half their pay; and the Negro gets the other half, and a promise of freedom after three years.”

In his pension testimony, John Freeman stated that his first assignment to duty was in Tiverton Rhode Island. Tiverton Heights Fort was erected in early 1777 to prevent the British from moving northeastward.  Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, made up almost entirely of African American freemen and slaves, played an important part in the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, but by that time John Freeman had returned to Ipswich and reenlisted in Capt. Dodge’s company.


The pension testimony of John Freeman, along with testimony by his sister Jane and brother Peter stated that after returning from 6 months of service, John Freeman immediately reinlisted under Captain Dodge. John Freeman stated that his duty in his second enlistment was guarding the British prisoners in Cambridge. During the Revolutionary War, Abraham Dodge served as Captain in Colonel Moses Little’s 12th Continental Regiment. Captain Dodge was in charge of a group of soldiers from Ipswich and Chebacco Parish (now the town of Essex), of whom many were assigned to Cambridge to guard Gen. Burgoyne’s troops.

On October 17, 1777, after two severe defeats at Saratoga and Bennington, British General John Burgoyne surrendered his army to American general Horatio Gates. Under terms known as the Convention of Saratoga, British troops were to be sent back home and were to be paroled so they would not return to fight the American army.  Almost 6000 British, German, and Canadian troops were placed under guard by John Glover’s troops and were marched to Cambridge, arriving Nov. 8. Officers were given quarters in houses, but the rank and file soldiers were quartered in crude barracks. Burgoyne’s army spent about a year under guard in Cambridge, and when he refused to provide a list of the soldiers’ names, Congress revoked the terms of the convention. In November of 1778 his troops were removed to Virginian, and later to Maryland, and weren’t released until the end of the war.

Although John Freeman served with other Ipswich soldiers from Ipswich and Chebacco Parish, he was never under the command of Captain Nathaniel Wade and is not mentioned in the letters of Lieutenant Joseph Hodgkins of Ipswich. John Freeman died in Maine in 1835.

There is no record that Peter Sr. or Peter Jr. served in the war. In 1776 the younger Peter was 14 years old, too young to enlist. Only two men named Peter Freeman are listed as Massachusetts soldiers. One engaged for the town of Salem, Sept 17, 1781 and the other for the town of Dedham.

In the younger Peter’s testimony supporting his brother’s application for a pension, he testified that John “enlisted in the service of the country in the year 1777, marched to Rhode Island and then joined the American Army, and was gone for as much as 6 months. I often heard from him when gone, and saw him when he returned to Ipswich. He again enlisted in Capt. Dodge’s Company and went to Cambridge or Prospect Hill to Guard….I saw him again when he returned. He removed from Ipswich to Bath after the Peace of 1783 and I came with him.”

In the First Census of the United States, taken in 1790, Brunswick counted 1357 free whites and 38 “other free persons.” Members of the Freeman family and other black families spread to other parts of Maine, and were among the early settlers of the town of China.

Testimony of John Freeman

At a Court of Common Pleas holden at Bath in said County on the 11th day of August AD 1832, personally appeared before John Ruggles, Esq. one of the Judges thereof, John Freeman a resident of Bath in the County of Lincoln and State of Maine, aged Seventy two years, who being first duly sworn according to law, doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the benefits of the provision made by the act of Congress passed June 7, 1832:

That he is seventy two years of age or he verily believes by information derived from his parents& others, but has no record of his age, that he enlisted as a soldier in the militia of the Revolutionary War in the year 1777 at Ipswich in Massachusetts where he then lived, to go to Rhode Island in defense of this country. His captain’s name was Prince, the first Lieutenant Billings, the second Lieutenant Lord, & the orderly sergeant Robert Farley of Ipswich. His colonel’s name was Keyes. That the company marched immediately for Rhode Island, & the first assignment of a Regiment which he remembers was at Tiverton. That he was employed guarding this coast for a considerable time & stationed opposite the Island, but upon alarm given that Providence was being burnt, his Regiment was marched to that place & continued then to be his location six months when he was discharged. That during this service Burgoyne was taken and soon after his return to Ipswich he again enlisted in the militia under Captain Dodge & was marched to Prospect Hill to guard the prison camp belonging to Burgoyne’s army. And he continued in Service these months & was discharged—the only persons living to his knowledge who can testify of his services as herein stated, was Peter Freeman of Brunswick & Jane Wilson of Bath, but that he is known to Silas Stearns & David Shaw of Bath who will certify his veracity & that the representation that has been made is worthy of credit & believed by them. He also states that soon after his services as a soldier he came to Brunswick & afterwards to the Town of Bath to reside & that he has his home in said Bath.

The court decision read: “John Freeman, aged 84 years, of York, July 4, 1820. Private in the Mass. line (Co. & Regt. not given). Original declaration made Apr. 13, 1818. Pension No. 8,585. Affirmed. Family: Esther Freeman, wife, aged 82.” (*Maine Genealogy Archives).

Testimony of Peter Freeman on behalf of his brother John Freeman

I, Peter Freeman, living in Brunswick, in the County of Cumberland on oath do say that I am well acquainted with John Freeman of Bath who has signed the foregoing application; he is about seventy two years of age. I am in the seventieth year of my age, I knew John Freeman before I moved, before the war of the Revolution and lived in Ipswich with him. He enlisted in the service of the Country in the year 1777, and marched to Rhode Island and then joined the American army, and was gone as much as six months. I often heard from him while gone, and I saw him when he returned. On his return to Ipswich he again enlisted in Capt. Dodge’s company and went to Cambridge or Prospect Hill to guard Burgoyne’s troops taken at Saratoga. He was gone the last time three or four months and I saw him again when he returned. I have known him ever since. He removed from Ipswich to Bath just after the Peace of 1713. I came with him and have known him ever since. He is a man of truth and veracity. Signed, Peter Freeman

Testimony of Jane Wilson, sister of John Freeman

I, Jane Wilson of Bath in the County of Lincoln & State of Maine in the Seventy-ninth year of my age, on oath do state that I am well acquainted with John freeman of Bath who has signed he foregoing. Application; he is about seventy two years of age. I knew him in Ipswich in the County of Essex & now Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and new John Freeman before and during the Revolution ary War; he was born in Ipswich and then lived there. I remember that he enlisted in the service at Ipswich in the year 1777, under Captain Prince, and went to Rhode Island as a soldier; he was gone over six months. I had a letter from him during that time, and while he was a soldier, this letter I have lost, but it was dated in the year 1777, and was written from some part of Rhode Island while he was a soldier their in the American army. After he returned from Rhode Island he immediately enlisted again at Ipswich under Captain Dodge and went to Cambridge or Prospect Hill, near Boston, to guard Burgoyne’s troops there, prisoners at that pace. This was the later part of the year 1777 and winter of 1778. He was in this service three or four months. I have known John Freeman ever since, and removed from Ipswich to Bath about fifty two years since, and have lived near him since in Bath in the State of Maine. He is a man of truth … Jane Wilson

Reuben Freeman

The Secretary of State’s index of Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War lists a Reuben Freeman from Ipswich, who served as a private in several companies and regiments. The listing includes Continental Army pay accounts for service from March 20, 1777 to 1781, dated Camp at Valley Forge; April, 1779, dated Providence. He enlisted March 20, 1777 for 3 years and is listed in Continental Army pay accounts for service from Jan. 1, 1780, to Dec. 31, 1780. Age, 21 yrs.; stature, 5 ft. 10 in; complexion, black ; hair, black ; eyes, black ; residence, Ipswich. His name does not appear in the Ipswich vital records, but Thomas Franklin Waters listed two candidates: Reuben, a servant of Lieutenant Thomas Choate, and Reuben, son of Flora, baptised Oct. 3, 1756.

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