Sunday, July 3, 2011

Independence Day Heroes: On Black Loyalists and Freedom Fighters Like Colonel Tye

I hope you are all enjoying your 4th of July weekend gluttony, cheap beer drinking, failed efforts at rutting, obligatory fireworks and patriotic proclamations. Independence Day is like all national holidays--a day to reinscribe sacred mythologies. One such mythology is that of Crispus Attucks, the first person to be killed by the British in what would become The War for American Independence.

Crispus Attucks is a great character in our national play. For Conservatives, low information real American types, the average lay person, Right-wing bloviators, and Constitutional fetishists, Attucks is proof positive that the country, and the framers, were not racist, and slavery a mere inconvenience in America's "exceptional" narrative. It would seem that in total, simple minds like simple stories.

For black Americans and their allies, Crispus Attucks is a martyr who can be channeled to demonstrate the quintessentially American nature of the black experience. Because whiteness remains interchangeable with "American," Attucks is a great counterweight. If the first American killed in the war to end British "tyranny" was black, what does that say about a narrative in which blacks folks are/were imagined as perpetual outsiders?

Moreover, what of inconvenient facts? For example, more blacks fought for the British than the Continentals. With the former promising manumission, and the later hypocrites on their failure to reconcile their own high minded virtues of liberty and democracy with the perpetual bondage of many thousands, the choice seemed a logical one. And lest there be any confusion, African American Loyalists and Continentals were both engaged in a grand freedom struggle for their people.

One of my favorite little known African American heroes who happened to fight for the British is the legendary Colonel Tye. A former slave, he put the fear of God in white Continentals throughout New Jersey and New York. Sadly, Colonel Tye will never get his own movie because Americans across the color line prefer their stories of black liberty and freedom to be portrayed in simplistic terms.

This Brother was no joke. Read on:


Colonel Tye, the most feared and respected guerrilla commander of the Revolution, was one of the many enslaved Africans who escaped and fought for the British.

Known in his youth as Titus, he was one of four young men owned by John Corlies of Shrewsbury, in the eastern part of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Shrewsbury Quakers, under increasing pressure from their Philadelphia-influenced counterparts to the west, finally began to end slavery among themselves in the 1760s. Corlies did not follow the local practice of educating his slaves or of freeing them on their 21st birthdays, and by 1775, he was one of the few remaining Quaker slaveholders in Monmouth County.

In November 1775, the day after Dunmore's Proclamation was issued, 22-year old Titus fled from his cruel, quick-tempered master, joining the flood of Monmouth County blacks who sought refuge with the British as soldiers, sailors and workers. Titus changed his name, gaining notoriety three years later as Captain Tye, the pride of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment.

While not formally commissioning black officers, the British army often bestowed titles out of respect, and Tye quickly earned their respect. In his first known military incursion, the June, 1778 Battle of Monmouth (in which not a single black from the county fought for the patriots), Tye captured a captain in the Monmouth militia.

In July, 1779, Tye's band launched a raid on Shrewsbury, and carried away clothing, furniture, horses, cattle, and two of the town's inhabitants. With his "motley crew" of blacks and white refugees known as "cow-boys," Tye continued to attack and plunder patriot homes, using his knowledge of Monmouth County's swamps, rivers and inlets to strike suddenly and disappear quickly. These raids, often aimed at former masters and their friends, were a combination of banditry, reprisal, and commission; Tye and his men were well-paid by the British, sometimes earning five gold guineas.

During the harsh winter of 1779, Tye was among an elite group of twenty-four black Loyalists, known as the Black Brigade, who joined with the Queen's Rangers, a British guerrilla unit, to protect New York City and to conduct raids for food and fuel.

By 1780, Colonel Tye had become an important military force. Within one week in June, he led three actions in Monmouth County. On June 9, Tye and his men murdered Joseph Murray, hated by the Loyalists for his summary execution of captured Tories under a local vigilante law. On June 12, while the British attacked Washington's dwindling troops, Tye and his band launched a daring attack on the home of Barnes Smock, capturing the militia leader and twelve of his men, destroying their cannon, depriving Washington of needed reinforcements, and striking fear into the hearts of local patriots.

In response, Governor Livingston, who had tried two years before to abolish slavery in New Jersey, invoked martial law -- a measure which proved totally ineffective -- even as large numbers of blacks, heartened by news of Tye's feats, fled to British-held New York.

In a series of raids throughout the summer, Tye continued to debilitate and demoralize the patriot forces. In a single day, he and his band captured eight militiamen (including the second in command), plundered their homes, and took them to imprisonment in New York, virtually undetected and without suffering a single casualty.

In September, 1780 Tye led a surprise attack on the home of Captain Josiah Huddy, whom Loyalists had tried to capture for years. Amazingly, Huddy and his friend Lucretia Emmons managed to hold off their attackers for two hours, until the Loyalists flushed them out by setting the house afire. During the battle, Tye was shot in the wrist, and days later, what was thought to be minor wound turned fatal when lockjaw set in.

After Tye's death, Colonel Stephen Blucke of the Black Pioneers replaced him as leader of the raiders, continuing their attacks well after the British defeat at Yorktown. Tye's reputation lived on, among his comrades as well as the Patriots, who argued that the war would have been won much sooner had Tye been enlisted on their side.


Sherry Peyton said...

Thanks Chauncey for again teaching me the history I should have learned but didn't. Your blog is a true blessing to all of us who are enriched by an authentic voice from the black experience.

Your driver said...

Wow, this is right where i spent my childhood in New Jersey. I never ever heard any of this. Thank you so much!

chaunceydevega said...

@Sherry. How kind. True? Voice? Blessing? Now you putting pressure on folks!

@Jon. How have you been? I am from the same region--broadly--and just heard about this brother a few years ago. There is so much hidden history we are collectively not privy to. That is one of the reasons I get so upset with historical myth makers on the Right, and to a lesser degree the Left, because the truth is more interesting than the lie.

Your driver said...

thanks for asking Chauncey. I've been great. I've turned a couple of friends into regular readers here. I've really enjoyed your recent posts. I reposted this on facebook and ended up with a discussion of the teacher who started a "Negro History" class at my high school in New Jersey. What we were able to learn in long ago 1969 was that Black people had history, that Black people had excelled in any number of fields, that Black people had actively resisted slavery from the moment of their arrival on this continent and that racism is a system and not an attitude. Man, I wish I could go back and thank that teacher.

Plane Ideas said...

Super lesson on Black History....Thanks CD!!!!

Anonymous said...

You need your own SuperPac Mr. DV. Teach them!

DebC said...

Chauncey...Given the first two comments from Sherry and Jon - I'd say the whole "blessing" thing's a lock! I join the chorus of "thank yous" here, as I always leave this site knowing something I hadn't before!

"What we were able to learn in long ago 1969 was that Black people had history, that Black people had excelled in any number of fields, that Black people had actively resisted slavery from the moment of their arrival on this continent and that racism is a system and not an attitude."

Jon...I'd venture a guess that, had we ALL been able to learn early on, those lessons you mentioned - our presents and futures in these (alledgedly) United States would have been decidedly different.

I know, having been "educated" by Black nuns from K thru 7 in SC (yes, the Catholic schools were also segregated), we literally got nothing but the "sacred mythologies" to which Chauncey referred - par for the Church's course.

It was not until divorce (or Divine Providence, depending how you look at it) - transferred us into the loving arms of Black teachers at our predominantly-Black neighborhood school, did we learn about our history, our excellence, our resistance and yes, about the methodology of a "system" under which our sheer BEING had always been (and continues to be) manipulated. Some 40 years hence, though I continue to learn - I remain forever grateful for that transfer!

No pressure Chauncey - just keep doing what you do so that those who come after, will have a treasure trove of weapons in their arsenals! Thanx again...

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]Moreover, what of inconvenient facts? For example, more blacks fought for the British than the Continentals. [/quote]

Greetings Brother DeVega:

Question for you.
In the debate between which side the Blacks of the day chose to fight on...................why did you not consider that - REGARDLESS the side and the VICTOR...........the Native American land was stolen?

Is it your intention to remind us of the land theft that is America - when your goal is to make an indictment - rather than praise a Black who assisted in the jacking?

dogscantlookup said...


What do you teach your children about me?
What do you teach your little children about me?
Pimp, thug, bling, drug, lord of the under-grounded kings
How can you be so sure I won't call down the rain?
What do you teach your little children about me?
To point your gun way high and rob I sing and pray!

Shabaka Sounds said...

A very informative post. I agree with you Colonel Tye was no joke. Another Black Loyalist that has slipped between the cracks is Thomas Peters who fought for the British during the American revolutionary war and became a sergeant in the British regiment called the Black Pioneers. He later became the leader of the Black Loyalists who founded Freetown in 1792, the capital of Sierra Leone. Their story is fascinating and my mission as a Sierra Leonean is to get the word out, especially to African Americans. A British historian, Simon Schama, said in his book on the Black Loyalists called "Rough Crossings", that Thomas Peters is not in the pantheon of great African American heroes like Frederick Douglas because he fought on the "wrong side" during the revolutionary war. I'd love to know what people think about this? Why has his story slipped between the cracks? The Black Loyalists hardly feature in African American history. I'm a singer/songwriter from Sierra Leone with a song called The black Loyalists. Check out my blog at

I talk a little bit more about Thomas Peters and the founding of Freetown. My blog will make you think and dance at the same time.
Freddy Shabaka