Two Local Slaves Recaptured

by Ned Benton

How did John Cox and Andrew Cole escape from slavery in Mamaroneck Township during the 1770s and end up on Nova Scotia? The story of these two men, whose connection to Mamaroneck had been lost for more than 200 years, may be traced through documents compiled for the Slavery in Mamaroneck Township project.

Census records affirm that slavery was common in Mamaroneck before 1827, when slavery was abolished in New York State. Those records and other documents have revealed details of local slaveholders and slaves, which are presented in a table of The Slaveholders and The Slaves (updated in December, 2016). Further description of the documents behind the list are given in Slavery in Mamaroneck: Remembering Bet, Phelby, Candice, Jack, Hannibal, Telemaque…

Documentation of Two More Slaves

Previously, the only slaves known to the project were those listed in the census or in a transcription of Mamaroneck Township records. In 2006, research uncovered a “new” source that revealed the names of two more Mamaroneck slaves.

The two slaves appear in the Book of Negroes, a hand-written list of Black passengers allowed to leave New York for Nova Scotia in 1783 because of their service to the British during the Revolutionary War. Two entries for a ship named the Clinton read as follows:

  • John Cox, 31, stout fellow. Formerly the property of Eleazer Goddin, Maroneck (sic), New York; left him 7 years ago.
  • Andrew Cole, 26, stout fellow. Formerly the property of Ben Cole, Marroneck (sic), New York; left him 4 years ago.

What do we know about John Cox and Andrew Cole? To understand how they came to be slaves and what might have happened when they moved to Nova Scotia, we need to begin with the story of how slavery came to Westchester County.

Slavery in Westchester County

The Dutch West India Company had introduced the slave trade to the New York area in 1626, and it had spread north to places like the Philipsburg Manor. According to historian Edgar McManus, author of A History of Negro Slavery in New York, in the mid 1600s, there was such an acute shortage of agricultural labor in the Hudson Valley that planters advertised to buy “any suitable blacks available.”

As early as 1698, slavery is officially documented in Mamaroneck Township. Captain James Mott, William Palmer and Ann Richbell are all recorded as slaveholders. (See Census of Mamaroneck, Westchester Co. New York, 1698.)

New Rochelle, Mamaroneck and Rye from a 1781 Chart titled “Position du camp de l’armée combinée a Philipsburg du 6 juillet au 19 aoust.” (Library of Congress American Memory Project)

By 1750, there were 11,014 slaves in the Colony of New York — almost one out of every six persons – residing here in Mamaroneck Township. (See: Establishing Slavery In Colonial New York.)

Why Did John Cox and Andrew Cole Escape and Join the Brits?

Mamaroneck’s slaves included John Cox, born in about 1752 and owned by Eleazer Goddin, and Andrew Cole, born in about 1757 and owned by Ben Cole. Ben Cole may have been a relative of James Coles, the Mamaroneck cobbler (See Judith Spikes, Larchmont NY: People and Places, 1991, p.13) or Joseph or John Coles, who appeared in the 1790 Mamaroneck census.

In 1775, The Earl of Dunmore who was the British Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation urging slaves to join arms with the British: “I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops as soon as may be, foe the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY’S Crown and Dignity.”

In reply, the General Convention of the Dominion and Colony of Virginia threatened dire consequences: “WHEREAS lord Dunmore, by his proclamation, dated on board the ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November 1775, hath offered freedom to such able-bodied slaves as are willing to join him, and take up arms, against the good people of this colony, giving thereby encouragement to a general insurrection, which may induce a necessity of inflicting the severest punishments upon those unhappy people, already deluded by his base and insidious arts; and whereas, by an act of the General Assembly now in force in this colony, it is enacted, that all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of clergy.”

The Phillipsburg Proclamation Invites Cox and Cole to Join Up

In 1779, the British Commander of New York issued the Phillpsburg Proclamation, which extended the same offer to slaves in New York, even those who escaped from their masters.

In 1776, John Cox escaped from Eleazer Goddin. It is hard to say whether he was motivated by the 1775 Dunmore Proclamation. But, Andrew Cole made his escape in 1779 – the same year as the Phillipsburg Proclamation, so it’s a good guess that he heard the call and responded.

Following the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, the British forces gathered in New York to be evacuated. Congress instructed General George Washington to claim all confiscated property from the British, including slaves. However, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Guy Carleton, refused to comply with General Washington’s demand that the slaves be returned to their owners. Sir Carleton and General Washington agreed that the slaves would be permitted to emigrate and that the British would compensate their owners.

John Cox and Andrew Cole were among the 3,000 Black Loyalists who were issued certificates of freedom and permitted to emigrate to Canada by ship. Their ship, the Clinton, was bound for Annapolis, Nova Scotia.

Life in Nova Scotia

Life in Nova Scotia for the Black Loyalists proved difficult. One account, by William Dyott in 1788, describes the conditions at Birchtown, which was one of the settlements where Cox and Cole would have been encouraged to live:

Dyott and fellow officers… – walked through the woods about two miles from the barracks to a negro town called Birch Town. At the evacuation of New York there were a great number of these poor devils given lands and settled here. The place is beyond description wretched, situated on the coast in the middle of barren rocks, and partly surrounded by a thick impenetrable wood – Their huts miserable to guard against the inclemency of a Nova Scotia winter, and their existence almost depending on what they could lay up in summer. I think I never saw wretchedness and poverty so strongly perceptible in the garb and the countenance of the human species as in these miserable outcasts. I cannot say I was sorry to quit so melancholy a dwelling.

However, there is no record of Cole or Cox in the registers of Black Loyalists in the two major settlements: Birchtown or Annapolis. Having grown up in Mamaroneck, they may have become involved in a fishing settlement like Brindley.

They might also have been among those persuaded in the early 1790s to emigrate once again – this time to Sierra Leone.

One tantalizing clue to what might have happened to one of the Mamaroneck men is found in a jury report of 1794 claiming that an indentured servant had been sold as a slave in the West Indies. The jury asks the court to make inquiries about this potential illegal act. The jury foreman is James Cox. Handwriting at the time was imprecise, and perhaps John Cox of Mamaroneck had lived to the age of 44 to serve as a jury foreman in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

The Rest of the Story…

The story of slavery in America is told in thousands of documents – legal records, personal letters, government registers, business transactions and public reports. But the story of individual slaves or slaveholders is told when the connections are made – when a name can be traced over places and times to reveal evidence of a life.

Making more of those connections is becoming possible now that historians in the United States, Canada, England and Africa are finding, assembling and digitizing records relating to slavery in America. In the years to come, the aim of the Slavery in Mamaroneck Township project is to make use of the newly available documents to weave together stories of the slaves who lived in our community.