Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Anita Wills, black Patriots, native americans and continuing suppression

Anita Wills is a descendant of many soldiers who fought at the Battle of Camden and at Yorktown during the Revolution and related to the Washington family and the Monroe family. She wrote to me about Black Patriots and Loyalists - here - and wondered if I had recorded the names of her family members.


When I started writing the book 16 years ago, I felt obligated to mention many names, as many as reasonable, to recover a buried part of history. After all, black soldiers had led in the fighting on both sides - as I discovered about Yorktown - and there are many long suppressed stories. When others like Gary Nash, Simon Schama and Cassandra Pybus published some of the story in 2006, I felt this obligation a little less strongly, and while I emphasize names in the final version (May, 2012), there are many, including Anita's relatives from Virginia, whom I could not know and others (many in the Book of Negroes and other muster rolls), I could not, in one lively account, include.


But Anita's story is very important. She researched and published three books on her own relatives: Pieces of the Quilt here,* Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color here and Black Minqua: The Life and Times of Henry Green here.** She reveals that her mulatto relatives, Charles and Ambrose Lewis, though born free, were forced to serve 20 to 30 year indentures (the length of indentured servitude from Britain was 7 years). They fought in the navy as did many black soldiers, on both sides, serving on the Galley Page. Since the average black lifespan was 40, this is an indenture close, in length, to bondage, although Charles and Ambrose escaped the worst treatment. I had previously not known of indentures of this length.


The Pinns, part native american, part black, part white (mulattoes in the idiom of the time), fought at Yorktown. The history of blacks joining with native americans in fighting for freedom against the British (earlier settler encroachment) and of blacks, native americans and poor whites, including indentured servants, fighting together has long been buried. See, for example Lerone Bennett's "The Road Not Taken" here and William Katz, Black Indians here

In working on Founding Myths in the US and Israel since going to the West Bank in October, I have begun to explore the sharp analogy between indigenous people here and in Palestine. See here, here and here.

But there are many aspects of the contributions of indigenous soldiers, for example the Narragansetts in the first Rhode Island Regiment as well as the Pinns, Anita's relatives in Virginia, who fought at Yorktown. Anita herself is a member of the Monacan Indian Nation.

Black soldiers were sometimes awarded freedom, and their descendants, after 50 years as I note in Black Patriots and Loyalists, given land. Anita underscores this of the Pinns. In contrast, indigenous soldiers were often dispossessed and driven out by the "Patriots."

The Pinns' story is part of - and an emblem of - this story. It is perhaps no wonder that the elite, including the DAR described below, has long worked to bury it.***


As one theme of Black Patriots and Loyalists, I underline the dramatic undercounting of black soldiers in standard American estimates (the figure 5,000 is due to Henry Nell, a black abolitionist, in the 1850s; under vast pressure from below, the Daughters of the American Revolution has now counted 8,800 and realizes there are many more. See here. My rough guess is that 5,000 was no better half and perhaps not even a quarter of black Patriots...


Here is what Anita writes about John Pinn who is on most lists of Yorktown:

"Also serving out of Virgina were Rawley Pinn, his brother Robert Pinn II, and Robert's sons John, Billy, and Jim. They fought at the Siege of Yorktown, the deciding Battle of the Revolution. Although John Pinn is included in most lists of those who fought in the Revolutionary War, the others are not. However, in John Pinn's Pension file he states that his father, Robert, and brothers, Billy and Jim fought at the Siege of Yorktown. I found the records of my direct ancestor, Rawley Pinn and his unit at a Library at the College of William & Mary. Rawley Pinn's unit, mustered out of Amherst County, and joined with Marquis De Lafayette's unit on the March to Yorktown."


John is actually one of 5 Pinns who fought there...


Shelby Conti, a white member of the DAR, honorably representing her ancestors who once fought for freedom, fought for Anita's admission.


Anita joined the DAR reluctantly as did her brother the SAR - see "For the DAR, a new chapter" here - and provided them research. But the DAR does not ask her to speak.


In including her descent from the Washingtons, she is not asked by some blacks to speak either.

So she has fought, with great persistence to get the story out. She writes, strikingly and ironically, that she could now write a book about the perils of writing a book about the Pinns and Lewises and Bowdens, who fought...:

"I could write a book about my experience, not only in researching, but writing about my ancestors."


Many black soldiers, former slaves, could not write. Their stories were suppressed as James Madison urged - better he said of a 1774 slave revolt that was unfortunately foiled in Virginia - that the story be hidden

Even now, so many years later, it is still often a fight, as Anita's experience shows, to make these stories known...


And this is true even when the descendants of the fighters speak for themselves, make a large effort to be heard.


I went into COSTCO last week. Jon Meacham's (yet another) establishment biography of Jefferson - in which the issue of blacks fighting for freedom in the Revolution and Jefferson's wretchedness toward his own slaves is treated emptily as an "anachronism," a common cliche in apologies for founding fathers who owned and brutalized slaves - was being sold. See my commentary on repeated biographies of Presidents, including this one and the much better movie "Lincoln" here and on Paul Finkelman's fine "The Monster of Monticello" here.

But there is no mention in any book at Costco and similar big stores of black soldiers like the Pinns who were the central fighters on whom Washington relied at Yorktown (Henry Wiencek's book Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves and the Creation of America here for which he spoke with Anita is comparatively good on this).


Anita rightly expresses skepticism even about Wiencek's book. For Wiencek who wrote a fine account of Washington and slavery focuses on...George Washington.

One must think the founders and their ever renewed biographies, the custom of historians of the American revolution, particularly in the New York Times and especially around Christmas, are overridingly important - nothing else counts - and so, write even a critique in terms of Washington.


In contrast, French historians who write about the revolution of 1789 overwhelmingly write of class struggle, and the only biography - a fine one - of Robespierre is by Ruth Scurr, an Englishwoman...


Anita naturally - and democratically - thinks the black veterans are more important than Washington...

In understanding the American Revolution and its international interplay with emancipation - shaping the Revolution itself - they are.


And as Anita's long efforts suggest, they should be...


"Dear Mr. Gilbert,

My name is Anita Wills and I am a descendant of Several Revolutionary War Veterans who served out of Virginia. I am one of the few African American members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). My ancestors Ambrose and Charles Lewis served as Seamen and Soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The brothers fought in the Battle of Camden where Ambrose was captured and taken aboard a British Prison Ship. Charles (my direct ancestor), escaped injury and returned to Richmond Virginia until the end of the War. Ambrose was freed after the War and eventually settled in Fredericksburg. Although Ambrose left a pension file, there is not a lot of documentation on Charles Lewis (who is my direct ancestor).

Also serving out of Virgina were Rawley Pinn, his brother Robert Pinn II, and Roberts' sons' John, Billy, and Jim. They fought at the Siege of Yorktown, the deciding Battle of the Revolution. Although John Pinn is included in most lists of those who fought in the Revolutionary War, the others are not. However, in John Pinn's Pension file he states that his father, Robert, and brothers, Billy and Jim fought at the Siege of Yorktown. I found the records of my direct ancestor, Rawley Pinn and his unit at a Library at the College of William & Mary. Rawley Pinn's unit, mustered out of Amherst County, and joined with Marquis De Lafayette's unit on the March to Yorktown.

The reason I am mentioning these names is that they are often left out of books, although their service is documented. I am looking forward to reading your book and hope that these men are some of those mentioned.

Anita Wills"

"Dear Anita,

Thank you so much for writing to me. When did you join the Daughters and was this at last a straightforward process?

I emphasize the key role of blacks on both sides at Yorktown. A German private, Georg Daniel Flohr, who fought with the Royal Deux Ponts with the Americans, walked around the field afterwards and records that most of the dead, on both sides, were "Mohren" (Moors). The book seeks to explain this and the movements from below for freedom, which for the Patriots produced such recruitment and resulted in the gradual emancipation of blacks in the Northern states during and immediately after the Revolution. I made a point of including names where I could but the names are many. So I am still working on this. If it is all right with you, I may post on your letter (and anything else you would like to send me) on my blog ( I enclose below a long post I did on two women who formed a new integrated chapter of the DAR in Queens and how the count of black soldiers and native Americans, lowballed for so long out of racism, now is 8,800…

All the best,

Anita responded:


No, it was not an easy process to get in to the DAR. The person who assisted me was Karen Sutton, whose ancestor served out of Lancaster County Virginia. They stalled for almost a year and in 1998, after a push from a white member, Shelby Conti, they accepted me in. My interest is in including those Soldiers of Color, and their contributions. I do not like the conservative bent of the DAR, and the underhanded gestures toward African American members. I get invitations to participate out here [San Francisco], but seldom accept. I am the author of three books, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color, Pieces of the Quilt The Mosaic of An African American Family, and Black Minqua The Life and Times of Henry Green. All of my books are available through

I wrote about Ambrose and Charles Lewis in my first book, Notes and Documents of Free Persons of Color. I also wrote about the Pinns who fought at the Siege of Yorktown. When I found the roster for the Unit Rawley Pinn served in and provided it to the Park Service at Yorktown, we held an event to commemorate these Soldiers of Colors (in September of 2000). The DAR also had a Celebration of Revolutionary War Soldiers of Color, after I provided them with the names. I wanted to be a speaker at the DAR event, but was only asked to attend. The event at Yorktown was held in September of 2000, and I was a speaker, because I was one of the Coordinators, but the person who got credit for everything was a Park Ranger.

In my books I write about things that some folks do not approve of like, George Washington and his families Mulatto Indentured Servants and slaves. Some of my ancestors were Mulattoes who were Indentured to George Washington's Family. I also mentioned in Notes and Documents that George Washington is related to me through his Grandmother Mildred Warner Washington. I received flack, not only from the Virginia Establishment but African Americans well. When I asked to have book reading at the Black History Museum in Richmond, the African American Director said no. The Library of Virginia also turned me down my request to have a book reading and signing. The person who turned me down was an African American Librarian (Linda Threadgill), This happened even though, my Revolutionary War Ancestor, Charles Lewis was a Property Owner and Businessman in Richmond. My direct ancestor, Rawley Pinn, and his brothers fought valiantly at the Siege of Yorktown, yet when I asked for a marker to honor the unit, there was no response.

Here is some information on my Revolutionary War Ancestors:

Charles Lewis, was a Seamen, and Soldier during the Revolutionary War. Ambrose Lewis (b. abt. 1758, d.1834), and Charles Lewis, (b. abt. 1756, d. aft. 1808), were born on the Bel Aire Plantation in Spotsylvania Virginia. They are believed to be the son of a white man, John Lewis, and a Mulatto woman, Josephine. Ambrose and Charles, first signed up as Seamen in Fredericksburg Virgina, and later as Soldiers. In 1771 the brothers were sentenced to serve twenty year indentures (because of their status as Mulattoes), and worked on board the Galley Page (out of Alexandra Virginia). The Galley Page, was a supply boat which went from Alexandria to the Mouth of the James River and back. They were beginning Seamen at that time, and remained on the Galley after joining the War. Later they transferred to the Dragon Ship, which was a Patrol Ship along the Rappahannock. The Dragon saw little action, during the Lewis brothers tour and was only in involved in one minor battle. They completed three years service as Seamen, and then signed on as Soldiers.

Lewis and his brother Ambrose then enlisted as privates in the Second Virginia Regiment, commanded by Col. George Stubblefield. Their unit was under the leadership with Captain Hallidays Company and Militia. The Battle at Camden was a crushing defeat for Gates and the unit. They faced an army of British Soldiers who were better trained and equipped. Many of the young soldiers deserted, or were killed, but Charles and Ambrose stayed and fought. Ambrose Lewis was shot nine times and bayoneted clean through. He was also taken Prisoner on a British Prison Ship, and held until the end of the War. It is more than a probability that the British patched Ambrose up after he was taken prisoner. When the war ended, Ambrose returned to Virginia and settled in Fredericksburg. Over the years until his death, he filed for his Pension citing injuries sustained at the Battle of Camden. He was successful with his pension applications and his heirs received Land Bounty (in 1834). Charles Lewis heirs also received his land bounty (in 1834).

It is ironic that my Lewis Ancestors fought in The Battle at Camden, while my Pinn Ancestors fought At the Siege of Yorktown. One battle was the losing battle, while the other was the Winning Battle. After Ambrose capture, the war did not go on that much longer, as Washington and additional troops were preparing for the biggest battle of the war. They were at Yorktown, and The Siege of Yorktown, would go down as the winning battle of the Revolution.

John Pinn was a Soldier of Color, who fought at The Siege of Yorktown. Joining him in battle was his father, Robert Pinn, as well as brothers, Jim and Billy, and Uncle Rawley Pinn. The Pinn's were mixed raced, Native/Africans, who originated from Indian Town in Lancaster County Virginia. Another Native at the Battle was John Redcross, a good friend and in-law of Rawley Pinn. Rawley served out of Amherst County Virginia, where he settled after leaving Lancaster County. He served under Daniel Gaines, in a unit commanded by Colonial William Cabell. The unit marched out of Amherst County in September of 1780, headed for Yorktown. They joined with another unit headed by Colonel Marquis De Lafayette, and continued their journey. The men marched to Yorktown and the battle that awaited them. Yet the history books have been silent about their contributions to the War.

This is why I have researched and document their stories and lives.

Thank you for opening up this topic.

Anita Wills"

I thanked Anita and sent a couple of posts, including the one on "The Monster of Monticello.." Anita then added the following response about her brother and the Sons of the American Revolution:


My brother, Anthony Baxter is a member of the SAR, but not very active. He joined in Massachusetts and has similar feelings as my own. I was the first of my family to join the DAR and a few have since joined. I am now researching my ancestors in Pennsylvania who were in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They were also Mulatto, or mixed raced, Native/African/Whites, who were relegated to being Mulatto, Colored, and Negro. My Lewis ancestors Charles and Ambrose were the sons of the powerful Lewis family in Virginia. Although they were born free, they were still required to serve indentures. Mulattoes were required by law to serve these indentures (30 years for females and 20 years for males).

Yet the power of the White Lewis in Virginia (who were related to the Washington's), made life a little easier for Charles and Ambrose. The fact is Charles and Ambrose were popular names in the Lewis family. They carried the Lewis name and when assigned to Indentures worked on the Galley Page, unsupervised. When I contacted the DAR about Ambrose Lewis, they had information on him, that ended with his racial identification (black). You see Ambrose went from being Mulatto to being Black. I did my own genealogy research finding the documents linking me to my ancestor Charles Lewis. They still give me a hassle about joining under Rawley Pinn, although I am a member of the Monacan Indian Nation (through Rawley Pinn).

I could write a book about my experience, not only in researching, but writing about my ancestors. Yet, nothing in my book has been called a lie (one of my ancestors, Mary Bowden, born 1730, died after 1810, is the daughter of James Monroe's Uncle William Monroe Junior. Using court documents, I proved the relationship and wrote about it in my book Pieces of the Quilt. I have been invited to talk to a Monroe family Biographer but have yet to do so.


Anita continued:


I met Henry Wiencek in 1998, when he was researching his book, An Imperfect God, about George Washington. He mentioned me and my ancestors, Mary and Patty Bowden, in his book. At the time I did not know Mary Bowden was the daughter of William Bowden Junior. Mary was the mother of Patty, and they were Mulatto Indentured Servants to George Washington's family. At that point there were some whites in Virginia who wanted to write about my family. I felt that we (People of Color), have a unique perspective on our ancestors, which would not be well served in a book Henry might write. I also added names and information for the "African-American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War" which came out AFTER the event at the Siege of Yorktown, yet I was not invited to speak. At the time I was not actively involved in a Chapter [of the DAR], but I communicated with the researcher on a daily basis.

Your blog is very informative.



*Anita's Pieces of the Quilt includes a searing account of growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania in the 1950s, part of the South with every exclusion and indignity of which America was capable.

** Periodically, particularly among black historians, black Patriot soldiering has been looked at extensively. For instance, Luther Jackson wrote a good pamphlet on black soldiers in Virginia during World War II, but there has been little about Virginia since.

***Atiwapiskat First Nations chief Theresa Spence is on a hunger strike to the death to protest the stealing of indigenous lands and waterways for Shell Oil by the infamous Stephen Harper (also Canadian prime minister) and parliament. There is a big "Idle No More" movement of protest against these measures - see here - which deserves our support.

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