Research Assembles a Portrait of a Man Brought to the Valley as a Slave

  • The grave of Derrick Oxford, a former slave, was marked only by a blank stone until Jane Stephenson, president of the Plainfield Historical Society, researched and found he moved with his owner's family from Stonington, Conn., before serving at Saratoga and the seige of Ticonderoga in the Revolutionary War. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jane Stephenson, president of the Plainfield Historical Society, stands in the Coreyville Cemetery with the grave of Derrick Oxford, a slave who served three years in the Revolutionary War, in Plainfield, N.H., Thursday, May 10, 2018. Stephenson learned about Oxford's grave and the unmarked grave of another slave last year after a lecture on the underground railroad in New England. She researched the graves and after months of correspondence with the Veterans Administration, Oxford was granted a granite headstone marked with his military service that will be dedicated in a ceremony on May 19 at 2 p.m. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, May 11, 2018

Like other graves in Colonial-era burying grounds in New England, the headstones in Coryville Cemetery, tucked off Ladieu Road in Plainfield, are weathered, covered with lichen and crooked with age. Some of the names and dates on the headstones are legible, some not.

An unusual triangular fieldstone marks the probable grave of Derrick Oxford, an African-American man who served for three years during the American Revolution as a soldier in the 1st New Hampshire regiment, which fought the British at the battles of Ticonderoga and Saratoga in 1777.

Next Saturday, May 19, at 2 p.m. there will be an official commemoration in the Coryville Cemetery marking the placement of a modern headstone to Oxford, which was donated and engraved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Organized by Jane Stephenson, the director of the Plainfield Historical Society, the ceremony will include an appearance by re-enactors of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment. The event is open to the public, but the cemetery itself is not large enough to hold a crowd, Stephenson said.

Notably, descendants of Oxford will be on hand to witness the commemoration, as will New Hampshire descendants of the Gallup family, which had enslaved Oxford in the mid-to-late 1700s in Stonington, Conn.

Bonita Johnson, who lives in Bridgeport, Conn., has traced her ancestry back to Oxford, who was on her father’s side of the family, she said.

She first learned of the possible connection in January when Stephenson, who had been unraveling the complex network of records from Connecticut to New Hampshire to Vermont, contacted her by letter.

Johnson then did her own legwork online concerning Oxford, although she had been tracking down her family history since the early 2000s. Johnson is coming to the ceremony with her son and daughter. Johnson’s brother and his daughter and granddaughter will also attend.

“It’s been exciting to me to find this stuff, it made me feel good to finally figure it out,” she said in a phone interview.

When it comes to pinning down facts regarding Oxford, said Stephenson, researchers encounter a thicket of contradictions, and empty spaces where Oxford disappears from the written record. Documentation is patchy and much is still unknown, she said.

In 1775, a William Gallup moved from Stonington to Hartland bringing with him his wife, their seven children, his brother — and Oxford, who was listed as a slave, Stephenson said. (It’s also possible that Oxford came north with his wife, Jenny.) But in the 1790 census, the Gallups of Hartland list one free person of color as part of the household, while the Cutlers, a leading Plainfield family, list two free people of color.

After extensive research in town, state and federal records, Stephenson’s theory is that Oxford was one of the two free people of color in the Cutler household. But she doesn’t know why Oxford traveled the short distance across the Connecticut River from Hartland to Plainfield, leaving the Gallups for the Cutlers. Vermont declared itself a republic in 1777, signing a constitution in Windsor that abolished slavery. William Gallup was at the convention in Windsor, Stephenson said.

So did Gallup free Oxford, or did he sell him to Cutler?

“You’d like to say (Oxford is) buried with his wife and died as a free man but there’s no way to know. There’s no legal record of his emancipation,” Stephenson said in an interview in her home last week.

Coryville Cemetery used to be called the Cutler family cemetery. It’s long been town lore that there were two graves in the cemetery that marked the resting place of two people who had been enslaved. It’s Stephenson’s strong belief that one of those graves holds the remains of Derrick Oxford. The other person could have been Jenny Oxford, with whom he had two daughters, Jenny and Cate.

But if the two graves in the cemetery belong to Oxford and his wife, then why are they spaced a good distance from one another? Another mystery, said Stephenson.

Further, there is no specific birth or death date for Oxford in the historical records, Stephenson said. The 1800 census makes no mention of Oxford, so the presumption is that he died somewhere between 1790 and 1800.

Records from Stonington show that a Derrick (it was common practice then to list slaves only by first names) was baptized in 1743. Stephenson believes that this was Derrick Oxford, and that he was baptized not as an infant, but as a young teenager. Oxford was bequeathed in wills, along with his wife Jenny, from the Wheelock to the Williams to the Gallup families, all of whom were related to one another by family or marriage.

However, Revolutionary War military service records list his age in 1778 at around 25, although such estimations weren’t necessarily accurate, said Glenn Knoblock, author of Strong and Brave Fellows: New Hampshire’s Black Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, among other books. He is also is a leading contributor on military history to the African American National Biography, co-published by Harvard and Oxford universities. Soldiers might lie about or not know their age, or the people mustering them in might only guess at age.

More questions arise: At what point in his life did Derrick Oxford take that surname, and why? “He claimed an identity for himself, that’s significant,” said Knoblock, in a phone interview from his home in Wolfeboro.

By 1800, slavery had been technically abolished in New England. But, the saga of Derrick Oxford wends its way through the history of Colonial New England, and what historians have called the region’s “collective amnesia” when it comes to its own record of slave-holding and slave-trading.

While slavery and the slave trade did not exist on the same scale or geographical reach as the “peculiar institution” of the southern states, they did take hold in Colonial New England, particularly in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

This complicates both New England’s vision of itself, and its actual record, as a staunch and enlightened bastion of abolitionism. A raft of new scholarship has begun to look at this thorny issue.

By 1730, Stephenson said, Connecticut listed some 700 enslaved persons (both African-American and Native American) out of a population of 38,000.

By 1750, that number had jumped to more than 3,000 African-American slaves and nearly 1,000 Native Americans, most likely Pequot, who had lived along the coast well before the appearance of Europeans. By the mid-1770s, Stephenson said, the proportion of enslaved people to whites in New London, Conn., was the highest in New England.

Even Vermont didn’t actually enforce the laws dating from its 1777 Constitution, said Knoblock. The numbers were small, but “slavery survived in Vermont well into the 19th century,” he added. The same is true of Massachusetts. (The 1790 census does list, however, 45 free persons of color as living in Windsor County.)

To get around the slavery prohibition in Vermont, it wasn’t uncommon for households to sell their slaves to the other New England states where it was still permitted.

The importation of slaves to Connecticut was banned in 1774, but a law mandating gradual emancipation was not passed until 1784. In 1783, Massachusetts and New Hampshire passed laws for gradual abolition of slavery; Rhode Island joined Connecticut in 1784.

Knoblock tracked down through town records and Revolutionary War pension records the roughly 220 African-American men living in New Hampshire, both free and enslaved, who served. Derrick Oxford was one of those men.

In March 1777, records show that Oxford enlisted in the 1st New Hampshire regiment, one of three New Hampshire regiments in the Continental Army, Knoblock said. All three regiments consisted of black and white soldiers serving together, although the number of black soldiers was small; this had less to do with modern ideas about integration than the fact that the Continental Army was desperate for soldiers. The 1st New Hampshire fought at the Siege of Ticonderoga in July 1777, and then at the Battles of Saratoga in September and October 1777.

Oxford then became so ill that he is on an absentee list taken at Valley Forge, Penn., in the winter of 1778, which means, Knoblock said, that he never made it as far as Valley Forge.

Instead, he’d been left at Albany, N.Y., and had to make his way back to the Gallups in Vermont to, in the parlance of the furlough order, “recruit his health.” He then returned to service in the 1st New Hampshire at the end of 1778 and continued until July 1780. The war ended with the surrender of the British at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781. He later became a part of the Vermont militia.

There is, of course, said Knoblock, a “great incongruity between people fighting for our nation’s freedom when their freedom wasn’t ensured at all.”

Why African-Americans enlisted when many, although not all, were still enslaved is another question.

Some were promised that if they served they would be emancipated by the state government at the end of their service, although there was no guarantee of such. The Americans also offered enlistment bounties. Don’t rule out patriotic fervor either, Knoblock said.

The British tried to lure African-Americans to fight with them, using the same promise of freedom, and in fact approximately 1,000 did, many of them ending up after the war in Nova Scotia. Some 20,000 African-Americans left with the British at war’s end, preferring that unknown to the known of slavery.

That so many African-Americans fought ably and loyally on the American side was personally attested to by George Washington, who had initially opposed their enlistment. At the end of the war Washington personally discharged three African-American soldiers from the three New Hampshire regiments, giving them badges of merit for their service, Knoblock said.

After the war, economic conditions for African-American free men in New England were exceedingly arduous, Knoblock said.

If they came back to farm, they bought or were given the worst land. In 1821, one George Knox, who had come to Hanover around 1770, possibly to work as a servant for the family of Eleazar Wheelock, petitioned for the military pension due him, Knoblock said.

A national military pension did not come in until 1817. By 1821, Knox, who was then living on hardscrabble land in Thetford, would have been in his 80s. For those African-American soldiers still alive, many had to rely on white soldiers to vouch for their service, Knoblock said.

In Knox’s case, one soldier did testify on his behalf, adding that “I really think he is as poor as a man can be and live.” (Knox is buried in Thetford.)

That spirit of endurance, in Oxford’s case, moves his descendant Bonita Johnson. “They may have been enslaved, but they didn’t let it hold them back. They kept on pushing forward,” she said.

That Stephenson, and others like her in historical societies throughout New England, have delved deeply into the record to uncover the stories of people like Oxford, is important, Knoblock added.

It adds to the richness and complexity of American history, and keeps a legion of such stories from fading away entirely.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.