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Rare Insight into 2 Black Soldiers Who Were Involved in the Crossing

January 12th, 2022 History
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Excerpts from Peter Jennings’ pension applications. Rutherford County Record Book 9, pages 71-72, Rutherford County Archives, Murfreesboro Tennessee.

 

Recordkeeping around the time of the crossing was spotty in many respects, but it was especially so with regard to the Black soldiers who were involved. However, thanks largely to preserved federal veterans pension applications, historians have been able to develop relatively nuanced profiles of two of those soldiers, Jacob Francis and Peter Jennings.

“It’s ironic in a tragic way,” says museum curator Kimberly McCarty. “We’re able to learn so much more about some Black soldiers through their pension applications. But they’re so detailed because the bar was higher for them to prove who they were and where they fought because of the prejudice of the time.”
 

Jacob Francis

William L. Kidder, a local historian and author, first encountered Francis’s name while he was working on a book about the First Hunterdon County Regiment of Militia. In his pension application, he noted occasional service under a first regiment captain, but he actually served with the third regiment. Over the next 12 years, Kidder continued researching Francis. He ultimately wrote a book about him, The Revolutionary World of a Free Black Man: Jacob Francis: 1754-1836, which was published in December.

On February 13, at 1:30 PM, Kidder will lead a discussion about Francis, based on his book, at the Visitor Center (COVID-19-permitting). You can register here.

“I felt a lot had been written about slavery during the time of the American Revolution, but there wasn’t much about the experiences of free Blacks, and Jacob was free his whole life,” Kidder says. “He did live a period of his life in indentured servitude, which wasn’t an entirely different experience.”

Francis was born to a free Black woman in Amwell Township, New Jersey, on January 15, 1754. His mother’s name is unknown, and there’s no record of his father or any siblings, Kidder says. At a young age, his mother put him into indentured servitude with a local white farmer. Francis was released from the arrangement on his 21st birthday – a critical difference between an enslaved person and an indentured servant; the enslaved had no rights or any expectation of ever being released.

“Jacob’s very clear in saying his time was owned, but not his person,” Kidder says.

Francis was owned by five different men, the last of which was based in Salem, Massachusetts. That’s where he enlisted in the Continental Army, in October 1775.

“It was on the day that George Washington issued orders not to enlist any Black men, so there was some question as to whether he even could enlist or be allowed to serve,” Kidder says.

At the time of the crossing, Francis was a private in the Massachusetts-based 16th Continental Regiment.

“He was one of the soldiers whose enlistment was up after the Battle of Trenton,” Kidder says. “He did not re-enlist, but he did serve with the Third Hunterdon County Regiment of Militia through the remaining six years of the war.”

Prior to his military service, Francis had not been in New Jersey for years. And yet, by the end of his enlistment, purely through the course of the war, he was 15 miles from where he was born. He went in search of his mother, not knowing if she was still alive. He didn’t even know his family’s surname. Kidder says he enlisted under the name of one of the men who had owned his indenture time.

“He found his mother – I don’t think she lived much longer – and learned his surname, which he used for the rest of his life,” Kidder says. “He became a farmer and did the impossible: He owned land, which was not supposed to happen by law.”

He married an enslaved woman named Mary. “Her owner sold her to Jacob right after their wedding ceremony, which speaks volumes about the state of the laws involving slaves at that time,” Kidder says. “If her owner freed her before the ceremony, he would be responsible for her, financially, if she ever became destitute. By selling her, Jacob became responsible for her. There’s no record of the price Jacob paid, but the two families were quite close, so I have reason to suspect it was a nominal fee. Also, they named a child after the owner. And they used his surname as the middle name for another second child.”

They had nine children together, the youngest, born around 1811, worked closely with Frederick Douglass as an abolitionist.
 

Peter Jennings

Jennings enlisted in the Continental Army in Providence, Rhode Island, which was his birthplace, according to one record. However, in his pension application, he said he was born in Connecticut. His application also says he served with the Fifth Regiment Artillery of Blacks, but McCarty, in her research, has been unable to find any other mention of the unit. Either way, Jennings fought on behalf of the Continental Army for the duration of the war. He never rose above the rank of private.

“In his pension application, he provided some great descriptions of the crossing and the battles of Trenton and Princeton,” McCarty says. “In Princeton, he said he had a perfect recollection of Washington basically jumping onto a horse and charging into battle in front of the troops while yelling something like, ‘Come on, Boys!’ He said it had the desired effect on the troops.”

Jennings possibly married a woman named Betsy in 1815, McCarty says. She does not appear in the census in 1840, so McCarty believes she died sometime during the previous decade. At some point between 1815 and 1822, the couple moved to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for reasons unknown.

“It was a surprising choice” McCarty says, because of the prejudice that was synonymous with much of the region.

His decision also complicated matters when he applied for his pension, she says, because soldiers often needed corroborators to support their pension applications. Because you generally served with other men from your region, finding corroborators becomes decidedly more difficult when you move away.

In 1822, Jennings appeared in a Tennessee court as part of a formal request for his free papers, which he needed to prove he was a free man and not a runaway slave. The documentation from the appearance is the only other record that provides meaningful insight into who Jennings was. It describes him as five-foot-six and “stout.” It also indicates he had a gunshot wound on his right knee.

Jennings would ultimately receive his free papers, but not until five years later.

One historian identified him as a baker and said that he built a home in Murfreesboro, out of which he operated his own bakery. Jennings died on Jan. 22, 1842 at 90-years-old.