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African-Americans Serving on Lake Ontario During the War of 1812
by Dr. Gary M. Gibson
How Many Served?
During the War of 1812, the United States army and Marine Corps did not enlist African-Americans. The United States Navy, however, did. While it is known that the enlisted seamen serving at Sackets Harbor included African-Americans, their exact number remains unknown. This is because the information recorded on muster rolls, pay rolls, and other official navy documents did not include race. In effect, during the War of 1812 the navy was color-blind.
Some idea of the number of African-Americans serving in the navy on Lake Ontario can be gained from comments in other documents. In July 1813, Commodore Isaac Chauncey reported that he had “nearly 50 blacks” on board his flagship the General Pike. At the time, this was about 15% of the frigate’s crew. Earlier that spring, Seaman Ned Meyers reported that he had an all-black gun crew of about six men on board the armed merchant schooner Scourge. The schooner also had a black cook and a boy on board. These men were about 20% of the Scourge’s crew. Other reports claimed that over 20% of the crews on some navy warships on Lake Ontario were African-American. By the fall of 1814 there may have been as many as 450 African-Americans serving in the navy at Sackets Harbor.
In most cases, it is very difficult to distinguish a free black seaman’s 1812-era records from those of a white seaman, even when extensive pension records are available. A good case is that of seaman Moses Cropper. Before coming to Sackets Harbor in the spring of 1813, Cropper served on board the frigate Constitution in its successful battle with HMS Java. While at Sackets Harbor, Cropper served on the corvette Madison and the frigate General Pike before his death in May 1814. His daughter Sarah’s application for a survivor’s pension was the same as thousands of other applications. It was only the inclusion of a marriage certificate from a Philadelphia African Episcopal Church that determined Cropper’s race.
Some of the African-Americans serving on Lake Ontario were slaves, rented to the navy by their owners. In such cases, the owner received the net amount of the slave’s wages along with any prize money earned by the slave’s participation in naval actions on the lake. Strangely, this was something of an win-win situation for everyone involved. The slave owner received some money and no longer had to support the slave, and the navy received men who could not object to serving on Lake Ontario (a very unpopular posting) and who were unlikely to attempt to desert. It was the slave himself, however, who might have received the best deal. For the first time in his life he was treated as an equal. On board ship he received the same quarters, rations, discipline and punishment and he performed the same duties as a white seaman.
While the end of a regular seaman’s term of enlistment was often looked forward to with pleasure, the same cannot be said for that of a seaman-slave. For those men, service in the navy was not a path to freedom. At the end of his “rental period” the slave returned to his owner and to his previous bondage lifestyle. In special cases, this happened before the end of the slave’s term, as it did for the slave owned by John J. Schermerhorn of Albany. Schermerhorn’s request to have his slave returned was approved by Commodore Chauncey, but only after “the money being reimbursed which has been advanced to him by the United States or as soon as he has worked himself out of debt.” This reflected a slave-seaman’s ability to obtain articles from the ship’s purser (such as tobacco) paid for by charges against his wages. Although this reduced the amount of money received by the slave’s owner, no owners complained, at least not on Lake Ontario. The actual number of slaves serving in the navy at Sackets Harbor is not known, but in his letter to Schermerhorn, Commodore Chauncey stated that “there would be many cases similar to yours.”
There were casualties amongst the African-Americans serving on Lake Ontario. During the American attack on York (now Toronto, Ontario) on 27 April 1813, Ordinary Seaman Israel Clark, serving on board the schooner Raven, was killed. In the same action, Seaman John Campbell and Ordinary Seaman Richard Welch, both serving on board the corvette Madison, were badly wounded. Joseph Philips, a boy, and James Cochran, a purser’s steward, both serving on board the armed merchant schooner Scourge, drowned when the schooner sank in a squall on Lake Ontario in August 1813.
Racial discrimination certainly existed in the navy during the War of 1812, but it was not as prominent and widespread as it would become in later decades. Midshipman John S. Hutton complained to Navy Secretary William Jones that he was ordered to be confined “on board a vessel among negroes.” Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, commanding on Lake Erie, complained to Commodore Chauncey that the draft of seamen sent to him by Chauncey included too many negroes. Chauncey responded that he had “yet to learn that the colour of the skin or cut and trimmings of the coat can effect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” Chauncey went on to state that he found African-American seamen to “be amongst my best men.”
Blacks in the Militia
A few African-Americans did appear in the ranks of local militia units. One such was Julius Terry, a local farmer. Terry was a part of Captain Elisha Camp’s volunteer artillery company and served on the gun crew defending Sackets Harbor during the British Provincial Marine’s raid on 19 July 1812. A report at the time described Terry, known locally as Black Julius, as “a great favorite in the camp, [who] served at his post with remarkable activity and courage.” Later that year, Terry served on board the armed merchant schooner Julia in a skirmish with the Provincial Marine on the St. Lawrence River. After the war, Terry, with his wife and two children, continued to live on his farm in the Town of Hounsfield until his death in 1851.
A Note on Sources
The above article has no source reference notes as it not intended to be a scholarly presentation. Nevertheless, all the information therein was obtained from letters, reports, period newspapers, pension applications and other sources. Anyone wishing to know the origin of specific facts should contact the Battlefield.