Enslavement and Service: The Paradox of the American Revolution

Author: Kaitlyn Oberndorfer

Muster Roll

In the winter of 1778 into 1779 during the American Revolution, General Israel Putnam’s division of the Continental Army was stationed at an encampment in Redding Connecticut, biding their time until the spring. Among these troops was Private Dolphin Dart of the 5th Company 3rd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line, one of many enslaved or formerly enslaved servicemen of the American Revolution. His story highlights the contradictions his service poses to the American Revolution’s aims to further expressions of freedom and liberty in the thirteen colonies, as service members touched by enslavement participated in the American Revolution. Two centuries after the Revolution, historian Edmund S. Morgan argued in an address to the Organization of American Historians that these sorts of conflicting existences in American notions of liberty and freedom can be called the “American Paradox.

The disparities in the conditions of freedom between whites and Blacks in the memory and understanding of the American Revolution are ultimately to blame for the inaccessibility of records available to learn about Black service. While whites preserved a variety of sources relating to their experiences, only the military, some churches, and local courts consistently preserved records relating to people of color. Occasionally, cases like Dolphin’s exist because of records of enslavers. These artifacts act as windows into the often overlooked, yet essential part of the American Revolution.

Dolphin Dart was born about 1740, to the best approximation from scant records that reference his birth. For many other Black servicemen of the American Revolution, 1740 was used as a benchmark year to denote the best guess at the time of their birth in absence of baptism or census records. For many living within the Connecticut Colony, the absence of a distinctive record of one’s birth in the annals of history is a common occurrence regardless of race. However, for people like Dolphin Dart, their enslavement severely curtailed the existence of potential records to capture their familial background, location of their birth, or period in which they were born.

Based on records that reference his birth, there is nothing within the known sources record to indicate whether Dolphin was born into slavery within the thirteen colonies or overseas in West Africa, and subjected to the horrors of the middle passage. Even though Connecticut banned the importation of the enslaved in the wake of the American Revolution, by the time Dolphin was born the colony still participated in and profited from the transatlantic slave trade. Major original towns of the Connecticut Colony, like Wethersfield, participated in the slave trade through the 17th and 18th centuries. In Morgan’s discussion of the “American Paradox,” he highlighted how the slave trade not only economically established such towns but created a social system where all whites could be seen as socially and economically superior to the enslaved.

Such logic existed concurrently with the development of Enlightenment philosophy in the colonies that established the public notion of the consent of the governed, yet restricted the definition of the governed to white landholding men.
In Wethersfield’s case, the town exported its signature red onions to the West Indies as food for the enslaved held captive there. From their West Indies’ profits, Wethersfield merchants purchased sugar cane from the region, then brought back to the Connecticut Colony where it could be processed into molasses and rum. Other towns, like Middletown, the home of Dolphin’s first known enslaver, Ebenezer Darte, had ties to slavers or slave ships on their shores, depositing human cargo. In 2019, Middletown publicly held a plaque unveiling to honor the 1738 landing of the slaver Martha & Jane, with its cargo of 126 human lives from the west coast of Africa. Although it is not likely that Dolphin’s origins in present-day Middlesex county are tied to this vessel, its arrival in Middletown connects the area to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery and the possibilities as to Dolphin’s true origins.

Slavery permeated the Connecticut Colony beyond the purchase and sale of distilled spirits or red onions. On the eve of the American Revolution, the Connecticut Colony held the most people in bondage out of the thirteen colonies. Connecticut families like Dolphin’s only known enslavers, the Dartes, averaged one enslaved person per household. Even though large-scale “southern style” plantation slavery did not exist in the north and the enslaved made up a small minority within the Connecticut colony, historians like Joanne Pope Melish have highlighted that the north was not untouched by the institution of slavery.2 Despite the prevalence of Connecticut slavery, no smoking gun exists to tell the story of when Dolphin was first enslaved by the Darte family or if they were his only enslavers. Even without this knowledge, his forced connection to the Darte’s ultimately makes Dolphin more visible in existing written source records than other Black servicemen of the Revolution- thanks to references to the enslaved tucked away in white probate records. Nonetheless, the white Darte family and their connection to the American Revolution is much easier to spot in the annals of history. This record accessibility of the same family that deprived Dolphin of his freedom and historical visibility is another paradox of the Revolution.

Dolphin’s first enslaver, Ebenezer Darte, who did not fight in the Revolution, boasts accessible records of his birth and final resting place on public open source, digital databases like FindaGrave. Even beyond FindaGrave, affiliate databases like Ancestry easily trace Darte’s direct line back to the 16th century. ( https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/41147912/daniel-darte) His father, Daniel, the first Darte to be born in the American colonies, still boasts an extant, well-preserved grave in Connecticut, whereas Dolphin’s original ties to the colony or final resting place remain unknown. In lacking a known or demarcated burial location, generational wealth, or even interested descendants, Dolphin’s grave cannot act as a place to anchor the memory of his participation in the Connecticut Line and the formation of the nation. Dolphin, sadly, is not alone in this fate. On the whole, still existing marked 18th-century graves of black Connecticut residents are few and far between compared to other graves from the same period. This is especially true for the state or wider region’s graves of black patriots, despite the magnitude of their contribution to the war. However, like many other white Connecticut patriots, Ebenezer’s grandson Cyrus, a private in the Connecticut Line, like Dolphin, boasts a legible military headstone.

Cyrus and Dolphin’s potential understanding of liberty and freedom in eighteenth-century Connecticut was likely as vastly different from that of white people as the existence of records documenting their existence. Historians like Alan Taylor have noted the hypocrisy of white patriots to describe their status as colonists as tantamount to slavery, even as they or their families concurrently were enslavers or benefited from the institution in other ways.3 In the potential decade of Dolphin’s birth, the Connecticut Colony took up arms in King George’s War (1744-48) and later the French and Indian War (1754-63). Both wars not only helped to define the political backdrop of Dolphin’s youth, as mounting financial pressures in the colonies strained Great Britain’s coffers enough to press colonies like Connecticut with taxes they rendered unjustifiable enough to fuel a growing Revolution.

Image from Find-a-Grave, uploaded by a member of the site. The decorated grave of Cyrus Dart, grandson of Ebenezer Darte and son of Joseph Dart, Dolphin’s first and second enslavers, respectively. 

Dolphin’s immersion in slavery would have granted him a different interpretive lens to make sense of this mounting animosity against Great Britain, perhaps making him moreso attune to the limitations placed on freedom by the slavery of the Connecticut Colony. Even as white colonists took up arms against Britain, they argued against the arming of the enslaved to serve in the war, fearing a servile rebellion. With seemingly countless retellings of the war, the causes of the American Revolution and the contributions of white patriots, who served in the context of this racial paradox, are well cemented within public memory. By contrast, access to primary or secondary accounts on the nature of black service throughout Connecticut’s regiments are in dramatically lesser supply, even less so for service members who were enslaved before or during the war.

The 1769 Last Will and Testament of Dolphin’s first known enslaver, Ebenezer Dart. In this document, Dolphin is referred to as “Negro man Dolphin” and transfered to Ebenezer’s son, Joseph.

On the eve of the American Revolution, in 1769 Ebenezer Darte, Cyrus’ grandfather, finalized his last will and testament. This will contains a reference to a “negro man Dolphin” to be transferred to Cyrus’ father, Joseph Dart. Even though Dolphin was the only enslaved person listed in this probate record, there are no known detailed records from the family outlining his manumission or his eventual purchase of his freedom. Many Black servicemen have similar stories to Dolphin, as they lack documentation that they were emancipated before, during, or after the course of the war. Those who were enslaved through the duration or majority of the war often were serving in the place of their enslaver, a phenomenon that could easily support Morgan’s “American Paradox.” However, in the case of Dolphin Dart, potential yet conflicting records point to his second enslaver Joseph’s service in the war through the Connecticut Line- ruling potentially out the possibility of Dolphin’s enslavement during the war.

Historians like David White have noted that some enslaved servicemen of the Continental Army were granted their freedom at the close of the war. By the time of his second enslaver’s passing in 1790, there was no mention of Dolphin’s enslavement within Joseph Dart’s last will and testament. In short, there is suggestive evidence that by the close of the war, the end of Dolphin’s service in 1781, or even at the time of his enlistment in 1777 that Dolphin was a freedman. Regardless of Dolphin’s enslavement status, he joined the ranks of eager Black servicemen in Connecticut who served in proportionally higher numbers than able bodied white men in the state, like Cyrus.

By 1784, three years after his medical discharge from the Connecticut Line from “epileptic fits” (without a transfer to the Invalid Corps of the Continental Army) and well into Dolphin’s middle age, Connecticut enacted its first piece of legislation towards gradual abolition. Because of his advanced age, Dolphin would not have been emancipated as a result of this ruling if he was in fact enslaved at this time. Nonetheless, Dolphin appeared definitively in public record as a freeman in the 1810 federal census. At that time, the census shows Dolphin at roughly 70 years old living in Chatham, Connecticut with another free person of no specified name, gender, or listed age.4 It is up to one’s imagination to decide whether he married, had children, or was harboring a border at the time of this census, much like other Black servicemen after the war. His pension, granted in 1818, did not list any indication of a spouse at the time of its filing or by Dolphin’s passing in 1825 at roughly 85 years old. A century later, a direct descendant of Cyrus Dart leveraged his connection to the patriot and a rich base of source material on his birth, service, and death, to successfully earn a spot in the Sons of the American Revolution. This entry into the Sons of the American Revolution serves today as another paper trail that substantiates the existence of Cyrus and his service.

Even though much of Dolphin’s post war experience is clouded in mystery, his service in the American Revolution alone still speaks to a powerful story of the way Black servicemen exerted their agency over the memory of the war. Even though he lacks a known public site, outside of the Redding Encampment, to anchor his memory and faced considerable barriers that impacted the future existence and accessibility of written records telling of his service, his contribution to the early Republic is undeniable. While both Dolphin and Cyrus’ service should be recognized, considerable research needs to be performed to illuminate the larger landscape of Black servicemen of the Connecticut Colony.

[1] Edmund S Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (1972): 5–29. https://doi.org/10.2307/1888384.

[2]Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 8.

[3] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 117.

[4] 1810 United States Federal Census, Chatham, Middlesex County, Connecticut, 1013, ancestry.com.

Further Reading:
Crowder, Jack Darrell. African Americans and American Indians in the Revolutionary War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2018. (Dolphin Dart is profiled on p. 48.)
Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank. Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery. New York: Random House Digital, Inc., 2006.
Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.
White, David O. Connecticut’s Black Soldiers, 1775-1783. Lanham, MD: Globe Pequot, 2017.

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