Finding Reuben Byrd: free person of color & an American Revolutionary War veteran

Updated 23 Sep 2016 with additional Bird/Byrd family groups

Reuben Byrd of Petersburg, Virginia and Orange County, North Carolina isn’t the first Colonial-era black ancestral family member I’ve found who served in the American Revolutionary War. However, he is the first black kinsman whose war records I’ve been able to access.

Finding those records was exhilarating, empowering, and bittersweet.

I’ve been researching four different Colonial-era Virginia Byrd families for quite a while in an effort to see if they were different branches of the same family, or unrelated families who shared the same surname. Just a note that this surname is also spelt Bird. However, I’m using Byrd, the variant most seem to have adopted. Each of these groups are my kinsmen and women via both of my parents’ ancestral lines in Virginia and the Carolinas.

  1. The first group of Byrds are the descendants of Col William Evelyn “The Immigrant” Byrd I and Maria Horsmanden. This family group (relations through a nexus of marriages with Carters, Braxtons, Baylors, and Claiborn(e)s, in Virginia’s Tidewater region) are my kin via my paternal Roane line. They resided at the very apex of Virginia society.
  2. The second group of Byrds are descendants of John Byrd and Margaret Dean of Augusta County – whose descendants were also resident in Wythe County and Grayson County in Virginia. This line is a combination of European, African and Native American. They are kinsmen via my paternal Sheffey line.
  3. The 3rd group of Byrds are descendants of a white (presumably English) indentured servant, Margaret Bird, and an unknown enslaved African man. Margaret’s story begins in York County. Her descendants would come to reside in Petersburg, Essex County, and Southampton County in Virginia – as well as Northampton County, Halifax County, and Orange County in North Carolina. Reuben is a descendant of this line. This line connects to my maternal Lassiters, Joseys, Outlands, Peel(e)s, and Smallwoods in the same North Carolina counties.
  4. The 4th group of Byrds were resident in Wythe County, Virginia. They were descendants of John Dennis Byrd and Senah Rachel Porter. It was previously assumed that Dennis and Senah were enslaved. This is an assumption that is now being reviewed and researched. This line of Byrds has connections via marriage  with Byrd Group #2 and also shows Native American results in their DNA analysis.
  5. The 5th group of Byrds were resident in Hillsborough, Virginia. Dr James Henry Byrd (a member of Byrd family group #2) married Alice Fravell Byrd of Hillsborough, Virginia. Alice was the daughter of John Henry Byrd I (of North Carolina and Indiana) and Rebekah Ann Hamilton White. Alice and a number of her siblings would settle in Hillsborough.
  6. There is a much smaller group of Byrds in Colonial Powhatan, Virginia. Again, a combination of European, African, and Native American. To-date, my research for this ends around 1715. They simply seem to disappear from all official records.

So back to Reuben.

Like all free people of color in Antebellum Virginia (including the Colonial period), Reuben was required to register with his local court house. These registration records are a goldmine. They provide crucial family and vital records information, such as place of birth and place of residence. They also provide descriptions of the individual who was registering. Without paintings or sketches to go by, these descriptions are, in so many cases, the only means to catching a glimpse into what an ancestor looked like.  In Reuben’s case, he was an Essex-County born head of a Petersburg household of 5 “other free” in 1810 [VA:121b]. He registered in Petersburg on 9 June 1810: a brown Mulatto man, five feet seven inches high, forty seven years old, born free in Essex County, a stone mason [Register of Free Negroes 1794-1819, no. 576]. He’s alternately cited as being a carpenter.  Either way, he was a skilled craftsman.

In the course of researching Reuben, I came across two petitions he made for a pensions due to his service in the American Revolutionary War. In summary, he applied for a pension in Powhatan County on 15 June 1820 at the age of fifty-six years. He testified that he enlisted in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and served in Captain James Gunn’s regiment of dragoons under the direct command of Lieutenant William Gray.

From what my research has uncovered, he was present at the scene of two pivotal Revolutionary War battles: The Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina (1780, see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kings_Mountain)

Map of the Battle of Kings Mountain, courtesy of http://www.campaign1776.org

Map of the Battle of Kings Mountain, courtesy of http://www.campaign1776.org

and The Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina (1781, see  http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/index.aspx?page=2928).

Map of the Battle of Guilford Court House, courtesy of http://www.campaign1776.org

Map of the Battle of Guilford Court House, courtesy of http://www.campaign1776.org

Both battles were pivotal in the southern theatre of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina was a contributing factor to the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown.

Benjamin Sublett testified that he met Reuben, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old “Mulatto boy,” while serving in the Revolution in May 1780. Gabriel Gray testified that Reuben served as “Boman” (military slang for valet) to his brother Lieutenant William Gray [NARA, S.37776, M804-243, frame 0362].

Transcription of the Pension Application of Reuben Bird S37776 NC Virginia, Powhatan County

To wit:
(Scans of the original appear after the transcription):

On this 15th day of June 1820 personally appeared in open court in the county court of Powhatan, in the state aforesaid, being a court of record Reuben Bird aged about fifty six years, according to the best estimate that can be made, who being first duly sworn according to law, doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the provision made by the acts of Congress of the 18th March 1818 and the 1st May 1820. that he, the said Reuben Bird enlisted for and during the war of the American Revolution in April or May in the year 1780 in Hillsborough in North Carolina in the Company commanded by Captain James Guinn in the Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Col. [Anthony Walton] White of Virginia; that he continued to serve in the said Corps until the peace came, when he was discharged from service in Culpepper [sic: Culpeper] county in the state of Virginia; That he was in no battle, he being a colored man, and kept as a Bowman, although he was very near the ground where several [battles] were fought, and that he has no other evidence now in his power of his said services except the certificates of Benjamin Sublett and Larkin Self [pension application S38363] herewith exhibited.

And in pursuance of the act of the 1st of May 1820 the said Reuben Bird solemnly made oath that he was a resident citizen of the United States on the 18th of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not since that time, by gift, sale, or in any manner disposed of his property, or any part thereof, with intent thereby so to diminish it as to bring himself within the provisions of an act of Congress, entitled “An act to provide for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war”, passed on the 18th day of March one thousand eight hundred and eighteen, and that he has not, nor has any person in trust for him any property or securities, contracts, or debts due to him, nor has he any income other than what is contained in the Schedule hereto annexed, and by him subscribed, to wit; Real and personal property none; he is by trade a Brick layer, and is not very able to pursue his trade in consequence of a Rupture, which obliges him to wear a Truss of Steel; his family consists of his wife, who is about 37 years old, and one child, a female about seven years old; his wife is healthy, and by her industry somewhat contributes to support the family.

(signed)     Reuben Bird (his X mark)

16th October 1819. Powhatan County, to wit,

I was a Serjant in Captain William Mayo’s Company at the time of General Gates’ defeat at Campden in South Carolina [sic: Battle of Camden (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Camden) where Gen. Horatio Gates was defeated, 16 Aug 1780], and in the same company a mulatto boy appeared to be about the age of 16 or 17 years, by the name of Reuben Bird, who I believe enlisted under Captain James Gun [sic], in the town of Hilsbury, as we were on the way of our march to the South, and that for during the war; which I think was in the year

1780 sometime in May.                                     (signed) Benjamin Sublett

Map of the Battle of Camden courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com

Map of the Battle of Camden courtesy of http://www.britishbattles.com

Octo. 2nd 1818

I do herby surtyfy that Rubin Bird did inlist at the same time that I did at Hilsburrow in North Carlina before Gates defeat in the the month of April about the 15th 1780.

(Signed)  Larkin Self

Virginia, to wit;

At a Court of Monthly Sessions holden for the county of Powhatan, in the state of Virginia aforesaid, at the Courthouse of the said County (being a Court of Record) on the 21st day of September 1820 Reuben Bird, a soldier of the Revolution, who made a declaration of his services in the Revolutionary War, in this court, on the 15th day of June last, under the acts of Congress of the 18th of March 1818 and of the first of May 1820, providing for certain persons engaged in the land and naval service of the United States in the Revolutionary war, in order to obtain a pension under the said acts of Congress, and a transcript of whose declaration, and of the evidence in support thereof, has been forwarded to the department of War of the United States, and returned for want of sufficient proof, this day again appeared in Court, and together with the said transcript, produced in Court an affidavit of Gabriel Gray [S8590], given before the Justice of the peace for the county of Culpepper, which affidavit was ordered to be entered of record, and is as follows, to wit; “I do hereby certify that the bearer Reuben Bird was Boman for my brother William Gray [BLWt1486-200] while he was  Lieutenant in the horse service under the command of Col. White in the Southern Campaign of 1780 and 1781. Given under my

hand this 26th day of July 1820.                                     Gab. Gray”

Click each image below for a larger image (each courtesy of the National Archives, Washington D.C.):

fold3_page_1_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_2_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_3_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_4_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_5_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_6_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_7_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_8_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_9_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_10_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_filesfold3_page_11_revolutionary_war_pension_and_bountyland_warrant_application_files

The last image in the sequence was my bittersweet moment. His petition was denied at first. I’m still working through my feelings on that. It does explain, however, why his name doesn’t appear in either the Daughters of the American Revolution database nor the Sons of the American Revolution Database. However, that first image, with Dollar amounts, seems to suggest that, in the end, he won the argument. I’ll need to track down the last parts of his file to know for certain.

So what did a wartime valet do?

I was curious about what a wartime valet actually did during this period. So I asked Tony, a war historian who specializes in 18th Century warfare (I love my British mates and contacts).

He would have been a jack of all trades. His duties apparently would have been quite varied:

  1. Attending to the care of his officer’s uniform and non-military wardrobe;
  2. Ensuring his officer’s firearm(s) and other weaponry were in good working order;
  3. Ensuring the safekeeping of his officer’s personal and battle-related correspondence;
  4. Coordinating his officer’s meals;
  5. Running crowd control in his officer’s tent;
  6. Occasionally delivering important messages;
  7. Attending to his officer’s horse(s);
  8. Attending to his officer during battle;
  9. Ensuring that his officer’s belongings were packed, secure, and ready for removal to wherever his officer needed to be;
  10. Attending to his officer’s privy (a very nice way of saying emptying Lieut. Gray’s chamber pot);
  11. Any other duties his officer saw fit.

Tony went on to say that a valet wasn’t as easily as dismiss-able a position as I initially thought. As Tony put it, no one had closer access to a commanding officer than his valet. It was a position of unquestioned trust. Everyone in camp would have known exactly who Reuben was and the officer he served.  Those seeking to advance themselves through Lieut. Gray, or seek his favour, or arrange appointments with him would have tried to get on Reuben’s good side in order to gain access to Lieut. Gray.  Reuben would have been right in the thick of things, privy to planned activities by dint of close proximity to Gray. He would have also been Gray’s eyes and ears in camp.

All the while remember this: he was a teenager at the time. 

He may not have received the recognition he deserved by his peers.  I, for one, couldn’t be prouder of an ancestral kinsman.

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3 Comments

Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, virginia

3 responses to “Finding Reuben Byrd: free person of color & an American Revolutionary War veteran

  1. Reblogged this on familytreegirldotcom and commented:
    Well done and show the commitment to telling the story of a free person of color service during the Revolutionary War. kudos to you. I am a member of DAR and will share the information. Thank you!

  2. Jamie P.

    Thank you so much for your research. I am a descendant of Nelly Byrd of Petersburg, VA. I can’t find to much information on her other than she was born in 1834. As oral history goes she was all or part Native American and some her family relocated to Oklahoma. I’m not sure if it was due to the Indian Removal Act or other reasons.

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