illustration by Romare Taylor (age 13)

Colonel Tye: The Journey from Enslaved African to Revolutionary Soldier

by Emilyn Brown

THREE POUNDS Reward. RUN away from the fubfcriber, living in Shrewfbury, in the county of Monmouth, New-Jerfey, a NEGROE man, named TITUS, but may probably change his name; he is about 21 years of age, not very black, near 6 feet high; had on a grey homefpun coat, brown breeches, blue and white flockings, and took with him a wallet, drawn up at one end with a ftring, in which was a quantity of clothes. Whoever takes up faid Negroe, and fecures him in any goal, or brings him to me, fhall be entitled to the above reward of Three Pounds proc. and all reafonable charges, paid by Nov. 8, 1775. JOHN CORLIS (sic).
American Antiquarian Society

The newspaper advertisement placed by John Corlies in 1775 foreshadows the life of Colonel Tye, a notorious soldier who used guerilla tactics to catch Patriot soldiers. Titus, as he was originally known, was one of several black men held in bondage by John Corlies in farmer in Shrewsbury, Monmouth. Like countless other blacks, Titus responded to Lord Dunmore's Proclamation offering freedom to blacks who fought with the British army. Issued on November 1775, the proclamation was a strong incentive for hundreds of black men, who served as soldiers, sailors, laborers or teamsters. 

Various historical accounts of Colonel Tye’s life attribute his success as a guerilla fighter, who raided and executed whites with impunity, to the harsh treatment he received while enslaved. Corlies’ cruelty was well documented. Although he practiced the Quaker religion, his actions stood in stark contrast to the prevailing Quaker practice of freeing and/or educating Africans they held in bondage.
Other accounts of Colonel Tye’s daring exploits, focus on the political climate of war, arguing that Titus and countless other enslaved blacks, took full advantage of the war and the social and economic upheaval it caused.
By 1778, Colonel Tye had become a recognized leader of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. His successful raids drew on his knowledge of Monmouth County's swamps, rivers and inlets. Even more disconcerting to Patriots, he freed any enslaved Africans he encountered.
In 1779, Tye's band raided the town of Shrewsbury with an army of blacks and white refugees, known as "cow-boys." Focused on retribution and financial compensation, the men looted the town and reportedly kidnapped local citizens. That winter, Tye joined the Black Brigade and working with the Queen's Rangers, a British guerrilla unit, was assigned to protected New York City and conduct raids for food and fuel.
In the summer of 1780, Colonel Tye made a decisive strike against Barnes Smock, capturing the militia leader and twelve of his men. By destroying their cannon they effectively blocked any possibility of George Washington gaining much-needed military reinforcements.
By this time, Tye’s actions had generated sufficient fear and hatred among the Patriots that Governor Livingston invoked martial law. But this measure proved to be totally ineffective since blacks entering British lines in New York were attracted by Colonel Tye's reputation and strategy of crippling and demoralizing the Patriot forces.
Colonel Tye’s career ended unexpectedly in 1780. In September, he led a surprise attack on the home of Captain Josiah Huddy, who was sought by the British Loyalists. During the battle, Tye was shot in the wrist, and later succumbed to his wounds.
While some may disagree with the idea of elevating Colonel Tye to martyr status, his journey from slavery to Revolutionary soldier serves as an inspirational reminder of contributions made by African Americans in America’s wars, both at home and abroad.

Recommended Reading:
Berlin, Ira and Leslie M. Harris, eds. Slavery in New York. New York Historical Society, 2005. The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Harris, Leslie M. In The Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City 1626 – 1863. The University of Chicago Press, 2003

Hodges, Graham Russell. Root & Branch: African Americans in New York & East Jersey 1613 – 1863.

______. “Black Revolt in New York and the Neutral Zone,” In New York in the Age of the Constitution, 1775 – 1800. Paul A. Gilje and William Pencak. Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Press, 1993l.

Schama, Simon. Rough Crossings: Britian, the Slaves and the American Revolution.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006

Emilyn Brown an archivist at the University Archives and the Loeb Music Library at Harvard was a special quest speaker at the Emancipation Day event. She discussed early African American life in New York by using primary documents. Ms. Brown graciously culled from her presentation the preceding piece on a man who was to some was a hero, to others an outlaw, Colonel Tye.