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The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies

A History of the Black Pioneers

The first thing one needs in order to understand the history of this regiment is a definition of the word "pioneer" as it pertained to the military in the 18th Century.

A pioneer was a soldier whose main task was to provide engineering duties in camp and in combat. These were things such as clearing ground for camps, removing obstructions, digging necessaries, etc.

It was not glamorous work, and in the British army, it was often assigned to Blacks.

Blacks were not permitted to serve as regular soldiers, either in the British Army or the Provincial Forces. However, in April of 1776, an expedition under General Henry CLINTON arrived off of North Carolina. They were immediately joined by no fewer than 71 Blacks, runaway slaves.

CLINTON developed an instant affection towards them. He organized them into a company, called the Black Pioneers.

These men would provide the duties alluded to above. While the noncommissioned officers were to be Black, the commissioned officers over them were white.

He placed a Marine lieutenant named George MARTIN over them with the Provincial rank of captain. The rank and file were composed almost exclusively of runaways, from North and South Carolina, and a few from Georgia.

CLINTON instructed MARTIN and his subalterns to treat the men with respect and decency and to see that they were adequately clothed and well fed. And most importantly, CLINTON promised every one of them, as far as lay in his power, emancipation at the end of the war.

CLINTON was indicative of the emerging English attitude against slavery. His actions during the rest of the war bear this out.

The expedition to North Carolina was a failure, but the company of Black Pioneers remained intact and accompanied CLINTON north to witness the fall of New York City to the British.

In December of 1776 CLINTON was given the task of taking Newport, Rhode Island, and the Black Pioneers had the honor of being the only Provincial unit to accompany him.

They remained there until CLINTON was given the command of New York City while the commander in chief, Sir William HOWE, took Philadelphia. CLINTON immediately recalled the Black Pioneers to New York, where they served until sent on to Philadelphia to join the main army.

While at Newport, New York and Philadelphia, the company recruited many more runaways, but never grew materially in size beyond 50-60 men, the new recruits barely keeping up with the numbers who died from disease and fatigue.

The corps suffered no battle casualties in its history; indeed the men were not armed, their function being solely support. In fact, in Philadelphia the general orders stipulated their duties were to "Attend the Scavangers, Assist in Cleaning the Streets & Removing all Newsiances being thrown into the Streets."

Sadly, these men were used more as garbage men in Philadelphia than soldiers.

Before sailing on to Philadelphia, they were given a new commanding officer, a Loyalist from North Carolina named Allan STEWART. STEWART was a veteran of the French & Indian War, coming to America only in 1775.

At the time they were in Philadelphia, there was an attempt to raise a second company, this time by Captain Robert Richard CROWE of New Jersey. CROWE's Company never consisted of more than 20 men and was disbanded in 1778.

In 1778 the company marched with the army from Philadelphia to return to New York. By this time, their benefactor, Sir Henry CLINTON, was the new commander in chief of the army in America.

The following year CLINTON took the opportunity of drastically putting his emancipation thoughts into practice. In June of 1779, he issued what has come down through history as the "Phillipsburgh Proclamation." This decreed that any Blacks who ran away from their Rebel masters and made it to the British lines were free.

This of course did not apply to Blacks owned by Loyalists. Also, Blacks in the Rebel service who were captured were liable to be sold by the British.

The result was that a new spate of runaways would join the British, although the strength of the Black Pioneers changed but little.

In December of 1779 CLINTON set sail to lay siege to Charleston, SC, and of course the Black Pioneers accompanied him. There they had the surprise of meeting another corps of Black Pioneers, men raised in Savannah, Georgia during the siege there in 1779. This unit does not appear to have been a Provincial unit though, as far as we can tell.

With the fall of Charleston, CLINTON returned to New York, taking a part of the army with him, including Captain STEWART's Company. STEWART himself would take a temporary break from the unit to try his hand at raising the corps of North Carolina Highlanders. This small corps was eventually merged with the Royal North Carolina Regiment and STEWART returned to his Black company.

The company then remained at New York for the remainder of the war. In addition to their normal duties, the men were often allotted out as servants, cooks and tradesmen to high ranking British officers. They were among the last of the Provincials remaining in New York in 1783, prior to sailing with others for Nova Scotia.

At the end of the war, a very strained situation developed between the British and the now independent US. Before the British evacuation of New York, many slave owners made their way to the city and tried to lay claim to their runaways.

The new British commander in chief, Sir Guy CARLETON, was aware of CLINTON's promise to the Blacks and was intent on keeping his word.

It was finally agreed between commissioners to allow all those who had made it to the British lines by 31 December 1782 to leave. Anyone who arrived after that date would be returned to their former situation (slavery).

These commissioners from both sides kept books at the dockside, writing down every Black man, woman and child who was departing. They noted their age, description, locale, former situation, service, etc.

Each of these books exists today. One is in the US National Archives as part of the Papers of the Continental Congress. The second is in the Public Record Office in England as part of the Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55.

Upon leaving New York, the majority of the Blacks made their way to a new settlement in Nova Scotia, which they named Birchtown. This was in honor of Brigadier General Samuel BIRCH, the last commandant of New York City, who provided the passes that got them out of America and the danger of being returned to slavery.

The company was disbanded in Nova Scotia, thus ending their military service. The men received free grants of land, but in much smaller amounts in comparison to their white counterparts.

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Updated 2/01/01

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