1776 Black Document Discovered: A Story of Freedom for July 4th
Dated July 4th, 1776, a handwritten document relates to the life of Cuff Dole, who was sold into slavery as a young child. A Yonkers dealer has identified it as the earliest known manuscript about an African-American in the new United States.
Dated July 4th, 1776, the handwritten document relates to the life of Cuff Dole, a black who was sold into slavery as a young child by his unscrupulous nurse. Confessing what she had done on her deathbed, Dole became free again, serving in the Revolutionary War.
The document places him inside George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Called “the Barrack on Prospect Hill,” the house was later owned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and immortalized in a poem.
Dole is believed the first African-American to be mentioned in a document of the newly-independent United States.
Here he is concerned with an eight-dollar bill. His military record is lengthy and honorable.
Dole was part of the Pawlet Expedition, and helped win the first major victory for the Americans, at Saratoga the following year.
He also was on the personal staff of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who commanded troops from Vermont to South Carolina.
A researcher believes that Dole may well have witnessed the flying of the very first flag of the United States in 1776, and later, the hanging of Benedict Arnold’s co-conspirator, Major Andre.
The Independence Day manuscript, measuring about 6 by 8 inches, is signed by another remarkable patriot, Aaron Wood. In 1776, Wood sat on 38 different committees. His wife is said to have taken the first prisoner of the Revolutionary War.
If July 4, 1776 represents the symbolic beginning of the United States, then this is the earliest known such manuscript mentioning an African-American.
Documents written on July 4, 1776 are seldom seen on the market.
In his home county in Massachusetts, Cuff Dole is surrounded by rich lore to this day.
His tombstone reads: “Cuffee Dole - A Respectable Man of Color - ...White man, turn not away in Disgust, Thou art my brother....”
In fitting tribute, as the cemetery was enlarged over the years, by the mid-nineteenth century his resting place, once near its periphery, would find itself near its center.
And ironically, his twelve acres of land purchased in 1806 survive - as part of a public park.
By coincidence, the building of the dealer who identified the Cuff Dole manuscript, Cohasco, Inc., is adjacent to another African-American icon of freedom, the “Liberation Lawn.”
It was there in Yonkers that six slaves were manumitted by the first law of its kind in America, some 76 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
These enslaved Africans, belonging to the richest man and woman in old New York, walked in bondage and then in freedom, when liberated May 1, 1786.
Even earlier, on June 30, 1779, the Philipsburg Proclamation was issued here, named for the area. The “Liberation Lawn” became a beacon of freedom for the thousands of slaves to whom it promised liberty.
And the Underground Railroad functioned on this very same “Liberation Lawn,” now a vacant, overgrown lot. Unusual written documentation has been found.
The site, partly owned by wealthy Quakers, was the center of the Underground Railroad in the area. Fugitives would then board river steamboats to continue north.
Cohasco’s V.P., Bob Snyder, who recently published his findings on the historic site, remarked, “Historical evidence of the role of African-Americans in building this country, from its earliest days, is disappearing. And few are formally-designated historic sites. Such history must be safeguarded.”
A parking garage and condo are planned to cover the “Liberation Lawn.”
Snyder continued, “If Cuff Dole’s land merits a park in Massachusetts, is the Liberation Lawn - with its unique history of national significance - worth saving too?”
“The site captures 300 years of African-American history, hiding in plain sight in downtown Yonkers. To find a real place where July fourth’s themes of freedom and liberty have been played out repeatedly, over many years, is rare. Identifying the names of the six slaves freed in 1786, and reaching past oral history of the Underground Railroad to locate hard documentation, are all exceptional.
“At least the Cuff Dole document has a secure future in store. Plans are to offer it for sale.”
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slavery, black history, historical discovery