A Free Man of Color &
Revolutionary War Veteran
Posted by: Charles Leon Harris
on the Patrick Co., VA Mailing List
While researching my Harris roots in Patrick County I became aware of a Revolutionary War veteran named James Harris, and also a free African-American named James Harris. Recently I looked at the Revolutionary War pension application and realized that these were one and the same person. The story is unusual enough to be of general interest, and it might also help descendants still in the area. James Harris applied for a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran in the Patrick County court on 2 Feb 1835, giving his age as 87 on the previous 14th of January. He stated that he was born in Dinwiddie County VA in 1748 and was drafted into service while living in Orange County as a free Negro.
During the war he worked primarily in the construction of earthworks in Charleston SC, Augusta GA, and in Florida. (In the South Blacks were seldom issued arms for fear of a slave uprising.) James Harris further stated that he was present at Gates’s Defeat. (This battle near Camden SC on 16 Aug 1780 was the worst Patriot military defeat of the war. The blame is usually assigned to Gen. Horatio Gates, who did not adequately provision his troops, and who placed untried Virginia militiamen opposite seasoned British soldiers.) Asked to name officers under whom he served, Harris mentioned Gen. Gates, Gen. De Kalb (who was killed in Gates’s Defeat), and Lafayette. Like many veterans, James Harris appears to have received a bounty of land as reward for his service. In 1794 he had 65 acres surveyed on the North Mayo River, and in 1827 he and his wife, Kizziah Harris, paid 1,000 pounds of tobacco for 31 acres on Mayo River. The 1810 Patrick County census records him as James Harris, mulatto.
In James Harris’s pension file is a latter dated 13 Feb 1836 from one James M. Read of Patrick County who, with no motivation other than the prevention of fraud, he said, inquired whether James Harris, being “as black as half the Negroes of the county,” was entitled to a pension. The reply to Mr. Read was
that free Negroes had served in the Revolution, and that the pension act made no distinction based on skin color.
In the 1840 census of military pensioners, James Harris was recorded as age 85 and living in the household of William Cassell of Patrick County. According to The History of Patrick County, Virginia, James Harris died in 1844. In the 1840 Patrick County census, James Harris’s widow, Keziah, was listed
as a head of household, “free colored.” The 1850 census lists her as Kasire Harris, 80, born in Virginia, mulatto. With her was Milly Harris, 40, possibly her daughter, as well as Richard 26 and John 7. Listed next to her and presumably related was Serena Harris 35 with Peter 13, Lucinda 6, and Samuel 2,
all listed as mulatto. Next on the census and alone was Susan Harris 18, mulatto.
In 1856 Keziah Harris applied for a pension as the widow of a Revolutionary War veteran. She stated that her age was 87 and that she had married James Harris around 1800. She had recently moved to Fayette County, OH to live with relatives because of failing health.
To avoid confusion, anyone interested in researching this James Harris should be aware that there was another James Harris of Patrick County who was a Revolutionary War veteran. He was the son of William and Sarah Harris, and his wife was named Patte. This James Harris owned property in the northern part of the county, but he appears to have lived mainly in Buckingham County until he moved to Floyd County KY in the 1820s.
Charles Leon Harris