In the welcoming scene that takes place every morning at Colonial Williamsburg, visitors learn that 52% of the city’s population in the early 1770’s were people of African descent, nearly all of whom were enslaved. As they go through town, guests might meet Kate working at the Raleigh Tavern, Jack Booker of the printing office, or even Gowan Pamphlet the enslaved Baptist preacher. Enslaved people had a surprisingly varied set of skills that played a valuable role in eighteenth century life.
Beyond the city, enslaved people labored on farms and tobacco plantations, and were critical to getting goods to and from the market. The Virginia Gazettes of the 1770’s are packed with references to enslaved sailors, pilots, and even captains. Usually called “skippers,” enslaved ship captains were often “well acquainted with the bay, and all the rivers in Virginia and Maryland.” Such skills would be in high demand with the outbreak of the American Revolution.
On 1 December 1775, citing numerous depredations made against Virginia patriots by the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, the Virginia Convention calls for local Committees of Safety to procure, fit out, and man “so many armed vessels as they judge necessary” to protect Revolutionary Virginia by water. James Barron of Hampton is commissioned to outfit three such vessels. One of Barron’s projects was the Patriot, a pilot schooner armed with ten small swivel guns and about twenty men.
Among Patriot’s crew was Cesar, an enslaved man owned by Hampton’s Carter Tarrant. Born around 1740, Cesar was trained and employed as a river pilot, tasked with guiding merchant and military ships alike to safe moorings in local waters. Cesar was one of seven pilots (four of whom were enslaved) appointed by the Virginia Navy Board. He joined the Virginia Navy in 1776 or 1777 and remained in the service after the British surrender at Yorktown.
Shortly before 13 November 1778, Patriot was sailing in company with the Virginia ships Tartar and Dragon under the overall command of Captain Richard Taylor. Captain Taylor was taking soundings from Patriot near the Virginia Capes when the British privateer Lord Howe was sighted. Dragon initially draws the privateer in close by pretending to be a small merchantman, but Lord Howe soon realizes the truth and flees before the Virginia ships. Captain Taylor charges forward in the Patriot, the only Virginia vessel quick enough to match Lord Howe. Determined to delay her until Dragon and Tartar can come up, Captain Taylor has Patriot ram her bowsprit into the larger privateer’s side cabin windows. While the two ships are stuck together, the Virginian crew attempts to charge aboard Lord Howe. Determined to keep the Virginians back, Lord Howe fires a broadside that rakes Patriot fore and aft, killing two men and severely wounding numerous others, including Captain Taylor. When Dragon finally comes close enough to open fire Lord Howe dumps her guns overboard to lighten her hasten her escape. Cesar was apparently in the thick of the things: James Burk, Patriot’s gunner, later testifies that Cesar “steered the Patriot during the whole of the action, and behaved gallantly.”
The ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 also heralded Cesar’s return to slavery; following Carter’s death, ownership of Cesar passed to Mary Tarrant. Fortunately, an act passed by the Virginia General Assembly on 14 November 1789 changed all that. The act states that as Cesar “entered very early into the service of his country, and continued to pilot the armed vessels of this state during the late war; in consideration of which meritorious services it is judged expedient to purchase the freedom of the said Cesar.” He would be one of eight enslaved patriots freed by the General Assembly following their service during the American Revolution. (Another of these brave men, James Armistead Lafayette, can regularly be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.)
Cesar would subsequently take the surname Tarrant and purchase a plot of land in Hampton, where he continued to work as a river pilot. In 1791, Cesar purchases the freedom of his wife Lucy and the youngest of their three children. He dies in 1797, but Lucy strives to keep the family together, purchasing the freedom of another of their children some twenty-five years later.
Cesar Tarrant’s story is not widely known, but James Tormey’s 2016 book The Virginia Navy in the Revolution brings him to life along with other water-borne patriots. The recently renamed Cesar Tarrant Middle School (replacing an elementary school of the same name which was open 1970-2015) continues Hampton’s commitment that local schools “will be named in honor of persons who have rendered outstanding service to mankind in their community, state and/or country.” Cesar Tarrant certainly fits that description and is but one of many often-overlooked chapters in America’s enduring story.
Michael Romero is a Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter working in both Orientation and Public Sites. Since 2016, he has been working to bring 18th century naval history to life.