Milford native digs into city's revolutionary past

MILFORD — Forty-five years ago, as the United States prepared to celebrate the 1976 bicentennial, a Milford church commemorated the lives of six men whose service helped win American independence.

Job Caesar, Pomp Cyrus, Juba Freeman, Peter Gibbs, William Sower, and Congo Zado were Black Revolutionary War soldiers from Milford honored for their service by the congregation of First Baptist Church with a memorial marker, which was dedicated on May 8, 1976.

Milford native Jennyfer Holmes was baptized into the North Street church that same year, and has spent years researching the six men commemorated on the church’s monument and in the church’s collection of historical documents.

“When I saw that record, I completely got goose-bumps,” said Holmes, the First Baptist Church historian and a second-generation member of the congregation. “To think of that day and time and based on the church record…it was such a jewel to find.”

The six Black soldiers are buried alongside 46 other Revolutionary War soldiers in Milford Cemetery, across from the church. The monument in the cemetery, erected by an act of the Connecticut General Assembly in 1852, is dedicated to American Revolutionary War prisoners whom the townspeople attempted to save when the British abandoned them on a Milford beach and who died from smallpox in 1777.

Richard Platt, Milford’'s official city historian whose family settled in the city in 1639, credited the Rev. Charles Walker of First Baptist Church with getting the six soldiers recognized.

“I was chair of the Bicentennial Observance Commission in 1976 and members of the First Baptist Church formed their own committee to commemorate Milford’s Black soldiers in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “This was largely under the influence of Reverend Walker.”

Walker had initiated a successful state-wide effort in 1976 to commemorate Connecticut's Black participants in the Revolutionary War. In photos supplied by Platt, groups from New Haven and as far away as Rhode Island joined the large parade through downtown to the Milford Green to honor the men.

Holmes said research into the background of the six soldiers has been challenging. The men appear to be among about 300 slaves and free Black men from Connecticut who enlisted, and they possibly served together in the all-Black Second Company of the Fourth Connecticut Regiment, under the command of David Humphreys, according to a 2020 post by the University of Oregon’s Special Collection.

“It was difficult because documents are written in Olde English style for one. Plus, the only view has been through Revolutionary War rolls and service records,” Holmes said. “My understanding is that they were all privates. I believe Pomp Cyrus enlisted earliest in 1776. I can’t tell by the writing if he was born in 1740 or 1750. Records indicate the majority enlisted in May 1777.”

Other historical records offer tantalizing glimpses into their lives. Cyrus was named in a 1779 probate case in New Haven. Freeman married his wife Betty in 1778 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford.

Gibbs may have spent part of his post-war life at sea after his 1783 discharge.

“In September of 1802 there is a Peter Gibbs listed as a seaman aboard the ship Orion that departed from Corunna, Spain for Philadelphia,” she said. “Could it be that he went overseas and came back? I’d like to think so.”

Other challenges include names that either changed, or varied in spelling in different records.

“For William Sower there are places in the records that his last name is spelled Sower, which is how it is spelled on the marker, but there were a couple of places where it was spelled Soward,” Holmes said.

Juba Freeman may have changed his name during his life, possibly to indicate his emancipation, she said.

“I was piecing it together and I do wonder if Freeman had a new last name. Historically there were a lot of Black folks at the time, who in gaining their freedom may have changed their last names to Freeman,” she said. “I can’t be sure if that was the case with Juba or not.”

Holmes said she has been able to determine that Juba and Betty Freeman married on Sept. 20, 1778 and by 1810 were living in New Haven.

As she continues her background search on Job Caesar and Congo Zado, Holmes said she is also hopeful there is more to find out about Betty Freeman, who lived in the Stamford area where she and Juba were married.

“At the time Betty was listed as a servant to a Mrs. Hayes,” Holmes said. “On my list of things to do is to find who would have been that Mrs. Hayes at that time in Stamford.”

Holmes believes her quest toward the betterment of life is built into her DNA.

“I probably came out of the womb civic-minded like my mom Lillian and dad Aldin,” said Holmes, who works for the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which is dedicated to making Greater Hartford an inclusive, positive place to work and raise a family.

“My folks had me involved in Sunday School, Girl Scouts, from a young age. Reverend Walker was my first pastor at the church, and was a gentleman of his time,” she said. “Personally, and professionally I do like to help others. It’s in my blood.”

william.bloxsom@hearstmediact.com Twitter: @blox354