George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Commissioners of Embarkation at New York, 18 January 1784

From Commissioners of Embarkation at New York

New York 18th January 1784


The british Troops being wholly withdrawn from this Place, it only remains to the closing the Business under your Excellency’s Commission to us of the 8th of May Ulti.—that we should report our Proceedings.1

We presume it will be needless to recapitulate our former Communications, and therefore take the Liberty of referring to our Letters to your Excellency of the 30th of May, 14th and 18th of June last with their respective Inclosures.2

As Sir Guy Carleton did not, except in one or two instances, answer our Representations, we forbore to make further Representation. We interpreted his silence into a determination that all future application from us should remain equally unnoticed, and therefore presumed that they [would] be not only fruitless but also derogatory to the dignity of the Sovereignty by whose authority we were commissionated.

From our first arrival in this City hitherto we have whenever we were formally requested by the British Commissioners assisted them in superintending Embarkations. These Embarkations were always made in Vessels in the Pay and Service of the Crown of Great Britain, and the superintendance consisted in visiting the Ships after they were laden and ready for sailing, and taking an account of the Negroes which the Captain informed us were on board, and which were also produced to us. The Captains were then asked whether they had any other american Property on board, they all answered in the Negative, and this was received as Evidence, without further Scrutiny, or Examination—A descriptive List of Negroes your Excellency will receive with this 3—This List as to the names of the Negroes and places of residence of their masters is formed from the declarations of the Negroes themselves made to the british Commissioners in our presence.

We conceive it requisite to inform your Excellency that Sir Guy Carleton retained and exercised the authority of entering and clearing out Merchant Vessels, at this Port, which were never submitted to any Inspection, and Consequently it is impossible for us to determine for a certainty the number of Negroes or the Amount of other Property belonging to the Citizens of the United States which were carried away in those Vessels, neither do we know that any Measures were used by the british Government to ascertain these points—Sir Guy Carleton effected to distinguish between the Cases of such Negroes as came within the British Lines in Consequence of the Promises of Freedom, and Indemnity held out in the Proclamations of his predecessors, and such as came in, either previous to the Proclamations or subsequent to the Cessation of Hostilities. Negroes of the first Description he supposed not included in the Treaty, as the public Faith had prior to the Treaty been pledged to them for their Security against the Claims of their former Masters. Admitting this distinction to be just, We would mention a Circumstance to your Excellency which we suppose no otherwise material than to shew that Sir Guy Carleton, or at least that his subordinate Officers did not intend to observe the Treaty even agreeable to their own limited construction of it.

Whenever the Negroes at an Inspection of an Embarkation were examined, they always, except in a very few Instances, produced a printed Certificate from the Commandant of the City countersigned by his Secretary, purporting that they came within the british Lines in consequence of the Proclamations issued by Sir Henry Clinton and others. We were sensible as there was no mode prescribed for investigating these matters, that it was impossible the Commandant, or his Secretary could in every case have sufficient Proof of the time of the Negroes coming in, and therefore concluded there must be an abuse. In this we were not deceived, for it appears that Certificates with Blanks were given by the Commandant to Individuals to be filled up as their Convenience might require—One of these Blank Certificates have fallen into our Hands, and we transmit it to your Excellency.4

Sir Guy Carleton during the whole of the time from our arrival in this City until his departure on the 25th of November exercised the same kind of Jurisdiction in this City, and on Long Island and Staten Island, and as fully as his Predecessors in Command had at any Period of the War, and in the Exercise of this Jurisdiction he retained the Regulation of the Commerce of this Port, continued to Lease and receive the Rents of a number of Houses in this City which had been previously taken, and the Rents appropriated by the british Government here as belonging to persons residing without their Lines, and by them therefore declared as being in Rebellion, he refused, except in a very few Instances to restore Persons, who were desirous of returning to their former Habitations, the possession of their Estates, and caused several Citizens of the United States to be apprehended and tried by Courts Martial.5 A Considerable Embarkation of Negroes took place the Day this City was evacuated—The hurry of business on the part of the Britons is the ostensible reason why we were not invited to the Inspection, as appears by a Letter from Captain Gilfillan.✻ We have the Honor to be, Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Humble servants

Egbt Benson

W.S. Smith

Danl Parker

✻Mr Gilfillan’s letter to Col. Smith of 19th Feby 1784.6

Copy, MHi: Adams Papers: William Stephens Smith Miscellany; LB, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters; copy, P.R.O., F.O., ll6/1, ff. 54–58; LB, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Duplicate Consular and Diplomatic Dispatches; LB, DNA: RG 46, entry 33; LB, DNA: RG 59, Reports of the Secretary of State to the President and Congress; copy, DLC: Jefferson Papers. Although dated 18 Jan. 1784 the report of the commissioners of embarkation could not have been written in the form that appears here (as well as in all of the other surviving copies) until after commissioner William Stephens Smith had received from London Thomas Gilfillan’s letter dated 19 Feb. 1784 (see note 6). GW himself informed Charles Thomson on 5 April 1785 that he had received the commissioners’ report “in the latter part of last Spring.” The original report has not been found.

The three commissioners were all living in New York State when GW appointed them in 1783. Egbert Benson (1746–1833), a New York lawyer, was attorney general of the state from 1777 to 1787. Lt. Col. William Stephens Smith (1755–1816), also a New York lawyer, was an aide-de-camp to GW at the time of the Yorktown campaign. In 1786, as secretary to the United States legation at London, Smith met and married John and Abigail Adams’s daughter, Abigail Adams. Daniel Parker, originally a merchant in Watertown, Mass., was a very active contractor for the Continental army and a trader with extensive interests not only in New York and New England but overseas as well. Parker and Company was already in serious difficulties when GW made Parker a commissioner of the embarkation in May 1783; before the end of 1784 Parker had fled to Europe to escape his creditors.

Guy Carleton, the new commander in chief of the British army in America, arrived in New York on 5 May 1782 with instructions to begin the withdrawal of British forces from the United States. Nearly a year later, on 14 April 1783, after learning that the preliminary articles of the treaty of peace had been signed in Europe, Carleton wrote Robert R. Livingston, secretary of foreign affairs, asking that Congress “empower any person or persons ... to be present at New York, and to assist such persons as shall be appointed by me, to inspect and superintend all Embarkations which the Evacuation” of the city should require (DNA:PCC, item 78). The next day Livingston sent GW a copy of Carleton’s letter along with a resolution of Congress: “That the Commander in Chief be, and he is hereby instructed to make the proper arrangements with the Commander in Chief of the British forces . . . for obtaining the delivery of all negroes and other property of the inhabitants of the United States in the possession of British forces” or of other British subjects (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 24:242–43). GW met with Carleton on 6 May at Orange Town, N.Y. (see Substance of a Conference between General Washington and Sir Guy Carleton in Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C., 1931–44. description ends 26:402–6), and two days later he appointed Parker, Benson, and Smith commissioners to oversee the embarkation of the British at New York. Their instructions were “to attend particularly to the due execution of that part of the Article of the Provisional Treaty where it is agreed His Britannic Majesty shall withdraw his Armies &c. from The United States ‘without causing any destruction or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American Inhabitants.’” The United States commissioners went into the city on 10 May, and the three of them met with General Carleton on 15 May. On 22 May Carleton’s adjutant general, Oliver Delancey, issued orders to the board created “to superintend all Embarkations” at New York, which was composed of the three Americans appointed by GW and four British officers (Capt. Richard Armstrong, Capt. Thomas Gilfillan, Maj. Nathaniel Phillips, and Capt. Wilbur Cook) appointed by Carleton, to meet at “Fraunces’s Tavern every Wednesday at ten OClock“ to hear “any Person claiming property embarked, or to be embarked.” The board’s instructions provided that “should any Doubts arise in Examination[,] the circumstances of the case” were “to be minuted down” for use in settling future claims. Furthermore, three of the commissioners were to examine every transport before it put to sea (MHi: Adams Papers: William Stephens Smith Miscellany). By the end of May 1783 the American commissioners were fully aware of how limited a role they were to be allowed to play in preventing the removal of American property. On 23 June 1783, when he forwarded to Elias Boudinot, president of Congress, copies of reports from the commissioners dated 30 May and 14 and 18 June and copies of his correspondence with Sir Guy Carleton, GW expressed his doubts that “there will be much advantage in continuing our Commissioners any longer at New York” and raised the question “whether it would not be eligible to revoke the Commission.” Benson, Smith, and Parker, however, continued to meet with their British counterparts (see note 3) until the final evacuation of the city on 25 Nov. 1783.

1Sir Guy Carleton withdrew with his forces to Staten Island, completing his evacuation of New York City on 25 Nov.; and the last of the British transports and warships put to sea shortly after 4 Dec. 1784. It may be that it took several months after 18 Jan. 1784 to complete the report “closing the Business” because of the time required to compile the lists of the blacks who were taken away by the British. See the headnote and note 3.

2These communications from the three commissioners are reports on their dealings with Sir Guy Carleton and the British commissioners of embarkation in which they discuss how severely limited their authority was. There are copies of the three letters in most of the repositories and collections where copies of this letter of 18 Jan. 1784 may be found, but the original letters to GW have survived and are in DLC:GW.

3Copies of the individual inspection rolls made at New York by the British and American commissioners of the blacks who were transported from the city by sea between 23 April and 30 Nov. 1783 are in DNA:PCC, Miscellaneous Papers: Papers Relating to Specific States (ff. 21, 25, 26, 29, 30, 44, 47, and 52); other copies of these rolls are in the Guy Carleton Papers (photocopies), ViWC. The copies in DNA:PCC are probably copies of the ones that the commissioners enclosed in this report to GW dated 18 Jan. 1784. John Jay sent a clerk to Mount Vernon in September 1785 to make a copy of these rolls (see Jacob Read to GW, 9 Mar. 1785, n.2). In DNA:PCC there are ten separate rolls listing the blacks who were embarking from New York. The rolls indicate that between 23 April and 30 Nov. 1783 the commissioners made twenty-nine inspections of blacks boarding transports at New York. One or more of the commissioners appointed by GW signed each of the rolls except: (1) the roll for the six inspections made between 23 and 27 April 1783 before GW appointed the United States commissioners; this was signed by two of General Carleton’s deputy quartermaster generals, Thomas Gilfillan and William Armstrong, and witnessed at General Carleton’s request by the Americans Daniel Parker and David Hopkins (see Carleton to GW, 12 May 1783, DNA:PCC, item 52); (2) the roll of 25 June signed by the British commissioners of embarkation Wilbur Cook and Armstrong and the board’s secretary Samuel Jones; and (3) the roll of 30 Nov. 1783, which Gilfillan and Armstrong compiled after the evacuation of the city on 25 Nov. and which Gilfillan sent from London on 19 Feb. 1784 to the American commissioner William Stephens Smith. In the roll for the inspections of 5, 6, 8, and 13 Sept., it was noted that three blacks had been “returned to the owner”; but as the American commissioners reported to GW on 30 May and 14 June 1783 (see note 2), and as Sir Guy Carleton intended it should be, the board of commissioners for monitoring the embarkation of the blacks and Loyalists at New York largely confined themselves to questioning the departing blacks and recording what they said about themselves and their status. The columns in each roll have these headings: “Vessels Names and the Commanders,” “Where bound,” “Negroes Names,” “Age,” “Description,” “Claimant’s Names, Places of Residences,” “Names of the Persons in whose Possession they now are,” and “Remarks.” Only rarely are names of claimants given. Under “Remarks,” there is usually a statement about the black’s place of origin, his or her past and present status, and how long he or she had been within British lines. According to the totals attested to in each of the rolls by the commissioners who signed, the commissioners listed and described in the ten rolls a grand total of 1,388 black men, 955 women, and 652 children who left New York by sea between 23 April and 30 Nov. 1783. The totals that Thomas Gilfillan gives in the last roll, dated 30 Nov. 1783, for the period from 26 April to 30 Nov. 1783 differ from these, but his grand total of 3,000 is very close. Three of these 2,995 blacks were identified as formerly belonging to GW: Daniel Payne, 22 years old, an “ordinary fellow” in the possession of Maurice Salt, who said he left GW “abt 4 years ago”; Deborah Squash, 20, wife of Harvey Squash, 22, both in possession of “Mr Lynch,” who confessed she “came off [from GW] about 5 years ago”; and Harry Washington, 43, a “fine fellow” who testified that he had left GW seven years before.

4The copy of this letter of 18 Jan. 1784 in the Public Record Office (listed above in the source line) is followed by the clerk’s copy of one of the “Blank Certificates,” dated 23 April 1783, citing the proclamations of both “Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton late Commanders in Chief in America.”

5Sir Guy Carleton made it clear as early as 6 May when he met with GW at Orange Town, N.Y, that according to his reading of the provisional articles of the peace treaty he was under no obligation to restore property to Americans, only to refrain thenceforth from either destroying it or carrying it away. It was on this basis that the three United States commissioners were restricted only to examining those blacks who were on the point of embarking so that American citizens in the future could make claims against the British crown if they had been wrongfully deprived of their slave property.

6The British commissioner of embarkation Thomas Gilfillan wrote the American commissioner William Stephens Smith from London on 19 Feb. 1784: “My last Letter to you was from Simmersons Ferry Statten Island, Date 3d Decemr last, informing you of the Inspection made by Captain [William]Armstrong, and myself, of the Negroes on Board sundry Vessels then at Anchor near Statten Island, In which I gave you my reasons for not being able to transmit to you a Register of them previous to the time of my sailing for England, However since my arrival here, have got regular Registers made of them, & according to promise, a Copy of which I have herewith Inclosed, and in order to make it a Pacqet of moderate size, have caused it to be made on a smaller Paper, than that which we used at New York for that purpose, but upon the same Principle, with respect to the age, Description, &c. of the Negroes” (DNA:PCC, item 78). He concluded by explaining the meaning of the various initials in the roll of blacks dated 30 Nov. 1783. For the significance of this letter in setting the date on which GW received the letter of 18 Jan. 1784, see headnote. For references to the roll of blacks, 30 Nov. 1783, see note 3.

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