Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fellow's Perspective: Tracing African-Americans in the Rhode Island Regiment

"African-American history in this early period is often a “needle in a haystack” operation, and the David Library has the most haystacks anywhere."

Today's post comes from Professor Judith Van Buskirk of SUNY-Cortland, a past fellow of the Library who is currently researching her new book on African-American soldiers in the Revolution. Judy has spent months going through the Library's records to reveal the story of Rhode Island's African-American troops, uncovering many new aspects of their experience and discounting some apocryphal tales. In her entry below, Judy discusses the strengths of the Library's collections and how they aided her research into the Rhode Island Regiment. We look forward to offering other details on her work once the new book is published. Please read below for the full story.



The 1781 Attack of the Rhode Island Regiment

by Judith Van Buskirk

As anyone who has been there knows, the David Library is the clearing house for Revolutionary era sources from Europe and America.  This collection of materials permits a researcher to follow the trail at one location.  Lately, I’ve been looking into the 1781 attack on the Rhode Island Regiment, a portion of which was formed by the former First Rhode Island regiment, an all-black rank-and-file unit.  The David Library’s newspaper collection allowed me to read the coverage of the event.  The library’s U.S. Government Pension files provided evidence from the participants themselves.  The National Archives’ muster rolls on microfilm indicate who survived and who did not.  Christopher Greene’s papers from the Rhode Island Historical Society allow the researcher into his head space just weeks before the disaster.  Generals’ papers, Continental Congress journals, British sources from the former PRO – all help historians connect the dots.  My conversations with Kathie Ludwig and Will Tatum, along with other knowledgeable researchers one runs into in the stacks, lead me to new sources, most of which are in the library.  

     African-American history in this early period is often a “needle in a haystack” operation, and the David Library has the most haystacks anywhere.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

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