February 16, 2017

Honoring the Legacy of a Black Patriot: Jeffrey Hartwell's Plate

Hartwell Plate, 1895.0039.001. Gift of George P. Smith
In celebration of Black History Month, I am featuring one of three pewter plates belonging to Jeffrey Hartwell, a black man who was born into slavery c. 1751 and served at some of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War. Two of Hartwell’s pewter plates can be seen on display in Representative’s Hall and he is one of our Revolutionary Characters.

Hartwell fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, having been sent to fill the place of his master. He later enlisted of his own accord in September of 1777 and was discharged in November of that same year. He then reenlisted in June of 1778 and is known to have been stationed at West Point, New York in December of 1778. He is believed to have served at the Battle of Saratoga, one of the turning points of the war.

Although it is not clear exactly how he became free, we know that Hartwell was free and living in Dracut, Massachusetts by March of 1779. He married a free woman named Maria, who had also been born into slavery and subsequently freed, and they were given two acres on which to live as a wedding present from Maria’s employer, John Varnum. Jeffrey and Maria had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. He died in Dracut on 22 July, 1816 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Hamblett Cemetery in Lowell.

Detail of Hartwell Plate
More than 5,000 black patriots fought in the Revolutionary War and many enslaved and free black men joined the British Army. The three plates in our collection are amongst the very few items known to have belonged to a black soldier from the Revolutionary War, and we are honored to care for these important artifacts. Hartwell's well-worn pewter plate bears the scars of many meals. The maker’s mark is also stamped into the bottom of the plate. Please let us know in the comments if you recognize these marks and can help us identify the maker.

To learn more about Jeffrey Hartwell check out George Quintal Jr.'s Patriots of Color ‘A Particular Beauty and Merit’: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road & Bunker Hill.

By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Collections Manager


  1. I'd be interested to hear about the chain of ownership of the plate, and how the provenance was determined. African American history in America can be such a difficult challenge because of its context within a slave-holding society. Are there any descendants of Hartwell?

    1. Hi Cortney,

      Because we have held these items in our collection since 1895, we have very little information about the chain of ownership and we don't know who the George Smith who donated them was or how he acquired them. At the time, it wasn't standard practice to collect this type of information in any kind of systematic way. Museums have changed a lot since 1895!

      Much of what is known about Hartwell himself comes from the obituary of his daughter, Frances Hartwell, in the 3/27/1880 issue of Vox Populi. She was a fascinating woman, and a good place to start if you are interested in finding out more about the Hartwells.

      Thanks for reading,

    2. Thanks Sira, for the rapid reply. I'm enjoying all the posts On King Street, and especially find the more obscure histories and research all the more fascinating. As an illustrator of historical subjects, the 18th century and especially Boston, is my favorite subject. Looking forward to more!