Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: we remember today your free servant Corydon Chesley who fought bravely for the freedom of this country while he himself was enslaved; may we never forget the sacrifices of the African Americans who gave us the gift of freedom so that the shame and sin of racism may be end in our communities and nation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Join or die

Day #5, February 19, 2018

(C. 1740 – 1831)
Jody Fernald

Corydon was born into slavery in Newington, around 1740. His first owner was Joseph Adams, Jr, the son of the Rev. Joseph Adams, one of New Hampshire’s most prominent ministers from the Puritan-inspired school of thought. Adams had Corydon baptized into the church in 1750 as his predecessors had done in their hierarchical embrace of saving all souls even those at the lowest rung of society. Six years later, Adams sold Corydon through the slave trader William Shackford of Newington. Corydon was 16 years old and would have fetched a high price as a laborer with a long future ahead of him. James Chesley, a prosperous farmer of Dover, purchased Corydon. Ironically, John Rowe’s book, Newington, New Hampshire, is subtitled, “a heritage of independence since 1630”. Clearly the heritage belonged to the dominant population.

When James Chesley died in 1777, Corydon was listed as property in the estate inventory at a value much reduced from his original sale value. Corydon was approaching age 40 and considered of less importance to Chesley’s young widow, Lydia. Early in 1778, Corydon enlisted in the Revolutionary Army in Captain John Drew’s company of the 2nd NH Regiment. The promise of freedom enticed many black men in New Hampshire to enlist. Corydon would have been paid a bounty at enlistment and likely used that money to purchase his freedom from Lydia two weeks later. The Rev. Jeremy Belknap issued the manumission papers, and it is in Belknap’s Church in Dover, where Corydon’s daughter would later join Dover’s Ladies’ Antislavery Society. Corydon Chesley served in the military for three years, fighting in Monmouth, Western Pennsylvania and New York. He served with five other black men: Richard Hunking, Zach Kelsey, Cato, Gloster Watson and George Evans.

Often history has lost track of the black men who emerged from slavery in New Hampshire. Corydon, however, married Judith Cole of Somersworth, NH, a white woman, and had several children. Corydon applied for pension benefits and received a land bounty. He sold that land and stopped receiving a pension benefit when he could not prove that he suffered poverty. He and his wife attended church in Portsmouth, and he died on March 1, 1831 at 91 years old.

Please see Glenn Knoblock’s fine book “Strong and Brave Fellows”: New Hampshire’s Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784, the source of much of the information in this essay as well as on other Black men in New Hampshire.

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