During Black History Month 2023, I received an email from Jill Mirabito, a longtime resident of Norwich, Chenango County, NY, and Associate Vice President for University Advancement at SUNY Oneonta. The note pertained to the Chenango County Historical Society having honored Benjamin J. Tillett, an African American resident of Norwich during and after the Civil War. He had been a slave in Northeast North Carolina before arriving in Norwich.
In November 1863, Tillett enlisted in the 11th United States Colored Heavy Artillery (also known as the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery). He returned to Norwich after the war and died there in 1902. Before his death, he had a membership with the E.B. Smith Post, GAR, A Knight Templar of Palestine Commandery, and attended religious services frequently at the local AME Zion Church. The admiration that Tillett received from his adopted residence caught my attention. I was intrigued.
During my many years of research pertaining to the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and the Underground Railroad in the Upper Susquehanna River area, I would occasionally see details pertaining to Delaware, Otsego, and Chenango counties.
Only Chenango County was mentioned in the major primary sources however, notably William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records (1872); and Wilbur H. Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). Siebert identified a Col. Berry as an operative in Chenango County, but there was no first name or local community identified with him.
The History of Chenango County, New York, 1784-1880, by James H. Smith, profiled B. Gage Berry as a prominent citizen of Norwich, who was the publisher of the Chenango Telegraph. He was the son of Ansel Berry and shared his father’s interest in Civil War era Republican politics. There was also Silas W. Berry, the farmer and stock trader in Pharsalia. Neither Berry was noted as engaged in the Underground Railroad, so the mention of Tillett as formerly enslaved provided a hint of Underground Railroad activities in Norwich.
Fortunately, there were other important clues about anti-slavery actions in the region. A few items in particular were:
Rev. John Lawyer, a resident of Norwich, was elected in 1829 to the Board of Trustees of the Hartwick Seminary and Academy (in Otsego County). He, along with three others on the Board, joined forces to establish the Franckean Synod in 1837, with one of its three primary goals being “to wipe slavery from the face of the earth.” Rev. Lawyer established and served as editor of the Chenango Free Democrat in 1849 operated out of Bainbridge and Norwich.
The motto of the anti-slavery publication was “Free Soil – Free Labor – Free Speech – Free Men – NO SLAVE TERRITORY.” With slavery having essentially ended in New York in 1827, one has to wonder who the targeted audience was to be impacted by the motto. A rare issue of the May 18, 1850 edition is preserved in the privately owned Matthews Collection for the Preservation of African American Freedom Journey Classics. On the front cover is an ad from Ansel Berry, a dealer in hats, coats, furs, etc. Was he the previously mentioned Col. Berry?
Col. William B. Guernsey of Norwich, was appointed as a Lieutenant-Colonel of the 26th U. S. Colored Infantry on January 30, 1864 and promoted to Colonel on June 18, 1865, mustering out with his regiment on August 28, 1865.
The Emancipation Ball of 1872, held at the Empire House in Butternuts, was planned and organized by men from Otsego and Chenango Counties, including Norwich residents Owen Randall, Samuel Molson, and Charles Robbins.
Returning to Tillett’s obituary, there is a point requiring greater clarification. Tillett did not receive his “freedom” from enslavement because of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln convened his cabinet on July 22, 1862, to discuss the losses suffered by the Union forces. The issue of emancipation and arming of enslaved people was the topic, particularly the timing.
There was already the Confiscation Act passed by Congress in 1861 that designated enslaved people as Contraband. The next year Congress made it illegal for military personnel to return any Contraband to slavery. Thus, many enslaved persons who became freedom seekers sought out Union forces for protection. In time, after much discussion with other groups, Lincoln made his final decision to make the Proclamation effective January 1, 1863, hoping that the military action would result in 200,000 black men enlisting in the Union ranks.
“And I further declare and make known,” he added, “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
So Tillett was probably a freedom seeker who was aided and guided in his pursuit by the military to reach safety in the North. William Street’s obituary continues this point, having sought freedom before the start of the Civil War. As a freedom seeker from Harford County, Maryland, he made his way in 1850 to Albany, NY, before continuing his freedom journey to Norwich.
The two men joined other documented escapes to the Upper Susquehanna, inclusive of neighboring Otsego County in 1837 and specifically to Oneonta in 1860. With Chenango County bordering Otsego, it supports the notion that Tillett and Street found comfort in Norwich, as a site of the Underground Railroad. There was yet another example.
Albert Garrison allows for speculation about his freedom journey from Mississippi to Norwich. In the 1870 Census, Albert’s place of birth was listed as New York, as was that for his wife Fannie. He probably identified his place of birth as New York in order to protect his identity. Living with the couple was 20-year-old William Sanders from Virginia. Fast forward to the 1900 Census when Albert named his birthplace as Mississippi in 1834. His father’s birthplace was recorded as Kentucky; his mother’s Virginia.
Tillett’s obituary also pointed to the idea of a larger African American community in Norwich by mentioning the local African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Smith’s History of Chenango County provides some glimpses into the reality of the latter. Smith’s reported that the AME Zion Church was organized in 1870: “The church, edifice, which was built in 1871, at a cost of $3,500 was sold on foreclosure of the mortgage and rented to the Union Church of Norwich, which [was] also composed of Africans and was organized Sept. 5, 1878, by Rev. L.F. Rogers. Union Church occupied the building until October 1879 with a membership of 25.”
Further exposing the reality of an African American presence in Norwich was an article by Richard White that appeared in the New York Almanack in 2015: “Chenango County African American Civil War Veterans.” While it did not name the black soldiers, it did make known that the Chenango Semi-Weekly Telegram reported on September 27, 1879, that a celebratory event occurred in Norwich to honor African American Civil War veterans from the upstate region.
The event was sponsored by the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company of Norwich, a 39-member group comprised of black male citizens. Included with White’s article was a picture of Hannibal Molson, the foreman of the sponsoring organization. The collective information provided by the articles provided a unique opportunity to understand how local and regional support groups, the Underground Railroad, and the enlistment of soldiers of the USCT joined together to further the progress of the Freedom Journey.
According to Smith, in 1879 the Norwich Fire Department supported and financed the Rescue Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1, of which Hannibal Molson was previously foreman. The entry also included the names of the other men who were the officers of the department. G.F. Breed was the first assistant foreman; Charles Robbins was the second assistant foreman; L.F. Rogers was president; Albert Garrison was vice-president; Richard Newton was recording secretary; William Randall was financial secretary; and William Johnson was treasurer.
Altogether, there were 35 officers and other members. All of the above-mentioned names provided guidance in researching other records to reconstruct a profile of the African American population in Norwich during the period of the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. It provoked me to gain more awareness of the connection of African American Civil War veterans with Norwich.
Military Service During the Civil War and Veteran Life
There were at least 15 African American Civil war soldiers associated with Norwich, in addition to the white Colonel of the 26th USCT:
Benjamin J. Tillett enlisted in Co. I, the Rhode Island 14th Heavy Artillery Colored Troops in November 1863. He enlisted in Providence, Rhode Island. He was discharged in October 1865. In the 1869/70 business directory for Norwich, Tillett was listed as a hairdresser residing at 30 South Main Street. The 1870 Census listed Tillett as a 31-year-old barber, residing with 26-year-old Betsey Brewster. Five years later, she was listed as Betsey E. Tillett, along with her husband and their ten-year-old son, Willie. In 1898, Tillett was recorded as a barber residing at 188 Broad Street along with Betsey. In 1902, he was listed as a barber residing at 3 East Side Park. He died in January 1902 and was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Norwich.
Charles Van Camp served in the same company as Tillett. His military service was recorded on the 1890 Special Schedule-Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and Widow. Charles was born in 1838 and died September 19, 1892. He is buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Waterman Van Camp enlisted at Providence in Co. G, Rhode Island 14th Heavy Artillery Colored Regiment on October 30, 1863. At the time, he was a 33-year-old farmer, who was born in Morris, New York. He was born in 1827 and died on June 18, 1893. He was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery. His wife, Jane Elizabeth Van Camp was born in 1832 and died in 1884.
William H. Pertilla, Sr. also served in Co. G, the Rhode Island 14th Heavy Artillery Colored Troops. He was born in Tioga in 1835. He enlisted at Providence on November 4, 1863. The 1875 Census listed Harry as 35 years of age, residing in Norwich with his 35-year-old wife, Betsey, and their three children. Pertilla, Sr. died on October 1, 1921. His son, William H. Pertilla, Jr. died in 1906 and his funeral service was held at the AME Zion Church and was officiated by Rev. W.B. Caines. He was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
George F. Breed enlisted in Co. G., Rhode Island 14th Heavy Artillery Colored Regiment. He was born in 1846. He died in 1917 at the age of 70-71. He was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery. He was 23 years of age during the 1870 Census. He lived with his 61-year-old mother, Sarah A. Breed. During the 1880 Census, he lived with his wife, Cornelia A. Breed, and his mother was identified. His second marriage was with Lucy A. Breed in 1898. She received a widow’s pension in 1917.
Alvin Brewster enlisted in Co. B, 8th USCT, and served with the regiment that was organized at Camp William Penn in PA. The regiment fought at the famed Battle of Olustee, LS. Brewster was born in 1833 and died on March 8, 1875. He was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery. His widow, Mary Johnson Brewster, was listed in the 1870 Census as a 39-year-old mulatto. The couple at the time had three children living in the household. Mary received a widow’s pension in 1891.
Monroe Smith enlisted in Co. B., 8th USCT. His military service was recorded on the 1890 Special Schedule-Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and Widow. Darius Thompson enlisted in Co. B, 8th USCT. His military service was recorded on the 1890 Special Schedule-Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and Widow.
Hannibal C. Molson was a Civil War veteran of the 25th PA Volunteers. He relocated to Norwich, NY in 1864 with his family. His wife since 1858, died and upon her death, he married Abigail Thompson of Oxford, NY. He emerged as the leading black citizen of Norwich.
Peter P. Butler, Sgt., enlisted in Co. E, 20th USCT. His wife received a widow’s pension starting on October 13, 1869.
Elias H. Odell was born in Norwich, Chenango County, in 1837. He enlisted in the 20th USCT in 1864 at the age of 27. He enlisted at Riker’s Island. The 1865 Census listed Elias as a barber, residing with his 19-year-old mulatto wife, Mary J. Odell.
Nicholas (Class) Sennick was born in Norwich, Chenango County, in 1825. He appeared as the head of the household in 1860 at the age of 35, residing with his young, white Canadian wife, 23-year-old Catherine, and their 2-year-old son Wilford. He enlisted in Co. D of the 20th USCT in 1864 at the age of 40. He served as a cook. He died in the Regimental Hospital at Milliken Bend of illness in September 1865. Catherine received a widow’s pension starting in October. The 1865 Census still listed Nicholas in the family household, along with Catherine and their son.
William B. Guernsey, Col., of Norwich, Chenango County, NY, August 28, 1865. A graduate of Troy Polytechnic Institute, he also studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1852. He first served in the Civil War as a Captain in the 89th Regiment. On Jan. 30, 1864, he was appointed as a Lieutenant-Colonel of the 26th U. S. Colored Infantry. He was promoted to Colonel on June 18, 1865, and mustered out with his regiment Aug. 28, 1865.
Loren F. Rogers, Sergt., served in Co. H, 26th USCT. His obituary appeared in the Utica Saturday Globe, in 1902. “He died at 80 years of age after having lived in Norwich for about 50 years. He was a marble cutter by trade, who lived on Griffing Street. He was a member of the AME Zion Church. He is survived by his wife, a son, Gilbert, of Norwich, and five daughters, Clara Dewitt, Hannah West, and Melvina Rogers, of this village; Mrs. Lorena Dudley and Mrs. Charles Jones, of Rockland; one brother, Richard Rogers, of Oxford, and a sister, Mrs. Sarah Mason, of Norwich. His funeral was held from his late home Wednesday afternoon, with Rev. W.O. Cooper officiating. Burial was made in Mt. Hope Cemetery.” (Utica Saturday Globe, 1902)
William Street enlisted from Norwich into Co. H, 26th USCT. After the Civil War, Street resided in Norwich, before settling in nearby Sidney, whose northern town line, marked by the Susquehanna River, is the border of Otsego County, and the western town boundary is the border of Chenango County. It was from Sidney that Street applied and gained an invalid pension.
George Tenser, Corpl., his military service was recorded on the 1890 Special Schedule-Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and Widow. He served in Co. B, 26th USCT.
Other Noteworthy African Americans in Norwich
The names below provide additional insight into the composition of the African American population in Norwich. An interesting observation is that the first three households had birth connections in Maryland and Virginia. Do they provide another speculation of Norwich’s link to the Underground Railroad? James Mason was a 40-year-old laborer during the 1870 Census. James was born in Virginia. He was married to the 41-year-old “mulatto” Sarah, who was born in New York. The couple had four children. The family resided next door to the Johnson household.
Abram Street, was born in 1821 in Maryland, as was his wife Elizabeth Street, according to the 1860 Census. The couple had three children who were also born in Maryland.
Charles Robbins was a 21-year-old laborer during the 1870 Census. He resided within the household of (William) Harry and Betsey H. Pertilla. They resided within a small cluster of black neighbors, including Benjamin Tillett and Alvin Brewster.
Ephraham Breed was a 69-year-old black man, born in Connecticut in 1786 according to the 1855 Census. His black wife was 76-year-old Rose Breed who was also born in Connecticut, as was the couple’s son, 47-year-old Levi R. Breed. The couple’s daughter, 39-year-old Mary E. Breed, was born in Chenango.
Henry Breed was a 44-year-old mulatto, born in 1821 in Chenango. The 1865 Census included his 48-year-old wife, Carolinia Breed. Polly Stewart was his 70-year-old mother born in Canada. Living next door was the household of Phebe Van Camp, a 28-year-old mulatto, and her two children.
Sarah A Breed, 61, also appeared in the 1870 Census. She was born in New York. She lived with George F. Breed, a 23-year-old barber, and Emily Wycoff, 53, who was born in New York.
Richard Newton was a 38-year-old black man, born in 1827, according to the 1865 Census. His wife was Matilda, 48 years of age. Susan Sennick was his 80-year-old mother.
William Randall was 14 years of age during the 1865 Census. He lived in the household of his 32-year-old mother, Elizabeth Randall. Next door was the household of Richard (38) and Betsey Newton (45). William Johnson was 49 years of age during the 1870 Census. He was birth in 1821 in Connecticut. His 33-year-old white wife, Agnes, was born in Scotland. The couple had four mulatto children.
Orin Titus was a mulatto head of household in the 1880 Census. He was 35 years of age and married to Jane, a 35-year-old mulatto. The couple had an 11-year-old son named William. Also living in the household were the 47-year-old mulatto Eliza Johnson, 56-year-old Peter Titus, and 18-year-old Mary Brewster, who was a student.
Levi R. Bruce was a 57-year-old black man born in Canada who appeared in the 1865 Census with his 48-year-old sister, Mary.
Undoubtedly, there remain in Norwich and the local region family members of early African American families who are preserving the memory of loved ones. Interestingly enough, a couple of obituary notices on the internet allowed for greater clarity about the longevity of the AME Zion church in Norwich. The information in the obituary notices made it clear that the official name was St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church and that it existed beyond the decade of 1930.
For example, “Ronald Jervis George, 85, (1925-2010) formerly of East Pharsalia, passed away peacefully on Thursday, April 29, 2010, at the New York Veterans’ home in Oxford. Born and raised in Norwich, Ron was the son of Charles F. and Phebe Mae (Jervis) George… Ron was a member of St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church and served as its treasurer/bookkeeper. In 1946, he joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Christy Rock Post 2782, for which he served as its House Chairman, Jr. Vice Commander, Sr. Vice Commander, and Commander. He received his VFW lifetime membership in 1976. Ron also served for ten years with the East Pharsalia Fire Police…. Friends are invited to call at the church from 10 am until the time of the service. Burial with military honors will follow in Mt. Hope Cemetery.”
And “Mrs. Rebecca Blair (1924-2021) passed in Alabama. She recalled her love of traveling with her husband, Reverend Glenn T. Blair. As a pastor’s wife and faithful partner, she also served in various capacities at St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church, Norwich, NY; and Minnie L. Floyd Memorial AME Zion Church in Elmira, NY.”
What is surprising, however, is that other family members reached out to the USCTI over the years. Prize family information and documents were provided to the Matthews Collection to assist with preservation efforts. In the case of the Rogers and Molson families, the information included a rare photograph of an ancestor of each family. In October 2016, the USCTI and its student chapter at Hartwick College, the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project, published Stories Our Mother Told Us: A Search for Roots (Book 2 Revised).
Included was the family profile of Mrs. Linda Williams Dorage of Atlanta, Georgia. She had been invited to share her story after she made contact with the USCTI. Among the revealing information that she shared during a presentation was the lineage of six generations, stretching back to Loren F. Rogers and Mary M. Rogers in Norwich.
Her fourth generation included the great-grandfather Charles W. Jones, who was born in Unadilla in 1869. He married Helen Rogers Jones in 1874. Extending back to the fifth generation, there were Samuel Jones and his wife Libbie, who was the daughter of the elders of the sixth generation, Loren and Mary Rogers. Several family pictures accompanied the narrative.
Descendants of Hannibal Molson and his father Samuel Molson became founding members of the USCTI, with Madeline O. Scott of Buffalo being a senior fellow of the USCTI. In 2010, Jeannette Molson of California made an initial contact with the USCTI Founding President at the 150th Anniversary of the USCT Commemorative in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Nine years passed before a reconnect in 2019. The result was that Jeannette shared many documented sources about the history of the Molson family, including Hannibal and Samuel’s time in Norwich. In addition to a copy of the notable obituary of Hannibal, was detailed information on the father and son’s role in the founding of chapters of the National Equal Rights League following the Civil War. The two cousins jointly preserved the rare image of Samuel and provided a copy to the Matthews Collection.
In all regards, the research and telling of a historical aspect of African Americans in Norwich has been truly worthwhile and a tribute to the general community for its part in the preservation of the Freedom Journey, inclusive of the Underground Railroad and the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War.
Certainly, Mt. Hope Cemetery must be considered a site of historic preservation as an interracial resting ground, as well as a place honoring the memory of veterans.
Illustrations, from above: Benjamin J. Tillett; Col. William B. Guernsey; William Street; Benjamin J. Tillett’s grave marker; Elias H. Odell’s enlistment record; undated courtroom illustration; Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Norwich, Chenango County showing the AME Zion Church on Fair Street in 1887; and Mount Hope Cemetery in Norwich, NY.