Unraveling the life of Scituate's mystery soldier

Unraveling the life of Scituate's mystery soldier

An artist's rendering of Prosper Gorton, by Connecticut artist David Wagner. Fred Faria likes to suggest that the black man in the very front of the army, on the right, pointing ahead, is Prosper, but of course we do not know for certain.

SCITUATE - Now that the grave of Prosper Gorton has been found in the village of Hope, a mystery remains as to what brought this black Revolutionary War soldier to town after the war was over.

Fred Faria, a Hope resident, founding member of the Hope Historical Society and former president of the Scituate Preservation Society, has one idea, but it really is only a guess.

He wonders if the Hope Furnace operation, which made cannons for the Revolutionary War, is what brought the former slave to Scituate in the late 1700s, perhaps because it gave Gorton employment.

Gorton played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. He was a member of the First Rhode Island Regiment, also known as the Black Regiment, which fought at the Battle of Rhode Island in local Portsmouth in August 1778 and later at Yorktown, Va., in the encounter that led to the British surrender. The regiment was the only segregated unit to fight on the American side in the war.

Based in large part on research conducted by Ernest Gifford, of Hope, this is Gorton's story as Faria told it during an Aug. 21 meeting at Town Hall that he called to recruit participants for an ongoing search of historic graves in town.

'The Gleaner' and Gorton

The tale begins when a land owner in Hope said he heard that a black person was buried on his land, piquing the curiosity of local historians like Faria and Gifford. "We knew there were not a lot of black people in Hope, or in town," Faria said. Gifford spent "endless hours" researching Gorton, according to Faria, and so came upon a Feb. 17, 1905, edition of the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner.

The Gleaner was a weekly newspaper that had a feature story about Prosper Gorton, whom it called "a colored man" who lived in Hope, where he had a family and land and lived with a "Mr. Ralph." Gorton was born in Massachusetts about 1750 and how he came to be in Rhode Island is not known.

It is "reasonable to believe," Faria said, based on the research, that Prosper was a slave owned by Othniel Gorton, of Warwick. He is listed in a 1777 military census as "Prosperous Gorton" and he along with three other male Gortons are listed as "N (Negro), able to bear arms."

At that time, there was a shortage of soldiers so some army leaders such as Rhode Island Gen. James Varnum suggested allowing blacks to join the army. Gen. George Washington agreed and it was eventually approved. Slaves who agreed to fight the British would be granted their freedom, and their owners compensated in silver.

Although opposition to recruiting slaves continued in some quarters, in February 1778, the First Rhode Island Regiment was formed under Col. Christopher Greene, cousin of Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, born in Warwick (and interestingly enough, the great-great grandson of Samuel Gorton, co-founder of Warwick). On March 15, 1778, Prosper Gorton enlisted in the regiment and Othniel Gorton was paid for one slave. The connection seems significant. It is "most likely" and "almost fact" that Othniel's slave was Prosper, Faria said.

'Best under arms'

The Battle of Rhode Island, Aug. 29, 1778, was fought in the town of Portsmouth at Butt's Hill and Quaker Hill, where the Black Regiment repulsed three "vicious" attacks by the Hessians, Faria said. Prosper fought in this battle. We know that because his name is engraved on a Black Regiment memorial where the attacks took place, now known as Patriots Park. "Prosper did not live in Hope then," Faria noted.

The Black Regiment became part of the Home Guard and, in 1781, it was ordered to what was then "West Chester County" in New York. Colonel Greene was killed in the Pines Bridge attack on May 14, 1781, and his body mutilated in retaliation for leading black troops against the British.

On Oct. 14, 1781, the siege of Yorktown took place and the Black Regiment, which by now included some white soldiers, were ordered to attack a redoubt with fixed bayonets and unloaded muskets. In spite of such shortcomings, the Black Regiment helped win the day - and the war, as it turned out. The British surrender came five days later.

A French general at the time observed that three-quarters of Gorton's regiment were black soldiers and they were "most neatly dressed," "best under arms" and "most precise."

In June 1783, the regiment was disbanded and troops were left to find their own way home from Oswego, N.Y. Prosper was discharged June 15, 1783, and the next year he would receive from the fledgling government a final payment of $200 for five years, three months and two days of service. He also collected a pension of $50.

Living and dying in Hope

In October 1783, about four months after he was discharged from the army, Prosper Gorton married a woman named Ment Pirce in Providence. Her fate is unknown. On Oct. 30, 1796, he wed Hagar Knight, of Cranston, and historical records indicate they lived in Scituate.

In November 1797, Prosper Gorton purchased 19 acres of land in Hope for $100 from Elisha Williams, a parcel situated off Routes 115 and 116 where the elementary school is now located. Route 116 was probably "a cow path," Faria suggested. An 1810 census of the town lists Prosper in Hope with six people in his household, so it is possible he had four children. The 1820 and 1830 censuses list just him and Hagar in the household.

In 1831, Gorton sold the 19 acres for $100 to Ezekiel Ralph and he lived there with Ralph until his death March 13, 1833. The parcel of land he owned was broken up in the 1800s into smaller lots. His grave was located within the last few months to be on a lot measuring 32 feet by 23 feet, between High and Main streets in Hope, and the site is now officially designated SC231 in state records.

"We convinced the (state) historic cemetery group that this was Prosper Gorton's grave site," Faria said. It is not known if anyone else is buried there with him.