"A Captain and One of Shays' Council":
African Americans in Shays' Rebellion

Indictment of Moses Sash by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, April 9, 1787

 

Massachusetts' free black population after the Revolution was concentrated in the eastern part of the state, around Boston and other commercial centers. When Shays' Rebellion broke out, a large number of black Bostonians offered to join the anti-Shays militia. In the rebellious counties in the western part of the state, however, there were a scattered handful of African American freemen like Moses Sash (described below), who joined the rebels.

In this one-page notice from The Black Presence in the American Revolution, historian Sidney Kaplan describes the African Americans who lined up on one side or the other during Shays' Rebellion.

"Moses Sash: 'A Captain & One of shaises councill'" [Shays's Council]
by Sidney Kaplan

When debt-ridden farmers led by the Revolutionary veteran, Captain Daniel Shays, arose in western Massachusetts during the winter of 1786‑87, Prince Hall* in Boston pledged the support of his lodge of black Masons in the crushing of the rebellion. Whatever Hall's real reasons may have been, Governor Bowdoin rejected the offer. It is doubtful that more than a few black troops marched west to suppress this "little rebellion" that so alarmed the men of "wealth and talent" of the state. Were there Afro‑Americans who stood with Shays? There is record of at least one black veteran of the Revolution who fought in the uprising and possibly served as an officer in a section of the guerilla army.

At the time of the uprising, Moses Sash of Worthington was thirty-two years old. Ten years earlier, like Shays, he had enlisted in the Continental Army and at the end of the war had trudged home from West Point to resume the old life. The documents describe him as farmer and laborer; five feet, eight inches high; complexion, black; hair, wool.

Among the records of the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts there is a crumbling packet of grand jury indictments, naming thirty-two traitorous rebels, variously denominated yeoman, husbandman, tanner, tradesman, laborer. Moses Sash is the only black man of the group, the only laborer, and the only rebel to have two indictments leveled against him.

The first of the indictments reads as follows:

The jurors of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts upon their oath present that Moses Sash of Worthington ... a negro man & Labourer being a disorderly, riotous & seditious person & minding & contriving as much as in him lay unlawfully by force of arms to stir up promote incite & maintain riots mobs tumults insurrections in this Commonwealth & to disturb impede & prevent the Government of the same & the due administration of justice in the same, & to prevent the Courts of justice from sitting as by Law appointed for that purpose & to promote disquiets, uneasiness, jealousies, animosities & seditions in the minds of the Citizens of this Commonwealth on the twentieth day of January in the year of our Lord Seventeen hundred & eighty seven & on divers other days & times as well before as since that time at Worthington ... unlawfully & seditiously with force & arms did advise persuade invite incourage & procure divers persons . . . of this Commonwealth by force of arms to oppose this Commonwealth & the Government thereof & riotously to join themselves to a great number of riotous seditious persons with force & arms thus opposing this commonwealth & the Government thereof as aforesaid &c the due administration of justice in the same, and in pursuance of his wicked seditious purposes aforesaid unlawfully & seditiously, did procure guns, bayonets, pistols, swords, gunpowder, bullets, blankets & provisions & other warlike instruments offensive & defensive & other warlike supplies, & did cause & procure them to be carried & conveyed to the riotous & seditious persons as aforesaid in evil example to others to offend in like manner against the peace of the Commonwealth aforesaid & dignity of the same.

Thus, Moses Sash, in January 20, 1787, as a participant in an insurrectionary demonstration called by a rebel convention, had tried to stop the courts from foreclosing mortgages and jailing debtors in "the due administration of justice."

Five days later, in fact, he would flee with Shays after government mortars had scattered the rebels from Arsenal Hill in Springfield.

As Bowdoin's general pursued the insurgents through Chicopee and South Hadley, Shays rallied his band on two hills in Pelham, sending out parties to forage for food and guns. Thus, the second indictment against Sash, who on January 30, "fraudulently, unlawfully & feloniously two guns to the value of five pounds of certain persons to the jurors unknown with force and arms did steal away."

Eventually, the new governor, John Hancock, pardoned almost all the insurgents, leaders, and followers. On the back of the first indictment against Moses Sash are the words: "a Captain & one of Shaises Councill." It is the only indictment of the packet so endorsed. Thus far, the archives have not yielded any further data to account for the high place of this black private of the first Revolution in the second revolution of Daniel Shays.

Source: The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Washington DC, 1973, pp. 224-5

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*More about Prince Hall (1748?-1807). He championed the cause of black Bostonians, being most famous as the founder and master of the first Masonic lodge for African Americans, "African Lodge No. 459," at a time when all-white American Masonic groups refused to recognize black Masons. Back to top of page.

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Calliope Film Resources. "Shays' Rebellion." Copyright 2002 CFR. 
http://www.calliope.org/shays/shays4.html . 
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Teachers! Shays' Rebellion highlights important themes about the period between the Revolution and the Constitution. Use the half-hour video from Calliope and accompanying teacher's guide to enhance your curriculum. Back to Top

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Updated Sept 1 2009