by Cliff McCarthy, Archivist, Wood Museum of Springfield History, and Richard Colton, Park Historian, Springfield Armory National Historic Site
Jupiter Richards was an American patriot. Of this fact there is no doubt, although much of his heartbreaking story is shrouded in speculation and unanswered questions.
Jupiter Richards enlisted in the Massachusetts Militia in the earliest days of the American Revolution. He is among those mustered into the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment, commanded by General John Thomas which was organized on 23 April 1775 and drawn from the original Minutemen companies that responded to the Lexington alarm. (It is unknown whether Jupiter Richards was at either Lexington or Concord, but it is possible.) This integrated military unit included some of the first African Americans to fight for the colonial cause. Jupiter Richards enlisted on the 10th of May as a private in Captain Elijah Crooker’s Company and he was credited to enlistment quota required of Bridgewater, Mass.
For the first few years of the Revolution, most enlistments were short-term, usually several months at a time. Richards re-enlisted for several stints. It is unknown whether he was a free man or enslaved at the beginning of the war, or whether he was serving as a paid “substitute” for someone else. The vital records of Bridgewater list him as “a free negro man” in 1776. Perhaps, he was granted his freedom for his service, or maybe he purchased it with his military pay. Whatever his circumstance, Jupiter continued to volunteer for military service well after his freedom.
His presence in the Bridgewater vital records actually goes back to 1772, when a daughter Jenney was born there to Jupiter and Lettis Richards. The couple had a son, Judas, in November of 1775 at Bridgewater, while Jupiter was away in the army, presumably at Roxbury where, six days later, he was issued a coat for eight months’ service. In February of 1776, Jupiter Richards and Lettice Steuart, “a molatto woman,” announced their intention to marry, as recorded in the Bridgewater records, however, they did not marry at that time. In August of that year, he was in camp with the Continental Army near New York.
In early 1777, Jupiter Richards, age 29 years, enlisted for three years as a private in John Bailey’s regiment (still the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment). However in April, he was reported to have deserted. On September 27th, his long-delayed marriage to “Lettece Stoddard” [probably Steuart] occurred in Abington, Mass., and by the first week of November, he was back with Captain Allen’s company of Bailey’s (now Mitchell’s) regiment. A son Elisha was born to the couple in February of 1778. Jupiter Richards apparently served without further incident until 1780, when his enlistment expired. He was described as 5 feet, 10 inches and “having a Negro complexion.”
Jupiter Richards continued to serve. In 1781, with the British threatening the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts, he joined Abram Washburn’s company of Cotton’s regiment on a march to defend Newport. He was discharged in April having served another 22 days. A son Amos was born to “Jupiter and Lettis Ritchards” at Bridgewater on June 28th.
Richards is again listed with Washburn’s company in April of 1782, the same month that the British House of Commons voted to end the war in America. Jupiter Richards had survived the war, having served, on and off, for seven years. In that time, he had married and fathered three sons, in addition to the daughter born before the war.
Then something happened. Jupiter Richards shows up next in 1785 in Springfield, Mass. A daughter Renah was born there to “Jupiter and Phillis Richards” on the 24th of May and a son Sylvester was born to the same couple in April 1788. It appears that Jupiter Richards left his Bridgewater family and began a new one in Springfield. Back in Bridgewater, Lettice Richards would re-marry in 1792 to Pito Snow.
The records housed at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site indicate that Jupiter Richards, laborer, was paid 1 pound, 19 shillings for 13 days labor at the Springfield Arsenal, “piling shot & shells for the Public” in 1786. Also, during the period from May 23 – November 24, 1787, Jupiter Richards shows up in the account book of the Dwight store in Springfield.
In September 1789, the Hampshire Chronicle newspaper reported that “Richard, a Negro, resident at West Springfield,” was “sentenced to pay a fine of 20s. [shillings] with damages and costs.” Further research into this incident revealed the following, from the records of the Hampshire Court of Common Pleas:
By the Oaths of twelve Jurors it is at the last February Term presented that Richard a Negro man of Springfield in the said County of Hampshire, Labourer at Springfield aforesaid on the twenty-second Day of January last past with Force & Arms did feloniously steal take & carry away One bushel of Rye of the value of three shillings of the Goods & Chattels of John Warner of Springfield to the great Damage of said John & against the Peace & Dignity of the Commonwealth & their law in such Case made & proved. And now at this Time said Richard comes into Court & having heard sd. Presentment read pleads thereto & says that thereof he is guilty ~ Whereupon it is considered by the Court that said Richard for the said offence do pay a Fine of twenty Shillings of lawful money to be to the Use of the Commonwealth & paid into the County Treasury, & that he pay the Costs of Prosecution taxed at Four pounds four Shillings & Six pence, & also to John Warner Nine Shillings being the threefold Damages standing committed etc. Committed to Goal ~
As we shall see, this “Richard, a Negro man” is our Jupiter Richards. So, for pleading guilty to theft of one bushel of rye worth three shillings, he was sentenced to pay a fine of 20 shillings, plus nine shillings damages to the victim, and court costs amounting to four pounds, four shillings! For comparison, David Farmer, who also plead guilty to a theft in the same court session, was sentenced to pay a fine of 40 shillings, court costs of 28 shillings, and damages of three pounds, twelve shillings to the victim. Why were the court costs so high for Jupiter Richards?
The David Farmer case adds another point of interest — this addendum was added to the case summary:
“And on Sept. 7, 1789, The Clerk rec’d the aforesaid Fine & sd. Committee rec’d a Note of Hand of Samuel Fowler [sic], Esq. for the Sum of Four pounds, nineteen shillings & sixpence being the aforesaid Costs & sd. Expense of his Support in Goal, payable to the County Treasurer on Condition sd. David should continue in his service long enough to indemnify him therefor, which said note they have transmitted to the County Treasurer & Said Committee discharged said David from Goal.”
So, not being able to pay the fine and costs, David Farmer was “hired out” to Samuel Flower who paid the bills in exchange for Farmer’s servitude. Although the court records for Jupiter Richards do not include a similar clause, a similar arrangement must have been made in his case, as the following item will show.
In 1999, Cowan’s Auction House put up for auction the Samuel Flower Family Papers, 1770-1917, approximately 104 items. It is unknown who purchased the auction lot or where the papers are, now, but among those papers was an indenture, described by the auction house as follows:
“An extraordinary indenture between Jupiter Richards, almost certainly an African American, and Samuel Flower, 1789. Convicted of theft by the court, Richards agreed to enter servitude for twenty years and ‘faithfully serve’ Flower and Flower’s family and ‘their secrets will keep, their Commands lawfull & honest will gladly obey at all times…. will do no Damage to the sd. Samuel nor his Heirs nor Assigns nor suffer it to be done by others, without giving them seasonable notice thereof.’ Signed with an X by Richards”
Twenty years! Jupiter Richards was sentenced to twenty years’ servitude for stealing three shillings worth of rye! Or was that for being poor and black? The wealthy Samuel Flower, who ran a tavern at Feeding Hills, was a former officer in the Revolutionary War and had a connection to the Springfield Arsenal. Did Samuel Flower believe he was giving Richards a break by paying his costs? Or was he taking advantage of a man in a desperate situation?
Richards apparently went to work for Mr. Flower. The 1790 census for West Springfield itemizes Samuel Flower and his family, plus two “other free persons,” likely Jupiter and Phillis Richards. Jupiter Richards paid a poll tax in West Springfield in 1790. By then, slavery was disappearing in Massachusetts, having been declared unconstitutional by the courts in the previous decade. So technically, Richards was a free man, but at age 42, he was bound to spend the rest of his productive life in servitude to the Flower family.
In the end, perhaps, Jupiter Richards got the last laugh. The following appeared in the Federal Spy newspaper in July of 1794:
Nothing more is known of Jupiter Richards, after that.
Hampshire County Court records, Inferior Court of Common Pleas, General Sessions of the Peace, 1677-1837, September Term 1789, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
John Bryan Papers, 1767-1816, 15 April 1786, NHS Microfilm Rolls, Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Springfield, MA.
Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution, 17 volumes, Boston, MA: Wright and Potter Printing Co., 1896.
Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, as published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, MA at http://www.AmericanAncestors.org.
“Springfield, September 9,” Hampshire Chronicle, Springfield, MA, 9 September 1789.
Stott, Clifford L., Vital Records of Springfield, Massachusetts to 1850, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2002.
Various Muster Rolls, Descriptive Lists, and Receipts for Supplies for the Second Massachusetts Regiment, Massachusetts State Archives Center, Boston.
1790, 1800 & 1810 U.S. Census Records, as reproduced online at http://www.Ancestry.com.
“2 Dollars Reward!,” Federal Spy, 15 July 1794.