This is an 1848 letter from Aaron Nash (1783-1855) in Ballston Spa, New York to the comptroller of the State of New York, Millard Fillmore, requesting information as to the captivity of slave Nero Gordon (owned by New York State Militia and Revolutionary solder Col. James Gordon) after his capture with Col. Gordon and others by the British in 1780 during what was termed “The Northern Invasion of 1780.” Docketing on the letter by the Comptroller (or someone from his office) states, “nothing found.”
Nash, who served as Clerk of Court in Ballston Spa from 1813-1836, is known from other sources to have worked on trying to get Revolutionary War pensions for those who served but had not yet received their due. The period during which the letter was written was one in which the pension laws had been liberalized to some extent. In this regard, there were indeed precedents for slaves who had service in the Revolutionary War to receive a pension.
In his letter, Nash notes that he is making the plea on behalf of a child of Nero (Nero himself having passed away over the intervening 68 years). Based on the docketing, it is unlikely that the family received any money. However, there is very compelling evidence that Nero was in fact a prisoner of the British and was clearly deserving of a pension.
The story of Nero’s experiences in 1780 and thereafter is extraordinary and was meticulous researched by David Fiske—the author of Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery, and a co-author of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, that readers will likely recognize as the title of the 2013 Oscar-winning movie. [See History Lesson: Nero, courageous slave from Ballston, authored by David Fiske and published on Feb. 10, 2013 in the Saratoga News; also, see repost in footnotes.] ¹ In 2016, Fiske also published a book entitled, Solomon Northup’s Kindred, the Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War.
Nero was likely freed by Col. Gordon shortly following his voluntary return to the Gordon household after a daring escape from captivity in Canada. He eventually left the household as a free man and built a family of his own in the area nearby. A gradual manumission law in New York State was passed in 1799, but it was not until 4 July 1827 that the last slave in the state was made free.
[Note: This letter was graciously shared by Richard Weiner by express consent for publication on this blogsite.]
April 6th 1848
Will you have the goodness to examine the (Revolutionary) Books, rolls, &c. of your Office, or in the Office of the Secretary, for the name of Nero Gooman who was sometimes called Nero Gordon & who was a slave at the time he was taken by the British at the Town of Ballston some time in October 1780 & with his Master, Col. James Gordon, conveyed to Canada and there continued a captive for some time. If his name is found in either office, I wish to be informed how long he continued his captivity. Nero & his wife are both dead, but one child of the family survives. Please send me a statement, not a certificate, or at least unless he was in captivity over 6 months, with the Bill of your charges & will see it paid.
I am respectfully your obedient servant, — Aaron Nash
To the Comptroller of the State of New York at Albany
¹ By David Fiske, posted 2/10/2013 in Saratoga News
“BALLSTON SPA — Slavery in New York State was legal until it was completely eliminated in 1827. Prior to that, some Saratoga County residents had owned slaves. The person who had more slaves than anyone else in the county was General James Gordon (he had owned as many as seven, and the 1800 Federal Census shows that he owned five at that time). Among Gordon’s slaves was the remarkable Nero.
Details of Nero’s life have largely been lost to history. Most of what is known about him concerns the October 1780 raid on the Ballston area during the American Revolution. Though a minor part of the War, accounts of this incident provide some information on Nero.
Gordon, at the time a colonel in the American militia, was a target of this raid. A force consisting of British soldiers and Native Americans, under the command of British Major John Munro, attacked Gordon’s house, located just north of the Mourningkill on Middle Line Road.
During the night attack, Gordon and a number of people at his house were captured and carried away. Among them were three slaves, Nero, Jacob, and Anne. (Another of Gordon’s slaves, Liz, ran out of the house, hiding in a field, where she cleverly escaped detection by tying a strip of cloth from her dress around the snout of a barking dog that threatened to reveal her hiding place).
The raiders rounded up other residents from the area, including Capt. Tyrannus Collins, Gordon’s near neighbor. All were marched under heavy guard toward Canada. Munro informed his troops — and the prisoners — that if his force were attacked, the prisoners were to be instantly executed. (A rescue effort had been organized, but was given up after Gordon somehow got a message out that no counter-attack should be undertaken.)
Nero did attempt self-rescue (probably before Munro’s threat had been made, but — if afterward — certainly an especially courageous move on his part). As the captives were on their way out of the area, Nero threw himself headlong down a ravine. Unfortunately, he banged his head on a small tree and was quickly recaptured.
All the captives were taken to Montreal. There, the whites were imprisoned and the blacks were sold to new owners. Nero was first purchased by Patrick Langan, who in December resold him for 60 pounds to John Mittleberger, a tailor. He did not remain Mittleberger’s slave for long, however, as he ran away from him in June 1781. Seeking the return of his property, Mittleberger placed an ad in a Montreal newspaper: “RUN away from the subscriber, the 27th of June last, a Negro man named NERO, 24 years of age, about 5 feet nine inches high.” Mittleberger offered a reward of 50 shillings, plus reimbursement for expenses incurred by anyone who apprehended Nero.
Nero was not found, though, as British Gen. Allan McLean (apparently not a fan of slavery) held him as a prisoner of war. Nero, along with another slave named “Dublin,” who had belonged to Ballston’s Capt. Bennett, escaped and headed south. Near Ticonderoga, they swam across Lake Champlain to its eastern shore (now Vermont, but at that time, still part of New York). The two men eventually reached Richmond, Mass., in the Berkshires. Exactly why they went there is not known, but genealogical researcher Beth Finch McCarthy has discovered that Tyrannus Collins had some connection with that town, and probably lived there for a while after his own imprisonment in Canada had ended. Nero may have heard about Richmond from Collins, either prior to the raid or during the trip to Canada.
Nero eventually returned to Ballston, and to Gordon, his old master. (Gordon had escaped from Canada with some other men, traipsed through the Maine woods, and reached Boston as the war drew to a close.) Gordon gave Nero his freedom, though the point at which he did so is not clear — one source says it was around 1782, but another says it was not until about 1802.
An article about New York officeholders who were slaveholders says that Nero went to work for a “Dr. William M. Scott.” However, books on local history do not mention a person with that name and title. There was an early resident of Greenfield named William Scott, who had been a colonel in the militia.
Census information and other sources indicate that he did own some slaves. Scott was the first supervisor of Greenfield and also served as a Justice of the Peace.
If Nero were a member of Scott’s household, either as a slave or a hired hand, it probably was not for an extended period of time. The 1810 Census listing for the town of Ballston includes a free man named “Nero Goman,” who is the head of a household consisting of five “non-whites.”
The 1820 listing for Ballston includes the name “Thomas Goman,” who heads a household of three “free coloured persons.” Thomas may well have been a son of Nero. Freed slaves often used their former owners’ surnames, or variations of them, so these men named “Goman” may have had a connection to General Gordon.
The year 1820 is the last that shows any evidence of Nero or his relatives in the Census, so Nero may have died by then, or, perhaps the family relocated. That Nero was a trusted member of the community is indicated by the fact that Judge George G. Scott, in a historical address given in 1876, relied at least in part on Nero’s retelling of the story of the Ballston raid.
It is regrettable that the past’s racial indifference, or even prejudice, has resulted in a lack of more specific information on the life of this courageous African-American.”