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Drawn portrait of Winsor Fry

Winsor Fry

Winsor Fry spent his first years as a free man fighting for American liberty. But what did life in the new nation have in store for him?

From slave to soldier

Just months after the first shots at Lexington and Concord, formerly enslaved Winsor Fry marched to Boston with fellow soldiers of Rhode Island's Army of Observation. Likely not yet 20 years old when he enlisted in 1775, Fry began his life as a free man, a private in the patriot forces, and fought for the freedom of his country through war's end.

Likely born enslaved in the 1750s, Winsor's owner willed him to his youngest son in 1773; but Winsor joined the patriot cause as a free man two years later.

The circumstances of his manumission remain a mystery.

Themes of the period
Freedom and Slavery

On the eve of Revolution, all thirteen rebelling colonies legally practiced slavery. Though there is no record of Winsor’s birth, it is likely that he was born enslaved. In 1773 prominent Rhode Islander Thomas Fry bequeathed “my Negro man named Windsor” to his youngest son Joseph, along with other property including several plots of land. Two years later however, Winsor joined the Continental Army as a free man.

Outline map of the US Colonies in 1790

Free people vs. slaves in the 13 colonies (1790)

  • White
  • Free Nonwhite
  • Slave

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Ethnic Background

Also a mystery is Winsor's race. Throughout his military service and later life as a free man, primary documents describe him as "a man of colour," a "Negro man," and a "mustee," a word often used to describe a person with mixed white, African, and Indian heritage.

Battles

Winsor served the patriot cause from 1775 through 1783, taking him through many of the war's most pivotal battles.

An illustration of a map zooms in to New York and Long Island area and highlights the battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights and White Plains on the colonial map.

Fry took part in the Battles of , Harlem Heights, and .

The battles of Princeton and Second Battle of Trenton are animated and highlighted on a colonial map.

In the first days of 1777 he fought at the (also called the Battle of the Assunpink Creek) and .

The map adjusts it's center to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

In December, 1777, General George Washington moved the Continental Army to their winter quarters at Valley Forge.

A map fades out and an illustration of soldiers marching in a forest through the snow.

Winsor and many of his fellow soldiers fell ill as they endured the harsh winter.

Image: Winsor Fry at Valley Forge; Dale Watson

A colonial map fades in and the locations of the battles of Rhode Island and Monmouth are highlighted.

He survived, and went on to fight in the battles of and in 1778.

Marriage and family

Sometime while close to home in Rhode Island, Winsor married Lucy Davis, whom town officials referred to as "an Indian or Mustee." The couple had their first of several children in or before 1780.

A husband and father, Winsor returned to the army, but missed the pivotal Yorktown Campaign due to illness. His regiment participated in besieging General Cornwallis by constructing fortifications and manning the front lines.

Winsor remained a soldier until mustering out of service at war's end in 1783.

Trouble with the law

In March 1780, Winsor Fry faced court-martial. He pled guilty to "Entering the Commissary's store, stealing from thence a quantity of Beef, Candles and Rum; also for breaking open two Wind Mills and Stealing a Quantity of Meal."

The tribunal sentenced him to be executed—but Fry escaped. When he was captured in October, General George Washington took an interest in his case. Writing to Colonel Christopher Greene (the commander of Fry's regiment), Washington relented: "as you seem to think the execution of Winsor Fry not so necessary…you have my consent to pardon him."

After the war

After the war, Winsor returned to Rhode Island and traveled wherever he could find work as a laborer. In April 1818 seven men supported his application for a pension, including one of his former commanding officers.

“Almost entirely Destitute of property,” Winsor never received the 100-acre land grant he had been promised for his service. In 1820 Winsor “much out of health & broken down with infirmities,” again applied for relief. The government finally granted him a pension worth $8 per month, but by September 1822 Winsor may have been physically unable to travel to collect it.

Winsor Fry died on February 1, 1823. For years his final resting place was another mystery of Winsor's life. In 2019, new research allowed his descendants to gather at a private cemetery in East Greenwich, RI to dedicate a new monument to his memory.

The legacy of Winsor Fry

Barbara Toney, a 6th-generation descendant of Winsor Fry, joined the Daughters of the American Revolution after her family learned of their heritage.

A discovery of heritage

Ms. Toney and her sister, Bette Koger's, research into their lineage dates to the 1970s. Around 2013 they took their search online, which revealed a treasure of material and a connection to Winsor Fry. The family traced Winsor's life to 1773, when his enslaver, Thomas Fry, wrote in his will that he planned to give Winsor to his son. The Toney family eventually tracked down a copy of the will, which was among the documents they submitted to the Daughters of the American Revolution to prove their heritage. As a result, Winsor Fry is now an established patriot in the DAR Ancestor Database and six of his relatives are DAR members as of 2016. Read more of the story here.

Winsor Fry as well as the names of more than 6,600 other African American and American Indian patriots of the American Revolution are listed in the DAR's Forgotten Patriot publication which can be downloaded for free at www.dar.org/forgottenpatriots. Search the DAR Genealogical Research System to see if you find any of your ancestors: www.dar.org/grs.

Themes of the period
Modern-day Legacy

New burial monument: East Greenwich, RI

In 2019, new research allowed Winsor Fry’s decendants to gather at a private cemetery in East Greenwich, RI to dedicate a new monument to his memory. 

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