Tobias Gilmore, an African-American soldier in the American Revolution, left a legacy that includes a cannon left to the Town of Taunton, Mass., and some very surprised descendants.
He came to America as a slave and then earned his freedom by serving in the Continental Army for five years. Local lore links him and his cannon to George Washington, which he fired 14 times on the Fourth of July. Thirteen shots went off for the original colonies and one for Washington.
He was born sometime around 1745 in coastal West Africa. The son of a chieftain, he was named Shibodee Turry Wurry. In about 1757, slave traders kidnapped him while he gathered coconuts.
The slavers shackled him below deck on the slave ship Dove, bound for Virginia. A storm battered the vessel, so the slave traders changed course for Rhode Island. There they auctioned off some of the captives as slaves to pay for repairs to their ship.
A Raynham, Mass., a sea captain named John Gilmore purchased Shibodee Turry Wurry. He then gave him a new name: Tobias Gilmore.
Private Tobias Gilmore
As the Revolution approached, patriotic rhetoric about securing the natural and inalienable right of liberty no doubt inspired Tobias Gilmore.
When war did break out, each colony had to supply a quota of troops for the Continental Army. New England regiments recruited slaves by promising them their freedom. Massachusetts sent 1,535 African-American soldiers to the Continental Army, while the other New England colonies sent 2,278. Historians count 9,000 black Patriot soldiers, including the Army and Navy, state militias, privateers, wagoneers, servants and spies.
African Americans, in fact, made up about a fifth of the Continental Army. By the Siege of Yorktown, an officer in a French regiment estimated that one-quarter of the northern army was African American.
African Americans joined the British cause as well, but in far fewer numbers.
Tobias Gilmore began his military service on Dec. 8, 1776, as a private in Capt. Jonathan Shaw’s company, part of Col. George Williams’s Regiment.
Gilmore fought three tours of duty and saw action in the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga. He was at the Battle of Monmouth, Battle of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, Battle of White Plains and West Point. He also suffered through the Continental Army’s winter encampment at Valley Forge.
According to local lore, Toby Gilmore rose through the ranks to bodyguard or servant to George Washington. That can’t be proved or disproved. Some claim the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware pictures him as the African-American soldier, but probably not.
Tobias Gilmore received his discharge in December 1781 and returned to Raynham a free man. He had won his freedom during his first enlistment – which lasted eight days. He married Rosanna Hack, and they had eight children: Toby Jr., Nancy, Delia, Timothy, Esquire, Selina, Rosina and Seabury. Toby senior went to work for his former master, and then he and his wife set up a housekeeping business.
Gilmore bought land in Raynham confiscated from a Loyalist and auctioned off. People liked Toby so much that few bid against him.
He was a frugal businessman and built a house in Raynham about 1784. It still stands. He then built a second house in 1798 bigger than his former master’s.
At some point he obtained a cannon. He told the story that Washington gave it to him.
The cannon, nicknamed Old Toby, served with him in the Raynham militia to help put down Shay’s Rebellion. The Old Colony Historical Society noted in 1879 that Tobias Gilmore gave “Old Toby” to the town. Gilmore,
…the colored revolutionary veteran ancestor of the colored villagers in North Raynham, well known as industrious and worthy citizens. It was given by Tobias to the citizens of Taunton for firing sallies on Washington’s birthdays and Fourth of July, or revert to his descendants.
Tobias Gilmore died April 19, 1812 at age 70. He lies buried at the Hall and Dean Burial Ground in Raynham.
In 1921, the Taunton Daily Gazette noted the passing of Caroline Gilmore, Tobias Gilmore’s last living descendant.
Ninety years later, Miloh Pasto came to the Old Colony Historical Society to research her 3rd great-grandmother, Elmira Sullivan. She turned out to be Tobias Gilmore’s great-granddaughter. Further research then revealed Gilmore had at least 100 living descendants through his daughter Delia and her husband, Thomas Davis.
One of those descendants was a surprised North Carolina firefighter named Chaz Moore. Moore, a Sturbridge, Mass., native, learned in 2012 of his revolutionary roots. North Carolina’s Sons of the American Revolution then inducted him as the first black member.
“Growing up, I wasn’t even certain that African-Americans even fought in the Revolutionary War,” Moore told the Associated Press in 2012. “It’s not something that’s talked about. Then to say, ‘Well, yeah, they did, and you’re a direct descendant of one’ was unbelievable, humbling. I had to redefine patriotism for myself.”
The cannon today resides at Old Colony Historical Society. So do Tobias Gilmore’s mitre, rundlet and other personal effects.
This story was updated in 2023.