Reference Entry

Tarrant, Caesar

Michael E. Hucles

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Tarrant, Caesar

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patriot, was born into slavery, probably at Hampton, Virginia. The identity of his parents is unknown. In his early adulthood, Caesar was sold to Carter Tarrant upon the death of his master Robert Hundley. His purchase price exceeded the normal price for male slaves because Tarrant had a particular skill, that of a river pilot. Just how Tarrant acquired the skill is unclear. Typically, the Tidewater-area river pilot was white and passed the skill on to his son. In any case, Tarrant would eventually use this skill to parlay his freedom.Sometime prior to the American Revolution, Tarrant married Lucy, the slave of a neighbor, John Rogers. This so-called “broad” marriage of slaves who resided apart from one another produced three children. Throughout his life, Tarrant longed for his family's freedom.The American Revolution provided Tarrant with the chance to secure his own liberty. As a pilot his knowledge of the waterways could have been valuable to either side. John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, promised in his 1775 Proclamation freedom to all runaway slaves who would join his “Ethiopian Regiment.” Many African Americans decided to do just that. Indeed, many more African Americans actively supported the British than the patriots. Tarrant, however, for reasons that are not known, chose to support the patriot cause. This was fortunate for the patriots, as Tarrant quickly demonstrated his abilities. His skill induced the Virginia Navy Board to appoint him a pilot in the Virginia State Navy, one of seven such appointments. For three years Tarrant successfully piloted a number of vessels, enhancing his reputation as a skilled and valiant pilot.Among the several ships Tarrant piloted was the tender Patriot. In 1777 a group of ships commanded by Commodore Richard Taylor encountered the British naval vessel Lord Howe. When it appeared that the British privateer would escape, Taylor personally took command of the Patriot, piloted by Tarrant. Tarrant skillfully maneuvered the faster ship, which succeeded in ramming the larger and better-armed British vessel. Fierce fighting resulted in numerous deaths and injuries on both sides, including Taylor, who was shot. Nevertheless, Tarrant's skill and bravery in the face of enemy fire earned him praise from his captain, who stated he had “behaved gallantly.”In addition to this engagement, Tarrant piloted the vessel when the Americans captured the British ship Fanny, which was attempting to bring supplies to British troops in Boston. Although the Patriot was later captured, no record indicates that Tarrant was on board at the time.Following the Revolution, Tarrant returned to the status of slave despite the heroism he had displayed. His master Carter Tarrant continued to make money from his slave's important skills. When Carter Tarrant died in 1784, Caesar Tarrant was willed to Mary Tarrant, Carter Tarrant's wife. The will stipulated that Caesar Tarrant was to remain her slave for her natural life and, further, he was to be given to Francis Tarrant, their son, upon the death of Mary. If it had not been for the intervention of the Virginia General Assembly, Caesar Tarrant might not have been freed.In 1789 the Virginia General Assembly moved to secure Tarrant's freedom. The reason for this action is not clear, though numerous possibilities exist. Other pilots who were his friends may have petitioned on his behalf, the navy board may have taken some action, or Tarrant may have petitioned. What is clear, however, is that Tarrant was finally free by 1789.By the act of the assembly, “in consideration of which meritorious services it is judged expedient to purchase the freedom” of Tarrant, a representative contacted Mary Tarrant and expressed the assembly's intention to manumit Caesar Tarrant. After the purchase price was agreed upon, a certificate manumitting Caesar Tarrant was issued to Mary Tarrant. Having become a free man, Caesar Tarrant, infected with what Benjamin Quarles termed blacks' “contagion of liberty,” then worked to secure the freedom of his family.At the time of Tarrant's manumission, his wife and children were held in bondage by John Rogers. In 1793 Rogers freed Lucy and their fifteen-month-old daughter Nancy. The other children, Sampson and Lydia, remained enslaved, presumably because of their high value. What prompted the manumissions is not clear. It is not known if Caesar Tarrant worked for Rogers, Tarrant raised the money through his own efforts, or Rogers felt some need to liberate the mother and young child. The “Reason for Manumission” expressed in the records of Elizabeth City County simply state that Lucy was the “wife of Caesar Tarrant” and Nancy was the “daughter of Caesar Tarrant.” Payment of some specified amount or “faithful service,” as indicated for others set free, were not listed as reasons for Lucy or Nancy's freedom.With part of his family free, Tarrant purchased a lot in Hampton in a section where white river pilots lived. This further indicated how highly regarded Tarrant was among this closed brotherhood of river pilots. Indeed, these white river pilots petitioned the legislature in 1791 to include skilled black river pilots among those granted licenses. They more than likely thought of Tarrant as they fashioned this request.Yet freedom proved ephemeral. Although Tarrant had the respect of his peers, was now a property holder, and apparently continued to pilot the rivers, he, like other free African Americans, could not fully enjoy the benefits of liberty. As an African American he could not vote or hold public office, neither could he testify against any white person nor serve on a jury. Full citizenship was reserved for others; “freedom” for African Americans was limited. It has been argued that Hampton may have been something of an anomaly among southern communities as there appeared to be a strong “cordiality between” the races. Yet even there Tarrant's dream for his family went unrealized.Tarrant died in Hampton, Virginia, only eight years after receiving his freedom, while his two older children remained in bondage. The thirst for freedom—Tarrant's legacy—was not abandoned by his descendants and heirs. His will specified that all his property be given to his wife and that upon her death the proceeds from the sale of that property be used to purchase his eldest daughter's freedom. Whatever remained was to be given to Tarrant's son, Sampson. In a concluding comment, Tarrant asked the county court to “see justice done my children.”After another twenty-five years, Lydia obtained her freedom. Prior to that, she was sold to a Norfolk resident for the sum of $250. When in 1822 her mother was able to purchase her freedom, Lydia herself left a child in bondage. The fate of Sampson is unclear, because his name disappears from the records. It is possible that he died still enslaved. What is clear, however, is that despite Tarrant's contributions to American freedom, he, like so many antebellum African Americans, was unable to secure justice for his children.

Reference Entry.  1199 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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