Teaching Colonel Tye: Slavery, Self-Emancipation, and the Black Brigade

Teaching Tye: Slavery, Self-Emancipation, and the Black Brigade

By Bill Smith

Colonel Tye represented much of the inchoate American spirit that the United States would one day embody, even though he fought against the Colonists as a commander working with the British during the American Revolution. Enslaved in Monmouth County, Colonel Tye self-emancipated one day after the promulgation of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, freeing all enslaved persons who escaped and fought alongside the British.[1]

Like many enslaved and formerly enslaved persons who participated in the American Revolution, Colonel Tye left very few written records, leaving historians to rely on historical texts sourced mostly from local legends.[2] Colonel Tye first appears in the historical record in a runaway advertisement from November 8, 1775, after self-emancipating from John Corlis, an enslaver and disowned Quaker from Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Tye may have traveled south to Virginia after self-emancipating, joining the famed Ethiopian Regiment, though this possibility lacks corroborating documentary evidence.[3] Colonel Tye then made his way back to New Jersey, likely to Sandy Hook, termed “Refugee town,” by the many free blacks or formerly enslaved persons who lived there.[4] In “Refugee town,” Tye joined the Black Brigade and eventually became the regiment’s commander.[5]

Teachers using these documents can also inform students about the dearth of sources regarding enslaved and formerly enslaved persons during the Revolutionary period while also empathizing how local traditions can become the accepted historical canon without corroborating documentary evidence. Aside from his birthdate and the location where he was enslaved, almost nothing is known from Tye’s early years.[6] However, from his self-emancipation in 1775 until his violent death in 1782, Tye appears in the historical record, most often in local newspapers. Historians, teachers, and students can use these documents to learn about the lived experience of Tye’s early twenties and the outsized impact he had on Revolutionary New Jersey.

On November 8, 1775, Colonel Tye enters the historical record for the first time in a runaway advertisement. Using his footprints as ink, Tye wrote himself into history by self-emancipating from his enslaver John Corlis. From this runaway advertisement, teachers and students can be introduced to the future Colonel Tye, referred to in the advertisement as “Titus.”[7] Teachers can use Colonel Tye’s runaway advertisement to introduce students to the concept of reading archival sources “against the grain,” otherwise known as “counter-reading the archives.”[8] It is imperative for teachers to add context when using sources such as runaway advertisements to teach about the history and lived experiences of enslaved persons. The runaway advertisement for “Titus” reveals important biographical information about Colonel Tye. However, teachers must make students aware that this historical document was written and paid for by his enslaver in an attempt to recapture him. While using runaway advertisements in the classroom, teachers can use Colonial Williamsburg’s useful and accessible “How to” guide.”[9]

While John Corlis paid for runaway advertisements in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, some historians conjecture that “Titus” took the name “Tye” and headed south to Williamsburg, Virginia, where he served in the Ethiopian Regiment.[10] For the next two years, Tye disappears from official sources before reemerging at the Battle of Monmouth, where according to historian Graham Russell Hodges, he took on the title “Colonel Tye.”[11] After the Battle of Monmouth, Colonel Tye established himself as the leader of the “Black Brigade,” an elite combat unit comprised of black loyalists who led a series of devastating raids in Monmouth County over the last three years of the American Revolution.[12]

From 1779 until his death in 1782, Colonel Tye and the Black Brigade repeatedly appear in historical sources as New Jersey newspapers documented their attacks on Jersey shore communities. Teachers can use these newspaper accounts, sourced from throughout the state, to reconstruct the actions of Colonel Tye while also using the primary sources as a lens through which their students can view the experiences of the Black Brigade and the communities they impacted. Focusing on the summer of 1780, teachers can use two newspaper accounts, published within two weeks of one another, to compare the scale of the attacks, the types of supplies taken by the Black Brigade, as well as the response and tone of the primary source authors. For these sources and numerous others, teachers and their students can rely on Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, a collection of newspaper articles related to the American Revolution. Compiled and published in the early twentieth century, this extremely valuable collection of documentary evidence of the American Revolution has now been digitized.[13]

For a life remembered as nothing short of remarkable, Colonel Tye’s somewhat nebulous death reads like an afterthought. Indeed, a footnote rather than a coda in a well-deserved symphony of life. Tye and the Black Brigade laid siege to the Colts Neck Inn, hoping to capture Joshua Huddy, a well-known Monmouth Militia leader infamous for the extralegal hangings of loyalists.[14] After capturing Huddy following an hours-long siege, Tye and the Black Brigade rowed their prisoner across the Shrewsbury River when they were ambushed by the Monmouth Militia attempting to rescue Huddy. During the fight with the Monmouth Militia, or perhaps during the initial siege, Colonel Tye was shot in the wrist.[15] Teachers can bring the death of Colonel Tye to life by having students examine a letter written by Nathaniel Scudder, in which he describes Tye’s injury.

Tye died shortly after sustaining the gunshot wound, likely succumbing to tetanus, though no documentary evidence survives.[16] While the few remaining extant sources on Colonel Tye present opportunities for teachers and students to critically examine and contextualize part of his life, teachers can offer students secondary source readings from historians when discussing the legacy of Colonel Tye, such as Franklin Ellis, who wrote: “Like our forefathers, he fought for his liberty, which our ancestors unfortunately refused to give him.”[17]


[1] For recent works that have examined Colonel Tye, see Douglas R. Egerton, Death of Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); James J. Gigantino, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Joseph E. Wroblewski, “Colonel Tye: Leader of Loyalist Raiders and Runaway Slave,” Journal of the American Revolution, (2021); and Graham Russell Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Hodges has also written a local history of Monmouth County that investigates Colonel Tye. See Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery, and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665–1865, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997).

[2] Wroblewski, “Colonel Tye: Leader of Loyalist Raiders and Runaway Slave.”

[3] Hodges, Slavery, and Freedom in the Rural North, 92.

[4] For further elaboration on “Refugee town,” see Hodges, Slavery, and Freedom in the Rural North, 98-100.

[5] For more on the “Black Brigade,” see Jonathan Sutherland, African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 420-421.

[6] Philip Papas, That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution, (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 97-98.

[7] The New Jersey History Partnership transcribed a copy of the runaway advertisement, “John Corlies’ Ad for Runaway Slave Titus, a.k.a. Col. Tye, 12 November 1775,” New Jersey History Partnership. While this transcription and some other sources uses the spelling “Corlies,” the runaway advertisement uses the spelling “Corlis.” Tye is referred to as “Titus” in this runaway advertisement, however, this article will use his chosen name of “Tye.”

[8] On “counter-reading” the archives as a historical methodology and the issue of archival silences, see Stephanie E. Smallwood, “The Politics of the Archive and History’s Accountability to the Enslaved,” History of the Present, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2016); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press Books, 1995); and Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[9] Deirdre Jones, “How to Read a Runaway Ad,” Colonial Williamsburg, June 11, 2020. https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/learn/deep-dives/how-read-runaway-ad/. Accessed 2/19/2023.

[10] Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, 71.

[11] Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North, 97.

[12] Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North, 106.

[13] “Documents relating to the revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey,” digitized by Digital Commons Providence College, part of United States History Commons.

[14] Egerton, Death or Liberty, 67.

[15] For differing accounts, see Hodges, Slavery and Freedom, 104; Wroblewski, “Colonel Tye: Leader of Loyalist Raiders and Runaway Slave;” Sutherland, African Americans at War, 421; and Papas, That Ever Loyal Island, 97.

[16] Wroblewski, “Colonel Tye: Leader of Loyalist Raiders and Runaway Slave.”

[17] Franklin Ellis, The History of Monmouth County, New Jersey, (Philadelphia: R.T. Peck & Co., 1885), 114, in Wroblewski, “Colonel Tye: Leader of Loyalist Raiders and Runaway Slave.”

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