While many Americans joined the war effort to free themselves from British rule, others were fighting for their personal freedom. The promise of liberty, however, did not often come from the side of the Patriots. Seymour Burr first turned to the British before he enlisted in the Continental Army.
As an enslaved African American, the details of Seymour Burr’s early life are fuzzy. An enlistment document indicates that he was born in Guinea, West Africa in either 1754 or 1762. He is said to have been captured around the age of 7, and brought to the colonies via the Atlantic slave trade. By the start of the Revolution, he was enslaved by members of the Burr family in Connecticut, relatives of later vice president Aaron Burr.
On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, signed a proclamation promising freedom to anyone in service to the Patriots, either by enslavement or indentured servitude, who would abandon their masters and enlist in the British army. Within a month, hundreds of enslaved Black men answered Dunmore’s call. This was expanded in 1779 by General Henry Clinton’s Philipsburg Proclamation, which extended the British promise of freedom to any person enslaved by Americans, regardless of their ability to serve in the military. By the end of the war, at least 30,000 enslaved people from Virginia alone had escaped to the British side, along with thousands of others from throughout the colonies. Seymour Burr was almost among them.
Following Dunmore’s Proclamation, Seymour attempted to escape the Burr household to join the British forces, but was intercepted and returned to his enslavers. Likely fearing a repeat escape or a rebellion in their own home, the Burrs had a proposition for Seymour- if he would fight on behalf of the Patriot army, they would free him once his service was over. Seymour accepted, and enlisted in the Continental Army. He fought at Fort Catskill, and served beside George Washington through the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge.
Seymour left the army in 1782, at which time he was freed by the Burrs. In 1805, he married a Ponkapoag widow and inherited six acres of her late husband’s land outside of Canton, Massachusetts. He also collected a military pension later in his life. Seymour died on February 17, 1837.