- Kathryn L. Beard
A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.
soldier, sailor, and shipbuilder during the War of Independence, was born free in the British colony of St. Kitts of mixed race parentage. Little is known about his early life. Prior to adulthood he became literate, fluent in French and English, and he trained as a skilled craftsman in building dwellings and ships. As a free person of color in one of the older sugar colonies, he would have benefited from an increasing emigration of whites and, by 1745, a plantation system characterized by a high level of absenteeism by white landowners. These factors contributed to the growth of a small colored elite, financed largely by credit given by white relatives but still facing legal and de facto discrimination. For example, until 1830 the laws of St. Kitts prohibited free people of color from attending the colony's few public schools, although they paid taxes to fund them.
As a sailor DeBaptiste earned a steady income, an accomplishment many free people of color failed to attain. Free black mariners were vital to stable households and free black communities. Their wages allowed them to contribute to the schools, churches, benevolent societies, and fraternal orders that emerged as the cornerstones of black society. Furthermore, black seamen fashioned an intricate network of communication that linked the communities constituting the African diaspora. His maritime vocation provided wages, an expanded worldview, and a means to disperse his knowledge of the wider world among others.
DeBaptiste emigrated from St. Kitts to Virginia around 1766, near the time the two British plantation colonies established a trade relationship. The implementation of trade between the colonies as well as the date of his arrival in this North American British colony probably corresponded to the economic and social upheavals associated with the end of the Seven Years’ War, when the colony saw a marked decrease in the population of whites while that of free blacks increased.
Records of the war mention a ship's captain named “Baptist,” one of the several renderings of the family name. Though it is not certain whether DeBaptiste served in any maritime capacity, he had to have had some firsthand experience with the war in its Caribbean theater. The war's end resulted in tightening legal restrictions for free people of color in St. Kitts who competed economically with working-class whites, which may have contributed to his decision to emigrate.
Settling in the free black community of Fredericksburg, Virginia, DeBaptiste became one of its well-known residents, noted for the construction of many of the city's buildings. When the War of Independence began, DeBaptiste used his skills as a shipbuilder and sailor to support the colonists’ pursuit of independence. In 1776 he assisted in the construction of the American warship Dragon and served as part of the ship's crew as it patrolled the Rappahannock River and fought battles in the Chesapeake Bay. Approximately 140 black men served in Virginia's navy during the war to defend the strategically significant region. DeBaptiste served in the Continental Army as well and received a pension for his military service at the end of the war.
DeBaptiste's service on the side of the American colonists during the war may be explained by his early life in St. Kitts. The year prior to his migration from the colony, the residents of the island engaged in riotous behavior in reaction to the Stamp Act. The vehement rejection of the Stamp Act by the island's residents made St. Kitts one of the few British possessions the American colonies did not boycott. DeBaptiste was exposed to colonial protests against the Crown prior to his arrival in Virginia and exposure to the rhetoric of its patriots. DeBaptiste's service in the military would have been enhanced by his command of both French and English. He certainly would have had the ability to communicate with the sailors of the French fleet accompanying Admiral François de Grasse at the battle of Yorktown. Also he had firsthand information crucial to the voyages of the ships supplying the war effort, many of which sailed from Virginia to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius as well as to St. Kitts.
After the war DeBaptiste raised a family and established several business concerns in Fredericksburg. He married a local freeborn woman of mixed race, Francis Campbell, who was known as Franky. The couple had at least seven children: Benjamin, John, William, Edward, George, Frances, and Polly. There is evidence that suggests that DeBaptiste and Campbell had a highly tempestuous marriage (Fitzgerald, 1979). Campbell seems to have left him frequently for the company of another man, although they later reconciled. Much of the storminess of their marriage was recorded in the newspaper advertisements DeBaptiste placed in local papers, rejecting any responsibility for bills Campbell or her paramours accrued during her absences. DeBaptiste would write at least one public apology to Campbell for even suspecting her of unfaithfulness.
In spite of the apparently unsettled nature of his home life, DeBaptiste would become one of the most prominent businessmen of any race in Fredericksburg. In 1787 he rented land along the Rappahannock River. By 1796 he had purchased the land where he built a pier that continues to be called “French John's Wharf.” DeBaptiste acquired the funds necessary for his land purchases and construction projects by means of an entrepreneurial endeavor he began in 1792. He successfully made a bid to the state assembly to acquire an annual contract to operate a ferry from the nearby town of Falmouth. DeBaptiste called his vessel the “Free Ferry,” and this may allude to a role in assisting runaway slaves in their escape, an activity for which his grandson, George DeBaptiste , became well known.
After DeBaptiste's death, his eldest son, Benjamin, managed and expanded the family's shipping interests. They were the most successful entrepreneurs in Fredericksburg until the 1840s, when members migrated from the state to educate their children. In 1998, DeBaptiste was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Culpeper, Virginia, chapter of the organization placed a plaque on his grave in Falmouth.
Information concerning the DeBaptiste family can be found in the Ronald Palmer Papers, Howard University, Moorland Spingarn Research Center.
- Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (1997).
- Fitzgerald, Ruth Coder. A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, Virginia (1979).
- O'shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (2000).
- Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution (1996)