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Tue, 11.05.1743

Barzillai Lew, Colonial Soldier born

Barzillai Lew

*Barzillai Lew was born on this date in 1743. He was a Black soldier and musician.

Barzillai Lew's story began with Primus Lew of Groton, Massachusetts, and Margret Lew. As free blacks, Primus and Margret Lew married in 1742 and they had two sons and two daughters. Primus was a musician in the French and Indian War in 1747. Primus and Margret Lew's oldest son Barzillai often called "Zeal" or "Zelah," was born a free Black in Groton, Massachusetts. In 1752, Primus married again to Rose Canterbury and they had two children.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Barzillai Lew joined Captain Thomas Farrington’s Company from Groton, which marched northward for “the total reduction of Canada." From March 10, 1760, to December 1, 1760, he served with the English forces against the French and Indians and was probably present in the capture of Montreal by the British. Lew was known as "big and strong with an extraordinary talent as a musician." In the mid-1760s, Lew sold his family farm and moved to Chelmsford, Massachusetts where he worked as a cooper making barrels. About 1766, he bought the freedom of Dinah Bowman from Major Abraham Blood for 400 pounds (today's value about $28,000) and married her. She was fair-skinned and described as "bleached by the sun."

Near the opening of the American Revolution on May 6, 1775, he enlisted in Captain John Ford's Company, 27th Regiment, Chelmsford, Massachusetts. As soldier, fifer, and drummer, Lew fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. In the military records, Lew was described as "cooper by trade, and quite dark-colored, a large man, six feet tall." Less well-known were the approximately three dozen African-American soldiers including Lew, Phillip Abbot, Alexander Ames, Isaiah Bayoman, Cuff Blanchard, Titus Coburn, Grant Cooper, Caesar Dickenson, Charlestown Eaads, Alexander Eames, Asaba Grosvenor, Blaney Grusha, Jude Hall, Cuff Haynes, Cato Howe, Caesar Jahar, Pompy of Braintree, Salem Poor, Caesar Post, Job Potama, Robin of Sandown, New Hampshire, Peter Salem, Seasor of York County, Sampson Talbot, Cato Tufts, and Cuff Whitemore, who also took part in the battle.

During the war, with wages earned from his years of service, the Lew family purchased a large tract of farmland on the far side of the Merrimack River in Dracut (now Lowell, Massachusetts.) They built a house near Varnum Avenue on Zeal Road named for Barzillai (now called Totman Road.) After the war, Lew returned to his farm in the Pawtucketville section of Dracut. In addition to farming, Lew continued to work as a cooper, making barrels for the Middlesex Canal Company. The Lew’s were both active members of their community and the Pawtucket Society Church (Congregational) on Mammoth Road.

They raised 13 children, the couple and several of their sons and daughters sang and played wind and stringed instruments all over New England. They formed a complete band in their family and were employed to play at assemblies in Portland, Maine, Boston, Massachusetts, other large cities and towns, as well as commencement exercises at several New England colleges. Barzillai Lew died in Dracut on January 18, 1822 and was buried in Clay Pit Cemetery. Years later, Dinah Bowman Lew petitioned and received from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts a pension for her husband's military service in the American Revolution. His Pawtucketville farm went to his sons. In 1912, at the age of 91, Elizabeth Freeman Lew recounted in an interview with the Lowell Sun: "The house where I live was, one of the houses which in slavery times, formed one of the underground railroads where runaway slaves would come for shelter and protection on their way to Canada. Those were terrible times." 

Adrastus and Elizabeth Lew had five sons and one daughter. James, moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, formed a popular dance band, and served as the music advisor to the Cambridge School Committee. William and Fred opened a successful dry-cleaning and dyeing business in Lowell. In 1874, William married Isabell Delaney of Virginia and had four children: Harry, Theresa, Marion, and Gerard. After graduating from Pawtucketville Junior High School, Harry Lew entered the family's dry-cleaning and dyeing business. He was recruited to join Lowell’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club "P.A.C." of the New England Professional Basketball League and was the first to integrate professional basketball in 1902. In 1943, musician Duke Ellington wrote a piano piece in honor of Barzillai Lew. It is believed that Ellington learned about Barzillai Lew from his high school teacher, historian Carter G. Woodson at the Armstrong Manual Training School, Washington, D.C.

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