Home Families History Contact Cemeteries Gratitude Shouts Links

The Des Moines Register
A soldier's true color
Iowa cemetery honors discovery that Revolutionary War fighter was black

May 28, 2006

Gerome Crayton of Keokuk is taking to heart his portrayal of Cato Mead, a black Revolutionary War soldier buried near Montrose.

"This guy was a neat guy. He was looking for a peace in his life, and he settled here in Iowa,'' Crayton said. "I'm glad that after his story has been hidden in the dark for many years, he is finally getting recognized.''

On Memorial Day weekend, when the graves of so many soldiers, sailors and Marines are decorated, a monument to Mead will be among the seven featured in a cemetery tour today.

One of 41 Revolutionary War soldiers who died or were buried in Iowa, Mead "may very well be" the only black Revolutionary War soldier buried west of the Mississippi River, said Maurice Barboza, founder of a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to erecting a monument to the more than 5,000 blacks who fought in the War for Independence.

Residents of Montrose have known for years that the area was the final resting place for a Revolutionary War soldier. But there was an important nugget of information about Mead that slipped from common knowledge as the story passed from generation to generation, local historians say.

The fact that Mead was black resurfaced last fall as researchers prepared for Memorial Day 2006 weekend observances in this Lee County community of about 900 people.

Barbara MacLeish of Minneapolis, whose father lives in Montrose, discovered in census records that Mead was a "freed man of color," a black man who served in the Revolutionary War.

"It was just unbelievable at first," said Mary Sue Chatfield, a member of Montrose Riverfront Inc., which recently opened the Hunold Heritage Center museum. "We were just amazed. It was known that he was a Revolutionary War soldier, but no one paid that close attention. ... There aren't many living descendants of people buried in the old part of the cemetery."

Even in small communities, names of many settlers have long been forgotten.

But the fact that Mead had served in the Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1778, including at Valley Forge, has kept his name alive. In 1969, he was remembered with a memorial by local Daughters of the American Revolution, who made no mention of his race. They could not, however, find the exact location of his unmarked grave, so they erected the monument at Montrose Cemetery.

Crayton will stand by the marker, dressed in period costume, when he portrays Mead.

"We know he was described as copper-skinned with dark hair, that he enlisted in Connecticut and was discharged in New York,'' said Chatfield. "He is listed as a free man of color. We don't know, however, whether he was a slave when he enlisted and earned his freedom, or if he fought as a free man."

Lawmakers propose a national memorial

The discovery in Montrose came just a few months before U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut introduced legislation for an American Revolution memorial to honor the thousands of slaves and freed blacks who served in the war.

"Ever since our country was formed, it has been characteristic to honor veterans," Grassley said in an interview. "In this particular case, we are honoring African-Americans in the Revolutionary War. It is one way to bring attention to their service. The anomaly of their serving at the same time their race was enslaved is something you wouldn't expect.

"Belatedly we are honoring these African-Americans who fought for independence. It is right to do, and it is a shame we didn't celebrate it for the last two centuries as we celebrated other people who fought in the Revolutionary War," Grassley said.

Passage of the resolution would start the process of approving a location for the monument on the National Mall in Washington. If the monument is built, the names of all black soldiers from the Revolutionary War — including Mead's — would be part of it, Barboza said.

The monument is being called the National Liberty Memorial.

Details about Mead difficult to uncover

Little else about Mead's life is known beyond his military and farming background. For example, MacLeish, the Minnesota resident who discovered that Mead was "a freed black man," said she could not find the first name of the soldier's wife.

She pored over census records, church documents, war pension records and a newspaper article from 1969. She knows Mead joined the service in Norwich, Conn., on March 1, 1776. He also is on the Valley Forge muster roles from December 1777 through June 1778. He contracted smallpox while at Valley Forge and spent two months in a Pennsylvania hospital.

"Here he was, only 15 to 16 years old, away from home and so terribly sick," MacLeish said. "I think it is really quite interesting that there was a man walking streets of Montrose who certainly saw George Washington a great many times, because he was at the battle of Yorktown, saw Lafayette ... grew up in the same town as Benedict Arnold in Connecticut."

Mead, who some experts currently believe was born in 1762, died on April 25, 1846, just 10 days before his wife.

MacLeish said the Meads had to have been courageous people. After the war, they kept moving west, following an expanding American frontier through Ohio and into Iowa as they grew older.

"In a way, he would have been a walking history book.'' MacLeish said. "He represents a fascinating tie to history."

Crayton, who will portray Mead today during the cemetery tour, said he can understand why Mead and his wife might have settled in far southeastern Iowa to farm — because it was a place where they could find peace.

"I identify with him,'' said Crayton, a resident of Iowa for nine years. "When people ask me what I'm doing in Iowa, I tell them I am looking for peace."

© Copyright 2007-2018 RespectOurDead.com
Page Last Updated: 2008-03-10 22:54:15
share this: digg | del.icio.us | facebook | reddit | netscape | stumbleupon