Born into slavery before the American Revolution, Jude Hall fought valiantly in several of the war’s most crucial battles, earning the nickname “Old Rock” for his strength and heroism.
Yet while he would gain his freedom after the war, and a small plot of land in Exeter, New Hampshire on which to raise his family, Hall couldn’t shield his children from the many perils that befell people of color in early America—from the ever-present burden of poverty to the terrifying possibility that they might be abducted and sold into slavery. Kidnapping free blacks to transport south was a lucrative business, as southern plantation owners were hungry for laborers. And African Americans rarely had documentary proof of their status, much less legal standing to question the word of a white man in court. Children and teens made especially attractive targets.
Three of Hall’s sons would be kidnapped and shipped south, never to return home.
Military service, then freedom
Hall himself had been born into slavery around 1747 in southern New Hampshire. After being sold before the Revolution to a new owner—reportedly an unhappy change—he left in May 1775 to enlist in the 3rd New Hampshire militia regiment. It’s unclear whether he ran away or got his master’s permission to sign up, as was usually required at the time.
One month into his service, Hall became one of more than 100 African-American and Native American soldiers to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he just missed being hit by a cannonball. The first major clash of the Revolutionary War, Bunker Hill ended in a British victory but gave colonial troops a much-needed confidence boost. By the end of the war, at least 6,600 black and indigenous soldiers would fight for the cause of American independence, the Daughters of the American Revolution concluded in their Forgotten Patriots Project.
Hall would go on to fight for the duration of the Revolution, including major battles at Ticonderoga, Trenton and Saratoga, among others. It was during his service in the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, one of the longest and hardest-fought struggles of the war, that he earned his nickname “Old Rock.”
Discharged from the army in 1783, Hall married Rhoda Paul, the daughter of a prominent free black family from the town of Exeter, New Hampshire’s de facto capital during the revolution.
“Exeter's a little bit unique in the Northeast because we had a pretty sizable free black population in town—it was about 4.8 percent,” says Barbara Rimkunas, curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Though the town ranked only 13th in the state in terms of population, it had the highest concentration of free black residents at the time, historian David Dixon has written. He estimated that by 1790, some 83 African Americans lived in Exeter, only two of whom were enslaved.
Despite being known for his brave service to the new nation, and receiving a military pension, Jude Hall found life after the war difficult for himself and his growing family. Reports describe him as a “yeoman,” or independent farmer, in a region that was not known to be particularly hospitable to farming. “I think he did a lot of work on the side, like working as a teamster, hauling things,” says Rimkunas. Meanwhile, he and Rhoda apparently had at least eight, and possibly as many as 12 children.
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Though the Revolutionary era saw the gradual emancipation of slaves in many areas of the North, including Vermont (not yet a state) in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, Massachusetts in 1782, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804, slavery remained legal in New Hampshire until passage of the 13th Amendment.
“I think the overriding feeling was that there are so few slaves that we don't really need to outlaw it,” Rimkunas says. “But it meant that people...were still living under this precarious situation where you could be tossed into slavery. You don't have any freedom papers, you don't have any birth certificate. You have no way of proving who you are and that you have a right to be free.”
What we know of the tragic fate of three of Jude Hall’s sons comes from an affidavit given in Boston in 1833, six years after his death, by his son-in-law Robert Roberts, who had married Hall’s eldest daughter, Dolley. Roberts, a notable figure in his own right, offered the affidavit to support his mother-in-law Rhoda’s application for a widow’s pension.
In the affidavit, Robert recounted that on an unspecified date, a local man named David Wedgewood had kidnapped James Hall, Jude and Rhoda’s 18-year-old son, claiming the boy owed him four dollars. Jude Hall wasn’t home at the time, and despite Rhoda’s efforts to stop him, Wedgewood took James to jail in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where “the next morning [he] was put on board of a vessel bound for New Orleans, and sold into slavery.”
A black man from Exeter later reported seeing James Hall in a New Orleans jail, where he had been imprisoned as a runaway from his new owner (a “Frenchman from Kentucky,” Roberts specified). James’ ultimate fate is unknown.
In 1807, Roberts continued in the affidavit, James’ brother Aaron was also kidnapped, this time from Providence, Rhode Island, where he had gone to seek employment as a sailor. Tricked by a shop owner into signing a debt for clothing that he couldn’t pay, Aaron “was overtaken to Roxbury, on his way home, and carried back, sent to sea, and has not been heard of since,” according to Roberts.
Incredibly, a third Hall brother, William, met a similar fate in the West Indies, where he had sailed aboard the barque Hannibal from Newburyport. After spending 10 years in slavery, he managed to escape and make his way to England, where he became the captain of a collier, or coal-bearing ship. He managed to contact his mother, Roberts said, but he never returned to the United States.
Jude Hall died in 1827, when he was believed to be 80 years old—before William made contact. Though Rhoda moved to Belfast, Maine, after his death, their other children and their descendants would remain in the Exeter area for almost a century, including two of Jude and Rhoda’s grandsons, Moses and Aaron Hall, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Aaron was a member of the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment to be enlisted during that conflict, though he was not enlisted at the time of that regiment’s courageous attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863.
Today, a pond near Drinkwater Road in Exeter, where Jude Hall and his family lived, is known as “Jude’s Pond.” Though it’s unknown where Hall himself is buried, a marker was erected to him in 2000 in the town’s Winter Street cemetery, where other Revolutionary veterans were buried. Its solid presence stands as an enduring tribute to the heroic, tragic story of one of New Hampshire’s most famous black Revolutionary War soldiers.