When Oliver Hazard Perry’s squadron left Erie in the summer of 1813, an estimated 12% to 15% of the men aboard his ships were African-American sailors.
“These are free men of color,” said Linda Bolla, curatorial assistant at the Erie Maritime Museum.
An exhibit that opened earlier this year at the museum on Erie’s bayfront features a fife made of walnut and brass that was believed to have been played by Cyrus Tiffany on Perry’s original flagship, the U.S. Brig Lawrence. Tiffany is among the African-American mariners featured in the museum.
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Since opening in 1998, the Maritime Museum has tried to recognize the diverse demographics among Perry’s crew, Bolla said. That hasn’t always been easy, she said, as the U.S. Navy in the early 1800s didn’t record the race of seamen.
While African-American sailors could serve, Bolla said, “the opportunity to be an officer was not open to Black men.”
Many of those on Perry’s ships, including Tiffany, were already sailors who came from the East Coast, she said. Tiffany had served in the Revolutionary War, was said to have played his fife in front of George Washington’s tent and afterwards lived in Massachusetts, Bolla said.
During the Sept. 10, 1813, Battle of Lake Erie, when the Lawrence was damaged and Perry transferred to the U.S. Brig Niagara, it is believed that Tiffany stayed on the Lawrence, Bolla said. He went on to serve with Perry on the USS Java in the Mediterranean and died in 1818 in Rhode Island, according to the fife exhibit.
“Who would imagine such a small humble object is imbued with so much history?” Bolla said.
Another exhibit, “Amongst My Best Men,” was developed in 2001 by Charles Rush as an Eagle Scout project about African-American participation in the Battle of Lake Erie. Two Black crewmen — Jesse Walls and Anthony Williams — later settled in Erie County, according to the display. Walls, who lived in Erie and died in 1866, is buried in Erie Cemetery and Williams, a Pennsylvania native, was wounded in the battle, according to information on the museum’s website.
The Erie Maritime Museum has a “traveling trunk,” available for educators to borrow, that includes a biography of Williams and objects such as clothing and utensils the sailor would have used on board the Lawrence.
Learn more at eriemaritimemuseum.org.