Jamestown’s Gilded Age, like Newport’s, reached its pinnacle with the hotel boom, and a vast workforce of manual laborers propelled the growing town into the 20th century.

Hundreds of them were African Americans: butlers, cooks, washerwomen, coachmen and expressmen.

Their untold stories often reveal resourcefulness amidst adversity, none more so than coachman Abraham Pugsley.

In August 1890, the magazine Scientific American announced a new “device for operating and fastening blind slats which is the invention of Mr. Abraham Pugsley of Jamestown, Rhode Island.” The U.S. Patent Office awarded a patent for a mechanism to move all slats of a window blind simultaneously, closing and locking the blind, thus “preventing burglars from inserting implements for unlocking the blinds or opening windows.”[1]


Above: “Blind Stop,” 1890, courtesy of Scientific American, which “prevented burglars from inserting implements for unlocking the blinds or opening windows.”

Pugsley received a second patent for a more complex metal tooth-operated wheel with gears and pinions to open, close, fold and lock window shutters. The next year, The New York Age, the leading African American newspaper in the United States, also featured the local inventor.

“Mr. Abraham Pugsley of Jamestown has secured another patent, this time on a toy. The invention is a flying bird…This is the third patent that has been issued to Mr. Pugsley within a year.”[2]

The bird had elastic bands with strings attached to activate a spring and plate making its wings flap realistically. His patent described “a new and Improved Toy…for the amusement of children which will closely resemble a bird, and which may be made to appear to fly.”

pugley toy
Above: Among Abraham Pugsley’s inventions were “Toy Bird,” 1891, courtesy of the U.S. Patent Office

Abraham Pugsley was born in 1845 in New Rochelle, N.Y., to a family of nine children. The town had a large African American community dating back to 1698 when 14 percent of the population was black, mostly enslaved. The historic black neighborhood, called “Pugsley’s Hollow,” was established by Pugsley’s ancestors on land deeded to freed African Americans by their former owner, the Quaker Hannah Pugsley. When she died in 1799, she willed “my Negro Woman Hannah her freedom and That She Shall be No Longer a Slave.”[3]

Other enslaved Pugsleys had not waited for manumission doled out at the leisure of their masters, instead fleeing America on British ships during the Revolution to gain their freedom. Listed in the “Book of Negroes,” the logbook of the British Navy for ships bound from New York to Canada, are 13-year-old “Tamar” an “ordinary wench, property of Gilbert Pugsley,” and “Eleanor,” 21, who “ran off” from her owner William Pugsley.[4]

A century later in the Civil War, Abraham Pugsley joined the Navy as a Marine, sailing from New York on the steam-powered gunboat USS Pawtuxet. It blockaded the Carolina coast preventing the export of southern slave-grown cotton. Puglsey later participated in bombing the defenses at Wilmington, N.C., in a successful assault against Fort Fisher, cutting the supply line of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.[5]

After the war, Pugsley returned to New Rochelle as a laborer. In 1880, he moved to Newport with his wife Isadora, and five children, driving a coach. He then moved to Jamestown, where coachmen were in high demand in the booming hospitality industry.[6]

Pugsley had a fertile and creative mind, and the business acumen to protect his intellectual property. Investors offered thousands of dollars for his inventions, and he opened a shop in Newport to produce his “new improved toy.”[7]

Yet, the notoriety and earnings seem to have changed Pugsley’s life little, if at all. He continued to work as a laborer, now at the Old Colony Line repair shops that maintained and repaired the locomotives and steamships. Directories recorded him alternately as a cabman, laborer, gardener, and watchman. His talent was in mechanical design, though race often blocked advancement in these professions. Newly widowed, he married Willie Dixon in 1899, 20 years his junior.[8]

In 1908, the Fall River Evening News announced his death at 63 years old. He died of heart failure aboard the steamer City of Lowell, which carried passengers along the coast of New England and New York. He had spent 20 years at the Old Colony Railroad and Steamship line and, perhaps fittingly, died aboard the most advanced mechanical device that had yet been created by man.[9] 

[1] “Novel Blind Stop”, Scientific American, New York, N.Y., Aug. 16, 1890, LXIII:7, 98. U.S. Patent Office, Patent No. 433,306, “Blind Stop”, issued 7/28/1890.

[2] U.S. Patent Office, Patent No. 433,819, “Shutter Worker”, issued 8/5/1890. “Notes from Newport”, New York Age, May 2, 1891, 4.

[3] U.S. Census, Westchester, New York, 1850. “300-Year Black History”, New York Times, 1/29/1984, 11. “Hannah Pugsley” in Herbert Nichols, Historic New Rochelle (New Rochelle: Board of Education, 1938), 55.

[4] Carlton Papers, Library and Archives Canada, Item: Tammer (2445) and Eleanor Fleming (748).

[5] New York, U.S., Registers of Officers and Enlisted Men Mustered into Federal Service, 1861-1865, Vol.3, Westchester County, New Rochelle, 130. Naval History and Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

[6] U.S. Census, 1870, New Rochelle, N.Y; U.S. Census, 1880, Newport, R.I. Rhode Island Census, 1885, Providence, R.I.

[7] “List of Patents”, Boston Globe, Apr. 15, 1891, 9. “List of Patents”, Providence Evening Bulletin, Jul. 31, 1890, 1. Keith Holmes, Black Inventors, Crafting Over 200 Years of Success (Global Black Invertor Research Projects: Brooklyn, 2012).

[8] Abraham H. Pugsley and Willie A. (Swoope) Dixon, Marriage Certificate, Fall River, MA, Jan. 14, 1899.

[9] “Newport”, Fall River Daily Evening News, Dec. 31, 1908, 7.

This article is part of series written by Peter Fay for The Jamestown Press. It appeared in February 2022.