Peter Williamson aka “Indian Peter” of the 18th-Century

Peter Williamson, also known as “Indian Peter,” was a Scottish memoirist who was part showman, part entrepreneur and inventor. He was born to James Williamson in Hirnlay near Aboyne and he described his parents as “respectable” though not rich.

Aberdeen from the southwest. Author’s collection.

At a young age he was sent to live with an aunt in Aberdeen. While playing on the quay at Aberdeen, he was kidnapped. He later wrote about the incident in his biography stating:

“I was taken notice of by two fellows belonging to a vessel in the harbour, employed, as the trade then was, by some of the worthy merchants in the town, in that villainous and execrable practice, called ‘kidnapping,’ that is stealing your children from their parents, and selling them as slaves in the plantations abroad.”[1]

Although not exclusive to Abderdeen, Peter Williamson’s kidnapping happened during the time of a thriving slave trade that involved children. Those involved in the kidnapping and selling children found it highly profitable because they got a cut for every child they sold and they could make as much as £16 per child.* In Williamsons case, Aberdeen civic officers, like burgesses or bailies, were in cahoots with ship masters and captains and after the kidnappings the children were transported to North America.

Williamson claimed in his autobiography that he was eight at the time he was kidnapped, but others maintain he was ten. Either way, he was forcibly taken to North America and sold as an indentured servant in Philadelphia for £16 to Hugh Wilson, who was Scottish and who had also supposedly been kidnapped as a youth but had earned his freedom. Wilson therefore sympathized with Williamson’s situation and Williamson claimed:

“With this good master I continued till I was seventeen years old, when he died, and, as a reward for my faithful services, left me two hundred pounds currency, which was then about one hundred and twenty pounds sterling, his best horse, saddle, and all his wearing apparel.”[2]

When Peter Williamson was 24, he married the daughter of a “substantial” plantation owner. He received upon his marriage to her a dowry of 200 acres that was close to the Pennsylvania frontier near the forks of the Delaware River. He then settled down with his wife to farm the land but because his land was on the frontier, he had to face the danger of Native American Indian attacks.

On the evening of 2 October 1754, about a year before Marie Antoinette was born in The Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, Cherokee Indians attacked Williamson’s homestead. At the time Williamson’s wife was away visiting relatives. Of the attack he wrote:

“I staid up later than usual, expecting her return, none being in the house besides myself, how great was my surprise and terror, when about eleven o’clock at night, I heard the dismal war-cry or war-whoop of the savages, which they make on such occasions … and to my inexpressible grief soon found my house was attacked by them. I flew to my chamber window, and perceived them to be twelve in number. They making several attempts to come in … To escape which dreadful misfortune, having my gun loaded in my hand, I threatened them with death, if they should not desist. But how vain and fruitless are the efforts of one man against the united force of so many! … One of them that could speak a little English, threatened me in return, That if I did not come, they would burn me alive in the house. Telling me farther … That they were no friends to the English, but if I would come out and surrender myself prisoner, they would not kill me. … I chose to rely on the uncertainty of their promises … and accordingly went out of the house.”[3]

In 1765, Henry Timberlake took three of the former Cherokee adversaries to London to help cement the newly declared friendship. This is a drawing of those Cherokee Indians that traveled there. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Peter Williamson’s surrender, Native American Indians burned his house to the ground. He was then forced to march for miles acting as their pack mule. Along the way he claimed to have witnessed numerous murders and scalpings, a process by which the skin from the top of a person’s head was removed with a long knife that hung around the necks of the Cherokees. He also provided the gruesome details of how they accomplished a scalping:

“They cut the skin round as much of the head as they think proper, sometimes quite round the neck and forehead, then take it in their fingers and pluck it off, and leave the unhappy creatures so served to die in a most miserable manner. Some who are not cut too deep in the temples or scull, live in horrid torments many hours, and sometimes a day or two after. The scalps, or skins thus taken off, they preserve and carry homes in triumph, where they received … a considerable sum for each of them.”[4]

One horrible scalping incident that involved a family and that Williamson claimed to have witnessed is provided here:

“[T]hese monsters proceed[ed] to a … house occupied by one Jacob Snider and his unhappy family, consisting of his wife, five children, and young man his servant. They soon got admittance into the unfortunate man’s house, where they immediately, without the least remorse, scalped both parents and children; nor could the tears, the shrieks, or cries of these unhappy victims prevent their horrid massacree.”[5]

This same horrific scene was repeated several times in front of Williamson until he escaped his captors. He fled until he arrived at the door of an old acquaintance; a man named John Bell. When Mrs. Bell opened the door, she found Williamson in a “frightful condition” and in fact, his woeful appearance “alarmed” the whole family. Once the Bells understood what happened and that he had escaped from the Cherokees they allowed him to stay two days and two nights. He then borrowed a horse and set off for his father-in-law’s house arriving there on the 4 January 1755. Unfortunately, he discovered that his wife had died two months earlier.

After his harrowing ordeal with the Cherokees, news spread about what he had been through. It eventually reached Governor Robert Hunter Morris, who summoned Williamson for questioning:

“[He] examined me very particularly, as to all incidents relating to my captivity, and especially in regard to the Indians who had first taken me away, whether they were French or English parties. I assured his Excellency they were of those who professed themselves to be friends of the former, and informed him of the many barbarous and inhuman actions I had been witness to among them … that they were all well supplied by the French with arms and ammunition, and greatly encouraged by them in their excursions continual and barbarities, not only in having extraordinary premiums for such scalps as they should take and carry home with them at their return, but great presents of all kinds, besides rum, powder, ball, &c.”[6]

Morris then sent Peter Williamson to the State Assembly in Philadelphia where he again reported on what he had witnessed during his captivity. Williamson noted that the assembly questioned him for about five hours over the course of two days and that they did so “with a promise that all proper methods should be taken, not only to accommodate and reimburse all those who had suffered by the savages, but to prevent them from committing the like hostilities for the future.”[7]

Peter Williamson then returned to his father-in-law’s house. His father-in-law wanted him to stay on at the plantation, but Williamson noted that though he thought about it, he ultimately decided to enlist in the army. After enlisting he then participated in the French and India War that happened between 1754 and 1763.

Peter Williamson - Indian conference

This print illustrates Colonel Henry Bouquet, an English officer, negotiating peace with a coalition of Delaware, Seneca-Cayuga and Shawnee tribes at the end of the French and Indian War in 1764. The negotiations took place near Bolivar, Ohio. The caption of this print reads: “The Indians giving a Talk to Colonel Bouquet in a Conference at a Council fire, near his Camp on the Banks of Muskingum in North America, in Oct.r 1764.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

During his time in the army Peter Williamson was involved in numerous skirmishes with the French and the Native American Indians. In fact, in one instance he received a severe injury to his hand. He recounted the incident maintaining that it happened on 6 May 1756 at the Great Carrying Place.

“Receiving a shot through my left hand, which intirely disabled my third and fourth fingers; and having no hospital, or any conveniences for the sick there, I was, after having my hand dressed in a wretched manner, sent with the next batteaux to Albany to get it cured.”[8]

Shortly thereafter he was captured by the French at Fort Oswego. He and other captives were then marched to Quebec. There a prisoner exchange took place that involved 500 prisoners being sent back to England aboard La Benomme, a French pack-boat. It was a miserable 6-week trip on the high seas that Williamson described as being very unpleasant:

“One biscuit and two ounces of pork a day, being all our allowance; and half dead with cold, having but few clothes and the vessel being so small that the major part of us were obliged to be on deck in all weathers.”[9]

The ship finally docked at Plymouth, England, on 6 November 1756. As Williamson had a damaged left hand, he was soon discharged from the army for being unfit for duty. His reward for serving as a soldier was a small gratuity of six shillings, an amount that he knew was not enough for him to survive his trip to home to Aberdeen.

As Peter Williamson walked to Aberdeen, he decided to make an “application” to a gentlemen in the city of York by showing him a manuscript that he had written about his “transactions” with America’s Native American Indians. The man was impressed by Williamson’s story and agreed to print it. It was titled French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his Infancy and sold as a slave in Pennsylvania.

Peter Williamson’s pamphlet of 1807. Author’s collection.

It was a profitable little pamphlet. Williamson sold a thousand copies and earned a profit of £30, which made his trip to Aberdeen much easier. In addition, as he traveled north, Williamson decided to dress as an American Native American Indian to encourage further sales of his book. He also began to demonstrate Indian war cries, whooping, and dancing to drum up business.

Peter Williamson

Peter Williamson as “Indian Peter” dressed as a Delaware Indian. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In June 1758 Peter Williams was finally back in Aberdeen, the site where he had been kidnapped 15 years earlier. Williamson’s relatives and the people of Aberdeen were intrigued by his story. His pamphlet however accused certain Aberdeen merchants and civic officials of being involved in the practice of kidnapping and selling children. Thus, many took umbrage against his accusations that he had been sold into slavery as a child.

At the time, many Aberdeen authorities were also the same people he was accusing of being involved in his kidnapping and that did not sit well with them. They therefore charged him with libel, and unsurprisingly he was found guilty. His punishment included surplus copies of his book being seized and them being publicly burned at the mercat cross (a structure used to mark the market square in market towns). Williams was also fined five shillings, banished from Aberdeen as a vagrant, and forced to sign a statement that his claims were false.

“All was not lost, however. A barrister, Andrew Crosbie, took an interest in the case and by 1762 had secured £100 damages for Peter and £80 costs. In 1768, 30 years after he had been taken by force from his native land, Peter Williamson received a further £200. During these proceedings, some of the town’s public officers became implicated in the kidnapping scandal. Suspicion fell on Walter Cochrane, the town clerk depute, Alexander Mitchell of Colpna, and Baillie William Fordyce of Aquhorthies.”[10]

After being banished from Aberdeen Peter Williamson moved to Edinburgh, the same city where Madame Tussaud would visit in the early 1800s with her traveling wax museum show. It was in that city in 1760 that he married a woman named Jean. He then opened a tavern in Parliament Close and “hung a sign describing himself as ‘from the other world.’”[11] Nearby he also placed a wooden figure of himself dressed as a Delaware Indian to advertise his location.

In 1878, the Pittsburgh Daily Post provided more detail about Williamson’s life in Edinburgh:

“Afterwards Peter removed to more spacious apartments in the neighboring street where his trade was less liable to be affected by times and seasons, and where his occasional exhibitions as a Delaware Indian furnished an attraction of considerable interest. Aided by the knowledge he had acquired in scenes more bustling than the Scottish capital then presented, he became a projector of schemes, locally unheard of, some of course visionary, but other praticable and likely to be generally useful. The greatest of this singular person project was that of a penny post for the city and suburbs. Essentially good tempered and of a sanguine disposition, he surrounded himself with many friend among whom he passed not unpleasantly into a hale and hearty old age. It is gratifying to know that he was not unrecompensed for his contrivance of the penny-post. When the institution was ultimately taken under the charge of the government, a pension was bestowed upon Peter Williamson, who was thus satisfactory provided for to the termination of his career.”[12]

Others who heard about Peter Williamson and his experiences in America decided to publicize his escapades and they often produced prints of “Indian Peter.” For instance, The Grand Magazine in June 1759 showed him in full costume dressed as a “Delaware Indian” carrying a tomahawk and scalping knife. A few years later, in 1768, the caricaturist John Kay also depicted him dressed as a “savage.” Kay’s drawing was also the one that appeared in the preface of later editions of Williamson’s autobiography.

Peter Williamson

Peter Williamson dressed as Indian Peter. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The remainder of Williamson’s life was never as traumatic as his childhood kidnapping or as harrowing as the time he spent captured by Native American Indians. In his final years he returned to running a tavern in Lawnmarket (a separately named part of the High Street in the Old Town of Edinburgh) and became an alcoholic. He probably died from liver disease. After his death the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported:

“Now nothing remains to be told of ‘Indian Peter,’ but that after attaining his sixty-ninth year, he died on the 19th of January 1799 leaving behind him the character of an enterprising and somewhat eccentric, but upright man.”[13]

He was buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh in an unmarked grave.


 *It is estimated that 600-700 children disappeared from the Aberdeen port when the trade was at its height between 1740 and 1746.

References:

  • [1] P. Williamson, The Life and Adventures of Peter Williamson, Etc (Liverpool: T. Troughton, 1807), p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 5.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 8–10.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 14.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 14.
  • [6] P. Williamson, The Life and Curious Adventures of Peter Williamson, who was Carried Off from Aberdeen, in 1744, and Sold for a Slave (Aberdeen: James Daniel & Son, 1878), p. 34–35.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 36.
  • [8] P. Williamson, French and Indian Cruelty Exemplified, in the Life, and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune, of Peter Williamson (Edinburgh: J. Stewart, 1787), p. 69.
  • [9] P. Williamson. 1878, p. 107,
  • [10] Ibid., p. 14.
  • [11] Aberdeen Press and Journal, “A Life of Adventure for North-east Kidnap Victim,” April 4, 1986, p. 14.
  • [12] Pittsburgh Daily Post, “Peter Williamson,” February 4, 1878, p. 3.
  • [13] Ibid.

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