Peter Williamson, ‘Indian Peter’, child slave, farmer, Indian fighter, writer, publisher, coffee shop proprietor, postmaster, printer, inventor, and tavern keeper, died on the 19th of January, 1799.
The first thing that springs to mind about the story of Peter Williamson is that you couldn’t make it up; it’s that extraordinary. The story reads like ‘The Deerslayer’ and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ gone awry. Here’s a tale that involves child slavery, Red Indians, torture, repatriation, retribution, utter corruption and, just for good measure, a bit poem of Robert Ferguson’s. You needn’t make it up, because it’s true. There are a couple of books, written recently, which recount the story and the basic facts of white slavery in 18th Century Britain and Colonial America can’t be contested, despicable as they might seem today. What we’d call kidnapping was rife in the 18th Century and napping kids developed as a sideline to transportation, the State approved method of ridding the country of criminals and other undesirables by shipping them to the Colonies. The practice of snatching children and those in their early teens, boys – and girls – from as young as six, to sell them into slavery abroad, was known as listing. It was so bad that sometimes, kids could be sold on to a list by relatives for as little as a shilling. Once arrived at the Colonies or Plantations, where able-bodied workers were desperately needed, the victims were sold as indentured servants – slavery in all but name – for a substantial profit. These days, it’s still happening and we call it human trafficking.
Peter Williamson published his own story in 1756, after he had managed to return to Britain after many a misfortune, misadventure and miraculous escape. Not content with freedom, he set about gaining retribution and recompense, in which he was ultimately successful. The damages he received were invested in a coffee house in Old Parliament Close, which was frequented by Court of Session magistrates where they partook of the ‘deid chack’ after hangings. He erected a sign with the legend ‘Peter Williamson; Vintner from the other World’ and a wooden figure of himself in full Indian gear. He became a colourful figure in late 18th Century Edinburgh, ‘weel kent’ as ‘Indian Peter’. He even got a verse of his own in Robert Ferguson’s poem, ‘The Rising of the Session’, in which the lines “The vacance is a heavy doom - On India Peter’s coffee-room” refer to Williamson’s lack of patrons during the closed session.
Not content with just a coffee house, Wiliamson also became an entrepreneur. In addition to publishing his memoirs as ‘French and Indian Cruelty: Exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune, of Peter Williamson a disbanded Soldier’, he published the City’s first street directory, in 1773. Williamson also introduced ‘Peter’s Penny Post’, the first in Britain, which was taken over by the GPO in 1793. He also launched a weekly gossip rag called ‘The Scots Spy or Critical Observer’. And there’s more! He also invented a basket scythe and a portable printing press, and developed stamps and ink for marking linen and books. As Douglas Skelton suggests in his book, ‘Indian Peter: The Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Peter Williamson’, it is an inspiring story of courage, fortitude and one man’s determination to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Peter Williamson was born the son of a crofter in Hirnley, in the Parish of Aboyne, in 1730 (ish). For one reason or another, his parents sent him to live with an aunt in Aberdeen and at the age of eight (or ten), whilst innocently playing at the quayside, he was listed. The ‘respectable’ perpetrators included Alexander Cushnie, a local Dean and Procurator Fiscal, and merchants Alexander McDonald and ‘Bonnie’ John Burnet. The last named had premises in either nearby Torry or The Green, below Union Street, or somewhere in Back Wynd, where he housed his prey until they were shipped abroad. Peter was locked up, with about sixty others, below decks on the ‘Planter’, commanded by Captain Robert Ragg and sailed off to America. The ship ran aground on a sandbank in Delaware Bay, but Peter was sold in Philadelphia as an ‘indentured servant’ to Hugh Wilson, ex of St. John’s Toun of Perth, who had himself been listed. Wilson was a “humane, honest and worthy man” who ensured Peter went to school in the winter months and, when he died four years later, he left Williamson a free man and “some money, his best horse, saddle and all his wearing apparel.”
Williamson, by now then around eighteen, worked as a labourer for the next several years and then in early 1754, married the daughter of a Planter from Pennsylvania, who provided as a dowry, two hundred acres of frontier land. That year marked the beginning of the French and Indian War and, on the night of the 24th of October, marauding Indians, on the lookout for British scalps for which the French would pay, captured Williamson. Reminiscent of a scene from a Fennimore Cooper book, he was tied to a tree and tortured by flaming branches, but realising that crying out would mean death, he stoically suffered in silence. The Indians were suitably impressed and freed him, but only to act as a two-legged pack animal, in turn reminiscent of a scene from ‘A Man called Horse’. Nevertheless, Williamson managed to survive and escape.
Discovering that his wife had since died, he enlisted in the Colonial Army. He was captured by the French after the Battle of Oswego in 1756 and taken prisoner once more. He was marched to Quebec and later repatriated as an exchange prisoner, arriving in Plymouth in November. Shortly afterwards, he was discharged as unfit and, with his gratuity of six shillings, set off for home. He got as far as York where, having interested “certain honourable men” in his case, he published a pamphlet recounting his misadventures. Proceeds from the book, which he shamelessly promoted on his travels north by enacting impressions of an Indian war dance, enabled him to get back to Aberdeen, in 1758. Once there, he became a victim yet again as the merchants and magistrates colluded to accuse and convict him of a “scurrilous and infamous libel”. Copies of his book were burned, and Williamson jailed and fined for vagrancy.
Undeterred from his quest for justice, Williamson pursued his case in Edinburgh, where it was ultimately heard in the Court of Session and with an outcome such that the Provost of Aberdeen, four Bailies and the Dean of Guild had to pay a fine in compensation to Williamson. Still unsatisfied, Williamson sought damages from the Bailies personally responsible for his abduction. Despite the shenanigans of James Forbes, the Sheriff-Substitute of Aberdeenshire, in December, 1763, the Court of Session in Edinburgh awarded Williamson his damages, plus one hundred guineas legal costs. ‘Indian Peter’ Williamson died on the 19th of January, 1799, and was buried in the Old Calton graveyard, near the Martyr’s Monument, dressed in the moccasins, fringed leggings, blanket and feathered headdress of a Delaware Indian.