Peter Williamson: The diehard Scot

In the latest instalment of our series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Douglas Skelton introduces a man who survived shipwrecks, kidnap, war with the French and capture by Native Americans to make waves in 18th-century Edinburgh

An illustration of Peter Williamson

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

He waited until the hunting party was asleep before he made his move. He had been their captive since they attacked and burned out his Pennsylvania farm three months earlier, in October 1754. His life was on a knife edge so when he saw his chance, he took it.

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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He waited until the hunting party was asleep before he made his move. He had been their captive since they attacked and burned out his Pennsylvania farm three months earlier, in October 1754. His life was on a knife edge so when he saw his chance, he took it.

In the end, it was surprisingly easy. His captors forgot to bind him, so all he had to do was creep into the dense woods. As he wrote: “Trusting myself to the divine protection, I set forward naked and defenceless…”

He managed to avoid recapture and eventually pitched up at a farmhouse – emaciated, filthy, slick with his own blood and looking more Native American than farmer. He would have been shot if he hadn’t told them he was a Scot named Peter Williamson.

This enforced stay with the Lenape, known to white settlers as the Delaware, was not the first time Peter Williamson (1730–99) had been a captive. And, in a rollercoaster of a life packed with enough bad fortune to break most human beings, nor would it be the last.

Prostitutes and press gangs

Aged around 13, while playing near his home in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, this “stout and robust boy” was spotted by men seeking strong backs for colonial plantations in North America. They would become indentured workers. Some of them were willing, wishing to escape hardship and seek a new life. Others were sold by family members in need of cash. Yet more were tricked after being plied with spirits and enticed by prostitutes or fell victim to press gangs.

Officially, an individual had to swear before a magistrate that he or she was signing their indentures willingly, but that meant nothing if the men behind the trade, dubbed by Williamson “monsters of impiety”, were themselves magistrates, or had Aberdeen’s magistrates in their pockets.

The ship on which Williamson was spirited away to North America ran aground during a storm off New Jersey. Under threat of sinking, the crew saved themselves, leaving their young cargo behind.

“The cries, the shrieks and tears of a parcel of infants had no effect on, or caused the least remorse in the breasts of these merciless wretches,” Williamson later wrote in his memoir, French and Indian Cruelty. The ship weathered the elements, however, and the crew returned to retrieve the terrified Scots. There was profit to be made, after all.

Williamson’s luck turned when his papers were sold to fellow Scot Hugh Wilson, who himself had previously been abducted from Perth. Peter said that his new master was “a humane, worthy, honest man” who taught him how to read and write – in return for an extra year’s labour. Kindly he may have been, but Wilson was still a businessman.

Williamson served five years before his master died and in his will not only freed him but also left him £200 and a horse. He later wrote that he moved around the colonies, doing what jobs he could until, at the age of 24, he married and took on a farm in Northampton County, Pennsylvania.

As Britain and France vied to become the world’s dominant imperial power in the 18th century, each superpower clawed at the other for possession of the abundant lands of the new world. Alliances were made, and broken, with various Native American tribes. And so this theatre became known as the French and Indian War.

That war was soon to have a devastating impact on Williamson’s family. In 1754, a band of Lenape – who had aligned themselves with the French – raided Williamson’s farm and dragged him into captivity. His wife was fortunately away when they attacked. However, on his return following his dramatic escape into the woods, Williamson found his farm burned out and his wife dead, of what cause he did not record. “This fatal news,” he wrote, “greatly lessened the joy and rapture I otherwise should have felt.”

He had been pushed and kicked from one place to another and decided it was time to push back. He joined the colonial militia fighting with the British, and his writings detail with relish atrocities committed by all sides. There is no way of knowing how much he actually witnessed, how much is history, how much mere story. What is certain is that Williamson was taken prisoner again in 1756 after French forces seized British fortifications at Fort Oswego in up-state New York.

Set loose in England

In many ways, Williamson’s final spell in captivity was the making of him – for he would soon be exchanged for French PoWs and set loose, with what possessions he had, back across the Atlantic in Plymouth.

Rather than settle in southern England, Williamson embarked on an epic walk back to Scotland. En route he related his life story in return for food, took to dressing as a Native American and published his account of his adventures, before finally reaching Aberdeen. There he denounced the men behind the indentured worker trade and for his trouble was arrested for making a “scurrilous and infamous libel”. His book was publicly burned by the hangman and Williamson banished from the city.

But not everyone rejected his claims out of hand. In Edinburgh, a lawyer believed that the injuries Williamson had suffered at the hands of the Aberdonian businessmen “appeared to him so flagrant that he did not hesitate to declare his opinion that I was… entitled to ample damages…” It took a decade for the various legal shenanigans to end but finally Williamson received damages of £200 plus costs. He had expected a lot more – but it was enough.

In the Scottish capital, Williamson used these damages to set himself up as a publisher and printer, producing a number of editions of French and Indian Cruelty. He opened a coffee house, the door to which was guarded by a wooden statue of Peter himself in full Native American dress. It was here the lawyers and judges often held the ‘deid-chack’, a dinner that followed a public execution.

If that wasn’t enough for one man, Williamson also published the first street directory of Edinburgh, set up the city’s first penny post, and became a well-known figure and a prominent Mason.

But his troubles were far from over. He married twice more, his last leading to scandalous divorce, with both sides accusing the other of lewd behaviour and infidelity.

Despite a small pension from the government when it took over his penny post, Williamson died nearly penniless. There are no memorials to his name. Even his grave is unmarked. Peter Williamson is the forgotten man of 18th-century Scottish history. But, for all that, he is surely one of its most colourful – and resilient – figures.

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Douglas Skelton is an author specialising in crime and Scottish history. His book Indian Peter: The Extraordinary Life and Adventures of Peter Williamson was published by Mainstream in 2004