Monday, 8 September 2014

Indian Peter - a captivating tale

Indian Peter - a captivating tale

Showman, slave, soldier, prisoner-of-war, inventor, entrepreneur, minstrel, liar, serial litigant, writer, publisher, Freemason, coffee shop and tavern owner.. Peter Williamson (1730-99), aka 'Indian Peter'', led an extraordinary life.

His legendary exploits began when he went to live with a maiden aunt in Aberdeen after a childhood in Aberdeenshire. In those days there was a thriving slave trade in stolen teenagers - many were taken to North America. In January 1743, Williamson fell victim to this trade while playing on the quayside at Aberdeen. He spent time incarcerated in the Tolbooth.
Jacobite cell, Tolbooth museum

Some Aberdeen bailies were suspected of colluding with the traffickers - an estimated 600 children disappeared from the port when the trade was at its height between 1740 and 1746.

Next for Indian Peter came indentured servitude in the American colonies, capture by Native Americans and his subsequent escape..

In May 1743 Indian Peter Williamson (1730-99) was taken from Aberdeen to the American colonies on a vessel called 'The Planter'. The ship floundered and was stranded on a sandbank off the Delaware coast. After dodging pirates and getting rescued, Peter was sold for £16 to fellow Scot Hugh Wilson for a period of seven years.

Abducted from Perth as a boy, Wilson had earned his own freedom, like many white slaves. He provided Peter with an education and treated him humanely. Peter visited the markets regularly in Philadelphia, the 'City of Brotherly Love', which was a melting pot, a Quaker stronghold and, despite that, a slave centre.

When Wilson died in 1750, he bequeathed Peter £120 plus his best horse, saddle and clothes. After four years of travel and jobbing, marriage to Rose, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, brought a dowry of 200 acres of land close to the frontier of Pennsylvania, where they settled down to married life as farmers.

On 2nd October 1754 during the 'French and Indian Wars', he was alone on the farm when it was attacked by Lenape warriors. He was taken prisoner, and his farm was plundered and razed to the ground. He was forced to act as a pack-mule for the Native Americans, marching and carrying the spoils from his farm. Later he was tortured and witnessed scalpings, atrocities and murders. After three months he escaped and reached his father-in-law's home to learn that Rose had died during his incarceration with the Lenape.

Peter was called before the State Assembly in Philadelphia to pass on any information he'd acquired during his captivity. Whilst there, he enlisted and rose to the rank of Lieutenant in a British Army regiment that had been raised to combat both the French and the Indians.

In what was becoming a familiar pattern, he was captured again - this time in 1756 by French troops. Marched to Quebec, he was granted status as an 'exchange prisoner' and shipped to Plymouth, arriving in November 1756. Having a damaged left hand, he was discharged from the British Army as unfit with a gratuity of six shillings. He set off to walk 600 miles back to Aberdeen.

Arriving penniless in York, his stories aroused the interest of some 'honourable and influential men' who encouraged him to write about his exploits. With their backing he published his account under the title 'French and Indian Cruelty', exemplified in 'The Life and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson'. A thousand copies of the book were sold, earning Williamson a profit of £30, which allowed him to continue his journey to Scotland in comparative ease. As he travelled northwards, Williamson took to dressing as a 'Red Indian' and giving displays of Native Indian life - war-cries and dancing - to sell copies of his book which he carried around with him. In June 1758 he returned to Aberdeen, over 15 years after his kidnapping from the quayside.

While he was selling copies of his book in Aberdeen, the authorities charged Williamson with libel in relation to his accusations of their involvement in his original kidnapping. Since the same magistrates he was accusing were also judging him, a guilty verdict was inevitable. Surplus copies of his book were seized and burned publicly at the Mercat Cross by the common hangman. Williamson was made to sign a statement stating that his claims were false, fined five shillings and banished from Aberdeen as a vagrant.

Williamson headed for Edinburgh where he settled for the remainder of his life. He opened Indian Peter's Coffee House - it became a favourite haunt of lawyers and their clients. After reading his book, some of the lawyers at his Lodge encouraged him to sue the Aberdeen merchants and magistrates. The case was heard in the Court of Session in Edinburgh and the judges found unanimously in Williamson's favour. The Provost of Aberdeen, four bailies and the Dean of Guild paid him £100 in compensation. Emboldened by this success, Williamson decided to sue Bailie William Fordyce and others, whom he believed were personally responsible for his kidnapping. After their initial exoneration, the defendants' involvement was proved when Williamson produced hard evidence. He was awarded £200 damages plus 100 guineas legal costs. His new-found wealth enabled him to open a tavern in Parliament Close bearing a sign worded 'Peter Williamson, Vintner From The Other World', alluding to his time in North America. A wooden figure of him in Delaware Indian costume stood at the head of the street to advertise the tavern's location.

In 1769 he opened a printing shop in the Luckenbooths between St Giles High Kirk and the North side of the Royal Mile. He taught himself the craft of printing and invented his own portable printing press, travelling to exhibitions and fairs to promote the product. He also invented waterproof ink for stamping linen which withstood both boiling and bleaching.

In 1773 Williamson compiled the first Edinburgh street directory and set up a regular postal service in the city. The service was run from his premises in the Luckenbooths every hour on the hour and cost one penny. It comprised a list of streets with the addresses of lawyers, merchants, officials and other notable gentlemen. Shops and taverns were also included, hugely aiding navigation in the city and creating a very valuable historical source. The Penny Post service was the first regular and continuous postal service in Britain. It was integrated into the General Post Office. Williamson received £25 for the goodwill of the business and a pension of 25 shillings per year.

In 1788 Williamson divorced Jean the (over-energetic) daughter of John Wilson, a bookseller in Edinburgh, whom he had married in 1777.  He returned to running a tavern, this time in the Lawnmarket, where he succumbed to alcoholism and died of liver disease in January 1799. (Were you expecting a happy ending?) He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Calton Cemetery, north-east of the Political Martyrs' Monument.

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