"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Adventures of "Indian Peter"

Edinburgh, Scotland is a city with a long history of colorful characters. Among the most famous was Peter Williamson, better known to history as "Indian Peter." It is no small tribute to the man that being kidnapped by Indians was arguably the most normal thing about him.

Our main source of information about him comes from his autobiography, which was first published in 1758. This "accurate and faithful Account of a Series of Misfortunes" was enormously successful, going through several editions, the last of which appeared in 1812.

Peter was born in 1730 near Aberdeen, "if not of rich, yet of reputable Parents." In January 1743, he was playing "near the Key" with some friends. Being of "a stout robust Constitution," he caught the eye of two press-gangers, who lured him aboard their ship. Before he knew what was happening, he was sailing for America, destined to be sold as an indentured servant.

Before the ship could reach its destination, it wrecked off Cape May. The crew and its human cargo were rescued by a passing vessel bound for Philadelphia, where the captain sold his "villainous Loading." Peter was bought by a fellow Scot named Hugh Wilson. Being a former indentured servant himself, Wilson treated his "property" with unusual decency. He provided Williamson with an education and when he died a few years later, he left the 17-year-old with a horse, a wardrobe, and £120.

Williamson did well in his new life. He married the daughter of a prosperous planter, and his new father-in-law gave him 200 acres to farm in Berks County. All was well until the night of October 2, 1754. Peter was alone in his house when it was attacked by local Indians. They plundered the farm, set it on fire, and carried Williamson back to their village. One night, he managed to make his escape. Although his captors gave chase ("The bellowing of Lyons, the Shrieks of Hyenas, or the roaring of Tygers, would have been Music to my Ears in Comparison to the Sounds that then saluted them") he managed, after many misadventures, to return safely to his father-in-law's farm on January 4, 1755. Sadly, he was greeted by news of the recent death of his wife, which "greatly lessen'd the Joy and Rapture he otherwise felt at his Deliverance."

Feeling the need to get a bit of his own back against his tormentors, Peter enlisted in a regiment assembled to fight against the French and their allies, the local Indian tribes. In 1756, he was among the men taken prisoner at the siege of Oswego. He and his fellow soldiers were sent to England in a prisoner-of-war swap. Peter had been too badly wounded during the siege to be considered of any further use as a soldier, so the English discharged him with nothing to show for his army service but "the sum of Six Shillings paid."

Williamson attempted to go back to his hometown of Aberdeen, but could only make it as far as York. In that city, certain gentlemen took enough interest in him and his troubles to arrange to have his sole remaining possession--a manuscript detailing his adventures--printed. The pamphlet earned him enough money to continue his journey to his old home, which he finally reached in June 1758.

He did not exactly receive a hero's welcome. His memoirs had caused offense among certain of his former townspeople. No sooner had he arrived in Aberdeen that he was hauled before the town officers, charged with "publishing and dispersing this scurrilous and infamous libel, reflecting greatly upon the characters and reputations of the merchants in Aberdeen and on the town in general, without any ground or reason." He was found guilty, with the result that all available copies of his book were burnt in the town square by the public hangman. Williamson himself was ordered to make written apology for his offensive tome, fined ten shillings sterling, and banished from the city.

Peter was not the man to take such treatment quietly. He marched off to Edinburgh, where "A Gentleman versant in the Law" helped him to file a lawsuit against the Aberdeen magistrates. In their defense, the magistrates said that when Williamson arrived in Aberdeen, he appeared to be merely "an idle stroller," who sought to "draw money from the credulous vulgar" with an obviously fictitious pamphlet. Williamson countered this charge of dishonesty by producing numerous witnesses attesting to all the details of his early kidnapping. The root of the trouble was that the magistrates and town officers of Aberdeen had for many years been actively complicit in this human trafficking, and they resented Williamson's publicizing of that fact. It emerged during the trial that between the years of 1740-46, some six hundred boys and young men had been kidnapped to be indentured servants in the colonies--some of them sold by their own relatives.

After nearly two years of legal wrangling, the Court of Sessions ruled in Peter's favor, ordering the defendants to pay one hundred pounds sterling, plus costs. "It is the peculiar happiness of this land of liberty," Peter gloated afterward, "to be blessed with a Supreme Court wherein justice is dispensed with an equal hand to the poor and rich." (A quaint literary footnote: Sir Walter Scott's father was part of the legal team assisting the defendants.)

Williamson followed up his legal triumph with an action of damages against the particular bailies he believed were responsible for his kidnapping. The judge who was to arbitrate the matter was notoriously fond of drink, which led to both parties in the suit taking turns carrying off this estimable justice for rounds at the local pubs. Unfortunately, both sides carried their attempts at bribery a bit too far. After several days of the defendants and the plaintiff plying him with wine, punch, claret, rum, and other potent spirits, the judge, "very merry and jocose," took to his bed, and never got up again.

The suit was transferred to the Court of Session, where in December 1768, Williamson was awarded £200 damages, plus one hundred guineas costs.

Having finally won some measure of justice for his early trials, Williamson capitalized on his experiences by taking to the lecture circuit. "For several years," records one of his early biographers, "he used to exhibit himself in the dress of an American Indian, performing the war-whoop, etc., and by this, I believe, he obtained a very good livelihood." He appeared as far afield as London.

Williamson invested his new-found gains by turning vintner, opening a successful tavern near the courthouses, which became commonly known as "Indian Peter's coffee-room." His establishment was immortalized by poet Robert Fergusson with these lines:

"This vacance [vacation] is a heavy doom
  On Indian Peter's coffee-room
For a' his china pigs are toom [bottles are empty]
  Nor do we see
In wine the soukar biskets soom [sugar biscuits swim]
  As light's a flee."

I guess you had to have been there.

Williamson continued his career as an author, publishing an expanded version of his memoirs, along with political tracts and details of a device he had invented for reaping corn.

In 1769, his literary endeavors caused him to take the natural next step of becoming a printer. When announcing his new venture, he commented dryly on his qualifications for the job: "I was born in Aberdeenshire, where it is thought a crime to be honest; and I think such precepts the best lesson a Printer can get." In 1773, he had the proud achievement of publishing the first directory of Edinburgh.

He became so successful as a printer that he abandoned tavern-keeping altogether to devote himself to the congenial world of literature. In 1776, he set up Edinburgh's first penny-post system, which he managed until 1793, when it was taken over by the Government. It was the first continuous postal service in all of Britain.

Alas, Williamson's personal affairs were not as happy and prosperous as his professional endeavors. In 1770, he married a mantua-maker named Jean Wilson. The pair had nine children, of whom four lived to adulthood. For sixteen years, all apparently went well. However, then Mrs. Williamson seems to have gone through what we today would call a "mid-life crisis." As the subsequent divorce suit tells us, "the said Jean Wilson, casting off all fear of God and forgetting her conjugal vows and engagements, has for these several years bygone followed a tract of keeping fellowship, company, and society with godless, lewd, and abandoned men, known not to be the pursuer, one of more; treating, entertaining, and conversing with them privately...and other ways unseemly." Worse still, "the said Jean Wilson has been in the practice of frequenting different houses of bad fame both in this city and neighbourhood, where she used to meet with lewd and wicked men...in which houses she has often got herself intoxicated with liquor."

In short, Jean was having herself far too much fun.

Her husband--never averse to turning personal woes into profitable copy--edited, printed, and published a report on their divorce. To his wife's charge that he himself was not averse "to tippling and intoxication with mean and low people," he merely wrote haughtily that "These are reflections which in prudence she ought not to have made." He complained that when he insisted on a separation, his wife stripped their house of everything not nailed down, and removed herself and their children to her father's house. This despoliation forced Williamson to "leave his house, which he had possessed for thirty-three years with honour and credit, and betake himself to strange lodgings." Not content with robbing him blind, he asserted that his estranged wife and father-in-law spread slanderous reports about him and set up a rival penny-post office.

The divorce suit was heard in December 1788. Although Mrs. Williamson asserted that she had never been involved in anything other than innocent dress-making, her husband produced a plethora of witness testifying that her mantua-making shop was little more than a cover for her older, far less respectable, real profession. Tellingly, the defendant produced no witnesses in her behalf.

Peter's luck in courts of law continued to hold. His divorce was granted, along with custody of his children. Thereafter, his life was uncharacteristically quiet until his death in January 1799. His obituary described him as "well known for his various adventures." It has been theorized that he has gained a more lasting fame as the model for David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped."


  1. Unusually for the protagonist of a Strange Company story, Williamson's fortunes stayed good - despite the more or less regular bumps in the road - which he turned to even better fortune.

    1. He does seem to have been like a cat--always landing on his feet.


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