Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pompey & London - Death in the Wilderness

History has a means of setting up contrasts. In an earlier post I explored tremendous risks for slaves, especially when on the frontier of what is now called Kentucky. Two notable men - both with relatively recent African ancestry - died in a no man's land only a day or so apart. Each embraced initiative when the slave experience tends not to reward such behavior.

These men, one slave, one free and both black, performed diametrically different roles in this event.

London was enslaved. He was the property of Nathaniel Henderson (1736-1794). London probably helped Daniel Boone (1734-1820) in 1775 to cut the Transylvania Path (also called the Wilderness Trace) to a remote, 20,000,000-acre claim made by Tory investors.
In September 1778, Boone had only just fled captivity among Shawnee in what is now Ohio. The talent most responsible for Boone's ability to communicate with his captors belonged to Pompey. Like Jonathan Pointer, Pompey was valued for his ability to speak English. According to Shawnee Heritage, Pompey was born about 1740. By 1755 - sometime after his capture/liberation from slaveholders on the Virginia frontier - this bilingual asset had been adopted into the tribe. Pompey had married and fathered at least one son when he - in the company of over 400 native warriors with at least 40 pack horses, the largest force to invade Kentucky en masse - approached the crude stockade later to be called Boonesborough. That he had attained some status may be inferred by the fact that Pompey bore the war party's flag of truce as braves sallied to the fort, seeking the Americans' surrender.

After negotiations broke down, natives besieged the 40 or so able-bodied defenders and their families. In most accounts, Pompey taunted the trapped pioneers with profanities. As translator, it was Pompey who sent word that fellow warriors had heard of the beauty of Boone's daughter (Boone had used cunning and force to free Jemima after her 1776 capture) and were requesting an opportunity to look upon her. Supposedly desiring to postpone attack, Boone persuaded several women to comply: it was Pompey's voice urging the women to let down their hair. Few remaining accounts declare it, but it is more than likely that the besieged "harbored a great deal of bad feelings about the presence of Pompey." In Anglos' world view, it was certainly out of place that a black man would curse them, let alone call their women to such revealing behavior.

It is unlikely that Boone - a former Quaker known to be investing in slaves by 1781 - would have thought himself profane when, as a captive earlier in the year, he deprecated treatment he found demeaning. Yale professor John Mack Faragher, quoting a Boone descendant in Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, has the famous pioneer telling Black Fish, the Shawnee war chief who had adopted him, "When I am at home I don't do this kind of work. I have Niggers to work for me. You and your Squaw calls me your Son, but this don't look like you love me."

It is not reported whether Pompey translated this for Boone.

It is worth noting that slaves confronted by Black Fish that September were armed ... and expected to defend those holding them in servitude. When he is freed in 1782, one of the first actions Monk will take is to produce gunpowder: once he has a vested interest in public safety, Monk takes steps to assure it, even though he also defends men who force his fellows to ceaseless labor, insufficient diets, and inferior clothes and shelter.

It was likely Boone who ordered London to a sentry post at the fort's kitchen when Shawnee warriors began pressing the encircled fort. Accounts differ as to whether the twenty-four-year-old "bravely volunteered" or was "directed by the Commander" to take a tremendous nighttime risk. According to Faragher:
"A small fence that adjoined the back wall of one of the cabins was set afire, and, fearing that it would burn through, several men dug through the cabin floor and London, a slave whose master was away from the settlement, squeezed out and succeeded in pushing the blazing timbers away with a forked stick. As he lay in the dark outside the fort, London saw a Shawnee warrior hidden nearby behind a tree stump. He whispered to the men behind him to pass up a loaded gun, took aim, pulled the trigger; the lock snapped failing to ignite the powder, and the warrior jerked toward the well-known sound, peering into the darkness, without making out the shooter. London cocked and pulled again, and this time the powder in the pan flashed, but the gun failed to fire. Now the Indian saw his attacker clearly, illuminated by the burst of powder, and shot him dead."
In most surviving accounts that mention him, London is lauded for his courage ... and for daring to take aggressive measures while exposed to danger. One assumes London was not provided a faulty firearm, for he defended whoever handed him the gun as well as his own life.

A nearly continuous exchange of vulgar gibes, a practice Americans called 'blackguarding,' went on for days. After some time came an insistent question from defenders: "Where's Pompey?"

Perhaps in broken English, the Shawnee or their French escorts reportedly replied, "Pompey has gone to Chillicothe to fetch more Indians."

No longer hearing the former slave's raucous jeers, 'forters' continued pressing: "Where's Pompey?"

"Pompey has gone to hunt in the woods for some of the white men's roaming pigs," came the reply.

From Faragher:

"Pompey, who took a special pleasure in infuriating the Americans, was one of the most active participants in the blackguarding. He challenged their courage and manhood and dared them to come out and fight or else surrender. But he got carelessly involved with the game, popping up from the bank of the river to hurl repeated insults and fire his gun toward the fort. The men in the bastions answered in kind with words and fire, while others took aim at different spots along the bank where Pompey might next appear. Unable to resist another retort, he jumped up one time too many and took a shot square in the face."
"Where's Pompey?" was the insistent taunt.

According to Caruso in The Appalachian Frontier, one brave yelled: "Pompey ne-pan." (Pompey is asleep.) Another corrected him: "Pompey nee-poo." (Pompey is dead.) "Redskins and settlers chuckled at the play on words," amidst the very real threat of violent death.

The most sober accounts attribute the fatal shot to William Collins, 'a fine marksman.' A few of the more chauvinist reporters give variations of an account where Pompey climbs a tree and fires into the fort. (Boone is shot in the upper shoulder, but I've found no warrior credited with the wound.)

This is from the U.S. Forest Service:
"One of the most harrassing of the sharpshooters was the negro Pompey. He had been industrially sniping from a tall tree, doing his best to pick off people moving within the stockade over which he could fire from his high perch. Finally, the exasperated Daniel Boone loaded his rifle, ole tick-licker, with a heavy charge. At the crack of his rifle Pompey came tumbling out of the tree dead."
So stunning it almost gives pause for meditation on the implications, is an almost universal allegation that, when the war party withdrew at the end of a 10-day siege, Pompey's body remained on the field of battle. Implied is that, as was custom, native warriors removed all (perhaps 37 bodies) of their fallen comrades, but neglected their adopted African American brother.

Slaves, generally deprived of any advantages to be accrued from formal education, relied on oral accounts as a means of socializing one another to their impoverished condition. It would have been wise for the dominant culture to conclude any account of Pompey's effrontery with his death ... and abandonment by his adopted people. It might serve as a warning to other slaves considering a change of allegiances.

This contemporary, Federal account (unattributed) by the forest service keeps the implied message alive:
"... apparently no Shawnee cared in the least what happened to the black body or the wooly scalp of the Negro slave. Dead or alive, a warrior's honor was safe if he still had his scalp."
It should be noted that Shawnee Heritage declares Pompey not only survived this encounter, but was known to be in Missouri the following year.

By November, 1778, London's owner appealed to the General Assembly of Virginia for compensation for his war-time loss:
"... in defending fort Boon in the County of Kentucky against an attempt of the Indians, your Petitioner had a valuable negro fellow killed - That the said negro was ordered by the Commanding officer to take a gun, and place himself in a dangerous post and to keep watch & fire on the Indians, which he accordingly did and was killed - That if the said negroe had been suffered to remain within his Cabbin, he could not have been hurt, That the loss of so valuable a slave together with the many other losses sustained by your petitioner in that Country distress him very much -"
From a supporting affidavit by W. Buchanan we hear the allegation that London "was worth upwards of Six hundred pounds." Henderson's claim was swiftly rejected.

It seems to me, picking and choosing among extant historical records, that we can believe both Pompey and London were bold ... perhaps to the point of recklessness. Neither seem to have shirked involvement when adventure called. Both expressed commitment to the social fabric webbing them in. In conclusion, I'd like to play a note on that old saw, that 'history is written by the winners.' I think it likely that accounts of Pompey's participation in the Siege at Boonesborough were colored by subsequent generations who sought to preserve a higher status in social order that was based on their skin color. Pompey remains within the folklore as a warning: persons of color should not act rudely. The account of London's behavior plays into a meme later expressed (and presently being discredited); that numbers of slaves so valued their position in southern society that they fought for the Confederacy.

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