Narrative of the Sufferings of Peter Williamson – Indian Captivities

A faithful narrative of the sufferings of Peter Williamson, who settled near the forks of the Delaware in Pennsylvania. Having been taken by the Indians in his own house, October 2d, 1754. Written by himself.

I was born within ten miles of the town of Aberdeen, in the north of Scotland, of reputable parents. At eight years of age, being a sturdy boy, I was taken notice of by two fellows belonging to a vessel, employed (as the trade then was) by some of the worthy merchants of Aberdeen in that villainous and execrable practice of stealing young children from their parents, and selling them as slaves in the plantations abroad, and on board the ship I was easily cajoled by them, where I was conducted between decks, to some others they had kidnapped in the same manner, and in about a month’s time set sail for America. When arrived at Philadelphia, the captain sold us at about sixteen pounds per head. What became of my unhappy companions I never knew; but it was my lot to be sold for seven years, to one of my countrymen, who had in his youth been kidnapped like myself, but from another town.

Having no children of his own, and commiserating my condition, he took care of me, indulged me in going to school, where I went every winter for five years, and made a tolerable proficiency. With this good master I continued till he died, and, as a reward for my faithful service, he left me two hundred pounds currency, which was then about an hundred and twenty pounds sterling, his best horse, saddle, and all his wearing apparel.

Being now seventeen years old, and my own master, having money in my pocket, and all other necessaries, I employed myself in jobbing for near seven years; when I resolved to settle, and married the daughter of a substantial planter. My father-in-law made me a deed of gift of a tract of land that lay (unhappily for me, as it has since proved) on the frontiers of the province of Pennsylvania, near the forks of Delaware, containing about two hundred acres, thirty of which were well cleared and fit for immediate use, on which were a good house and barn. The place pleasing me well, I settled on it. My money I expended in buying stock, household furniture, and implements for out-of-door work; and being happy in a good wife, my felicity was complete: but in 1754, the Indians, who had for a long time before ravaged and destroyed other parts of America unmolested, began now to be very troublesome on the frontiers of our province, where they generally appeared in small skulking parties, committing great devastation.

Terrible and shocking to human nature were the barbarities daily committed by these savages! Scarce did a day pass but some unhappy family or other fell victims to savage cruelty. Terrible, indeed, it proved to me, as well as to many others. I, that was now happy in an easy state of life, blessed with an affectionate and tender wife, became on a sudden one of the most unhappy of mankind: scarce can I sustain the shock which forever recurs on recollecting the fatal second of October, 1754. My wife that day went from home, to visit some of her relations; as I staid up later than usual, expecting her return, none being in the house besides myself, how great was my surprise and terror, when, about eleven o’clock at night, I heard the dismal war-whoop of the savages, and found that my house was beset by them. I flew to my chamber window, and perceived them to be twelve in number. Having my gun loaded, I threatened them with death, if they did not retire. But how vain and fruitless are the efforts of one man against the united force of so many blood-thirsty monsters! One of them that could speak English threatened me in return, “that if I did not come out they would burn me alive,” adding, however, “that if I would come out and surrender myself prisoner they would not kill me.” In such deplorable circumstances, I chose to rely on their promises, rather than meet death by rejecting them; and accordingly went out of the house, with my gun in my hand, not knowing that I had it. Immediately on my approach they rushed on me like tigers, and instantly disarmed me. Having me thus in their power, they bound me to a tree, went into the house, plundered it of everything they could carry off, and then set fire to it, and consumed what was left before my eyes. Not satisfied with this, they set fire to my barn, stable, and out-houses, wherein were about two hundred bushels of wheat, six cows, four horses, and five sheep, all which were consumed to ashes.

Having thus finished the execrable business about which they came, one of the monsters came to me with a tomahawk and threatened me with the worst of deaths if I would not go with them. This I agreed to, and then they untied me, and gave me a load to carry, under which I traveled all that night, full of the most terrible apprehensions, lest my unhappy wife should likewise have fallen into their cruel power. At day-break my infernal masters ordered me to lay down my load, when, tying my hands again round a tree, they forced the blood out at my fingers’ ends. And then kindling a fire near the tree to which I was bound, the most dreadful agonies seized me, concluding I was going to be made a sacrifice to their barbarity. The fire being made, they for some time danced round me after their manner, whooping, hollowing and shrieking in a frightful manner. Being satisfied with this sort of mirth, they proceeded in another manner: taking the burning coals, and sticks flaming with fire at the ends, holding them to my face, head, hands, and feet, and at the same time threatening to burn me entirely if I cried out. Thus tortured as I was, almost to death, I suffered their brutalities, without being allowed to vent my anguish otherwise than by shedding silent tears; and these being observed, they took fresh coals and applied them near my eyes, telling me my face was wet, and that they would dry it for me, which indeed they cruelly did. How I underwent these tortures has been matter of wonder to me, but God enabled me to wait with more than common patience for the deliverance I daily prayed for.

At length they sat down round the fire, and roasted the meat, of which they had robbed my dwelling. When they had supped, they offered some to me; though it may easily be imagined I had but little appetite to eat, after the tortures and miseries had suffered, yet was I forced to seem pleased with what they offered me, lest by refusing it they should re-assume their hellish practices. What I could not eat I contrived to hide, they having unbound me till they imagined I had eat all; but there they bound me as before; in which deplorable condition I was forced to continue the whole day. When the sun was set, they put out the fire, and covered the ashes with leaves, as is their usual custom, that the white people might not discover any traces of their having been there.

Going from thence along the Susquehanna, for the space of six miles, loaded as I was before, we arrived at a spot near the Apalachian Mountains, or Blue hills, where they hid their plunder under logs of wood. From thence they proceeded to a neighboring house, occupied by one Jacob Snider and his unhappy family, consisting of his wife, five children, and a young man his servant. They soon got admittance into the unfortunate man’s house, where they immediately, without the least remorse, scalped both parents and children; nor could the tears, the shrieks, or cries of poor innocent children prevent their horrid massacre. Having thus scalped them, and plundered the house of everything that was movable, they set fire to it, and left the distressed victims amidst the flames.

Thinking the young man belonging to this unhappy family would be of service to them in carrying part of their plunder, they spared his life, and loaded him and myself with what they had here got, and again marched to the Blue hills, where they stowed their goods as before. My fellow sufferer could not support the cruel treatment which we were obliged to suffer, and complaining bitterly to me of his being unable to proceed any farther, I endeavored to animate him, but all in vain, for he still continued his moans and tears, which one of the savages perceiving, as we traveled along, came up to us, and with his tomahawk gave him a blow on the head, which felled the unhappy youth to the ground, whom they immediately scalped and left. The suddenness of this murder shocked me to that degree, that I was in a manner motionless, expecting my fate would soon be the same: however, recovering my distracted thoughts, I dissembled my anguish as well as I could from the barbarians; but still, such was my terror, that for some time I scarce knew the days of the week, or what I did.

They still kept on their course near the mountains, where they lay skulking four or five days, rejoicing at the plunder they had got. When provisions became scarce, they made their way towards Susquehanna, and passing near another house, inhabited by an old man, whose name was John Adams, with his wife and four small children, and meeting with no resistance, they immediately scalped the mother and her children before the old man’s eyes. Inhuman and horrid as this was, it did not satisfy them; for when they had murdered the poor woman, they acted with her in such a brutal manner as decency will not permit me to mention. The unhappy husband, not being able to avoid the sight, entreated them to put an end to his miserable being; but they were as deaf to the tears and entreaties of this venerable sufferer as they had been to those of the others, and proceeded to burn and destroy his house, barn, corn, hay, cattle, and everything the poor man a few hours before was master of. Having saved what they thought proper from the flames, they gave the old man, feeble, weak, and in the miserable condition he then was, as well as myself, burdens to carry, and loading themselves likewise with bread and meat, pursued their journey towards the Great swamp. Here they lay for eight or nine days, diverting themselves, at times, in barbarous cruelties on the old man: sometimes they would strip him naked, and paint him all over with various sorts of colors; at other times they would pluck the white hairs from his head, and tauntingly tell him he was a fool for living so long, and that they should show him kindness in putting him out of the world. In vain were all his tears, for daily did they tire themselves with the various means they tried to torment him; sometimes tying him to a tree, and whipping him; at other times, scorching his furrowed cheek with red-hot coals, and burning his legs quite to the knees. One night, after he had been thus tormented, whilst he and I were condoling each other at the miseries we daily suffered, twenty-five other Indians arrived, bringing with them twenty scalps and three prisoners, who had unhappily fallen into their hands in Conogocheague, a small town near the river Susquehanna, chiefly inhabited by the Irish. These prisoners gave us some shocking accounts of the murders and devastations committed in their parts; a few instances of which will enable the reader to guess at the treatment the provincials have suffered for years past. This party, who now joined us, had it not, I found, in their power to begin their violence so soon as those who visited my habitation; the first of their tragedies being on the 25th of October, 1754, when John Lewis, with his wife and three small children, were inhumanly scalped and murdered, and his house, barn, and everything he possessed burnt and destroyed. On the 28th, Jacob Miller, with his wife and six of his family, with everything on his plantations, shared the same fate. The 30th, the house, mill, barn, twenty head of cattle, two teams of horses, and everything belonging to George Folke, met with the like treatment, himself, wife, and all his miserable family, consisting of nine in number, being scalped, then cut in pieces and given to the swine. One of the substantial traders, belonging to the province, having business that called him some miles up the country, fell into the hands of these ruffians, who not only scalped him, but immediately roasted him before he was dead; then, like cannibals, for want of other food, eat his whole body, and of his head made, what they called, an Indian pudding.

From these few instances of savage cruelty, the deplorable situation of the defenseless inhabitants, and what they hourly suffered in that part of the globe, must strike the utmost horror, and cause in every breast the utmost detestation, not only against the authors, but against those who, through inattention, or pusillanimous or erroneous principles, suffered these savages at first, un-repelled, or even unmolested, to commit such outrages, depredations, and murders.

The three prisoners that were brought with these additional forces, constantly repining at their lot, and almost dead with their excessive hard treatment, contrived at last to make their escape; but being far from their own settlements, and not knowing the country, were soon after met by some others of the tribes or nations at war with us, and brought back. The poor creatures, almost famished for want of sustenance, having had none during the time of their escape, were no sooner in the power of the barbarians than two of them were tied to a tree, and a great fire made round them, where they remained till they were terribly scorched and burnt; when one of the villains with his scalping knife ripped open their bellies, took out their entrails, and burned them before their eyes, whilst the others were cutting, piercing, and tearing the flesh from their breasts, hands, arms, and legs, with red-hot irons, till they were dead. The third unhappy victim was reserved a few hours longer, to be, if possible, sacrificed in a more cruel manner: his arms were tied close to his body, and a hole being dug deep enough for him to stand upright, he was put into it, and earth rammed and beat in all round his body up to his neck, so that his head only appeared above ground; they then scalped him, and there let him remain for three or four hours in the greatest agonies; after which they made a small fire near his head, causing him to suffer the most excruciating torments; whilst the poor creature could only cry for mercy by killing him immediately, for his brains were boiling in his head. Inexorable to all he said, they continued the fire till his eyes gushed out of their sockets. Such agonizing torments did this unhappy creature suffer for near two hours before he was quite dead. They then cut off his head, and buried it with the other bodies; my task being to dig the graves; which, feeble and terrified as I was, the dread of suffering the same fate enabled me to do.

A great snow now falling, the barbarians were fearful lest the white people should, by their tracks, find out their skulking retreats, which obliged them to make the best of their way to their winter quarters, about two hundred miles farther from any plantations or inhabitants. After a long and painful journey, being almost starved, I arrived with this infernal crew at Alamingo 1. There I found a number of wigwams full of their women and children. Dancing, singing, and shouting were their general amusements. And in all their festivals and dances they relate what successes they have had, and what damages they have sustained in their expeditions; in which I now unhappily became a part of their theme. The severity of the cold increasing, they stripped me of my clothes for their own use, and gave me such as they usually wore themselves, being a piece of blanket, and a pair of moccasins, or shoes, with a yard of coarse cloth, to put round me instead of breeches.

At Alamingo I remained near two months, till the snow was off the ground. Whatever thoughts I might have of making my escape, to carry them into execution was impracticable, being so far from any plantations or white people, and the ever weather rendering my limbs in a manner quite stiff and motionless; however, I contrived to defend myself against the inclemency of the weather as well as I could, by making myself a little wigwam with the bark of the trees, covering it with earth, which made it resemble a cave; and, to prevent the ill effects of the cold, I kept a good fire always near the door. My liberty of going about was, indeed, more than I could have expected, but they well knew the impracticability of my escaping from them. Seeing me outwardly easy and submissive, they would sometimes give me a little meat, but my chief food was Indian corn. At length the time came when they were preparing themselves for another expedition against the planters and white people; but before they set out, they were joined by many other Indians.

As soon as the snow was quite gone, they set forth on their journey towards the back parts of the province of Pennsylvania; all leaving their wives and children behind in their wigwams. They were now a formidable body, amounting to near one hundred and fifty. My business was to carry what they thought proper to load me with, but they never entrusted me with a gun. We marched on several days without any thing particular occurring, almost famished for want of provisions; for my part, I had nothing but a few stalks of Indian corn, which I was glad to eat dry; nor did the Indians themselves fare much better, for as we drew near the plantations they were afraid to kill any game, lest the noise of their guns should alarm the inhabitants.

When we again arrived at the Blue hills, about thirty miles from the Irish settlements before mentioned, we encamped for three days, though God knows we had neither tents nor anything else to defend us from the inclemency of the air, having nothing to lie on by night but the grass; their usual method of lodging, pitching, or encamping, by night, being in parcels of ten or twelve men to a fire, where they lie upon the grass or brush wrapped up in a blanket, with their feet to the fire.

During our stay here, a sort of council of war was held, when it was agreed to divide themselves into companies of about twenty men each; after which every captain marched with his party where he thought proper. I still belonged to my old masters, but was left behind on the mountains with ten Indians; to stay till the rest should return; not thinking it proper to carry me nearer to Conogocheague, or the other plantations.

Here I began to meditate an escape, and though I knew the country round extremely well, yet I was very cautious of giving the least suspicion of any such intention. However, the third day after the grand body left, my companions thought proper to traverse the mountains in search of game for their subsistence, leaving me bound in such a manner that I could not escape. At night, when they returned, having unbound me, we all sat down together to supper on what they had killed, and soon after (being greatly fatigued with their day’s excursion) they composed themselves to rest, as usual. I now tried various ways to try whether it was a scheme to prove my intentions or not; but after making a noise and walking about, sometimes touching them with my feet, I found there was no fallacy. Then I resolved, if possible, to get one of their guns, and, if discovered, to die in my defense, rather than be taken. For that purpose I made various efforts to get one from under their heads, (where they always secured them,) but in vain. Disappointed in this, I began to despair of carrying my design into execution; yet, after a little recollection, and trusting myself to the divine protection, I set forwards, naked and defenseless as I was. Such was my terror, however, that in going from them I halted, and paused every four or five yards, looking fearfully towards the spot where I had left them, lest they should awake and miss me; but when I was two hundred yards from them, I mended my pace, and made as much haste as I possibly could to the foot of the mountains; when, on a sudden, I was struck with the greatest terror at hearing the wood cry, as it is called, which the savages I had left were making upon missing their charge. The more my terror increased the faster I pushed on, and, scarce knowing where I trod, drove through the woods with the utmost precipitation, sometimes falling and bruising myself, cutting my feet and legs against the stones in a miserable manner. But faint and maimed as I was, I continued my flight till daybreak, when, without having anything to sustain nature but a little corn left, I crept into a hollow tree, where I lay very snug, and returned my prayers and thanks to the divine Being that had thus far favored my escape. But my repose was in a few hours destroyed at hearing the voices of the savages near the place where I was hid, threatening and talking how they would use me if they got me again. However, they at last left the spot where I heard them, and I remained in my apartment all that day without further molestation.

At night I ventured forwards again, frightened; thinking each twig that touched me a savage. The third day I concealed myself in like manner as before, and at night travelled, keeping off the main road as much as possible, which lengthened my journey many miles. But how shall I describe the terror I felt on the fourth night, when, by the rustling I made among the leaves, a party of Indians, that lay round a small fire, which I did not perceive, started from the ground, and, seizing their arms, ran from the fire amongst the woods. Whether to move forward or rest where I was, I knew not, when, to my great surprise and joy, I was relieved by a parcel of swine that made towards the place where I guessed the savages to be; who, on seeing them, imagined they had caused the alarm, very merrily returned to the fire, and lay again down to sleep. Bruised, crippled, and terrified as I was, I pursued my journey till break of day, when, thinking myself safe, I lay down under a great log, and slept till about noon. Before evening I reached the summit of a great hill, and looking out if I could spy any habitations of white people, to my inexpressible joy I saw some, which I guessed to be about ten miles’ distance.

In the morning I continued my journey towards the nearest cleared lands I had seen the day before, and, about four o’clock in the afternoon, arrived at the house of John Bell, an old acquaintance, where knocking at the door, his wife, who opened it, seeing me in such a frightful condition, flew from me, screaming, into the house. This alarmed the whole family who immediately fled to their arms, and I was soon accosted by the master with his gun in his hand. But on making myself known, (for he before took me to be an Indian,) he immediately caressed me, as did all his family, with extraordinary friendship, the report of my being murdered by the savages having reached them some months before. For two days and nights they very affectionately supplied me with all necessaries, and carefully attended me till my spirits and limbs were pretty well recovered, and I thought myself able to ride, when I borrowed of these good people (whose kindness merits my most grateful returns) a horse and some clothes, and set forward for my father-in-law’s house in Chester County, about one hundred and forty miles from thence, where I arrived on the 4th of January, 1755, (but scarce one of the family could credit their eyes, believing, with the people I had lately left, that I had fallen a prey to the Indians,) where I was received and embraced by the whole family with great affection. Upon inquiring for my dear wife, I found she had been dead two months! This fatal news greatly lessened the joy I otherwise should have felt at my deliverance from the dreadful state and company I had been in.


Collection: Indian Captivity Narratives. A collection of first hand Indian captivity narratives from a variety of sources. For a list of sources, please see title page.

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  1. A Delaware village.[]

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