From The Settlers' Forts of Western Pennsylvania

By John A. DeMay

Another illustration of the unruly nature of the frontierspeople is a story about the audacious conduct of The Black Rifle and his Black Boys.

James Smith was 18 years old when he volunteered to go with General Braddock on his ill-fated mission against Ft. Duquesne at (now) Pittsburgh. General Braddock was marching his men through the thick unending forest and he needed a road. Smith was one of hundreds who were sent far in advance of the army to cut trees and clear a road about twelve feet wide. It had to have been tedious, back-breaking labor. Hostile Indians were constantly lurking about and one day Smith was captured. After enduring the usual beating (often deadly) by "running the gauntlet" at every village through which he passed, he was finally adopted into the Coughnawago tribe - an off-shoot of the Mohawks. He lived with them for several years but saw his chance to escape one day and did so.

He returned to his friends along the frontier which was then around Bedford, just east of the Allegheny Mountains. A few years later Indian raids began again in earnest and that is when he organized his Black Boys. He dressed them as Indians, they painted their faces and bodies in red and black war paint, he taught them Indian tactics, and they became much admired "saviors" among the farm families whose homes and persons were being attacked. They were very much a "reactive" force. They did some patrolling throughout the neighborhood looking for signs of Indians, but mostly they were at their farms until they saw smoke in a valley rising from the burning house of a distant neighbor or an hysterical child came up to announce the massacre of his or her family. Then the Black Boys gathered and went out in search of the Indian raiders, stopping only to look for survivors around burnt-out cabins and to bury the dead of a family they knew. They were very successful in tracking down these raiding Indians, fighting them, driving them away, and recapturing prisoners.

Among the persons the settlers hated - and their ill-feelings encompassed Indians, Quakers, magistrates - were traders who sold guns, lead, and powder to the Indians.

On one occasion Smith learned of a pack train coming though the mountains loaded with just such merchandise. There were eighty-one horses in this train so it was a large one. Smith rounded up ten of his Black Boys and ambushed the traders on Sideling Hill. The Pennsylvania Turnpike goes over that mountain today not far from the scene of this ambush. The Black Boys destroyed sixty-three horse loads of goods, Smith proudly recounted, burning the guns and powder, spilling some rum and allowing the traders to go back with only a few horse loads of blankets and other innocuous goods. The traders did go back, to Fort Loudon, near Chambersburg. This was a military fort, garrisoned by Highlanders of the famous Black Watch Regiment. It was on the frontier and represented the power and might of the State and Royal authority in the area. The garrison commander, Capt. Grant, was not only a military leader but the very representative of government in both civil and criminal matters. There was no one else to perform those functions except him.

The traders reported the outrageous events to him and, quite properly, he set out to apprehend the culprits. Not so surprisingly he couldn't find any person who would either admit to being a part of the Black Boys or knowing about the ambush and destruction of the trader's goods. In exasperation he arrested eight "suspicious" persons and jailed them in the fort. That was a mistake. The news flew throughout the countryside and every farmer, with his grown sons, for a radius of thirty miles joined with Smith's Black Boys and headed for Fort Loudon. Nearly three hundred men encamped on a hill and besieged the fort. Capt. Grant tried to ignore the threat and kept his men on their regular duties both inside, and unfortunately, outside the fort. In ones and twos these Highlanders were kidnapped by the watching frontiersmen until they had twice as many prisoners as the good Captain had.

This was clearly an unacceptable state of affairs and there was absolutely nothing the commander could do. He certainly was in no condition to fight with these people.

He called a truce. There was a prisoner exchange. The settlers went home, happy. What Capt. Grant felt is unknown but may be guessed.

This incident reverberated across the state and soon the Governor, Attorney General, and other nervous officials hurried to nearby Carlisle to do something about this terrible defiance of the authority of both the State and the King.

Are you surprised to learn that:

"Although the Governor huffed and puffed and issued warrants for the arrest of some of the "Black Boys," no one would execute the warrants, and a grand jury ... listened to witnesses but decided the testimony was too flimsy to return indictments."  

My, my...

The excitement died down but Capt. Grant seemed to have learned nothing from the experience. He apparently had a short memory and a thick skull. Sometime later he seized some rifles from a few of the country people on a belief that they were stolen and, despite warnings to return them, refused to give them up. Once again Smith and his Black Boys had their way- they kidnapped Capt. Grant. The rifles were returned.

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