Captain James Smith and the Black Boys

Captain James Smith, born in Peters Township, near here, was a remarkable character. He was captured in 1755 near Raystown (afterwards called Bedford) by Indians. At that time the province of Pennsylvania had 300 men employed under Colonel Burd building a road from Fort Loudon to Bedford. For some reason this work was discontinued, and the road was not completed until 1758. Smith was taken to Fort Duquesne, where he saw the victorious French and Indians return from the defeat of Braddock and witnessed the terrible torture of British prisoners. After running the gauntlet he was adopted by the Indians, and finally in 1760 he was exchanged at Quebec and returned home. In 1765 some traders brought a large supply of warlike goods, such as powder, tomahawks, etc., from Philadelphia on wagons to Henry Pallens (Pawlins), near Greencastle. They loaded seventy pack horses with these goods, to convey them over the mountains to the Indians to trade for valuable furs, etc. This was unlawful, for the King had forbidden any more trading with Indians until peace was fully concluded, which was not done, until the following year, when Pontiac met Sir William Johnson on the Mohawk and settled its terms. Besides being unlawful, it was very dangerous for the pioneer settlers. They felt persuaded that those warlike stores would be used by the savages to massacre them and their neighbors. William Duffield, with fifty armed men, met the pack-horse train near Mercersburg and entreated them not to proceed with their dangerous supplies to the savages. They were jeered and hooted by the traders and their hirelings. So, also, after they followed them to the Cove, where McConnellsburg now stands. This aroused the anger of Captain Smith. He collected ten of his old warriors whopm he had trained to fight in Indian style and went off privately after night to Sideling Hill, where he stationed his men along the road behind trees. When the pack-horse train came along next day, they opened fire, killing some of the horses loaded with goods. This frightened the traders and caused them to change their tune. They called out, “Pray, gentlemen, what would you have us to do?” They were told to unload the goods and place them on a pile and retire to the rear. When they left Smith and his “Black Boys,” whose faces were painted black to disguise them, set fire to the goods and destroyed them.

The traders went back to Fort Loudoun and got Captain Grant, then in command, to arrest a number of citizens on suspicion and, without consulting with the civil authorities, confined them in the guard house. Smith then raised three hundred (300) riflemen and encamped on a hill near Fort Loudon. They soon had more Highlanders captured than Grant had men in prison. He then sent them a flag of truce and agreed to exchange prisoners. This exploit put an end to the work of supplying Indians with warlike goods for the time being.

Four years later, in 1769, the Indians again became troublesome on the frontier. The selfish and unprincipled traders were supplying them with warlike stores, in spite of remonstrances from the settlers. As in 1769, the settlers felt justified in waylaying the traders near Bedford and destroyed their stock of powder, lead, etc. A number of settlers were arrested on suspicion and confined in irons by the British commander at Fort bedford. Although Captain Smith had nothing to do with the operations of this new club of “Black Boys” and did not altogether approve of their actions, yet he felt that it was his duty to rescue the settlers from arbitrary military power. Accordingly, he collected eighteen of his old “Black Boys” whom he had trained in the Indian wars an proceeded to Fort Bedford. By a forced march from Juniata Crossing, after night, they arrived at Fort Bedford at break of day and, with the aid of William Thompson, a resident used as a spy, he managed to surprise the garrison and capture the fort. They got a blacksmith and had him take the irons off the prisoners. As Smith used to afterwards say, “This was the first British fort in America that was taken by American rebels.”

For this exploit Smith was arrested. In the scuffle one of his captors was killed. He was taken to Carlisle to be tried for murder. His “Black Boys” and other friends went there in force, 600 in all, to rescue him, but Smith made a speech urging them to return to their homes and let the law take its course. He was triumphantly acquitted. He afterwards held important official positions in Bedford and Westmoreland county delegates to the convention which met in Philadelphia, July 15, 1776, to lay the foundations of a government based on the authority of the people. Before taking their seats or casting their votes they were required to subscribe to the following orthodox statement of Christian doctrine: “I, James Smith, do profess faith in God, the Father, and in Jesus Christ, His eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Ghost, on God blessed forevermore, and do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be by divine inspiration.” That convention adjourned September 28, 1776, after framing an excellent form of government by the people and for the people. In fact, their work has largely formed the basis of all the state constitutions since adopted. Smith was a colonel in the Revolutionary army and finally died in Kentucky, where he rendered service against hostile Indians. With 36 men he captured 200 Hessians in New Jersey and induced some of them to settle at Strassburg, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

Fort Loudon Monument Dedicatory Services, by Rev. Cyrus Cort, 1916.

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