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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Peter Williamson, Author and Publisher


Peter Williamson was born of poor parents at Hirnley, in the parish of Aboyne, county of Aberdeen, North Britain. When still very young he was sent to reside with an aunt in Aberdeen, as he tells us in his autobiography, " where, at eight years of age, playing one day on the quay with others of my companions, I was taken notice of by two fellows belonging to a vessel in the harbour, employed, as the trade then was, by some of the worthy merchants of the town, in that villainous and execrable practice called kidnapping; that is, stealing young children from their parents, and selling them as slaves in the plantations abroad. (Vide ' French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various Vicissitudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson, &c, dedicated to the Eight Hon. William Pitt, Esq. Written by himself. Third edition, with considerable improvements. Glasgow: Printed by J. Bryce and D. Paterson, for the benefit of the unfortunate Author, 1758.') Being marked out by these monsters as their prey, I was cajoled on board the ship by them, where I was no sooner got than they conducted me between the decks to some others they had kidnapped in the same manner."

Neither Williamson nor any of his fellow-captives were permitted again to get on deck, and in about a month afterwards the ship sailed for America. On arriving on the coast of that country she was assailed by a storm, and driven in the middle of the night on a sand-bank off Cape May, near the Cape of Delaware, and in a short time filled with water. The ruffian crew, hoisting out their boats, made their escape to land, leaving the poor boys to their fate in the vessel. Fortunately she held together till the following morning, when the Captain sent some of his men on board to bring the boys, and as much of the cargo as they could, on shore, where Williamson and his fellow-captives remained in a sort of camp for three weeks, when they were taken to Philadelphia, and there sold at about £16 per head. Williamson was separated from his companions, and from this time never heard any more of them. He was himself fortunate enough to fall into the hands of an excellent master, a humane and worthy man. This person was a countryman of his own of the name of Wilson, from Perth, who had himself been kidnapped in his youth. With this man Williamson lived very happily, and much at his ease, till the death of the former, which occurred a few years afterwards, when he was left by him, as a reward for his faithful services, the sum of .£120 in money, his best horse, saddle, and all his wearing apparel.

Our hero, who was only in his seventeenth year, being now his own master, employed himself in such country work as offered for the succeeding seven years, when, thinking he had acquired sufficient means to enable him to settle respectably in life, he married the daughter of a substantial planter, and was presented by his father-in-law with a deed of gift of a tract of land, comprising about 200 acres, situated on the frontiers of the province of Pennsylvania.

On this property there was a good house, which he furnished; and having stocked his farm, he sat down with the prospect of leading a peaceable and happy life—but these prospects were soon destroyed. As Williamson was sitting up one night later than usual, expecting the return of his wife, who had gone on a visit to her relations, he was suddenly alarmed by hearing the well-known and fatal war-whoop of the Indians. These dreadful sounds proceeded from a party of savages, to the number of twelve, who had surrounded his house for the purpose of robbery and murder. On hearing the ominous cry, Williamson seized a loaded gun, and at first endeavoured to scare away his horrible assailants, who were now attempting to beat in the door, by threatening to fire on them. But heedless of his menaces, and in their turn threatening to set fire to his house and burn him alive if he did not instantly surrender, he at length yielded, and, on promise of having his life spared, came out as they desired. Having got the unfortunate man into their power, the savages bound him to a tree, near his own door, plundered his house, and then set it on fire, together with his outhouses, barns, and stables, consuming all his grain, cattle, horses, and sheep; and thus, almost instantaneously, reducing him from a state of independence and comfort to one of beggary and misery. Having completed their diabolical work, one of the savages, advancing with uplifted tomahawk, threatened him with instant death if he did not cheerfully and willingly accompany them. Having consented to what he could not resist, they untied him, and loading him with the plunder of his own house, set off on their march homeward.

At daybreak, after having travelled all night, the savages ordered Williamson to lay down his load, when they again tied him to a tree by the hands, and so tightly, that the small cord by which he was bound forced the blood from his finger-ends. The wretches then kindled a fire close by their victim, who had no doubt that it was intended to roast him alive, and began dancing around him with the most hideous yells and gestures. Having satisfied themselves with this pastime, they each snatched a stick from the fire, and began to apply their burning ends to various parts of his body, causing him the greatest torture. Of this cruelty they at length tired, and unbinding the wretched captive, gave him a portion of some victuals which they had hastily cooked. They then again fastened him to a tree, to which they kept him bound till night, when they resumed their march, loading him with their booty as before. The savages now proceeded towards the Blue Hills, where, having hid their plunder, they attacked the house of a settler named Snider, and, having found admission, they scalped himself, his wife, and five children, and finally set fire to their dwelling, having previously plundered it. The only individual spared was a young man, a servant in the house, whom they thought might be useful to them. Having perpetrated this atrocious deed, they loaded Williamson and the young man whose life they had spared with their booty, and again directed their steps towards the Blue Hills.

During the march, Williamson's companion in misfortune continuing, notwithstanding all the former could say to him, to bemoan his situation so loudly as to attract the notice of the savages, one of them came up to him, and struck the unhappy young man a blow on the head with his tomahawk, which instantly killed him. They then scalped him, and left him where he fell.

The savages next proceeded to the house of another settler named Adams, where they perpetrated similar atrocities, murdering his wife and four children, burning his house, corn, hay, and cattle. Adams himself, however, a feeble old man, they reserved for further cruelties. Having loaded him with the plunder of his own house, he was marched along with them, and on their arriving at the Great Swamp, where they remained for eight or nine days, was subjected to every species of torture which savage ingenuity could suggest. At one time they amused themselves by pulling the old man's beard out by the root; at another, by tying him to a tree, and flogging him with great severity; and again, scorching his face and legs with red-hot coals. While in this encampment, the savages with whom Williamson was captive were joined by another party, who brought along with them three prisoners and twenty scalps.

These unhappy men, who gave Williamson and his companion in misfortune, Adams, the most shocking accounts of the barbarities that had been practised by the party into whose hands they had fallen, having subsequently attempted to escape, were retaken, and put to the most cruel deaths.

From their present quarters the savages, still carrying Williamson along with them, proceeded two hundred miles farther into the interior, where their wigwams, wives, and children were. Here Williamson was detained for two months, suffering severely from cold and hunger, as the Indians paid no attention to his comforts, but left him to shift for himself as he best could, always taking care, however, that he should not escape them. At length another expedition against the whites having been determined on, the Indians, who, by various additions to their numbers, now amounted to about 150, began their march, taking Williamson along with them towards the back parts of the province of Pennsylvania.

On arriving at the Blue Hills, Williamson was left there with ten Indians, it not being deemed safe to take him nearer the plantations, to await the return of the main body. Here Williamson began to meditate an escape, and watching an opportunity one night when his guards were asleep, having previously assured himself that they were so, by gently touching their feet as they lay around the fire, he softly withdrew, after having vainly attempted to possess himself of one of their guns, which they always kept beneath their heads when they slept. Williamson's terror was so great lest he should be discovered, that he stopped as he was retreating every four or five paces, and looked fearfully towards the spot where his savage masters were lying; seeing, however, no motion amongst them, he gradually mended his pace, and had gained a considerable distavce, when he suddenly heard the war-ciy of the savages, who had missed their captive, and were now in pursuit of him.

The terror of Williamson, on hearing these appalling sounds, increased his speed. He rushed wildly on through woods and over rocks, falling and bruising himself severely, and cutting his feet and legs in a miserable manner; but he eventually succeeded in eluding the vigilance of his pursuers. Continuing his flight until daybreak, he then crept into the hollow of a tree, but was here again alarmed by hearing the voices of the savages in his immediate vicinity, loudly talking of how they should treat him if ho again fell into their hands. They, however, did not discover him, and soon after left the spot.

Williamson remained in his concealment till nightfall, when he again set out on his perilous journey, hiding himself in trees by day, and prosecuting his march by night. On one occasion during his route, he unknowingly approached so near a bivouac of savages, that the rustling he made amongst the trees alarmed them, when, starting from the ground and seizing their arms, they began to search around for the cause of the noise they had heard. Fortunately for Williamson, who stood stock-still, petrified with fear, a herd of wild swine at this critical moment made their appearance near the spot, when the savages thinking that they had been the cause of their alarm, gave up their search and returned to their fire. On observing this, Williamson recommenced his journey, aud finally arrived in safety at his father-in-law's, on the 4th January, 1755, where he learned that his wife had died two months before.

Soon after his arrival, Williamson was called before the State Assembly, then sitting at Philadelphia, discussing measures for checking the depredations of the savages, to communicate such intelligence regarding them as his experience had put him in possession of, and ultimately entered himself a volunteer in one of the regiments raised to serve against the French and Indians.

In this service, during which he was engaged in numerous skirmishes, he remained three years, having previously obtained the rank of Lieutenant, when he was taken prisoner by the French on the surrender of Oswego, marched to Quebec with other prisoners, and there embarked, according to stipulation, on board the La Fenomme, a French packet-boat, for Plymouth, where he arrived on the 6th of November, 1756. In about five months after, Williamson, with a party who had been quartered with him at Kingsbridge, were ordered to Plymouth Dock to be drafted into other regiments, but on being inspected he was found unfit for service, in consequence of a wound he had received in one of his hands, and was discharged.

On receiving his discharge, Williamson, who was now entirely destitute of means, being possessed of no more than six shillings, which had been allowed by Government to carry him home, proceeded to York. He there submitted the manuscript of his adventures amongst the Indians to some benevolent persons, who recommended its publication, and having by this means raised a little money, he set out for Aberdeen, where he arrived in June, 1758. But although now in his native place, his misfortunes had not yet terminated.

The little volume of his adventures which he had published at York, contained some reflections on the characters of the merchants of Aberdeen, implicating them in the practice of kidnapping, of which Williamson had himself been a victim. He had no sooner offered the work for sale in the traduced city, than he was called before the magistrates to answer to a complaint of libel on the character and reputation of the merchants of Aberdeen ; and he was ordered to sign a recantation, of what they called his calumnies, on pain of imprisonment, and was appointed to find caution to stand trial on the complaint, at any time when called for, and to be confined in jail till performance.

To this judgment was added an order, that all his books should be forthwith lodged in the clerk's chamber. His books were accordingly seized, the offensive leaves cut out, and burned at the market-cross by the hands of the common hangman. Williamson was subsequently amerced in the sum of ten shillings, and finally banished the city as a vagrant.

By the advice and assistance of some friends, however, he afterwards raised a process of oppression and damages against the magistrates of Aberdeen before the Court of Session, and ultimately obtained damages to the amount of .£100, with all the costs of process.

Previously to his obtaining this judgment, Williamson had settled in Edinburgh, where he first kept a tavern, then became a bookseller, printer, publisher, and projector. He appears some time before this to have published in York, " Some Considerations on the present State of Affairs ; wherein the defenceless situation of Great Britain is pointed out, and an easy, rational, and just scheme for its security at this dangerous crisis proposed in a Militia, formed on an equal plan, that can neither be oppressive to the poor nor offensive to the rich, as practised by some of his Majesty's colonies abroad, &c. York : printed for the author, and sold by all the booksellers in town, 1758," 8vo. pp. 56.

In 17C2, he addressed the following letter to the Printers of the Edinburgh Evening Courant:—

"As the scarcity of hands on account of the present war, and, of consequence, the great increase of the price of labour, have been for some time a most general complaint in this much depopulated country, that person must surely deserve well of the public who shall discover a method to supply the one, and reduce the other. Now the season is approaching which is appointed by Providence to crown the labours of the year, and in which the industrious farmer hopes to reap the fruits of his toil. This penury of hands, in a climate so variable as Scotland, may soon be felt in the severest manner. The high prices of grain, and the prospect of a plentiful crop, are certainly very urgent motives for embracing every means that may facilitate the cutting down of the corns with speed and safety. It is with a view to remedy, in a great measure, this universal complaint that I communicate, through the channel of your paper, my having, at a considerable expense, invented a machine, which I am able to demonstrate will, in the hands of a single man, do more execution in a field of oats in one day, and to better purpose, than it is in the power of six shearers to do. This machine is now completed, and is constructed in such a manner, that where the corn is tolerably thick, it will cut down near a sheaf at a stroke, and that without shaking the grain or disordering the straw, besides laying down the corn as regularly as the most expert shearer is capable to do. It is attended with another advantage, that the sun in a short time will so dry the grass and weeds, as well as win the straw and corn, that it may be fit either for putting into the stack or carrying into the barn. It is not from any principle of vanity or conceit that I have expatiated on the properties of this machine. My sole aim by this letter is, to intimate my invention to the honourable society for the encouragement of arts, sciences, &c, to any of whom I am ready to show the machine ; and, if they should think proper, give them ocular demonstrations of its answering the purposes intended, by my own hands. At the same time, if they shall approve of it, and be of opinion that it may in a great degree contribute to remove the grievance complained of, I have reason to hope that the Society will not withhold a suitable encouragement for the invention. In that event, I propose, for a moderate premium, to instruct any overseer, or principal servant on a farm, how to handle the machine, so that he may with his own hands cut down several acres of corn in a day. I am, Gentlemen, yours, &c.

"July, 1762. " Peter Williamson,

"Author of a book entitled, 'French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various vicissitudes of Fortune of the said Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his infancy, and sold as a Slave in Pennsylvania. Containing the History of the Author's Adventures in North America; his Captivity among the Indians, etc. To which is added an Account of the Proceedings of the Magistrates of Aberdeen against him, on his return to Scotland : a brief History of the Process against them before the Court of Session ; and a short Dissertation on Kidnapping. Sold by the Author, at his Shop, in the Parliament House, and the other Booksellers in town and country, price Is. 6d. sewed, and 2s. bound. This book is illustrated with a new and correct whole-sheet Map of America ; likewise adorned with a fine copperplate Frontispiece, representing the Author in the habit of a Delaware Indian.' Commissions from the country will be punctually answered for this and all other sorts of books; as also stationery ware of all sorts. Where is likewise to be had, a ' General View of the whole World ; containing the names of the principal Countries, Kingdoms, States, and Islands; their Length, Breadth, and Capital Cities, with the Longitude and Latitude; also the Produce, Revenue, Strength, and Religion of each Country, price 6d.'"

An engraving of this "machine" is given in one of the magazines of the day. It is now in use under the name of a basket-scythe.

The following advertisement by Peter (April 9, 1772) is amusing enough:—"This day was published, price one shilling the pack, and sold by Peter Williamson, printer, in the head of Forrester's Wynd, Edinburgh, the Impenetrable Secrets, which is called the Proverb Cards, containing excellent Sentiment, and are so composed that they discover the thoughts of one's mind in a very curious and extraordinary manner. The explanation of the Secret is given gratis with the pack: each set consists of twenty cards, and ten lines upon each card." He at the same time announces his "new invented portable printing presses," by which two folio pages may be printed with the greatest expedition and exactness. Next follow his stamps, and liquid for marking linen, books, etc., " which stands washing, boiling, and bleaching, and is more regular and beautiful than any needle." He concludes by intimating that he has a large and commodious tavern to let.

In the year 1776, Williamson engaged in a periodical work, after the manner of the Tatler and Spectator, called The Scots Spy, or Critical Observer, published every Friday. Complete copies of this curious production, which forms a volume of upwards of three hundred pages, are now very rare. It is chiefly valuable for local information, although some of the papers are by no means deficient in merit. It commences on the 8th of March, 1776, and terminates on the 30th August following. In 1777 (August 29), he began The New Scots Spy, or Critical Observer, which, having met with less patronage than its predecessor, was abandoned on the 14th November following. This latter volume is also very scarce. The late Mr. Archibald Constable, who thought all " his geese were swans," had both works, which he valued at five guineas!

In the month of November, 1777, he married Jean Wilson, daughter of John Wilson, bookseller in Edinburgh, a connection which, as will immediately be seen, turned out to be a very unfortunate one.
Williamson had the merit of establishing the first Penny Post in Edinburgh. He also published a Directory, "which he sold at his General Penny-Post Office, Luckenbooths." The copy before us, for 1788, is dedicated to the Lord Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh; and the following dedicatory epistle is prefixed:—

"My Lords and Gentlemen,—At the earnest request of a respectable part of the inhabitants of Edinburgh, I have been induced once more to make an actual survey of the city and its much-extended suburbs, and to publish a Directory for the present year.

"The patronage I have always received from the Magistrates of Edinburgh I acknowledge with gratitude ; and I flatter myself they will approve of the present publication.

"That the city may flourish to the remotest ages—that the noble efforts made by the present Chief Magistrate for its embellishment, the convenience of its inhabitants, and for the desirable object of making the port and harbour of Leith (so intimately connected with the city) more extensive and commodious for trade, may be crowned with success—is the sincere wish of,

"My Lords and Gentlemen,

"Your most obedient humble servant,

P. Williamson."

At this period his wife and daughter appear to have contributed their assistance to the maintenance of the family, as the following notice is printed on the cover of the Directory:—

"MRS. WILLIAMSON AND DAUGHTER,

at their House, first fore stair above the head of Byre's Close, Luckenbooths, Engraft Silk, Cotton, Thread, and Worsted Stockings, make Silk Gloves, and every article in the Engrafting branch, in the neatest manner, and on the most reasonable terms; likewise Silk Stockings washed in the most approved stile; also, Grave Cloaths made on the shortest notice.

"N.B.—Mantua-Making carried on in all its branches as formerly. Orders given in at P. Williamson's General Penny-Post Office, Luckenbooths, will he punctually attended to."

From a process of divorce which he instituted in the year 1789 against his wife, and in which he was successful, it appears that but for the gross misbehaviour of the former, he might have attained pretty easy circumstances.

The Procurator for the defender, in the case just alluded to, represents his Penny-post as being a very lucrative business, bringing him in ready money every hour of the day, and employing four men to distribute the letters at four shillings and sixpence weekly each.

In his replies, Williamson alleges that his income was but trifling; that his Directory paid him very poorly; and that his wife robbed him of three-fourths of the profit of the post. In corroboration of this state of his finances, he pursued the divorce, as a litigant, on the poor's roll.

It may be added that the opposing party hinted at Peter's having acquired tippling habits; but it is impossible to attach any credit to a statement evidently made for the purpose of creating a prejudice in the minds of the judges against him.

The following notice of his death occurs in a newspaper of the period, 19th January, 1799 :—

"At Edinburgh, Mr. Peter Williamson, well known for his various adventures through life. He was kidnapped when a boy at Aberdeen, and sent to America, for which he afterwards recovered damages. He passed a considerable time among the Cherokees, and on his return to Edinburgh amused the public with a description of their manners and customs, and his adventures among them, assuming the dress of one of their chiefs, imitating the war-whoop, &c. He had the merit of first instituting a Penny-post in Edinburgh, for which, when it was assumed by Government, he received a pension. He also was the first who published a Directory, so essentially useful in a large city."

From the intimation that he received a pension from Government, we should hope the latter days of this very enterprising and singular person were not embittered by penury.


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