A man of remarkable strength and size was George Washington’s one-man army. Author and sixth-generation descendant Travis Bowman shares the tale of Peter Francisco.
Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.
We’re joined today by Travis Bowman, who brings us the story of Peter Francisco, a Revolutionary War soldier who history has come to know as the Hercules of the American Revolution. Travis is an author who has written a book about Peter Francisco, and in addition to being a scholar, he’s also a sixth-generation descendant. Travis welcome, thank you for being here today.
Travis Bowman: Thank you for having me, Harmony. I appreciate being here.
Harmony: So tell us about this unknown founding father. He begins his story in Virginia very inauspiciously.
Travis: He sure does. I mean his whole story is really shrouded in a lot of mystery because he essentially was found here in the New World at the age of five years old on the docks, not too far from here, down the James River in the town of Hopewell today at the time it was City Point, Virginia.
So he was found there in Hopewell, City Point and but he was originally from the Azores Islands which are Portuguese Islands. So, when they found him, he was speaking Portuguese. And of course the dock workers that found him didn’t know what language he was really speaking or where he was from but yet he was dressed in really nice European clothes and he had silver shoe buckles, P and F on his shoes.
Harmony: What year was that, that he was found?
Travis: That was 1765.
Harmony: So a little lost boy from Azores Islands shows up at a dock in Hopewell, how did he come to be there?
Travis: Well the story he recounted, the story many years later that he was playing in a courtyard with his sister and he lived up on a hillside in a beautiful mansion, and he could recount that. Some men enticed him with some candy and next thing he knew a burlap sack was thrown over his head and he was carted off to a ship.
It was probably pirates and they were probably holding him for ransom. Why it is that next thing you know, six weeks later, we find him here on the docks in the New World, we don’t know. But we can only guess that a storm blew him out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Harmony: So what happens to this little boy? He shows up not able to speak the language, he’s just an orphan on the dock. What happens from there?
Travis: Well from there of course they took him to the local orphanage. Not too long after that, Patrick Henry’s uncle who’s Judge Anthony Winston, came by the orphanage and he was looking for some help, this is the summer of 1765, and Peter Francisco is five years old and he was looking for some help there on his 3,600 acre plantation and so he took him in. He paid some money, bought him there from the orphanage and brought him back.
Harmony: So you say he was he was bought from the orphanage he wasn’t adopted into the family.
Travis: That’s right. Definitely as a servant of some sort. Now I really equate it more to be like a slave, because he wouldn’t actually have a time period that after a certain period he’d be free. Unfortunately, in his scenario, had the Revolutionary War not come along he probably would have remained a slave because there wasn’t any paperwork to say one way or the other.
What we do know is that there are records showing that Judge Anthony Winston recorded him on tax records as a slave. He was treated better than a slave, so it was kind of a mix there. What he really was historians have debated that for years. Was he more of a slave, more of an indentured servant, nobody really knows.
Harmony: But it’s in those early years at that plantation that he begins to distinguish himself.
Travis: That is correct. By the age of 14 he was six foot six and 240 pounds. He’s working out there on the plantation and one of the trades he learned was a blacksmith. So he was carrying around large things of iron and anvils and swinging hammers. As he grew tall and he became strong, Judge Anthony Winston asked him to accompany him to the second Virginia convention there in Richmond. He knew it was going to be a hot-debated discussion of whether we should stay loyal to the king of England or whether or not we should fight and be Patriots. And he probably asked Peter Francisco to accompany him as a bodyguard, I’m sure in many respects.
Harmony: You mentioned that he attends the second Virginia convention, which is where Patrick Henry delivers his “Liberty or Death” speech, and this is something that Peter Francisco overhears.
Travis: That’s right. Now of course he was a young servant and so he was not in the church but he was peering through the window much like several hundred other people were outside the church. The church, the historic St. John’s Church there in Richmond held about 120 people at the time, it was a packed church. Peter was there listening in, and that that speech by Patrick Henry is really what impassioned and really fired Peter up to want to go fight.
But he was young, and Judge Anthony Winston wasn’t ready to let him go off and fight. It took another year and a half, but he was 16 years old when he entered the Revolution December 1776. He was six foot six 260 pounds, and you’ve got to remember in his day that was a foot taller than the average man plus all that muscle, so I mean he just looked like an enormous giant.
Harmony: How does his career in the military begin?
Travis: Well, you know he’s of course a young private and he actually remained a private through the through the remainder of the war, for the five years that he fought. But he couldn’t read or write, so when he was offered a commission to be an officer he had to turn it down because he couldn’t read or write.
So he enters the war. In training the first year he was in a few skirmishes, but the first time he distinguished himself is at the battle of Brandywine which is just outside of Philadelphia. That’s where they were holding off the British from taking over the city of Philadelphia. The Continental Army was in no shape or match for the British, and they found themselves really running off the field in a disorderly retreat.
Peter noticed a log off to the side and he realized if he could just get this log out in the field maybe we could get some snipers behind it and really help save some of the men. And so without thinking about it he just went over and picked up this massive log and put it down in the middle of the field. General George Washington was commanding the men and he took note of this huge guy who picked up this log. In that battle though, unfortunately in the midst of that, he did take a musket ball in his leg and it went through his leg which is a good thing because otherwise they have to dig around in there and sometimes you can lose your leg. He found himself recuperating next to General Lafayette and he became good friends with Lafayette at that point in time.
Harmony: And Lafayette, of course, becomes an extremely key figure in the Revolution bringing French forces which helped Americans win the Revolution. So this isn’t just anybody he’s in a sick bed next to.
Travis: That’s exactly right. Now Lafayette who is a young person himself, only two years older, so Peter Francisco’s 17 at this point and Lafayette’s 19 and they connect. They just found themselves talking about life and girls and the things that young teenagers would find themselves talking about. At that point in time, General Lafayette asked him is there anything I can do, just let me know. And Peter said well yeah you know these swords are pretty small if you could pass the word up, I need a real big sword and the story kind of unfolds on down the road.
Harmony: Yeah, let’s talk about swords. What would the average length of a sword have been and what did Peter really need?
Travis: Well the average length sword you’d find them at many of the Revolutionary War museums. I don’t recall myself the actual length of them but you know you’re talking a two and a half foot blade. The men were five foot six, so they didn’t need a huge sword. But General Lafayette made good on his word. It took a few years as it does in any red tape bureaucracy, but in 1781 it was two days before one of the most critical battles if not the most critical battle of the whole Revolutionary War, a five foot blade one-foot handle, six foot broadsword was delivered to Peter Francisco and he used it to kill 11 British at the battle of Guilford courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Harmony: He’s moved logs of huge size, he’s got a giant sword, what other feats of strength is he known for?
Travis: You know George Washington actually said that without Peter we would have likely lost two critical battles, and with it our freedom. He calls him his one-man army. You know George Washington called him the one-man army, so you think well what is it, what are these two critical battles? Well of course I’ve mentioned the one, battle of Guilford Courthouse, which was just seven months prior to the surrender, General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
But earlier before that, the battle of Stony Point is really where Peter Francisco gained his fame. It was just before the end of his three-year enlistment. It was 1779 and General Washington was looking for 20 commandos kind of like our Navy seals today. And it was a battle of Stony Point up on the Hudson River, so just north of New York City today. Stony Point was a fortress that was sitting up on a 300-foot rock face wall where the British would bring their armory up the river and they’d stash gunpowder and store it up in this armory. And General Washington knew if we could get in there and take that fort it would be a huge victory. So he devised a plan.
He selected 20 commandos, Peter being one of those 20, they had the 20 commandos in the middle of the night, had to blaze through a half mile swamp, they had to cut through booby traps, kind of logs speared off at the end and tied all together, so they had to cut through that with axes, climb the 300 foot rock face wall, get over the walls of Stony Point and then open up the gates so the Continental Army could come in, in the middle of the night.
Well, Peter Francisco was the second man over the wall. Seventeen of their men lost their lives, Peter was one of three that actually survived that. But he killed two British in the process and he took a nine-inch slice from a bayonet in his abdomen before capturing the British flag. He pulled it down and just collapsed on it from loss of blood. But it was at that point in time that this sound waves of this Hercules of the Revolution, this giant of a soldier helped us win the impossible, the battle we thought would never be able to be won.
Harmony: That’s not the only time we hear of him up against odds which for anybody else would mean failure.
Travis: No, that’s exactly right. There were several more battles. The battle of Camden, South Carolina is another one of the stories there were actually immortalized on a U.S. postal stamp in a bicentennial stamp in 1975. But there Peter Francisco was known for saving his Colonel’s life. He was almost killed by the British and Peter shot him, shot the British soldier. But then also he noticed a cannon that was stuck in the mud.
Without thinking about it, he unstrapped this cannon and not even knowing what the weight was picked it up out of the out of the holster and put it down in a horse drawn carriage so they could get it back to camp and salvage that cannon. That cannon turned out to be an 1,100 pound cannon and you just think it seems impossible.
Harmony: So history knows him well and he becomes legendary, kind of a folk hero. The irony of that is he doesn’t know very much about himself.
Travis: He himself never knew where he was from, never saw his parents or his sister again, of course. And so that’s part of really why we don’t hear his name in the history books. Certainly had he not been a slave, had he learned to read or write like an educated young man when he was offered a commission by General Washington to become an officer or a Colonel or something like that we probably would have heard a little bit more about him.
But he was a private soldier and there’s five monuments that stand today in honor of him. One of those monuments, the monument down at Greensboro, actually says he was likely the most famous private soldier of the Revolutionary War. A private soldier doesn’t land in the history books so he’s not talked about today. I think the mystery of where he was from all of that compiled together, nobody knows the story today.
Harmony: You can claim him as an ancestor. I’m curious to hear what kind of stories you heard about him as you were growing up.
Travis: Well that’s funny because the most I heard from my grandmother. I can recount her telling the story to myself, my brothers and cousins that we were descendants or related to this giant from the Revolution. But that was about it, you know I think I can remember asking well how tall was he and oh he was probably seven foot tall. You know there were a whole lot of details that I never knew. But really the connection I found myself when I realized that I stand six foot six and when I realized that he was six foot six, I didn’t know that and I thought, boy, that’s just really strange that I am the same height and of similar stature.
Harmony: What do you think is important to take away from the story of Peter Francisco? What do you think this tells us about ourselves as Americans, as a nation of immigrants?
Travis: Yeah, I mean as a nation of immigrants, I think the story of Peter is one of those triumphant stories of really being you know he was born into a wealthy family over in the Azores islands, plucked out of that, what seems to be just you know impossible odds of now he ends up a slave and he overcomes that, not because of his strength, but I think because of his tenacity, because of his fight for freedom.
You know when you look back at the story you realize here was a man who had been free and so when that that speech that Patrick Henry gave, I’m sure the thing that resounded in his mind was, “I want to be free again, too.” And so I think that you know you see in this story and I think we can apply today is if we have passion to fight for something we believe in we can accomplish all kinds of things and that’s what you see in Peter’s life.
Harmony: Travis, thank you so much for being here today we appreciate having you and hearing this story.
Travis: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Harmony: Our guest today has been Travis Bowman. Look for his book, “Hercules of the Revolution.”