he American Revolutionary War (1775-83) still elicits strong feelings. Most people are familiar with the inspirational story of the Patriots from the original Thirteen Colonies who rose up against British oppression to win their freedom. Events like the Boston Tea Party, the creation of the Sons of Liberty, the Stamp Act—along with slogans such as “no taxation without representation”—are as unforgettable now as they were then. The important roles played by George Washington, Paul Revere, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others remain the stuff of legends.
Stories of major wars and battles often include lesser-known figures and events, too. Some historians may mention them in a few paragraphs or pages. Others won’t pay them a moment’s notice, seeing their involvement as tiny, insignificant historical footnotes. Still others will challenge prevailing theories or narratives and suggest history should be kinder and more aware of the over-looked’s influential role.
Patrick Spero’s Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765–1776 fits into the latter category. The former history professor at Williams College, who is now the librarian of Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society, intriguingly suggests a lesser-known battle in his city may have helped trigger the American Revolution. In his view, historians who narrowly focus on the 1765 Stamp Act as a “pivotal moment” have made a “mistake.” “[W]e must pay the same attention,” Spero argues, “to the Black Boys’ Rebellion that we do the Stamp Act protests.”
The Black Boys were a group of white colonial settlers led by James Smith in Pennsylvania’s Conococheague Valley “who dressed like Native Americans and with faces smeared black with charcoal.” Their face smearing was no proto-vaudevillian “blackface”; rather, frustrated with the British Empire for re-establishing trade with Native American communities at the conclusion of Pontiac’s War in 1764, the settlers darkened their features to express disdain with this situation.
The peace process was brokered by Irishman George Croghan, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs. Described by Spero as a “wily man with often murky motives,” he believed “serving himself and serving the Empire were not mutually exclusive.” Hardly the ideal man for the job—nevertheless, his relentless quest for power and influence had led him to learn two Native languages, build strong ties within this community, and earn a level of trust.
The other important participant in the peace negotiations was Pontiac, chief of the Odawa (or Ottawa) tribe. “For someone who has received so much attention from historian,” Spero notes, “we know surprisingly little” about Pontiac. His early life is still a “mystery,” as is his physical appearance and role in war councils. That said, “he was a central figure, perhaps the central figure, of the war” named after him. He led an unsuccessful 1763 siege against Fort Detroit, and defeated the British at the Battle of Bloody Run later that year. He was regarded as a “charismatic leader” and a “calculating military strategist,” which made him a suitable figure to negotiate with Croghan.
The British believed that “by treating Pontiac as the most important Indian in the Illinois Country, they would strengthen their own hand” and build a mutually beneficial coalition for trade and commerce. Pontiac, in turn, believed switching from “warrior to peacemaker” would help the Ottawas, which was his primary goal. Spero says Pontiac “was as well-versed in the art of realpolitik as any European diplomat,” and knew exactly what he was doing to aid his tribe’s cause.
Croghan’s strategy to end Pontiac’s War with a trade mission to Fort Pitt, built by the British in western Philadelphia near the Ohio River, “was ambitious—and possibly illegal.” He was trying to both make peace with the Ottawas and recoup some of his financial losses from the French and Indian War (1754-1763) by quietly selling rum and gunpowder for later use. The added intervention of important individuals like General Thomas Gage (British commander-in-chief in North America) and Sir William Johnson (British superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern district) to help this transaction along frustrated some colonists—and led to the rise of the Black Boys.
In March 1765, Smith and his ten charcoal-covered followers attacked Croghan’s pack train containing the items related to the peace treaty with Pontiac. When they opened the traders’ casks, “their suspicions were partially confirmed.” Though surprised to find no ammunition (it would be unearthed later at Fort Loudon), they did discover valuable items like blankets, beads, lead, tomahawks, and wampum. The Black Boys set fire to the entire 63 wagonloads of cargo—minus several delicious barrels of rum, that is.
The British were understandably furious, and went after the Black Boys for retribution. What they didn’t expect was to be met with growing resistance from their rival’s supporters. This started a bloody rebellion that continued off and on until 1769, in which British and Americans picked up weapons and fired at one another years before the start of the American Revolution.
It soon became clear this “small band of vigilantes without any goal other than the destruction of a specific pack train had sparked a larger political movement.” The Black Boys didn’t have an issue with, or hatred of, Native Americans, but were fundamentally opposed to tyrannical British rule. They fought to “regulat[e] trade” for the Thirteen Colonies, and aimed at a “complete overturning of political power” held by the British Empire, placing it instead in the hands of American colonists. As Spero writes, “the Black Boys showed a level of sophistication that was anything but anarchical, and in some respects was superior to the Sons of Liberty.”
The Black Boys’ Rebellion has been largely forgotten. Many participants served their country with honor in the American Revolution. Smith himself would move to Kentucky, became a state representative in 1793 (after he “shot a man” during the contested election, which he won), and rejoined the military in 1812 at the ripe old age of 77 to help in the war against the Native American Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
Maybe it’s time we started paying more attention to James Smith and the Black Boys. They sowed the seeds of revolution in their own unique way, and piqued the interests of colonists who didn’t want to be ruled by the British Empire. That’s more than a mere footnote in history, all things considered.