From within Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh), James Smith, an 18-year-old settler, saw a small force of Indians, French Canadians and French regulars go off to do battle with Major General Edward Braddock’s army. He had every expectation that Braddock would rout the enemy, take the fort and rescue him. But that afternoon the French and Indians returned in jubilation, and Smith soon heard the British prisoners being tortured and then burned alive. “It appeared to me,” Smith later wrote, “as if the infernal regions had broke loose.” He learned that there had been only four French and seven Indian casualties, while the British had left 500 on the battlefield, with additional losses in the course of their retreat. That calamitous defeat was a low point for the British in the French and Indian War, and Smith’s first object lesson in Indian methods of warfare.
Smith went on to become an expert on Indian warfare and Indian life in general as a result of being captured by Delaware and Caughnawaga Indians just before Braddock’s attempt to take Fort Duquesne. Partly because of his youth, he was selected for adoption. The only rude treatment he received was the customary gantlet: Outside the fort, Smith was forced to run between two columns of Indians, who beat him unconscious. Following Braddock’s defeat, once Smith had recovered from his wounds, the Indians took him from Fort Duquesne into the wilderness, denying his request to be allowed to remain with the French.
During his adoption ceremony in a Caughnawaga village on the Allegheny River, he was dunked in the river, his hair was plucked, his ears were pierced, and he was given new clothes and gear. In his memoir, Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, Smith transcribed the speech of a Caughnawaga chief who spoke to him through an interpreter: “My son, you are now flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone. By the ceremony which was performed this day, every drop of white blood was washed out of your veins; you are taken into the Caughnawaga nation, and initiated into a warlike tribe; you are adopted into a great family, and now received with great seriousness and solemnity in the room and place of a great man.” Smith observed that the Indians were in no way remiss in upholding their end of the adoption contract, and treated him fairly in every respect.
When the chief commented that Smith had been adopted “in the room and place of a great man,” he meant it literally: Captives adopted into Indian tribes were meant to fill the roles of lost members. If Smith deviated from this role, he was criticized. For example, when he helped some women hoe a cornfield, he was chided by the elders, who told him that he “was adopted in the place of a great man, and must not hoe corn like a squaw.” To live up to expectations, Smith would have to become a skilled woodsman, expert hunter and warrior. He eventually became all these things, although he didn’t prove himself as a warrior until after he left the Indians.
It is unclear whether Smith was ever expected to join the Indians in raids on the frontier. But he remained loyal to his settler community, and joining the Indians in war against it, as some white captives did, would have been a bridge-burning step. Still, Smith took pride in his other accomplishments, and it must have been a matter of shame for him to remain behind in town with the old men, women and young children while boys as young as 12 went off to war. He was very interested in warfare and took advantage of their trust in order to collect information. In his A Treatise on the Mode and Manner of Indian War (1812), he explained how he listened to the Indians’ battle plans and made notes in his journal: “By hearing the Indians while I was a prisoner, telling, in their own tongue, which I was well acquainted with, the many ways they took to fool the white people… by keeping Journals, &C. perhaps I had as great an opportunity of knowing their subtle ways as any one now living.”
Part of what Smith overheard was the Indians’ discussion of British military practice. While the principle of the Indian art of war was to ambush and surprise, and to avoid being ambushed and surprised, the British forfeited any chance of surprise with their pageantry and exposed themselves to ambush by marching in close order. And they were slow to learn. For example, after the hard lesson of Braddock’s attempt to take Fort Duquesne, in 1758 Colonel James Grant cleverly led his troop of Highlanders on a nighttime march and encamped on a hill within a mile of the fort. But then, instead of pursuing his advantage with a surprise attack, he announced his presence at dawn by beating drums and playing bagpipes. The Indians managed to surround the Highlanders, who were in close order, and defeat them with only minimal losses. Smith’s mentor, the sage Tecaughretanego, “could account for [Grant’s] inconsistent conduct in no other way than by supposing that he had made too free with spirituous liquors during the night, and became intoxicated about day-light.”
Smith stayed with the Indians for five years, and he came to respect and admire them, but he seized an opportunity to leave in 1759. He boarded a French ship that had English prisoners to be exchanged. After some months in a Montreal prison, he was able to return to the Conococheague. A biographer, Pennsylvania historian Wilbur S. Nye, writes that his friends and family found him much changed: “At first they scarcely knew him because of his changed appearance and manner of speech, deliberate and sonorous, like that of the Indians, accompanied by graceful gestures, also an Indian characteristic.”
There were three years of peace with the Indians following Smith’s return, but in 1763 hostilities broke out again. The frontier settlements were vulnerable to raids, because the Colonial assembly of Pennsylvania, dominated by pacifist, nonexpansionist Quakers, wouldn’t provide a defense force. The British government was also unhelpful; it now recognized the Indian tribes as independent nations, with limited landholding rights, and it opposed the settlers’ practice of squatting on Indian land and claiming it de facto. (As Smith knew, this practice not only provoked Indian raids but made them necessary, since—deprived of their hunting grounds and cornfields—they were forced to steal supplies.) The settlers therefore raised their own force, and Smith was selected as captain. He chose two other former captives as fellow officers and instructed his men in Indian tactics. Smith and his men dressed as Indians and painted their faces red and black (they came to be called the “Black Boys”). His tactics were successful, and the Indians were forced to cease their raids.
In 1765, when another peace with the Indians was beginning to fall apart, Smith and 10 of his Black Boys waylaid a party of traders that was illegally trading with the Indians. Smith burned their goods in a bonfire. He justified his move on the grounds that this trade, which was in violation of a royal proclamation, was arming the Indians against the settlers. But his vigilantism was unlawful, and when the traders appealed to the commanding officer at Fort Loudon, a number of settlers—apparently the wrong ones—were arrested. Smith then raised an army of riflemen and encamped near the fort; he took British soldiers prisoner until he had twice as many Redcoats in his custody as there were settlers within the fort. He then arranged a 2-for-1 prisoner exchange until he had redeemed all the Colonial prisoners.
Smith’s most celebrated achievement was his assault on Fort Bedford in 1769. With 18 of his Black Boys, he set off to rescue members of a new band of rebel colonists imprisoned within the fort. He made his intentions well-known, so that the British would have men on guard, but he stole a nighttime march on the British and arrived at the fort before daybreak, several hours before they were expected. When the gates opened, the Black Boys sneaked past the sentinels and secured the armory.
Such activities would seem to make Smith a natural candidate for leadership in the Revolutionary War, but he wasn’t able to fulfill his ambitions. He applied to General George Washington to be granted leave to raise a battalion of riflemen, “such as are acquainted with the Indian methods of fighting, and to be dressed entirely in their fashion.” Smith reported, however, that “General Washington did not fall in with the scheme of white men turning Indians.”
After the war, he received a colonel’s commission and was called upon to lead an expedition against an Indian town on French Creek. There, Smith’s affinity for the Indians may have led to a conflict of interest. Nye reports that upon Smith’s return from the campaign, charges were filed against him by an inferior officer, Colonel Archibald Lochry, who alleged that because Smith “didn’t want to kill an Indian,” he had refused the offer of a scout to lead his army to a nearby Indian town. At Smith’s insistence the case was brought before a military court, and his name was cleared.
It is tempting, nevertheless, to think that Lochry had grounds for his accusations. He might not have known that the Indians of French Creek were from Smith’s adoptive kinship group: In his memoir Smith reveals that he spoke to them, in their own language, months after the campaign, “not letting them know that I was there.” Smith learned that the Indians had carefully monitored his approach, and had greatly overestimated the size of his force. The Indians had inspected the army camps, and found that they couldn’t make an advantageous attack. They therefore abandoned their town and hunting grounds and moved west. This was typical of Smith’s success as an Indian fighter; due to his expertise in their tactics, he was able to consistently defeat his enemy without having to shed much blood. The Indians were pragmatic, as he knew, and would never attack without a probability of victory, or make a stand unless they were cornered. They would assess the strengths of their adversary and, when prudent, withdraw.
Smith settled in Bourbon County, Ky., in 1785, on recently acquired Indian territory, then settled on a farm at Jacob’s Creek. He served many years in the county’s general assembly and also worked as a missionary among the Indians. After he was too old to fight, he still tried to contribute to the defense of his young country by publishing his descriptions of Indian warfare: first in Remarkable Occurrences (1799), then in his A Treatise on the Mode and Manner of Indian War.
Contemporaries remembered him as a quiet, thoughtful man, religious and an avid reader. That he was able to keep a journal during his Indian captivity was very unusual, given that most captivity narratives were written years later from memory. Thus Smith’s narratives are still considered of great value even today, given his accuracy, character and intelligence.
There is some evidence that Smith continued to keep journals right up until his death in Washington County, Ky., in 1812. Regional historians keep an eye out for any surviving writings by him. If any new memoirs were found, they would likely be of major historical value.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.