Settlers who pushed across the Alleghenies in the 1700s were engaging in a deadly gamble. Some called them foolhardy, though the daring few who took the risk to settle felt that the promise of land—beyond their reach back home in England—was worth the danger.
Such was the case with Andrew Donnally, who left Tidewater Virginia with his family and servants in 1771 and settled along Little Sinking Creek in what's now Greenbrier County.
The Shawnee had annihilated a settlement nearby on Muddy Creek less than a decade before. Nearly every man, woman, and child there had been tomahawked.
Blood-thirsty in their rage, the Shawnee had declared war on Virginian colonists after the Iroquois had invited them to settle the region without considering Shawnee interests.
Two scouts who had been at the fort at Point Pleasant tracked the war party more than 100 miles through the mountains and were able to warn settlers ahead of time. Families fled to the Donnallys, who had raised a small stockaded fort in the intervening seven years
On the morning of the attack, an old Irish servant named William Prichart left the fort unannounced on an errand, perhaps to gather kindling, and was tomahawked. Thus, no one was aware the stockade gate had been left open.
The details of what ensued have been handed down with great variation. However, one account by Sharelle Renick that appeared in the West Virginia Daily News, of Ronceverte, in 1969 has been cited by the West Virginia Department of Archives and History, and we've relied principally on its narrative.
Aware of their good fortune, the Shawnee attacked. William Hughart, a settler for whom nearby Hughart's Creek was named, was standing at the door and saw the charge, but instead of firing his gun in alarm, he drawled out, "Yonder they come!" and pushed the gate shut.
Renick wrote that the Shawnee rushed the door and attempted to hack it to pieces with their tomahawks. "They could open it only partially, on account of a hogshead of water placed behind the door."
Most sources seem to agree that William Hughart was not alone at the gate but was kept company by Philip Hammond, one of the two scouts who had made the journey from Point Pleasant, and by Dick Pointer, one of the Donnally's African American slaves.
Renick's account, as do all, place Pointer in a decisive role that ultimately won the match for the settlers:
"Dick Pointer has seized an old musket loaded heavily with swan shot, etc., and was trying to decide what to do. At this, the Indians had partly forced the door open. Hammond cut the first down with his tomahawk, and Dick fired, mowing a swathe to the stockade gate, the recoil of the gun knocking him over. This awakened the people above, and, springing from their beds, they grasped their rifles and opened a galling fire, which drove the Indians outside the stockade."
Another account from "Introduction to the History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia" provides a similar outcome with Pointer is a more assured role.
"Hammon and the black servant, Dick, made an effort to secure it, but, failing in this, they placed their shoulders against a hogshead of water which stood behind and which they had drawn nearer to the door. But the Indians commenced chopping with their tomahawks and had actually cut through the door and were also pressing to force it open. Having already made a partial opening, Dick, fearing that they might succeed in gaining their purpose, left Hammon at his post and, seizing a musket which stood near, loaded with heavy slugs, discharged it through the opening among the crowd. The Indians now fell back and the door was secured."
Yet another account penned by Anne Royall in 1826, while Pointer was still alive, was published in her "Extracted from Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States by a Traveller." Her version is the most variant of all, and while it lauds Pointer as being "as brave as Caesar," it seems to attribute any decisive action to Pointer's "master."
"Near this door, Dick and his companions were stationed, and about midnight Dick espied, through a porthole, something moving, but the night was so dark, and the object making no noise, it was long before he discovered it to be an Indian, creeping up to the door on all fours. The negro pointed it out to his companions and asked if he might shoot. "No," they replied, "not yet." In about twenty minutes after this, a large force was at the door, thundering it to pieces with tomahawks, stones, and whatever weapon offered. The door, being of the stoutest sort, resisted their efforts for some time. At length, they forced one of the planks. Dick—who, from every account, is as brave as Caesar—had charged his musket well with old nails, pieces of iron, and buckshot. When the first plank dropped, he cried out to his master, "May I shoot now, sir?" "Not yet, Dick!" He stood ready with his gun cocked. The Indians, meanwhile, were busy, and the second plank began to tremble. "O, master, may I shoot now?" "Not yet," his master replied. The second plank falls. "Now, Dick," said his master. He fired, killed three, and wounded several."
In other accounts it is simply stated that Pointer used a rifle to secure the front door against attackers, seeming to imply that the barrel of the gun was used to bolt the latch.
Though the details of the matter may forever be obscure, Pointer was widely regarded as a hero throughout the Greenbrier Valley and beyond. In 1795, residents of the valley petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom on account of his bravery and defense of his neighbors, but their efforts were refused.is
In 1801, James Rogers purchased and freed Pointer, who was was granted a life lease to a piece of land near Lewisburg, where he lived until his death at about age 89 in 1827.
In 1976, a pyramidal monument of stone was raised in his honor near his grave in the African-American cemetery near the Old Stone Church Cemetery in Lewisburg, West Virginia. As of 2015, Pointer's musket was on display in the State Museum in Charleston, West Virginia.