Mystery surrounds tale of frontier slave who defended fort

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Mystery surrounds tale of frontier slave who defended fort
A historic marker recounting a version of the Dick Pointer tale stands near his monument. (Photo courtesy David T. Sibray)

LEWISBURG, W.Va. — Settlers who pushed westward across the Alleghenies in the 1700s engaged in a deadly gamble. Despite the threat of attack by the Shawnee, the daring few who took the risk to settle in that wilderness felt the promise of land was worth the danger.

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Such was the case with Andrew Donnally, who left tidewater Virginia with his family in 1771 and settled on Little Sinking Creek in what's now Greenbrier County. Donnally also brought his servants, among them a slave named Dick Pointer.

Less than a decade before, a band of Shawnee had annihilated a settlement nearby on Muddy Creek, where they had tomahawked nearly every man, woman, and child. Blood-thirsty in their rage, the tribe had declared war on Virginian colonists after the Iroquois had invited the Virginians to settle the region west of the Alleghenies—without considering Shawnee interests.

The fire of war was ablaze in May of 1778 when a band of Shawnee crossed the Ohio River near Point Pleasant bound for the settlements in the Greenbrier Valley. Two scouts who had been at the fort on the river at Point Pleasant had tracked them more than 100 miles through the mountains to the Greenbrier Valley and were able to warn settlers ahead of time. Families fled to the plantation of the Donnallys, who had raised a small stockaded fort in the intervening seven years.

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The attack on Donnally's Settlement

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. So no one was aware the stockade gate had been left open.

The details of what ensued have been handed down with great variation. And the details are a matter of mystery continuously debated by historians. However, one account by Sharelle Renick that appeared in the West Virginia Daily News, of Ronceverte, in 1969 has been cited by the W.Va. Department of Archives and History, and we've relied principally on its narrative.

Aware of their good fortune that the gate had been left open, 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.

The Shawnee rushed the door and attempted to hack it to pieces with their tomahawks. "They could open it only partially because of a hogshead of water placed behind the door."

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Most sources seem to agree that Hughart was not alone at the gate but was kept company by Philip Hammond, one of the scouts from Point Pleasant, and by Dick Pointer, one of Donnally's slaves.

All accounts place Pointer in a decisive role that ultimately won the match for the settlers. Renick writes:

"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 gun's recoil 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 in a more assured role.

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"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 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. 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." About twenty minutes after this, a large force was at the door, thundering it to pieces with tomahawks, stones, and whatever weapon offered. Being of the stoutest sort, the door 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, Pointer simply used a rifle to secure the front door against attackers, implying that the gun barrel was used to bolt the latch.

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Dick Pointer regarded as Greenbrier Valley hero

A pyramidal monument was raised at Lewisburg, West Virginia, to the memory of frontier hero Dick Pointer.
A pyramidal monument was raised at Lewisburg, in West Virginia, to the memory of frontier hero Dick Pointer.

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.

In 1801, James Rogers purchased and freed Pointer, who was granted a life estate 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 displayed in the State Museum in Charleston, West Virginia.


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