Friday, February 10, 2017

Peter Francisco & Ann the Huntress

One of the joys of my new job in archives is coming across bits of information while conducting research. Often as I am looking to track down a bit of information or history for someone, often something I know little about, I come across completely unrelated but fascinating information. Going down rabbit holes I call it.

Most recently, I was looking for information concerning history of Greensboro, NC. After looking through several archives boxes, I was checking through some of the history books in archives. In one a photograph caught my eye of a man from the Revolutionary War. The photo was of Peter Francisco but it was the billing of "Hercules of the Revolutionary War" that further drew me in. Also called the Giant of Virginia and Hercules of Virginia, he fought valiantly at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse among other conflicts. His life story reads like one out of myth and later Americana tall tales. As a boy, he was discovered on foreign docks and spoke Portuguese. He gave his name as Pedro Francisco, that his family lived in a mansion and that he and his sister were kidnapped. She escaped but he was taken away by ship and later abandoned.

He was taken to America and grew up in Virginia. When he was old enough he apprenticed as a blacksmith. Peter grew to be somewhere between 6 foot 6 to 6 foot 8, a giant of a man, especially for those times. As a soldier, he participated and was wounded in several notable battles. In addition to stories of his prowess as a soldier, stories of his strength spread. When a wagon was stuck in mud and two mules could not pull it out, he did. Another time, he was loathe to leave a cannon to be recovered by the enemy and the horses that were to pull it had been killed. Supposedly he hefted the heavy cannon on to his shoulders and carried it. This feat was immortalized on a stamp. To add to the mythos of the man, he had a special broadsword made, commissioned for him by General Washington. The sword was six feet long, five feet of it being the blade. The mental image of this fighting giant on the battlefield with a sword longer than the height of many men is striking. Sadly, his sword was lost at some point after being donated to a historical society by his daughter.

With these stories of strength and fighting ability, it is no surprise that the moniker of Hercules would be attached to him. I cannot help to wonder if such stories around a man of historical record somehow inspired later fictional heroes of tall tales, folklore and various supermen of late 19th and early 20th Century pop culture. More can be found out about him at

Ann the Huntress

I came across this story in another book, Greensboro North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford by Ethel Stephens Arnett, University of North Carolina Press, 1955. For a little context, Mrs. Arnett writes that in the late 1700s in order to increase agriculture harvests, legislation passed a law that each man in the region would kill a quota of crows, blackbirds and squirrels or pay a fine. Out of this grew a celebration and shooting match as the men would turn in their quotas and show off their marksmanship skills to their women. Quoting Mrs. Arnett:

At one of these meetings, about 1790-1791, "an incident occurred... of such a character that it had an influence of North Carolina... the United States, and the world," wrote Addison Coffin in his "Early Settlements of Friends in North Carolina" And this is the story he recorded:
There was a shooting match about one mile east of where Guilford College now stands, in a forest. [A large company of noted riflemen were performing wonderful feats of marksmanship]. In the midst of the exciting contest a beautiful young woman suddenly made her appearance coming up the road from the northwest. She was dressed in a neat walkng dress with ornamented Indian leggins and moccasins. She carried a small rifle highly ornamented with silvr mountings, and the usual shot pouch and belt, with hunting knife and small hatchet, a complete hunting outfit. After the excitement had somewhat subsided and shooting began again, she modestly asked permission to take a shot with the contestants; the request was granted and she stepped lightly out of the line, raised her rifle, took quick aim and fired, the ball drove the center to a hair's breadth sixty yards away. A shout of applause from the hunters made the forest ring. Again she loaded and fired, again the ball drove the center. Astonished and bewildered the old hunters gathered around her, doubting whether they were seeing a vision, or were in the presence of flesh and blood, but her bright intelligent face, respectful language, and lady-like bearing convinced them that whe was a mortal, and one of the highest types of sacred womanhood, but to the inquiry who she was, from whence she came and why thus alone among strangers, she respectfully declined to answer, but gaver her name as Ann, the huntress. Richard Dodson, a Friend, invited her to go home with him... she accepted the invitation and as they walked away her form was so graceful and her step so light and springing that the old veterans shook their heads again doubting or no all was really human.
The story could end there. It makes for a great tale from folklore or legend. But, it does not simply end there. As Paul Harvey, now for the rest of the story. According to Arnett, she stayed with the Dodson family working as huntress for the family and teacher for the children. In addition to be a crack shot and hunter, Ann was highly educated for her time and she changed the language of the region.
Everybody said "goin" "doin." She taught the children to sound ing to all words with that termination - some of the old ones had trouble retwisting their tongues to talk "politely" but before she left a half generation had grown up under her magic instructions...Her cheerful smile, bright face, and gentle ways [were] a light in every household; so much so that many began to seriously believe there was supernatural about her, but alas, the scene suddenly changed. In the winter of 1807-8 Ann disappeared as suddenly as she appeared and no trace of her was ever found. It is said that her teachings were engrafted [by emigrants from North Carolina] into the school systems of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa and the language and the pronunciation is that of all the great Northwest and Pacific coast." (Arnett).
 She is not to be confused with Mad Anne Bailey, another interesting woman.

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