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This engraving presents a dramatic interpretation of Francisco's fight with British dragoons. Image courtesy Virginia Historical Society
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A miniature painting of Peter Francisco Image courtesy Virginia Historical Society
Peter Francisco fought in six major battles of the American Revolution, got wounded six times and spent the dreary winter of 1778-1779 at Valley Forge. In his later years, he became the sergeant at arms for the Virginia House of Delegates. Among those endorsing him for the position was Revolutionary War veteran and judge Peter Johnson. He declared, "If Francisco could eat gold dust, this Legislature ought to feed him on it."
Samuel Shepherd, visiting Francisco after the war, marveled at his impressive build, with shoulders as wide as Michelangelo's statue of Moses. "His jaw is long, heavy, the nose powerful, the slant [of his] forehead partly concealed by uncombed black hair of a shaggy aspect," Shepherd observed. "His voice was light, surprising me as if a bull should bellow in a whimper." Displayed at the Virginia Historical Society, a vest Francisco wore measures 54 inches around the bottom.
During his lifetime, Francisco evolved into a living, breathing tall tale. Founding-era Virginians projected their enthusiasm for the new nation onto his persona.
His origin story begins on June 23, 1765, when a vessel of unknown nationality deposited the attractive, olive-complected 4-year-old on the wharves of City Point (Hopewell). He was dressed well, though filthy from the voyage. The initials "P.F." were engraved on his silver shoe buckles. He repeated his name as Pedro Francisco but could speak no English. Around City Point, they turned him into Peter.
According to Charlottesville historian John E. Manahan, Francisco may have been of Portuguese descent. In 1972, Manahan went to Terceira Island, part of the Portuguese Azores, because he'd heard that men there tend to be taller than usual. At Porto Judeu, Manahan found a record of the July 9, 1760, birth of one Pedro Francisco. The circumstances of his transportation to Virginia, wrote Manahan, possibly involved a family political squabble.
The tyke's plight soon attracted the attention of Judge Anthony Winston, an uncle to Hanover County lawyer Patrick Henry. Winston took the boy to his 3,600-acre Buckingham County plantation named Hunting Tower, where Francisco's working of fields and forge built an impressive physique. While still a teen, Francisco reached his unusual height, perhaps 6-foot-6, weighing more than 200 pounds.
Winston served as a delegate to the Virginia Convention at St. John's Church in March 1775. Francisco stood at a window to hear Henry thunder, "Give me liberty or give me death!" At age 14, he was ready to fight, though at the time he was indentured to George Wright of Cumberland County, with two years and 45 days remaining on his contract. In the autumn of 1776, Winston purchased the remainder of the youngster's obligation, and Francisco soon enlisted in the 10th Virginia Regiment.
His first action was Sept. 11, 1777, "on the desperate field of Brandywine," describes Fred J. Coor, writing for American Heritage in 1959. George Washington tried to halt the advance of Gen. William Howe's forces toward Philadelphia. At Sandy Hollow, the wounded Marquis de Lafayette organized a stand. The patriot forces held their ground for 45 "stubborn, bloody minutes." Francisco, also injured, went to the same Quaker home as Lafayette for treatment. They became lifelong friends.
At successive battles, Francisco earned a reputation for battlefield ferocity and astounding feats of strength, even when injured. At Camden, S.C., he saved his commanding officer, Capt. William Mayo, after killing a British trooper, taking his coat and mount, and giving the horse to Mayo for escape. Here, too, he's credited with rescuing a 1,500-pound cannon barrel by staggering off the field with it on his back. The story, often repeated in his lifetime, was never contested.
While serving in the cavalry at Guilford Court House, N.C., Francisco was split "hip-socket to knee" by a bayonet. Included among his 11 kills on that day was a British cavalryman whose head he cleaved in two. Francisco was left for dead himself until he was found by another Quaker who nursed him to health.
Francisco turned down an officer's commission because he couldn't read or write. The summer of 1781 found Francisco recuperating and without assignment. But trouble found him soon enough during a raid through Southside Virginia by cavalry led by British Col. Banastre Tarleton.
A dragoon caught up to Francisco in the courtyard of Benjamin Ward's tavern on the Nottoway County line. He demanded Francisco's watch and the silver buckles on his shoes. When the dragoon reached down to retrieve them, Francisco grabbed the horseman's sword and slew him. Other dragoons rushed up. According to Francisco's own account — there were no other eyewitnesses — he killed at least two more, drove away the rest and took their horses. A pistol shot grazed his side.
While on Lafayette's staff, Francisco witnessed the British surrender at Yorktown. The war over, he turned to love, marrying the propertied Susannah Anderson of Cumberland County. They settled into a Buckingham County house called Locust Grove, where the couple entertained often. (He sang in a good, high tenor.) Francisco learned to read and write and resumed work as a blacksmith.
The couple had two children. After Susannah's 1789 death, Francisco married her friend, Catherine Brooke, with whom he had three more children. She died in 1821, and in 1823 he wed widow Mary Grymes West. Her lack of enthusiasm for country life hastened the couple's move to Richmond.
Francisco died of an apparent case of appendicitis on Jan. 16, 1831. He was accorded a state funeral and buried with military and Masonic honors at Shockoe Hill Cemetery