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Monday, July 15, 2013
Abraham Pike, 23rd Regiment of Foot
Sources disagree on when Abraham Pike was born, giving years ranging from 1747 to 1752. This is a plausible range for the Irishman who enlisted in the army in December 1775; most men who enlisted in the army did so in their early twenties after having pursued some other occupation. Pike enlisted during the feverish recruiting effort made to accomplish the augmentation of 18 men per company ordered earlier that year for regiments on service in America. He and other recruits raised in the ensuing months boarded transports in the summer of 1776, finally arriving in New York in October. Here Pike joined the main body of his new regiment, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers.
After less than a year, he was in trouble. With two fellow fusiliers, near Head of Elk at the start of the Philadelphia campaign, Pike was spotted by soldiers of Captain Patrick Ferguson’s rifle company coming towards the sentries, one on horseback, carrying fowls and a spy glass. The British rifle men made the trio prisoners and they were put on trial for disobedience of orders (because they had been beyond the army’s advanced posts) and plundering. The trial was brief: Ferguson and a serjeant testified that the prisoners had been taken with the horse, spyglass and poultry; the fusiliers stated that when posted as advanced piquets they’d caught a stray horse, and found the poultry and spyglass in an abandoned house that was in fact within the lines.
The three soldiers were found guilty and sentenced to 1000 lashes each. Such a punishment would strike fear into the prisoners, but immediately after the trial an unusual thing happened. General Howe, although recognizing the men’s guilt, deemed the sentence “inadequate to their crimes” and did not approve it. This meant that the men were free to rejoin their regiment without any punishment at all. One would think the relief might instill a sense of loyalty into these soldiers; if it did so for Abraham Pike, the sensation was short-lived. He deserted on 8 May 1778 as the army was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia.
We lose track of most deserters after they abscond from British service, but Pike is an exception; it was after his desertion that the most memorable events of his life occurred. By some accounts, he joined the American army and fought at the battle of Wyoming on 3 July 1778 and was a scout on Sullivan’s 1779 expedition against the Six Nations; we have not attempted to verify this. More certain is that he made his way to Plymouth, Pennsylvania, a frontier town across the Susquehanna River near Wilkes-Barre. By March 1780 he had married a woman named Mary Alden and the couple had an infant daughter not yet half-a-year old.
Pike was surely intent on a domestic frontier life, but the war ranging throughout the colonies touched his young family with an unsympathetic hand. On 29 March 1780 they were in the wilderness about 10 miles northeast of Plymouth making sugar at a log cabin when a party of native American warriors fell upon them. Ten in number, these Indians had over the previous few days made a number of attacks on settlers, killing half-a-dozen and taking three likely teenagers as prisoners. Unlike previous adults they’d met, the Indians did not kill Pike outright. Whether through intelligence gleaned from the frontier community, from recognizable attributes of his clothing or behavior, or from his own exhortations in the moment, they knew that Pike was a British deserter and therefore a valuable prize. They took him and his wife as prisoners, but tossed the swaddled infant onto the roof of the sugar cabin before hastening away. After some distance the insistent please of Mrs. Pike convinced them to release her; she recovered her infant and then made her way to alarm the nearest settlement.
With the three teenagers and Pike as prisoners, the war party made their way along the Susquehanna towards the borders of their own territory. Pike was keenly aware of his precarious situation and, with nothing to lose, initiated a bold scheme. He’d observed that the youngest prisoner, a fourteen-year-old, was not bound like the others and was required to sleep under the same blanket with the leader of the party. When the group ventured to cross a creek, Pike took the lad over his shoulder and used the opportunity to whisper a plan: stay awake that night and carefully slip the leader’s knife from his belt while he sleeps, then cut Pike’s bindings. Pike would take care of the rest. Pike managed to communicate to the other two prisoners to stay awake that night, 1 April 1780. When darkness fell the party kindled a fire, ate, and then spread their blankets with five on either side of the four prisoners.
Deep in the night, by the faint light of a partial moon and glowing embers, the plan was effected. The young prisoner deftly procured the knife and slipped from under the blanket. Pike held his bound hands up and was cut free; he then carefully stole the firearms away from the sleeping warriors. There is some dispute among the survivors about how the ensuing events unfolded, but it is clear that Pike and the older two prisoners used their captor’s tomahawks to kill at least two and disperse the rest; they shot another who was fleeing. When the melee ended, the prisoners were unscathed and free. On 6 April a Lieutenant in the garrison at Fort Wyoming in Wilkes-Barre recorded in his diary that Pike and the others had come in to the fort after freeing themselves.
Abraham Pike was reunited with his wife and daughter. The following year they had a son they named Abraham, followed by another daughter and three more sons over the next 15 years. The story of his escape was told and retold. Pike the deserter, Pike the family man, was known throughout the region as “The Indian Killer.” His family and his exploits, however, did not sustain him later in life. A person who knew him in his later years lamented, “…he became extremely intemperate in his old age, and his mind was impaired and his eye wandered in vacancy… His habits of extreme intemperance in his old age had blasted and destroyed a mind quick, discriminating, and very sensitive to honor; and utterly prostrated a stout and well-knit frame, which in its hour of development had undergone great hardships and endured the most oppressive fatigues.” Pike met the loneliest of ends, “a wandering mendicant, going from door to door for charity, and finally died a pauper, by the roadside, November eleventh, 1834, with no kindly hand even to close his eyes after his spirit had departed.”
Pike’s legacy, however, is not completely forgotten. His grave can still be seen in the Idetown cemetery in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. And the area where he was taken prisoner one day while making sugar came to be called Pike’s Swamp, and the stream that fed it Pike’s Creek. Today, in Luzerne County, you can stop at the intersection of state routes 29 and 118 and wonder whether the residents of the little village of Pike’s Creek know that their town was named for an Irishman who spent two years as a British soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!