Hidden Histories

Black History Month: The Remarkable Life of 'Billy' Brown

Monday, 2/23/09

During the decade of the 1820's, John Fanning Watson, the intrepid antiquarian of early Philadelphia history, interviewed 'Billy' Brown, a free & aged Black man in his 93rd year, residing within the Frankford section of the city, whom he describes as being "quite intelligent," as well as being "possessed of an observing mind & good memory."

Luckily, prior to Brown's death, his remarkable and adventurous life as a former slave and servant, were in part recorded by Watson, thus preserving for present-day readers, the 'life & times' of a forgotten African-American. These are biographical events only partly published in Watson's famous Annals, the remainder being recorded in that author's unpublished manuscript volumes, held within the possession of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, for the years 1823 & 1829.


'Billy' Brown, Mss 'Annals of Philadelphia,' John F. Watson, Vol.1.'

Ethnically, Brown was of the West African tribe known as the Igbo or Ebo, and bore the name of Walka, who along with his parents & five brothers were initially enslaved by fellow Africans. It took he & other captives two years to reach the sea coast, but he remembered quite well, his homeland, and "spoke of seeing Elephants." He and others had been "bartered about among the Blacks for checkered linnen & flannel."

Eventually arriving in the West Indies, he at first was in Jamaica, then Barbadoes, Antigua, and sailed northwards to New York, where he became a slave, "waiter" or servant to a "Col. Brown" of the "Irish Regiment,' during the 'French & Indian War.'

'Billy' Brown was present at the famed, 'Battle of the Monongahela,' better known as 'Braddock's Defeat,' fought in western Pennsylvania in July of 1755, and became an eye-witness to the slaughter & mayhem surrounding that event, giving many details concerning the battle in the narration of his life to Watson. Even though a slave, he was permitted to carry "Pistols & sword to defend himself," during the engagement.

'Billy' remarked how Gen.Edward Braddock "spoke quick & swore much," and said to George Washington (at that time a Virginia militia officer) on their journey through the Pennsylvania wilderness, to what is now Pittsburgh, when angry at him, 'We'll dine today at Fort Duquesne or in Hell!'

Brown also confirmed the oft-told story, of the unpopularity of Braddock, how he was killed, not by the French or their Indian allies, but by a Colonial soldier who had shot an Indian, and then "Braddock shot the soldier, the soldier's Brother {then} shot B.K. {Braddock}, but was not arrested, even though "the soldier offered to give himself up, {but} the officers took no notice of him."

After 'Braddock's Defeat,' Brown and his master would be present at the 'Battle of Quebec,' fought in Canada on September 13th, 1759, where he personally witnessed the demise of the famed officer, General James Wolfe, whom he states remarked to Col. Brown while dying, "Never mind the loss of one man Brown. You know I never fly for one man." It was in Canada, while serving as a waiter to Colonel or General Brown, that he lost "his toes by frost."

Brown would follow his master back to the West Indies, where they joined the British fleet which attacked Havana, Cuba, having cut "the chain across the Harbour, run under the fort and took the town," in 1762.

Next the African sailed to Ireland with his master where he would reside for some years. He was later given passage to come to Philadelphia, with a "Capt. Duncan," in 1768, but upon arrival in America, was sold to Jonathan Bayard Smith, famed Philadelphia merchant and a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777-78.

Brown claimed he was eventually sold to General George Washington, but finally became the property of a Virginia slave master named Thomas Wiley, whom he states was "a Cruel Master" who had "whipt {sic} 4 slaves to death."

It was during his period of enslavement with Wiley, that Brown stated he had "lost his fingers by the frost," as well as "one of his eyes." Eventually escaping in 1791, 'Billy' Brown made it back to Pennsylvania where he married and resided at Frankford, where John F. Watson would eventually meet him and hear his life's story, as a 'personal experience narrative' or first-hand account, a couple of years prior to Brown's death.

The life story of 'Billy' Brown is quite detailed and extensive, revealing once again, the fascinating and rich material that awaits the avid researcher at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, data pertinent & appropriate as well, during this celebration of 'Black History Month.'