Sunday, 1 February 2015

James Smith - The First American Rebel

Colonel James Smith (1737 -1813)

Eight years before the Boston Tea Party and ten years before Lexington and Concord, many believe the first shots in the American Revolution were fired in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1765. Known as the Smith Rebellion or the Black Boy's Rebellion, this crucial turning point in American history set the stage for modern American politics.

The Smith family were Scots-Irish Presbyterians and originally from the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  They moved to the north of Ireland and a few generations later emigrated to Pennsylvania from southern Ulster around 1720.  James Smith’s family were early settlers in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1755, during the French & Indian War, 18 year old James was hired to help cut a wagon road from Fort Loudon, Pennsylvania to join with the British General Braddock’s Road to Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pitt).  He was attacked and made captive by a war party of Indians, forced to run the brutal Indian gauntlet, given a complete physical transformation and adopted by the Caughnawaga Mohawk tribe.  He lived with them as an Indian for the next five years.  He learned their language as well as other Indian languages, acquired their skills of hunting, fishing and survival.  He read his Bible and kept a journal.  The detailed account he published in 1799 is one of amazing adaptability to and understanding of the ways of the Indian. He escaped near Detroit and walked back to his home in Franklin County, PA.

By 1765 this western part of Pennsylvania was often under attack by Indians. The Scots-Irish whom took the brunt on the frontier became aware that illegal trade goods, such as tomahawks, scalping knives, and gun powder, were being transported to Fort Pitt by a British official to rearm the Indians. James Smith's community believed they had a right to stop it.

Smith during the Black Boys Rebellion

Smith became Captain of a group of Rangers known as The Black Boys who organized themselves for protection.  Known as Black Boys because they dressed as Indians and blackened their faces. They ambushed a pack train intended for Indian trade belonging to trader George Croghan and destroyed illegal goods such as rum & gunpowder. However, the British needed to cement relations with the native Americans as a key ally against the French, so when the British authorities sided with Croghan it led to the 'Black Boy Rebellion'

The Rangers led by Smith, convinced the authorities were doing nothing to help stop Indian attacks on the frontier folk, laid siege to Fort Loudon. After two days the British flag came down and the 42nd Highland Regiment were forced to abandon the fort. James Smith, “The First Rebel” and his Black Boys proclaimed victory on March 9, 1765 in what was actually the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

Historical marker for the rebellion

In 1774 Jim 'Black Boy' Smith was appointed captain in the Pennsylvania line and in 1776 a major. In 1778 he received a colonel’s commission and was in command of the Third Battalion of the Westmoreland County Militia until the Revolutionary War ended.  In 1776 he was elected member of the Convention of Pennsylvania from Westmoreland County and served in the Pennsylvania Assembly in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1777.

In 1801 Smith became a Presbyterian missionary and evangelized among the native American tribes. A decade later, at the age of 75 James Smith felt he had one last fight in him and applied to join General Harrison’s Army in the War of 1812 but his request was not granted due to his advanced age. Regardless of this he was still able to attach himself to the army, likely as an army chaplin or an advisor on Indian warfare. James died in 1813 after a short illness.

Allegheny Uprising / The First Rebel

In 1939 Scots-Irish actor John Wayne played the part of James Smith in the movie Allegheny Uprising (known in the UK as 'The First Rebel') bringing the story of  Smith's Black Boy's Rebellion to the big screen.

A clip from Allegheny Uprising (1939)



  1. Thank you for sharing such important stories about early Scots-Irish history in America!! It is greatly appreciated!

  2. The stories and tales relating to this event are myriad and one can hardly tell fact from fancy. The event was so poorly documented we must rely on Smith autobiography for facts.

    One thing is certain: The After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, conditions between the colonies and England went to hell in a hurry. Whatever tale one wishes to believe, Smith's activities certainly didn't encourage warm feelings between the British and the colonials. Which side held the high ground? Probably neither. The Brits were faced with an impossible situation: one can't be all things to all people. The demarcation line if 1763 is a case in point. The Brits were trying to be fair to their Indian allies. To the colonials the line wasc one drawn in sand. The Brits were screwed and never understood it. Compare the history of Canada to that of the U.S. tmThe latter iu s blood soaked largely caused by good old fashion American greed..Anything for a buck. Canada's history is largely peaceful. Letvthe shrinks figure it out.

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