On this day in 1831, the so-called “Hercules of the Revolution” passes away. Peter Francisco is another of those Patriots whose legacy has become a mixture of fact and fiction. But perhaps it is fitting that portions of his life are shrouded in mystery, given how he arrived in America.
Francisco arrived in America in 1765, when he was roughly 5 years old. Reportedly, he was rowed ashore by unidentified men. They dropped him off at a wharf in Virginia and promptly returned to their boat, without any explanation. Francisco was soon found by the locals. He was wearing clothing that was obviously expensive, but he couldn’t speak English. He just kept repeating “Pedro Francisco”—apparently his name. His origins were mostly a mystery during his lifetime, but he may have been kidnapped from his home and left by pirates.
“Pedro” soon became “Peter.” The young Peter eventually found himself in the home of Patrick Henry’s uncle, where he worked until he was about 16 years old. Some sources say he was an indentured servant for a time. Some say that he was legally adopted. Either way, he doesn’t appear to have gotten much in the way of a formal education.
As the story goes, he saw Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech and was inspired to join the Patriot cause.
In 1776, Francisco enlisted in the 10th Virginia Regiment. By then, he was a whopping 6 foot, 6 inches tall! He weighed 260 pounds. He was enormous for that day and age. Francisco fought in numerous battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, Fort Mifflin and Monmouth. He was wounded multiple times. He wintered with George Washington’s army at Valley Forge. Later, he was at the storming of Sandy Point with Mad Anthony Wayne. At the Battle of Camden, he probably saved Colonel William Mayo’s life.
His bravery in numerous battles is real. But the feats of the “Virginia Giant” at some of these battles has become a bit exaggerated over time.
One story has him carrying a 1,100 pound cannon off the field of battle. The Post Office apparently believed this one and put it on a postage stamp, but the story seems pretty unlikely. Other stories have Washington calling Francisco a “one-man Army” or ordering him a special sword to match his size. Mount Vernon has been unable to verify these claims. Another story has Francisco leading cavalry at the 1781 Battle of Guilford Court House and personally killing 11 British soldiers. He undoubtedly fought at the battle, but the rest of the story is less clear. His pension application simply says “when leaving the Battle ground [Francisco] was very Bloody also was his Sword from point to hilt” and he was “severely wounded.”
He may or may not have been a “Hercules” and a “one man army,” but we can know and respect one thing about Francisco: He was a respected private soldier who persistently returned to the field of battle and repeatedly put his life on the line for liberty. He served throughout much of the long war, persevering despite wounds that might have discouraged someone less determined.
And, don’t you think that, without determined soldiers like Francisco, our Revolution surely would have failed?
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About Peter: Early Years (Society of the Descendants of Peter Francisco)
Michael Schellhammer, Peter Francisco: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction (Journal of the American Revolution; July 23, 2013)
Pension Application of Peter Francisco (Feb. 13, 1812) (reprinted HERE)
Peter Francisco: Remarkable American Revolutionary War Soldier (American History Mag.; Oct. 1998) (reprinted HERE)