“The master, the overseer, and the driver looked after them as they flew, beyond the wood, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and disappeared in the sky like a handful of leaves. They were never seen again. Where they went I do not know. . .”
The passage above comes a story titled “All God’s Chillun Had Wings”, which was first recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project, an organization committed to, among its other projects, documenting the stories of African-Americans that had been passed down to them by their ancestors. “All God’s Chillun Had Wings” was published in Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, which was produced in the early 1900s.
The story appeared in The Book of Negro Folklore, a collection of folktales compiled in 1958 by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. The late Virginia Hamilton re-worked the story as a children’s picture book called The People Could Fly which was published in 1985.
The story I have to tell is about 53 enslaved Africans, including 28 adults and 25 children who could not fly; instead they disappeared. My story begins during a time when slavery existed in all 13 colonies. A man named John Neville purchased his first two slaves, Harvey and Joe, in 1767. John Neville also purchased the land that would become the site of my story plus 14,000 more acres of land in 1774 in what was then Western Virginia, later becoming Western Pennsylvania. One year later in 1775 the enslaved Africans living there began to develop the land and to construct Woodville, the first manor house. Neville served as the commander of Ft. Pitt (Ft. Dunmore) on behalf of the Virginia colony. When the American Revolutionary War broke out, he fought until 1780.
During the time John Neville was away at war, the enslaved Africans on his plantation continued developing the land and building the Woodville manor house. When Neville, now a general, returned home in 1780 to what had become Western Pennsylvania, due to the survey done by Mason and Dixon, he was compelled to register 21 of the enslaved Africans–nine females and twelve males–under the Pennsylvania Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780. Were it not for this state boundary, the enslaved Africans held in bondage by the Neville family might not have been freed at that time and could well have remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.
In the 1790s Bower Hill, a second manor house was built by the enslaved Africans on Neville’s estate. It was perhaps the greatest Pennsylvania mansion west of the Allegheny Mountains. The Africans enslaved by the Neville family on the Woodville and Bower Hill plantations had a wide range of skills and trades. They served as lumberjacks, distillers, carpenters, joiners, husbandmen (“ranchers”), and engaged in other of the farm trades. Those who were skilled in the art of distilling manufactured whiskey, the cash crop on the Neville plantations. The Bower Hill Plantation boasted a 500-gallon still, the largest in Western Pennsylvania.
Not only were Neville’s enslaved African given the tasks of development and construction, the defense of the lands, buildings, everything else was also in their hands. John Neville armed his enslaved Africans, as did many frontier plantation owners. Therefore skilled marksmen could be added to the list of things at which the enslaved Africans on the Neville plantations were talented.
A small proof of this is found in the story of two of the enslaved children on the Bower Hill plantation. In November of 1784, 11-year old Will and his 8-year old brother Putnam got permission to hunt a wolf that had been attacking the sheep. These two boys successfully killed a 100-pound wolf; their exploits are a matter of record. Ten years later, in 1794, these young marksmen would employ their firearms skills in defense of the Bower Hill manor house.
When I first read about the Battle of Bower Hill and the fact that enslaved Africans who lived there participated in the defense of the property, I was puzzled. In time I learned that the plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were not the full-time homes of the Neville family, who actually resided in the city of Pittsburgh. The plantations were a source of income while the manor houses were, for lack of a better word, vacation homes.
The plantations at Woodville and Bower Hill were, however, the full-time homes of the 53 enslaved Africans. They had built the Woodville house and other buildings, developed the land, planted the crops, and distilled the whiskey, the cash crop, while the Nevilles, both John and his son Presley, fought in the revolution.
The enslaved Africans had lived on the Woodville plantation and later Bower Hill since 1775, a span of 19 years. They had taken mates and raised children there. Woodville and later Bower Hill were much more their homes than they ever were the homes of the Neville family.
Due to public resentment about an excise tax on both homemade and commercial whiskey , an armed revolt would be fomented. On July 16th at least 30 Mingo Creek militiamen surrounded Bower Hill, Neville’s fortified home. General Neville was a tax collector and a federal marshal who had been serving writs on those who had not paid their taxes. He had taken refuge there. With the Bower Hill house being situated on a hill, Neville saw the militia coming and immediately called the African men to arms. I am quite sure that the African defense force included Will and his brother Putnam, the wolf slayers, who were now 21 and 18 respectively.
The Mingo Creek militiamen demanded the surrender of the federal marshal whom they believed to be inside. General John Neville responded by firing a gunshot that mortally wounded Oliver Miller, one of the “rebels”. The rebels opened fire. They were surprised by in turn being fired upon from the slave quarters. When the call to arms was given, at least 14 African men, perhaps even more, took up arms and fought a two-day battle against the Whiskey Rebels. Since we have no idea how many male children of the 25 children had grown to adulthood by 1794, there could have been a sizable force of African musketeers at the battle of Bower Hill, perhaps 20 or more.
The rebels were unable to dislodge Neville and the other defenders. The rebels then retreated to nearby Couch’s Fort to gather reinforcements and spent a good part of their time on the 16th and 17th getting drunk. They returned to Bower Hill on July 17th. Their numbers had swelled to nearly 600 men, now commanded by Major James McFarlane, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Neville had also received reinforcements which included ten American soldiers from Fort Lafayette in Pittsburgh under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, a brother-in-law of Neville’s wife. Before the rebel force arrived, Kirkpatrick had Neville leave the house and hide in a nearby ravine.
After some negotiations, the women and children were allowed to leave the house; both sides then began firing. After about an hour, McFarlane called for a cease-fire. According to some, a white flag had been waved in the house. As McFarlane stepped into the open, a shot came from the house, and McFarlane fell, mortally wounded. The enraged rebels then set fire to the house and Kirkpatrick surrendered.
The number of casualties at Bower Hill is unclear, and there is no mention of the numbers of the African defenders who were wounded or killed in the fray; defenders who had stood their ground and fought so bravely during the fierce two-day battle. McFarlane and one or two other militiamen were killed; one U.S. soldier may have died from wounds received in the fight. The rebels sent the American soldiers away and then proceeded to destroy more of Neville’s property, dividing up all of the remaining whiskey from the 500-gallon still.
I can only assume that the Africans escaped down the wooded hillside that led to the Woodville manor house since none were captured. I am convinced that had any of the African defenders surrendered, it would not have gone well for them. After all, they had been involved in killing or attempting to kill White men.
General Neville made his way to Philadelphia to report what had happened at Bower Hill. A militia force was called up from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and eastern Pennsylvania. in 1794. Headed for Pittsburgh, this federalized militia force of 12,950 men was a large army by American standards of the time. The rebels who had attacked Bower Hill had no desire to fight such a force of Revolutionary War veterans. In essence, the Whiskey Rebellion in the Pittsburgh area had come to an end.
The Bower Hill house was never rebuilt, and the enslaved Africans who defended it are not mentioned again, although they must have continued to reside at the Woodville plantation. About five years later, as a partner of Andrew Montour, General Neville acquired Montour’s Island in a land dispute and moved there. The island, which was named for the Native American interpreter, Andrew Montour, became the place where Neville spent his final years. We can only assume that the enslaved Africans moved there with him.
These enslaved Africans on John Neville’s landholdings unfortunately became invisible to history after the battle of Bower Hill. In fact, quite a few historians don’t even write about their valiant participation in the battle of Bower Hill, as though they had not been there. They remained invisible to history for nine years between 1794 and 1803 when General John Neville died.
John Neville died on July 29, 1803; his dying request to his son, Presley Neville, and his son in-law and plantation overseer, Isaac Craig, was that the enslaved Africans be manumitted–and they were. Presley Neville and Isaac Craig looked after them as they rode and walked, “beyond the woods, beyond the river, miles on miles, until they passed beyond the last rim of the world and they all disappeared like a handful of leaves in the wind. They were never seen or heard from again.” Where they went, no one knows. . .
Babalosa Obalorun Temujin Ekùnféo (Temujin The Storyteller) was initiated in1978 by Afro-Cubans and African Americans as a Priest (Babalosa) in the Lukumi Yoruba tradition which was established in Cuba by captives brought to Cuba during the days of the slave trade. Temujin has performed throughout the country since 1968. His list of talents includes lecturer, workshop developer, musician, and instrument maker. As both a scholar and performer of African culture Temujin feels a strong commitment to researching African Folklore from the Americas as well as from the continent of Africa and shares it by means of family-oriented, audience-participatory storytelling programs and experiential “Playshops” for youths and adults.