George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Thomson, 12 August 1788

From Thomas Thomson

Nomony Westmoreland 12 Augst 1788


The distress’d Situation of a Family in who’s welfare & happiness I am much interested, must plead my apology for thus addressing a person to whom I am unknown But the people of America both collectively and as individuals have long been taught to look up to your excellency for Assistance & protection against the worst of all evils, that of Slavery.

The circumstance that has induced me to Address your excellency on this Occasion, is the very unhappy fate, of a very deserving Gentleman, a Dr William Spence, who left Great Britain with a Wife & Child in Septr 81, to return to his native Country, having been Sent to Britain for his Education when a Boy, they took their passage with many others, both Americans & British on board the Buckskin Hero, Capt. Gordon for New york, they had a prosperous voyage for 30 days, & Suppos’d themselves within 2 or 3 days Sail of Sandy hook, as Appears by a Letter wrote by the D[octo]r to his friends in Glasgow, dated the 24th of Octr & Sent by a vessel they spoke at Sea—Since that time ’till the 3d of April last no Acct was ever heard of them, and it was confidently believ’d the Ship had foundred at Sea. But by the Information of a certain James Joshua Rynolds of Philadelphia Just return’d from Slavery at Algiers, & who’s narrative I have inclos’d for your excellencys perusal, it appears that the Buckskin Hero was captured by the Algerins, and condemn’d as American property having first destroy’d her mediterranian pass; She had a very rich cargo on Board, which was too great a temptation for an Algerin to with stand, by which means the Ships Company & about 30 passengers have been carried into Slavery In Such a case, & under Such circumstances, might I hope your excellency would be so good as to interest yourself with the Court of France in behalf of this unhappy Family. I am perfectly perswaded, that Court would get the matter laid before the Regency of Algiers, by their Consul there in consiquence of your recommendation, with very probable hopes of redress.1

I am so well Satisfied Sir with your inclination to assist the unfortunate, that I need say nothing more on this Occasion to engage your feelings & humanity in the Interest of this distress’d family I can only add that it will greatly aleviate the Grief of the unhappy Mother of Dr Spence if you Should Espouse his cause, & lay under obligations a person who is with due Respect your Excellencys most obdt Humble Servt

Thos Thomson

P.S. This will be deliverd by George Thomson half Brother to the unhappy Sufferer Dr Spence who will receive any Answer you may pleas to give, & get it forewarded to its place of destination. T.T.


1An entry in GW’s diary for 23 Aug. reads: “A Mr. George Thompson, from the Academy in Alexandria with a letter to me from his father Doctr. Thompson respecting his Son in law Doctr. Spence . . . came here to dinner” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:382). Dr. Thomas Thomson of Westmoreland County was the stepfather of William Spence, the son of his second wife. Spence took his medical degree at Glasgow in 1780 before sailing the next year for New York. For GW’s efforts to ascertain whether the Buckskin Hero was among the ships taken by the Algerine pirates and for the confirmation that it was not, see GW to Thomson, 24 Aug., 18 Sept., and GW to Thomas Barclay, 31 Aug., 18 Sept. See also James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 8 Oct. 1788, and Jefferson to Madison, 12 Jan. 1789 (Rutland and Hobson, Madison Papers, description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds. The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series. 17 vols. Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962–91. description ends 11:276–77, 412–14). James Reynold’s narrative was printed in the Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia) on 23 July 1788: “The following Narrative of James Joshua Reynolds, late master of the Rising States of Philadelphia, was taken from his own mouth at Greenock, 3d April 1788 before witnesses.

“Mr. Reynolds says, he was born at Philadelphia, his parents quakers: That he was bred to the sea, served some time in the British navy, and commanded the Schooner Hammond, belonging to Mr Robert Sheddan, then of New York, now of London: That in the year 1784, he sailed from Philadelphia as master of the Rising States, bound for Lisbon: And on the 3d of April, that he was taken off the rock of Lisbon, by two Algerine cruisers; viz. the Polacre Selucia, Amet Hamet Commander; and the Galley Ochlanchia, and carried into slavery, at Algiers, where he contined until January last.” He was ransomed for 6,000 dollars by “John Jacobs, a Jew, he accidentally fell in with,” whose brother Israel Jacobs lived in Philadelphia.

In his narrative, Reynolds reported that “during his stay at Algeirs he saw Captain Gordon,” of the ship Buckskin Hero, of Glasgow, and he gave the names of five or six people from the Buckskin Hero who were on the same chain with him for two years. It was at this time that “he was told that a Doctor Spence and his lady were captured in the Buckskin Hero,” but he “never saw either of them.” Reynolds also reported that the Buckskin Hero “was taken before he arrived at Algiers, and carried into Sallee, where the pirates destroyed her pass, and got her condemned as an American. . . .”

Reynolds left Algiers on 2 Jan. 1788 and arrived in Philadelphia on 1 Aug., according to the paper. For the refutation of Reynolds’s story printed in the Packet on 25 July, and probably written by Thomas Barclay, see GW to Thomson, 24 August.

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