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|Bruin's experience during the revolution shaped his life|
WOUNDED, JAILED, UPROOTED, HE FOUND PROMISE IN NATCHEZ COUNTRY
(First in a Series)
When 34-year-old Irish-American patriot Peter Bryan Bruin docked two barges in Spanish Natchez country in June 1788, he brought with him other settlers from Virginia and every possession they owned.
At this point in his life, Bruin was a man looking for a break. He would find it here. In one decade he would become the first judge to take his seat in the new American territory of Mississippi in 1798. Yet he would be remembered as a drunk who was forced to retire early from the bench because his addiction to alcohol was interfering with the administration of justice.
But the man is too harshly judged if we accept this as his legacy. Bruin was a man of his times and certainly not the only frontiersman to lean heavily on the bottle. He fought in the American Revolution, was a prisoner of war and later helped bring a semblance of law and order to rowdy Natchez. Lake Bruin in Tensas Parish bears his name today, the only local landmark to remind us of this patriotic American.
Peter Bryan Bruin was born in 1754 in Ireland, the lone son born to Bryan and Elizabeth Bruin. During the Irish Rebellion in 1756, the family was forced to flee and immigrated to America, settling in Virginia Colony. In his teenage years, Bruin became a merchant but when the revolution broke out, he joined other Virginians and enlisted in the Continental Army.
On December 1775, at the age of 21, he found himself in frigid Canada outside Quebec City, enduring Arctic temperatures and shivering in a heavy snow storm. The war was in its ninth month.
Gen. Richard Montgomery had been directed by the Continental Congress to lead an expedition against the British in Canada. The campaign had been a great success as Montgomery's army of 1,000 was victorious at Fort St. John and Montreal. Now Quebec was the target.
Coming from the direction of Maine was Col. Benedict Arnold with another force of 1,000. Both Montgomery and Arnold left portions of their armies at other locations prior to their arrival at Quebec. At the outskirts of the Canadian city, the Americans set up camps in early December with a combined force of 950 lining up against 1,800 British under the command of Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, who had carefully prepared a defense.
The American army bivouacked outside Quebec for a number of days before Montgomery attacked. The weather certainly wasn't ideal for a battle but by December 30, 1775, the general had determined, despite being outnumbered two-to-one, that he could wait no longer. Weighing on his mind was the fact that after January 1 the enlistments of a great number of his men would expire and they would return home.
BRUIN WOUNDED; IMPRISONED ON SHIP
In the 2 a.m. darkness of December 31 in the bitter cold, Montgomery prepared for attack with 300 men in his ranks, including Peter Bryan Bruin. The young officer had come to the general's attention when Bruin, a lieutenant, arrived with a dispatch with "intelligence" that four British warships were on the St. Lawrence in route to Quebec.
The plan was for Montgomery to attack one position, while Arnold with 600 attacked another, both in the lower city. The two forces were to converge in the lower business district and make their way uptown. Fighting would be on the streets of Quebec, which appeared snug and sleepy in the darkness before dawn.
Bruin and other Continental troops were armed with rifles and muskets. According to historian John W. Wright, a rifle "was then short, heavy, clumsy, and little more accurate than a musket." It was "a long, slender, small-bore gun with a calibre about .50 and taking balls of about 36 to the pound."
But the flint-lock musket was the standard, "weighing about 11 pounds and measuring four feet nine inches without bayonet...When fired horizontally from the shoulder it had a range of about 125 yards. At 100 yards, a good marksman might make up 40 percent of hits on a target the size of a man standing."
Before dawn, Montgomery launched the attack, but his plan was doomed. An American deserter had a short time earlier slipped into British headquarters with news of the impending attack, giving Red Coat Gen. Carleton time to line up his troops at crucial points, neutralizing the power of a surprise attack.
Montgomery, with 17 men, including Bruin and 19-year-old Aaron Burr, the future vice-president, stormed a British barricade. Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne said Bruin was the first officer inside the barrier. Immediately, musket and artillery fire exploded.
Gen. Montgomery was killed instantly.
Aaron Burr, who 32 years later was arrested for treason near Bruin's home in Natchez country, survived without a scratch.
Bruin was hit and badly wounded. He was soon captured.
Benedict Arnold's attack on the other side of the city was also met with fierce resistance. The patriots' muskets wouldn't fire because of the wet snow. Americans fought much of the battle with bayonets and the butts of their muskets.
By 9 a.m., it was over. The British had won decisively and the Americans would soon begin a slow retreat home. Never again did the Continental Army cross onto Canadian soil.
Sixty Americans were killed and wounded in the Battle of Quebec. Six British were killed and 13 wounded. Bruin was among the wounded and the 426 captured and confined on British prison ships.
Prison ships were nightmares. Cramped, poorly ventilated, unsanitary, they were breeding grounds for disease. Men suffered from mange (the itch), colds, fevers, dysentery, diarrhea, bronchitis and the dreaded small pox, which Bruin survived.
Six months after his imprisonment, Bruin and other Americans were released in a prisoner exchange with the British in July 1776. He soon returned to the fight of the patriots and served the remainder of the war, which ended in an American victory in 1783. He had risen to the rank of major and aide-de-camp to Gen. John Sullivan and was also a veteran of the expedition against the Iroquis, the Rhode Island Campaign in 1778 and the siege of Yorktown in 1781, where he witnessed the surrender of British Gen. Lord Cornwallis.
Bruin had served eight years in the Continental Army. He entered at the age of 21. He headed home one year shy of his 30th birthday.
The experience of the eight-year war, the brushes with death, and the horror of the prison ships haunted him just as it does any soldier with similar war experiences at any time in history. For Bruin, a stiff drink became important for many reasons, physical and mental.
FROM VIRGINIA TO SPANISH NATCHEZ
Back home in Virginia, the post-war economy tanked. His father, Bryan Bruin, was forced to sell hundreds of acres to settle debts. In an effort to survive, Bryan Bruin came to this region of the world -- New Orleans first -- chasing a man who owed him money. While here, he saw the agricultural and financial promise of the lower Mississippi Valley.
Like others, Bryan Bruin petitioned the Spanish in New Orleans for land grants for himself as well as his son and neighbors back in Virginia. The governor soon gave his approval and early in 1788, Gen. James Wilkinson, the future commanding general of the U.S. Army and a Revolutionary War vet, too, brought young Bruin news of his father's success in New Orleans. Bruin quickly made plans for the journey to Natchez country and the dream of a better life.
"Navigable waters were easily reached in the latter part of the 18th Century," according to historian Dunbar Rowland, "by improved roads which converged at Pittsburgh and neighboring towns on the Youghiogheny and Monongahela. The Ohio and the Mississippi were the long great liquid highways to the west and southwest. Before the days of steam navigation, the bulk of the traffic was ever downstream...Down these mighty streams at the dawning of the 19th Century poured an ever increasing volume of immigration and commerce."
Bruin was joined onboard the two barges by 65 other people, including 35 whites -- 23 men, five women and seven children -- and 31 slaves, the breakdown in their ages and genders unknown. The barges during this period were, said Rowland, "pointed, covered hulks carrying 40 to 50 tons of freight...and manned by almost as many men." He said the era of 1780 to 1817 "was essentially that of the barge, the keelboat and the flatboat -- all crafts of burden."
Onboard in addition to the human cargo was an array of livestock -- cattle, chickens, hogs, horses -- whose whinnies, clucks, crows, and grunts echoed along the river bank all along the journey. Other cargo included furniture, personal belongings, liquor, vinegar, butter, tallow, lard, pork, beef, potatoes, farm implements, rope, yarn, shoes, boots and saddles.
Bruin's uncle and others arrived later in what was the first phase of a Spanish plan to populate the Natchez region. Five years after the war, Bruin, who sacrificed greatly for the promise of freedom and independence of what became the United States, had relocated out of economic necessity to a foreign possession, although it must be remembered that Spain had been a strong American ally during the revolution.
The significance of Bruin's arrival with other Virginians, according to Gilbert C. Don in a 1970 Louisiana Historical Association article, "was that it seemingly confirmed the (Spanish governor's) belief that a deluge of immigrants, hungry for land and seeking a market for their goods, would soon descend upon the province." Natchez would grow, but not to the extent the Spanish hoped.
NEW LIFE ON BAYOU PIERRE
After his three-month journey, Bruin settled along Bayou Pierre in present day Claiborne County, Miss., 14 miles southwest of Port Gibson. Across the Mississippi in what is now Tensas Parish, La., Bruin later built a home along the lake that now bears his name.
In 1788, Bayou Pierre was on the northern section of Spain's Natchez District. This was still the wild frontier, but it was becoming a settled region.
The population of Baton Rouge two years earlier, according to the Spanish census, was 353. The Natchez District, meanwhile, from Bayou Pierre to Point Coupee, had a population of 1,619 in 1784. But as settlers like Bruin moved in, the population increased to 4,491 by 1792, a rise of 280 percent.
Bruin came to Bayou Pierre with the rights of any settler in Spanish Natchez. His 1,200-acre land grant was extremely generous only because Bruin had brought so many settlers with him -- 12 families. The property cost him only surveyor and recording fees. His agreement was signed by two witnesses and a local official. In three years he would own a clear Spanish title to the land if he provided certain improvements, including building a cabin, and clearing and fencing the Mississippi River frontage a depth of two arpents, and planting crops.
The Spanish promised that every citizen's religious beliefs would remain his own but that no other public worship except that of the Catholic faith was permitted. This was a source of constant insult to Baptist and Methodist settlers, but not to Bruin, who was Irish-Catholic. Bruin would also be required as a Spanish citizen to help defend the province if invaded by an enemy.
He would have to pay certain duty fees to import and export goods, but he would not have to shell out a single dime in taxes. As a Spanish subject, however, he would not have a vote.
From Bayou Pierre to Natchez to the White Cliffs to the Homochitto River, tobacco, indigo, corn and cotton were growing in the fields. Fruit orchards with peaches, pears, plums and apricots were abundant. Farmers tilled sugar cane, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins, watermelons and eggplants.
A fragrance floated in the air near almost every cabin, plantation home and in lush, green meadows. This was a land of beekeepers where honey-sweetened hot biscuits made frontier life seem better than it really was.
On a hot June day in 1788 at the mouth of Bayou Pierre -- far from shores of Ireland, the ice of Quebec, the hell of the British prison ships and the wrecked economy of Virginia -- Peter Bryan Bruin found Natchez country a promising place to begin a new life.
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