A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson

Christopher McPherson (ca. 1763–1817)

Christopher McPherson was a free African American who achieved some wealth and status working as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Virginia High Court of Chancery, and other officials and merchants. In that role he was employed by George Wythe, became acquainted with Thomas Jefferson, and dined at Montpelier with James Madison. But a willingness to express his grievances and a preoccupation with the end of the world and his role in it led to his financial and social downfall. McPherson was born a slave in Louisa County, was educated, and learned to clerk from his owner, a Scottish merchant who freed him in 1792. While working in Fluvanna County, McPherson underwent a conversion experience and for much of the rest of his life prophesied the end of the world, citing the biblical Book of Revelations. In an attempt to warn the president, he moved to the federal capital at Philadelphia, and there worked for Congress. He returned to Virginia soon after and settled in Richmond, where he earned a level of wealth and prestige rare for a free black man. Beginning in 1810, however, he initiated complaints with the city and state about a troublesome ordinance, started a controversial night school for African Americans, and appeared in court on various charges. He served time in jail, wrote A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson (1811), and eventually moved to New York, where he died in 1817. MORE...

 

Early Years

McPherson was born enslaved in Louisa County about 1763. His mother was an enslaved woman named Clarinda, his father the white Scottish merchant Charles McPherson. Clarinda was owned by a widow named Winston, and the elder McPherson operated a store from the widow's home. Charles McPherson apparently convinced Winston to sell Christopher to his friend David Ross, a Scottish merchant who did business in Richmond and Petersburg and who owned a store in Columbia, Fluvanna County. In 1770 Ross sent Christopher McPherson to Goochland County to be educated for two years, after which the young man worked behind the counter at Ross's Elk Horn Store in Petersburg for three years. He then worked briefly as a teacher.

On January 23, 1781, Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed Davis Ross the commercial agent for Virginia, and McPherson worked as his clerk. As part of their duties, the two were with the Continental army at the siege of Yorktown during the American Revolution (1775–1783). In 1782, Ross resigned his post and returned, with McPherson, to Fluvanna County. From 1784 to 1787, McPherson served as Ross's principal storekeeper, with eight to ten white men under his supervision. After Ross closed his store, McPherson continued as a clerk for Ross until 1799, supervising two to six white men. He also joined the county militia. On June 2, 1792, Ross signed a deed of manumission in Fluvanna County, freeing McPherson while noting that he had been living as a free man for many years already. About 1797, a riot involving armed black men erupted near Ross's office in Columbia. After authorities called out the white militia, McPherson emerged from the office, his sword drawn, and warned the black men against violence.

Prophet and Clerk

While still in Columbia McPherson underwent a Christian conversion experience. "I was shewn by the Holy Spirit in my visions," he later wrote, "that these United States were the new Zion" and that he, McPherson, had been "appointed a messenger to the world." On July 4, 1799, with the mayor of Norfolk's permission, he and John Teed led a procession through the city, and later in the day through Portsmouth, that included a baptism ceremony in the James River. McPherson also began to write letters to prominent men proclaiming his religious message. On October 15, 1799, he wrote George Washington asking for an introduction to President John Adams. On November 27, from the capital in Philadelphia, he wrote Adams himself, enclosing a letter dated July 8, in which he describes himself as a figure from the Book of Revelations and warns that the end of the world is near. McPherson received no reply.

While in Philadelphia, McPherson secured work as a clerk to the U.S. House of Representatives while continuing to try to gain the president's attention. On January 28, 1800, he composed an address to Adams and the U.S. Senate, delivering it via Senators Stephen T. Mason and Wilson Cary Nicholas. Again he received no reply and returned to Virginia that spring. On his way home he dined at Montpelier with James Madison, an event Madison reported in a letter to Jefferson on April 20. McPherson later wrote, "Mr. Jefferson by letter introduced me to Mr. Maddison—I sat at Table Even[in]g & morn[ing] with Mr. M his Lady & Company & enjoyed a full share of the Convers[ation]."

McPherson married Mary "Polly" Burgess that same spring, and the couple had at least one daughter and an adopted son. McPherson worked briefly for William Waller Hening in Charlottesville before finding employment in Richmond with the High Court of Chancery and its single judge, George Wythe. He later attested to creating an index for the court docket "which expedited the business every session."

McPherson's social status continued to improve. On July 29, 1800, he signed a notice with the Fluvanna County court as the principal executor of the will of David Ross, his former owner's brother. In 1802 he appeared as a witness in a court case, and his word was accepted by a jury over that of two white witnesses. McPherson later wrote that in the years 1802 to 1810, he clerked "for all the principal offices both under the general and State governments, and for judges, lawyers, merchants" in Richmond. He also began to accumulate wealth and property, leaving aside for a time his concern with the end of the world. From 1807 to 1810, he rented a house in Richmond for $25 per year, but in 1810 and each of the next two years upgraded to ones worth $18, $36, and $120 per year respectively.

Downfall

Beginning in 1810 McPherson's life was marked by a series of run-ins with authority that led to a fall from social grace. On June 18 of that year, the Richmond Common Hall Council passed an ordinance that required the licensing of hack drivers, or men who hired out their horse-drawn carriages to riders. The ordinance prohibited African Americans from riding "except in the Capacity of Maid or Servant to some Lady or Gentleman." On August 3, McPherson wrote to city officials asking for a deferment and expressed "great astonishment" at being subjected to such legal restraints, which caused him "to reflect on the whole tenor of my life."

He petitioned the General Assembly on the same issue, including a pamphlet written by Nimrod Hughes, of Washington County. Dated April 3, 1810, it quoted Revelations and prophesied the end of the world on June 4, 1812. "Altho' to my knowledge, I never saw the man," McPherson wrote to the assembly, referring to Hughes, "yet I give the fullest belief to his prophecy."

Neither the city nor the General Assembly granted McPherson his deferment, and on February 22, 1811, the Richmond Enquirer published an advertisement announcing McPherson's newly purchased hack for hire. A few weeks later, on March 12, he advertised in the Virginia Argus, of Richmond, the establishment of a night school for "male adults of colour, and with the consent of their owners, Slaves." Twenty-five students were enrolled under the guidance of a white teacher, and he expected that number soon to double. A public outcry ensued such that the paper's editor was forced to withdraw the ad, although he argued that education was, in all cases, "a blessing to the people or society who patronize it." Even so, McPherson was forced to appear in court on charges of creating a nuisance with his school. He responded with an advertisement proclaiming a new school, but it is unclear whether it was ever established.

About the same time, McPherson and his wife were arrested for disturbing the peace after getting into an argument with another man. They were cleared of wrongdoing, but McPherson later complained "that under existing circumstances, in the State of Virginia, a man of colour at present, had but a slender chance of success, in going to law with weighty officers of the land."

On May 11, 1811, in an attempt to raise money and attention for his grievances, McPherson walked through Richmond, as he later wrote, "singing, dancing, &c. and walking the streets harmlessly with my cane in hand, &c., in so conspicuous a manner, as to draw the attention of influential characters." After his arrest, McPherson told the court "that I had a new name, Pherson, son of Christ, King of Kings, and Lord and Lords, and prevailed them to read the 19th chapter of the Revalations, which contains my appointment."

He remained incarcerated for three weeks before, on June 14, 1811, appearing before the board of directors of the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, in Williamsburg. The directors pronounced him sane, and McPherson promptly traveled to Norfolk and Portsmouth, posting handbills around the city regarding his "conversion and commission" and suffering a beating at the hands of a ship's pilot. While in jail he had begun writing A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson, which he published that year and was republished by Christopher McPherson Smith, probably a relative, in 1855. It contains copies of many of his private and public papers, including letters from jail he addressed to Napoleon, King George III, and James Monroe, announcing the impending apocalypse and calling for an end to war and colonization.

On October 17, 1811, the Alexandria Daily Gazette published a derisive report about McPherson's prophecy. "Although this prediction is not a positive," the paper wrote, "it certainly has an 'awful squinting:' the timid must console themselves with the reflection that there is a wide difference between possibility and probability."

Later Years

McPherson returned to Richmond and initiated lawsuits against the man who accused him and his wife of disturbing the peace, the man he accused of beating him, as well as officials who had recommended his commitment to the Williamsburg asylum. His actions finally captured the attention of John Adams, who on February 10, 1812, wrote Thomas Jefferson, "I find that Virginia produces Prophets." McPherson had sent Adams a copy of both his Short History and Nimrod Hughes's pamphlet, and Adams worried that, while neither was "ill written," "I should apprehend that two Such mulattoes might raise the Devil among the Negroes in that Vicinity." Jefferson replied on April 20 that he had known McPherson for twenty years and he had become "crazy, foggy, his head always in the clouds, and rhapsodizing what neither himself nor any one else could understand."

The end of the world did not arrive in June 1812, as McPherson had expected, and sometime in 1813 or soon after he left Richmond for New York. His wife died on October 6, 1816, and he wrote his will on August 13, 1817. He dispersed money to three grandchildren and authorized executors to manumit two of his children by two different enslaved mothers. He died soon after.

Time Line

  • ca. 1763 - Christopher McPherson is born enslaved in Louisa County, the son of an enslaved woman named Clarinda and a Scottish merchant, Charles McPherson.
  • 1770–1772 - Christopher McPherson attends school in Goochland County.
  • 1772–1775 - Christopher McPherson works behind the counter at the Elk Horn Store in Petersburg.
  • 1776–1777 - Christopher McPherson works as a teacher.
  • January 23, 1781 - Thomas Jefferson appoints Davis Ross commercial agent for Virginia. Christopher McPherson works as Ross's clerk.
  • 1782 - David Ross resigns as state commercial agent and returns to Columbia, Fluvanna County. Christopher McPherson clerks for Ross.
  • 1784–1787 - Christopher McPherson serves as David Ross's principal storekeeper, with eight to ten white men under his supervision.
  • 1788–1799 - After David Ross closes his store, Christopher McPherson continues as his principal clerk, with two to six white men under his supervision.
  • June 2, 1792 - David Ross signs a deed of manumission in Fluvanna County, freeing Christopher McPherson from slavery.
  • ca. 1797 - A riot erupts near the office of David Ross in Columbia, Fluvanna County, involving armed black men. White militia are deployed, and Christopher McPherson draws his sword and warns the black men against violence.
  • 1799–1800 - Christopher McPherson works as a clerk to the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • July 4, 1799 - With the mayor of Norfolk's permission, Christopher McPherson and John Teed lead a procession through that city and later Portsmouth that includes a baptism ceremony in the James River.
  • November 27, 1799 - Christopher McPherson writes President John Adams from Philadelphia, enclosing a letter dated July 8, in which he describes himself as a figure from the Book of Revelations and warns that the end of the world is near. McPherson receives no reply.
  • January 28, 1800 - Christopher McPherson writes an address to President John Adams and the U.S. Senate, giving it to Senators Stephen T. Mason and Wilson Cary Nicholas for delivery.
  • Spring 1800 - Christopher McPherson dines with James Madison at Montpelier.
  • Spring 1800 - Christopher McPherson and Mary "Polly" Burgess marry. They will have at least one daughter and an adopted son.
  • July 29, 1800 - In Fluvanna County, Christopher McPherson serves as the principal executor for the will of James Ross, his former owner's brother.
  • 1802 - Christopher McPherson provides witness testimony in a court case, and his word is accepted by a jury over that of two white witnesses.
  • 1807–1810 - Christopher McPherson rents a house in Richmond for $25 per year.
  • 1810 - Christopher McPherson purchases a house in Richmond and rents it out for $18 per year.
  • June 18, 1810 - The Richmond Common Hall Council passes an ordinance prohibiting African Americans from riding in horse-drawn carriages "except in the Capacity of Maid or Servant to some Lady or Gentleman."
  • August 3, 1810 - Christopher McPherson writes Richmond city officials to complain about a new law prohibiting African Americans from hiring a horse-drawn carriage.
  • December 1810 - Christopher McPherson petitions the General Assembly regarding a Richmond law and includes a pamphlet prophesying the end of the world.
  • 1811 - Christopher McPherson begins renting a house in Richmond for $36 per year.
  • 1811 - A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson by Christopher McPherson is published.
  • January 21, 1811 - The General Assembly orders a bill drawn up to defer Christopher McPherson from a Richmond ordinance, but it is later tabled.
  • February 22, 1811 - The Richmond Enquirer publishes a notice from Christopher McPherson that he has purchased a hack, or horse-drawn carriage, for hire.
  • March 12, 1811 - In the Virginia Argus Christopher McPherson announces a night school for free enslaved blacks in Richmond.
  • March 14, 1811 - The Virginia Argus defends Christopher McPherson's new school for free and enslaved African Americans but announces it will no longer advertise for it.
  • May 23, 1811 - Christopher McPherson, in an attempt to raise money and attention for his grievances, walks through Richmond "singing, dancing, &c." He serves three weeks in jail.
  • June 14, 1811 - The board of directors of the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, in Williamsburg, examine Christopher McPherson and declare him sane.
  • June 23, 1811 - While lodging on a ship in Hampton, Christopher McPherson is beaten by a pilot, William Parish, and later sues him for $1,000 in damages.
  • October 17, 1811 - The Alexandria Daily Gazette publishes a derisive story about Christopher McPherson's prediction of the end of the world.
  • 1812 - Christopher McPherson begins renting a house in Richmond for $120 per year.
  • February 10, 1812 - John Adams writes to Thomas Jefferson about Christopher McPherson's end-of-the-world predictions.
  • April 20, 1812 - In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson describes Christopher McPherson as "crazy, foggy, his head always in the clouds."
  • June 4, 1812 - The end of the world, as predicted by Nimrod Hughes, of Washington County, does not arrive.
  • 1813 - Christopher McPherson purchases a house in Richmond and rents it out for $60 per year. Sometime after he moves to New York.
  • October 6, 1816 - Mary "Polly" Burgess McPherson, the wife of Christopher McPherson, dies.
  • August 13, 1817 - Christopher McPherson writes his will.
  • January 26, 1818 - Richmond Hustings Court holds a probate hearing for the will of Christopher McPherson, and his adopted son Robert Cowley refuses to serve as executor.
  • 1855 - A Short History of the Life of Christopher McPherson by Christopher McPherson is republished by Christopher McPherson Smith.

References

Further Reading
Berkeley, Edmund Jr. "Prophet without Honor: Christopher McPherson, Free Person of Color." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 77, no. 2 (April 1969): 180–190.
Wilkinson, Aaron B. Blurring the Lines of Race and Freedom: Mulattoes in English Colonial North America and the Early United States Republic. PhD diss. University of California, Berkeley, 2013.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Wolfe, B. Christopher McPherson (ca. 1763–1817). (2018, January 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/McPherson_Christopher_ca_1763-1817.

  • MLA Citation:

    Wolfe, Brendan. "Christopher McPherson (ca. 1763–1817)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Jan. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 3, 2018 | Last modified: January 18, 2018


Contributed by Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.