In 1765, workers on the docks of City Point, Virginia, stumbled upon a small child, alone and speaking a language that they didn’t understand. The boy repeatedly referred to himself as “Pedro Francisco”; the locals decided to call him Peter. Eventually, they came to realize that he was speaking Portuguese. Through translation, they learned that Francisco was the son of wealthy parents who lived near the ocean on an island. He had been kidnapped and taken to the American colonies and then abandoned. A local judge, taking pity on him, took him under his wing and set him up as an apprentice to a blacksmith.
Thus begins the story of Peter Francisco, the man who would eventually come to be known as the Virginia Hercules. Historians believe that Francisco was the son of wealthy residents of the Azores, an archipelago in the Atlantic controlled by Portugal, and was likely kidnapped for ransom at the age of five before being abandoned by his abductors. Though this was a tragic start, Francisco would rise above these origins and become a hero in the early American republic.
As an apprentice blacksmith, Francisco developed into a strong young man. He was an intimidating figure, standing at 6’6” tall and weighing 260 pounds, at a time when the average man stood a foot shorter and weighed about a hundred pounds less. He would soon use his strength for something other than hammering iron at the forge, however, as the colonies were caught up in the fires of the American Revolution. 16 years old in 1776, Francisco felt now was the time to join himself to the cause.
Francisco served in several skirmishes in the first years of the Revolution, surviving a bullet wound in the thigh in 1778. While that would have ended the military career of some, Francisco remained in the army. A year later, he was the second man through the walls of the British fort at Stony Point, New York. Despite suffering another wound, this time in his stomach, Francisco killed twelve men and managed to capture the British flag flying over the garrison. This was only the first time that the strength and endurance of the Virginia Hercules helped him carry out incredible feats.
In 1790, at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, the Americans suffered a devastating defeat. Despite outnumbering the British, poor leadership and coordination resulted in tremendous losses and a general retreat. Francisco, pulling back along with his unit, saw one of the revolutionary cannons stuck in mud and abandoned by its crew. Knowing that cannon were hard to come by for the Americans, he stopped and, in a feat of mind-numbing strength, hoisted the 1,100-pound gun barrel out of the mire and carried it to safety on his shoulder. This feat would be commemorated on a U.S. Postal stamp in 1975.
And this wasn’t the last time that Francisco flexed his muscles in the revolutionary cause. After standing his ground and killing eleven men at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Francisco was badly wounded and sent home to recuperate. Not satisfied with rest, he undertook a spy mission to track the movements of British cavalry raids. Leaving a tavern during this mission, he found himself surrounded by a band of a dozen British cavalrymen who tried to rob him. Instead, Francisco killed one of them, wounded eight others, and stole six of their horses. This would be the end of his military career; Francisco would retire from military life after the end of the American Revolution and devote himself to learning how to read, sitting in the classroom alongside children. Throughout his military career, he would be known as the “Virginia Giant” and the “Giant of the Revolution”, as well as the “Virginia Hercules”. He would go on to raise a family, living to the age of 71.
Of course, as with all great stories, there is doubt surrounding the actual extent of Francisco’s exploits. Several of the tales of Francisco’s strength were passed down as oral traditions by various men who had claimed to see him do it; others originate from letters an elderly Francisco wrote to Congress asking for an adjustment to his military pension. More recent scholarship has called into question many of the more epic achievement’s of Francisco’s career, noting how in the early-1800s nearly every veteran of the Revolutionary War in Virginia had a story about Peter Francisco that they swore was true.
Whatever the case may be, if Peter Francisco hoisted the cannon on his shoulders or not, one thing is clear. Francisco demonstrated grit and determination that are admirable to anyone. Despite being wounded several times, he remained in active service, doing his best to do his part for his young country. If there is one lesson to take away from the life of the Virginia Hercules, it is to never give up and never give in.
If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy Tallest Soldier in World War 2: 7ft 3in (2.21m) Jakob Nacken.