Tracing Peter Hilliard’s Timeline at Wheatland: Part I

From 1848-1868, Buchanan employed domestic staff at Wheatland. Some worked briefly and others worked for many years. The majority were people of Irish, African American, and German descent. Their age range during employment was as young as 13 and as old as early 60s. The domestic staff at Wheatland also had a variety of family dynamics. Single people, married people, and married people with children all worked at Wheatland. Some lived on the property, while other lived at their own residence.

Regularly employed domestic workers at Wheatland included:

  • a stand (also known as a valet or personal attendant)
  • a coachman
  • a housekeeper
  • a gardener
  • a cook
  • several chambermaids.

During times of need, Buchanan would standby workers. Standby workers performed various duties as needed.

One such standby worker was a man by the name of Peter Hilliard.*

Introducing Peter Hilliard

Peter Hilliard was an African American worker who first appears in a letter from Buchanan to Harriet on 5 April 1866:

“We have had a solitary dull time of it since you left us & have scarcely been able to get along at all for want of servants.  Indeed, I thought at one time the game of housekeeping would be played out on the 1 April; but we have still a temporary cook & Peter has come to our relief this morning as a servant until we can get some other person.”

Peter may have worked for Buchanan earlier than this date. Presently, 1866 remains the earliest known date of Peter’s employment.

The Year 1867

April 1867 looked similar to April 1866. When Thomas and Rosanna Gordon left work on 3 April 1867, Buchanan had vacancies for a stand and a cook. On 16 April 1867, Buchanan writes a letter to Harriet describing Peter Hilliard’s current situation:

“Peter my standby has run off to escape arrest. Of all things to think that Peter was engaged in a negro riot at the door of the Negro church on the occasion of some exhibition there. The valiant Peter! The desperate Peter! He is now in parts unknown; but is desperately anxious to come to me. He is very much alarmed.”

This letter gives us quite a bit of information. First, it tells us that Peter Hilliard was presently working for Buchanan as a standby. Second, it informs us that he is escaping arrest for alleged involvement at an exhibition in front of an African American church.

The Account from The Daily Evening Express 

The 14 March 1867 publication of The Daily Evening Express provides further details surrounding the incident. It details Peter Hilliard’s alleged involvement of a disturbance of the peace in front of the M.E. Church during an exhibition on 13 March 1867.

This newspaper report may provide more clues to the event that Buchanan originally listed, but it also recounts an event with biased, racist language by bringing up race and trying to connect it to the violence in an attempt to isolate the occurrence as an “other.”

Peter Hilliard’s alleged involvement in this event would put him on the run, as described by Buchanan. But what happened to him? Stay tuned for Part II.

*surname spelling variations on historic records include: Hillyer and Hillier

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House