A Suitable Choice

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For practical rather than literary reasons the name worked its way into common usage in the Colonies, possibly bringing with it some vague awareness of Shakespeare's Pompey. As a part of the "breaking" process, slave traders usually gave their chattel Christian names, most often from the Old Testament, but sometimes from the Classics, and even from Shakespeare. If a young slave or indentured servant showed an ingratiating manner, a sense of humor, and perhaps even the appropriate physical attributes, then Pompey--or Pomp for short--might be a suitable choice.

There were numerous African-American Pompeys in the colonies, especially in the Northeast. There was, for instance, Pompey of Braintree, one of the minutemen who responded to Paul Revere's alarm on April 18, 1775.10 Four years later, General Anthony Wayne was aided in the battle at Stony Point by a black soldier-spy named Pompey.11

The name Pompey also evolved into a symbol of popular musical culture when colonial African-Americans parodied the jig, an old English popular dance, with their own style of footwork.12 By about 1775, "Negro jigs," or "scamper dances," were beginning to be popular among whites in Britain and America. The tunes to at least three of them were published in Scotland in 1782: "Negro Dance," "Congo--A jig," and "Pompey ran away . . . Negroe Jig."13

If this was a true reflection of those tunes' popularity on this side of the Atlantic, then it is at perhaps conceivable that Private George Gibson, the "other" fiddler in the company (Pierre Cruzatte was on the Missouri with Meriwether Lewis), knew them. This is not meant to imply that "Pompey ran away" inspired the boy's name, but only that the naming could have been celebrated with it.

10. Lorenze J. Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 (New York: Athaneum, 1968), p. 190.

11. Mabel M. Smythe, The Black American Reference Book (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 18.

12. Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 122-24.

13. "Pompey Ran Away: Negroe Jig," in A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, Adapted for the Fife, Violin or German Flute. . . . (2 vols., Glasgow: J. Aird, 1782), I:57. This publication also contained the first printed version of the tune to the popular Revolutionary-era song, "Yankee Doodle."