Every so often there is a story told, be it fact or fiction, that amazes and inspires. This is one such fact-based story about a unique man named Captain George Pointer. Had he not penned 12 pages of astonishing written artistry in 1829, his amazing story could not be shared. While his name has been known to American researchers and historians for centuries, his life story remained covered in dust. It does not begin with him as a man but as a 13-year-old bo ywho could mysteriously read and write in 1786 rural America. This is the year he started working for a company started by George Washington, The Patowmack Company, which was established a year earlier. Its purpose was to make the Potomac River safer to transport goods and materials…a water highway of sorts which was George Washington’s life-long dream. This would also make it much easier to transport needed building materials to the newly forming Capital city. Pointer was given a cottage that was nestled on the banks of the Potomac River and first hired to guard a company black powder magazine located near the cottage. It was not long before his duties expanded to general laborer assisting the Engineer. Over the course of his career with the Company, he rose from this lowly position to become Chief Engineer-Superintendent directing and overseeing a multi-cultural workforce. His rise in the Company began some 70 years before the Civil War.
This is the story of a man born into slavery in 1773.
George Pointer, also called “yellow George,” was born a slave in Frederick County, MD, on October 11, 1773. (1) His owner, William Wallace, rented him out to the Patowmack Company because they needed someone to watch over the black powder magazine that stored powder used to build the canals and loosen stone to transport to the capital. Gun powder was worth its weight in gold in those days and a target for thieves. While it’s believed watching over the powder magazine was his first primary duty, his eagerness and ability to quickly master various sets of skills surely must have amazed the first Engineer of the company as well as on-lookers. As a result,his duties quickly extended to general labor assisting the Engineer. In 1788, 15-year-old Pointer was selected to accompany Col. George Gilpin and the Company’s Chief Engineer, James Smith, on an expedition; 218 miles of the upper Potomac to complete the first survey and mapping of this area.(2) Since there were Native Americans living along the river during that time it’s quite possible that one or more could have served as guides on such an expedition and young Pointer could have learned a great deal from them. Before the canal this was an 8- to 10-day journey but after the canal was built the same trip could be safely completed in 3 to 5 days.
Workers for the Company were paid in monthly wages with daily rations of whisky. Food and cloth rations could also be received if it was credited from a worker’s wages. George Pointer’s master allowed him to keep a portion of his wages and at some point, offered him the opportunity to purchase his freedom for $300 (an average price at the time and equivalent to about $,7000-$8,000 today)(3) Imagine, receiving a few dollars a month, given only a portion of it per month and yet saving $300 in five years. This required strong will and determination! In 1793 a 19-year-old George Pointer paid for his freedom!
For a slave to be set free, did not really mean being free. Life for free blacks in and around the Federal City did not offer any more protection under the law than living as a slave. If a slave was somehow able to earn his or her freedom there was still the constant fear of capture by slave catchers who would ignore freedom papers, kidnap them and then sell slaves to owners in the deep south.(4) Moreover, the Law stated that any freed slave had to leave the state he/she was freed in or be sold back into slavery. The Law could only add to benefit slave-catchers who did not respect that law. There are no records of Pointer being registered to be freed or of receiving freedom papers and for good reason. Had he owned those documents he would have been forced to move to a different state. Pointer was a great asset to the company and it’s highly likely that the board of the company and his owner agreed it would be best that he remained unrecorded as freed. After all, he was solidly connected to a powerful company and under their unspoken protection. Moreover, even at the young age of 19, he was a known oddity and his name had surely been spreading like the currents of the river he worked up, down, around and in the Capital city as well. In his letter, Pointer spoke of George Washington and dignitaries’ annual visits to the canal to view work progression. This suggests that he had exposure to them as well as their exposure to him. Who would question his freedom? For illegal slave catchers, he would be more trouble then he’d be worth. While a humble man, it’s improbable that he held his head down in great fear as he traveled the river, canals and roads along the Potomac and in the Federal City because he was absent of freedom papers. He was a “magnificent oddity,” a black man with outstanding river piloting skills, was highly literate, had a level of wealth and the respect of all who knew him, all of which made him nearly untouchable.
Captain Pointer’s first tasks at Great Falls included the hard work hammering and digging to break down rocks and move soil to clear for the building of the lock system. In 1796 the Patowmack Company made 22-year- old George Pointer a supervisor of five boats that transported chiseled stone blocks to Great Falls from the Seneca quarry, eight miles upriver.(5) By 1798 the Pawtomack Company had not completed the locks, but they had built a temporary inclined plane that would be used to slide cargo from boats at the top of the Great Falls to the bottom while the empty boats with special pilots would descend the river. George Pointer was one of the pilots as he describes below in a letter he wrote to the C & O Canal Company:
In the meantime, a machine was got under way to lower the flour down for the boats to take it down as the Locks was not finished. Other produce came down so profusely, that the company thought it expedient that pilots should be chosen to carry the western boats down, four was chosen and among them was your petitioners humble Servant. 6