By Eddy Kuhl
Nicaragua is a fascinating country, mainly due to its history. For example, Nicaragua has indigenous ethnics which still preserve their native tongues (Sumu, Mosquito, and Rama); Nicaragua was discovered by Christopher Columbus himself in 1502; three Basque sailors drowned in the “River of Disaster (Matagalpa)” when trying to obtain fresh water, becoming the first European to die in the continental landmass ,which in 1507 would be named America by Martin Waldsemüller, when he published his first world map.
Nicaragua had the most important port in La Mar del Sur, El Realejo, where galleons sailing to the Philippines and China were built. The biggest fresh water lakes in Latin America containing marine species are located in this country, which has coasts on both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with beautiful beaches and islands and bays full of histories of pirates, ladies defending castles, and sunken galleons.
This Central American country witnessed the gold rush to the rich mines of California by thousands of adventurers who transited through it from the East coast to the Pacific between 1849 and 1869 (among them Mark Twain, Lola Montez, etc.)
Nicaragua is also the cradle of one of the greatest names in Spanish literature, Rubén Darío.
History of Doctor David Jones Peck
The story which we are about to tell is also unique. It is about an Afro-American who graduated as a medical doctor in Rush Medical School in Chicago, who decided, after his graduation in 1847, to emigrate to Nicaragua in search for freedom. His name was David Jones Peck, born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the 1820s. He was the son of John C. Peck and Sarah Peck, free blacks who moved to Pittsburgh at the beginning of 1830 and founded the first school for black children, where David was one of the first students.
His father, John Peck, was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, and his mother Sarah in Pennsylvania. John was a prominent abolitionist and with friends such as Martin Delany, helped black slaves to escape from the South. John was granted a license to preach in 1834 and founded a Methodist African Church in Carlisle. He was also a barber, manufactured wigs and a businessman in the community of free men in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. In 1837 he and Mary gave birth to a baby girl who was named Mary.
From 1844 to 1846, David Jones Peck studied medicine under the protection of Dr. Joseph Gaszzam, a white abolitionist medical doctor. After two years of study under his guidance, in 1846 Dr. Daniel Brainard helped him to be admitted into the medical school of Rush Medical College in Chicago where he studied two more semesters. One of his professors was Dr. Charles V. Dyer, a famous Illinois abolitionist. David J. Peck graduated as a medical doctor in the spring of 1847. David´s name appears in the 1846-47 Student Catalog of the Rush Medical School together with 70 other medical students.
In the summer of 1848, Dr. Peck travelled throughout the state of Ohio together with William Lloyd Garrison and the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and in 1849 he married Mary Lewis at the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. No evidence of children from the couple has been found.
Dr. Peck participated with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Martin Delany in abolitionist demonstrations and he is therefore considered one of the pioneers in this movement for freedom. Frederick Douglas
Martin Delany, an Afro American as Peck, was born in Pittsburgh in 1812, and in 1843 he founded the anti-slavery newspaper The Pittsburgh Mystery. Then, in 1847 he was co-founder of the newspaper that became the North Star, together with Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison.
In Philadelphia he had many difficulties trying to practice medicine. The couple lived in a house at 223 Lombard St. until the year 1850. They moved to New York and had plans to establish themselves in California but at that time The Fugitive Slave Law was being enforced with the purpose of returning to the South those slaves who had escaped to the North. By a twist of fate David met his childhood black friend Martin Robinson Delany in New York, who at the time had studied medicine for a year at Harvard. He convinced Peck to join him in a project to find a homeland for free Blacks in Central America, taking into account that in the United Republics of Central America slavery had been abolished by their Constitution in 1824. Even after separating from this union in 1837, Nicaragua had continued to respect the foregoing clause.
En route to Nicaragua
Peck sailed with Delany in 1852 in a commercial bark used for travels to Nicaragua and arrived together with him in San Juan del Norte. When the locals formed an organization which included expat Afro-Americans from the United States, they elected his friend Martin Delany as major and commander in chief of the militias while Peck was appointed official medical doctor of that city-port, called Greytown by the British. Dr. Peck remained at least two years in San Juan del Norte. After this, he moved to León and to other places in Nicaragua until 1855, the year when all trace of him was lost.
His University has looked for him for several years Authorities of the Rush Medical College (today Rush University) are proud to have given the first Afro-American an opportunity to study and graduate at their institution, as this occurred 13 years before the Emancipation of slaves declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 in the United States.
(Editor´s Note: One year before Dr. Peck, in 1846, another Afro-American medical student had graduated, not in the United States but in Glasgow, Scotland. His name was Dr. James McCune Smith. And 17 years after Dr. Peck, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpter graduated from New England Medical College, today University of Boston).
A monument to the memory of Dr. Peck was built in 1977 at Rush Medical College, 130 years after his 1847 graduation, and a Chicago metro station was named in his memory: Transit Authority Peck Street Station.
In 1984 one of the buildings on the Rush campus was also named after him. In it there is a plaque reading: “Dr. David Peck graduated in Rush Medical College in 1847 and was the first North American black to receive the title of medical doctor from an American university”.
Dr. Michael J. Harris of this University wrote an article on the life of Dr. Peck in the United States and wishes to know his fate in Nicaragua since they do not know anything of his whereabouts after the year 1855. Dr. Harris writes: “The history hereby presented is not complete. This researcher shall follow this heroic deed to find the missing pieces in the history of David Jones Peck…a dreamer who did not fear to act in accordance with his dreams….Historians deserve our respect in their endeavor to reconstruct them”.
So here we will help you find him.
His life in Nicaragua
Several North American blacks such as Dr. Peck also shared the idea of creating a Afro-American democratic state in San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua, but apparently Peck did not find the freedom and support that he so much wanted, neither there nor in the Mosquitia Territory. As an example, the author holds a letter from James R. Starkey, a Negro ex-slave, who, also during his stay in Greytown in 1852, addressed it to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in which he complained about discrimination in hotels and certain places, and said: “I left New York on 3rd January in the bark Pocahontas… But at last, we arrived in the port of San Juan, the famous port of Promethean notoriety. After his arrival, he stayed in a small hotel at the port and continues: out of the eight hotels in this place, five are kept by colored people from the States and [are]some of the best houses in town…later on, he complains…It is very strange that our people have to be treated this way in a country like this, whose King is a colored man, and the police officers are also colored.
Since the discovery of gold in California in 1848, Nicaragua was one of the best passages from the East Coast of the United States to California. This meant that hundreds of North American passengers arrived in San Juan del Norte in the Caribbean Sea, sailed up the river San Juan, and once in Granada travelled by land up to the port of El Realejo in the Pacific Ocean and from there to California in sail boats.
In January 1851 a new route was granted to the shipping entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt and that was the port of La Virgen in the Granada Lake, whereby crossing the isthmus of Rivas on a mule´s back, it was possible to reach the small port of San Juan del Sur in the Pacific Ocean. This provoked an unbalance in the two opposite sides of Nicaragua, as León lost its economic income from the passage through El Realejo.
Many of these passengers influenced the customs of the natives. For instance, they travelled with modern firearms and offered their services as riflemen, and this planted the idea on the locals to use these people on their side in the civil disputes, a common occurrence at the time. This was so in the case of Charles William Doubleday and others with the surnames of Claim and Dorsey.
North-American adventures in Nicaragua since 1851
“In 1851 civil war broke out in Nicaragua due to the “Cuartelazo” (attack on the barracks of León). The revolutionary chief had a North American division of shooters that was captured when the city of León was surrendered. The protests by Mr. Kerr, Business Attaché serving as mediator between the belligerents, helped out of amicable deference to keep his fellowmen from being judged in a war council. Such amicable mediation requested to Nicaragua by the American diplomat, did not harm in any way the national sovereignty or the good name of President Pineda” (Revista Conservadora Nº 78, p. 50)
In the meantime, in September 1851, in San Juan del Sur, another adventurer by the surname of Claim contracted passengers in transit to California offering their services to both opposing sides in Nicaragua. A proof of this is this letter signed in Rivas on September 1851, taken from the Gazette in Costa Rica, and which it reads (JEA 1ª):
Mr. Claim had been recognized in León as colonel and arrived at the San Juan del Sur port with other American adventurers to recruit those who were in transit offering on behalf of Muñoz (Gral. Trinidad Muñoz) that they take part in the war and fight on his side. Upon achieving victory, he would grant those who fought a considerable amount of land wherever they wished and 15 pesos monthly……..Mr. Claim took the 15 to 20 adventurers who had already disembarked to El Realejo in the Victorian schooner.
General Trinidad Muñoz, a Liberal from León, who after the coup that he lead against Director Mateo Pineda, left for exile in Honduras, ordered several foreign adventurers to serve under the command of Claim and incite the colony of foreigners to themselves rebel against the government of Alfaro in Granada, but they were defeated. Claim was taken prisoner but was released due to the mediation of the American Consul Mr. White (José Dolores Gámez, History of Nicaragua, p. 38, Col. Cult. Banco Nicaraguënse).
Doubleday also made an alliance with the Liberals of León, while Dorsey did the same with the Conservatives of Granada. Of British origin, Doubleday had lived in Ohio and in California and was able to arrive in Nicaragua at the beginning of 1851 and kept contact with other North American adventurers that backed General Trinidad Muñoz in the coup that he had led against the State Director Mateo Pineda in 1851, as Dr. Diego Manuel Chamorro writes in an article.
At that same time in San Juan del Norte, Dr. Peck heard from Charles W. Doubleday about the conflict in the Pacific Zone in Nicaragua between the elitist Conservatives and the Liberals with their democratic Utopia stating that all men are equal. Obviously, Dr. Peck sympathized with the latter and decided to support them. So he travelled, possibly accompanied by Doubleday, from San Juan del Norte to La Virgen, from there to San Juan del Sur, and by boat to El Realejo, finally arriving in León.
Doubleday learned Spanish and was called by the people from León “Capitán California” (California Captain). He had a liaison with the President of the Provisional Government Francisco Castellón before the latter signed the contract, on December 28, 1854, with Byron Cole to bring 200 North American settlers to Nicaragua, offering each of them two “caballerías” (182 hectares) of land in Matagalpa.
By May 1854, Doubleday had gathered a group of at least 30 North Americans and Europeans, a mixture of idealists and adventurers, who would fight at the side of the people from León. Among them was Dr. Peck with the rank of military doctor (JEA.1b) [??].
Doubleday fought at the side of the people from León during the war in 1854, escaped unscathed and went back to León with Máximo Jerez in February 1855. Six months later, in June 1855, we find him serving as interpreter for the Government of Castellón when William Walker arrives at El Realejo on the 13th of June, 1955. Afterwards, he fought on the side of Walker.
But Doubleday was of a liberal mind, as where the North Americans of the Northern States, while Walker was a radical Southern slaveholder. It is deemed that when Doubleday found out about Walker´s slaveholding plans, he broke all relations with him and went back to the United States.
The Civil War of 1854
The rebel troops of the Liberal Faction under the command of Máximo Jerez defeated the Government troops of the Conservative Director Fruto Chamorro at the El Pozo Hacienda on May 12, 1854, near León and then they chased them to their general quarters in the city of Granada. This gave rise to the siege of Granada within the so-called Civil War of 1854.
The liberals of León, supported by mercenaries or idealists – depending on the point of view taken – besieged the city of Granada for eight and a half months, from 26 May 1854 to 9 February 1855.
The American riflemen gathered by Doubleday fought on the side of the people of León, but the members of the Conservative Faction of Granada had also contracted North American and European adventurers to fight on their side. This was so in the case of an American officer by the name of Dorsey.
William Wells states that the Democrats controlled in 1854 the area from La Virgen to San Juan del Sur, and that both Judge Cushing, interim agent of the “Compañía del Tránsito”, and the American Consul Fardee negotiated with them. He also states that he met a medical doctor whom they called Dr. Davis, “who stated that he was the surgeon of the Democratic army, a young and nice doctor”.
“The doctor was from Ohio and lived in Nicaragua since three years before. He had taken part in several adventures, once working in a silver mine, another time practicing medicine in Masaya and in Granada, sometimes fighting in the country’s revolutions, other times piloting steam boats in the lake. His excitement was due to the influence of an officer who had become his friend after a fight held with him several weeks before”.
Doctor Davis said he was on the side of the Liberals ever since their leaders disembarked at the Port of El Realejo in the month of May 1854 and had gathered 6 more Americans with whom he rode horseback from La Virgen to Jalteva to join the forces of General Jerez who was besieging Granada from June 1854 until February 1855.
(William W. Wells, Exploraciones y aventuras en Honduras, RCPCA, pp. 8, 9)
During these years there were more foreign than local doctors in Nicaragua, especially American ones. In 1854, many of them were living in the country since 1851. Wells mentions Dr. Lawrence Cole who was married to a young girl from Rivas, “from the most important families in the Department” he adds that “in León there were two foreign doctors”, other than Doctor Davis and Dr. Peck, already mentioned by Doubleday.
During the long siege, the people from Granada resisted tenaciously and finally managed to wound Máximo Jerez. The latter, in recovery and without further hope, decided to end the siege to this city in February 1855 and returned to León with his troops and the remaining foreign allies. Some of them had died in armed combat and others due to cholera and other tropical diseases for which they had no defenses.
In Nicaragua there were at least two more German doctors who granted temporary services to the country, Dr. Karl Berendt in 1852 and Dr. Karl Scherzer in 1854. To this list must be added Dr. Jorge Choiseul Praslin, a Frenchman living in Matagalpa since 1852 that the Government later recognized as medical doctor.
Dr Peck’s final destiny is found
I finally found the whereabouts of Dr. Peck in NicaraguaOn 19 July 2009, 162 years after his graduation, I found the information regarding the whereabouts of Dr. Peck in Nicaragua, urged by the message published by the Rush Medical School at the University of Chicago requesting information on the fate of its former student, Dr. David Jones Peck.
I had researched among scholars of the Caribbean Coast about this case, had only found out that he had lived in Bluefields, but there was no current trace of him. Then, upon reading an article by Jorge Eduardo Arellano in “El Nuevo Diario” newspaper, who states that in the Civil War of 1854, during the siege of Granada by the liberal troops from León, commanded by General Máximo Jerez, who was assisted by a group of North Americans led by C. W. Doubleday (“Captain California”), “among them” says Doubleday literally in his memoirs: “was Doctor Peck, a black medical doctor from Pittsburgh, who acted as surgeon in the Democratic Army”.
Captain California states that Peck wanted to accompany him to make an inspection of his riflemen. They noticed that in the enemy field at a certain distance a skylight in the walls of a house was being opened. It was obvious that they were attempting to mount a cannon aimed at them, and Doubleday recognized Dorsey as the person leading the enemy´s war tactics. Peck attempted to take out Dorsey and prepared himself to shoot but he lacked the ability to handle rifles and at that precise moment Dorsey noticed that he was being aimed at and fired the cannon knocking Doubleday and Peck down amid the debris. Peck was badly injured in the head by the cannon ball and this contusion later killed him. The medical doctor acting as soldier dies after having been shot by cannon fire. This happened a little before the suspension of the siege to Granada in February 1855.
I contacted Arellano who obtained for me a photocopy of Doubleday´s diary and noticed that this information is confirmed there. The man in question was the same Afro-American medical doctor whose fate was questioned by Rush University in Chicago.
(Later on Dr. Michael Harris located Doubleday’s book in English in USA and confirmed that data. Harris is planning to come on March 2012 to put a memory plate to Dr Peck, in the site he died in Granada in 1855)
Rests in Peace in Granada
Dr. David Jones Peck was surely buried in the town square of the city of Granada, near the historical church of Jalteva where the headquarters of the Liberal faction was located. Curiously, the colored Cleto Ordóñez who also wanted to transform this society to the principles of liberalism of the French Revolution and American Constitution establishing “that all men are born free” had also been born in this city in 1778.
A note in the archives of the faculty of medicine at the University of Rush in Chicago reads: David Jones Peck was born around the year 1826 or 1827. He attended the Rush Medical College in Chicago, graduating in 1847. He set up practice in Philadelphia, but shortly thereafter he moved to Central America. No known records on Dr. Peck exist after 1855; his death date and burial location are unknown. Additionally, no photographs of Dr. Peck are known to be in existence.
Rush University personnel still does not know how the life of its former idealist student ended. I recently sent them this information, but this being during the summer holidays, they will not see it until their return.
Note on the photograph. Rifles from the “Ejército del Septentrión”.
In a visit made during the year 2000 to the parish priest of Ciudad de Darío, the Franciscan Friar Wilfredo Jarquín showed me some antique rifles that he had saved in a warehouse of the parish house. When inquired by me as to the whereabouts of these findings, he led me to the bank of the Río Grande. Next to the “Poza de las Yeguas”, he showed me a cave in the rock face of the riverside where the priests had found them. These are shown in the picture above and I believe they are the remainder of the 300 rifles which the Legitimist President José María Estrada received in August 1856 from the then President of Guatemala to help the Legitimists fight against the Filibusters. These weapons remained in El Sauce when President Estrada was murdered in Ocotal. The Hungarian colonel, Manuel Gross, brought them with the help of a dozen Matagalpa Indians, in carts pulled by ox. From there, the Falanginos de Latande (from Apante) was created to combat in San Jacinto and then the most part of the “Ejército del Septentrión” was armed there. Some of these weapons must have been forgotten there and they were finally found in 1999, 143 years after having been hidden.
Latest news, Match 2012!
Dr. Michael Harris let me know that he wished to put a plaque in memory of Dr. Peck in the place where he died. I managed to get the City aprroval, and that the Academy of History would back this event. So finnally, Dr. Harris brought from USA to Granada a bronze plaque which he installed in the park across Jalteva Church in Granada on March 2012. Wittnessing the ceremony were the Deputy Mayor of the City of Granada Mr. Carlos Espinoza, and architect Fernando Lopez. Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Norman Caldera, Carlos Aleman Ocampo and me (Eddy Kuhl) from the Academy of History. Kathelleen Boyle from US Embassy in Nicaragua, Noel Gonzalez Sr. and Jr, from the Instituto de Cultura Hispanica, Alejandro Sequeira as a citizen from Granada. The program was the following;
Programa instalación palca Dr. Peck en Granada, 10.3.12, 10 am.
- La Alcaldia da la bienvenida a Granada al Dr. Michael Harris, a los representantes de la Embajada de Estados Unidos, Academia de Geografia e Historia de Nicaragua, Instituto Nicaraguense de Cultura Hispanica, ciudadanos en general e invita a explicar el objeto de la visita del Dr. Michael Harris
- Eddy Kuhl presenta en español e ingles al Dr. Michael Harris, así como el objetivo de su visita.
- Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Secretario de la Academia de Geografia e Historia presenta un historial del caso del Dr. David Jones Peck.
- El delegado de Embusa lee un mensaje de la Universidad Rush de Chicago, donde se graduó el Dr. Peck en 1847.
- El Dr. Michael Harris agradece a la Ciudad de Granada, y a los ciudadanos presentes en la ceremonia el gesto de permitirle poner esa placa en memoria de su colega medico áfrico-americano después de siglo y medio de su muerte en ese sitio.
The plaque reads:
Aquí murió Dr. David John Peck, el primer afroamericano graduado medico en Estados Unidos de América (* Pittsburgh circa 1822 – Granada 1855). Vino a Nicaragua en busca de libertad
“Here died Dr. David Jones Peck, first Afro American medical doctor graduated in USA,(* Pittsburgh, circa 1822 – Granada 1855) He came to Nicaragua searching for freedom”
Mission accomplished by Michael Harris and Eddy Kuhl
Dr. Michael J. Harris, MD of the University of Rush in Chicago, Dr. David Jones Peck: a dream denied, Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 88 Nº. 9
Jorge Eduardo Arellano (JEA), Historia Básica de Nicaragua (Vol. 2) Fondo Editorial CIRA, Managua 1997, page 91
——— El sitio de Granada abrió las puertas al Filibusterismo, El Nuevo Diario, 27.06.09 (based on a translation of the Doubleday diary by Manuel Granizo in the Conservative Magazine).
Charles W. Doubleday, Reminiscences of the Filibuster War in Nicaragua, (New York and London. G.P. Putman´s Sons, 1886
Eddy Kühl, Carta de un ex esclavo desde Nicaragua. Matagalpa Histórica, page 174, Managua: Impresión Comercial La Prensa, 2002.
Leonard W. Johnson Jr., History of the education of Negro Physicians, Journal of Medical Education, 42: 440, 1967