He captured the imagination of the Virginia elite on the eve of the American Revolution with a tale of education in Constantinople, capture by pirates, sale into slavery in New Orleans, escape into the Virginia wilderness, and conversion from Islam to Christianity. Listen as Martin Clagett, author of Scientific Jefferson: Revealed, presents the oft-repeated—but sometimes hard to verify—story of Selim the Algerian and his difficult journeys back and forth between two continents. Co-hosts David Thorson and Jacqueline Langholtz join in and discuss themes of survival, culture, and identity highlighted through the lens of Selim's remarkable life.



Jacqueline Langholtz: I looked up what the meaning of the name Selim is, and the Arabic definition means safe, undamaged, an emblem of solace and encouragement.

David Thorson: That is certainly in sharp contrast to the reality of his life.

This is In the Course of Human Events, a Monticello podcast. I'm David Thorson. I'm a digital guide at Monticello.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And I'm Jacqueline Langholtz. I'm a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and former Monticello staff.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Hi David.

David Thorson: Hi Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Nice to see you again.

David Thorson: Great to see you again.

In this episode, Martin Clagett will relate the story of Selim the Algerian, the castaway who captured the imagination of colonial Virginia in the 1760s, and whose tale becomes more fantastic with each retelling down to the present day.

Finding Selim

Martin Clagett: My name is Martin Clagett. I have written a book called Scientific Jefferson: Revealed and a book called A Spark of Genius: William Small, Thomas Jefferson, and James Watt: the Curious Connection Between the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

The subject we're going to talk about today is a fellow named Selim the Algerian. He was an acquaintance of William Small, Jefferson's professor at the College of William and Mary and John Page, Jefferson's best friend, and likely had conversations with Jefferson as well, a very exotic and unusual person. Perhaps:

The subject of today’s talk is Selim the Algerine, who was an acquaintance of William Small, Jefferson’s only professor, John Page, Jefferson’s closest friend, and President Horrocks. He was an exotic and charismatic oddity in Colonial Williamsburg, remarkable not only for the striking aspects of his character but also for his fantastic history.

Samuel Givens was a frontiersman and a hunter in western Virginia. One day in the fall of 1759, he took his son to a part of Augusta County that was well known for its abundance of deer. Alerted by the barking of his dogs, Givens found an unusual prey in a hollow log. He was ready to shoot, but realized that it was a man, emaciated and weak, covered with dirt and scratches, naked, except for some rags bundled about his feet. And Givens couldn't understand a word he was saying.

But he gave him a blanket and some food and took him home with him. There he nursed him back to health, and when he was sufficiently strong, he took him to a neighbor who was a prominent military officer named Colonel Dickinson. Colonel Dickinson, in turn, treated Selim like a member of his family, taught him English, and teased out a story of his life.

What Colonel Dickinson found was around 1740, Selim had been born in Algeria. His father was a prominent military officer for the Bey of Turkey. His father sent him to a classical school in Constantinople. He studied Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic. He studied physics, geometry, mathematics, and when his education was done, he went to make his way back home.              

There he studied Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, as well as physics, geometry and mathematics; with his education completed, he was sailing back to Algeria, when  his ship was captured by a Spanish pirate ship, which was, in turn, met by a French man-of-war, and the captives were turned over to the French. The French ship made its way to New Orleans, where he was sold  Selim and his unfortunate compatriots were sold into slavery at a slave auction. So Selim and his unfortunate compatriots were sold into slavery.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Selim the Algerian. Algeria, correct me if I'm wrong, is a country on the coast of  northern Africa on the Mediterranean Sea.

David Thorson: It is indeed. Algeria was a semi-autonomous military regency of the Ottoman Empire. And his father, apparently, is a military official. He's sent to Constantinople for an education, so he's probably 12, maybe 13 years old. And it's very likely that where he went was the University of Istanbul, which is on par with Oxford. So, this is a real classical, solid education.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And is it Istanbul or Constantinople in this time?

David Thorson: In Selim's time, it's still Constantinople.

Jacqueline Langholtz: I can't even imagine what that trip all the way to New Orleans must have been like?

David Thorson: So this is like maybe two to three months total time from departing Constantinople to finding himself in New Orleans. And Constantinople is on par with London. It's 750,000 people in Constantinople at that time. We think of New Orleans today as a big town. It's 1,500 people. So he's in this little tiny town at the mouth of the Mississippi River sold into slavery.

Jacqueline Langholtz: How does that happen?

David Thorson: This is all in the context of the Seven Years War, what we commonly know as the French and Indian War, of which the American theater was commonly known as the French and Indian War or Braddock’s War.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And we're still in colonial America? The Revolution has not happened.

David Thorson: No, this is 1759-1760, so it's British North America. And the British, they're fighting the French for control of all the land along the Mississippi River. And the English had signed a treaty with Algeria. So, the Algerians are allies of the British and the French and the Spanish are at war with the British, so there's a battle going on, and it's part of a global war, and he's caught up in that. He's a prize of war.

Sold Into Slavery Again

Martin Clagett: Selim's new owner was a harsh man who treated him very cruelly.  Selim was not subservient enough, so the Louisiana planter sold Selim to some slavers who carried him up the Mississippi and sold Selim to the Mingo Indians .

Selim remained there for three years, before an Englishman told him, by signs and actions, that he should head to the east to escape. And he made his way to the western edges of Virginia. By the time he got there, his clothes had been torn off by brushes and brambles and thorns, and he had subsisted only on fruits and berries and nuts he could find. Having been starved and weak, to protect himself, he secreted himself in the hollow of a fallen tree. It was there that a hunter by the name of Samuel Givens came upon him that day.

David Thorson: The Mingo Indians are a Native American nation along the Ohio-Mississippi River Valley. You may be curious as to was slavery a common practice among Native American people? The short answer is no. But Native American nations, through their association with the British colonists, began to adopt some British customs, including enslaving people. And so Selim finds himself sold to this Native American nation.

His enslavement is somewhere along the Ohio River. So he's not walking from New Orleans to Virginia. But there's no question that this is a harrowing, arduous journey. And then imagine, Samuel Givens, he's out hunting with his son. And then he comes home And I have this mental vision of his wife saying, so,

Jacqueline Langholtz: How was your day? Did you catch anything?

David Thorson: What's for dinner? And what does he say? It's not really what's for dinner . . . more, who's coming to dinner?

Jacqueline Langholtz: Introducing. . .

David Thorson: Introducing this naked fellow, doesn't speak any English. What are we going to do with him?

Jacqueline Langholtz: What do you do?

David Thorson: Well, as Martin says, Samuel Givens turns to John Dickinson, then a captain in the British army. His family is very significant in Augusta County, Bath County Virginia. He's the logical person that you would take someone like this to and that, in fact, is what happens.

Selim’s Vision

Martin Clagett: Selim spent a good amount of time with Colonel Dickinson. Colonel Dickinson treated him like a member of the family. And, during this time, Selim became fairly conversant in English. Colonel Dickinson gave him a horse, and he took Selim into Staunton with him. At the market, he noticed that Selim was staring intently at an old gentleman with white hair. That gentleman was the Reverend Craig.

Selim made his way over to the Reverend Craig and asked him, could he be taken back with him to his home? Reverend Craig said why do you want to come with me? Selim then recounted his dream in which he saw soldiers of his native country aligned out on a desert plain. Across the way was an old man with white hair and the multitude was trying to make their way toward him. As they went, the desert floor opened up and swallowed them. Some of the people started calling to the old man to ask him how they could get safely to him. The old man told them to follow his instructions, they did, and they arrived unharmed. Selim, when he saw Reverend Craig, realized this was the savior he saw in his dream and the instructions that he was giving were instructions in the Christian religion. Reverend Craig took Selim back home with him to Fort Defiance, Virginia, where he was pastor of the Old Stone Church.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Talk about the significance of his conversion to Christianity.

David Thorson: This is a really fascinating part of the story. What is it that makes Selim unique? It's his ability to read the Bible in Greek and then this tale of his vision and conversion to Christianity. This is all in the context of the Great Awakening, this evangelical movement that spreads from New England southward into Virginia. It's the idea that people can develop a personal relationship with God, they don't need a preacher to relate the story of Jesus to them. And so his conversion, his vision, it plays right into the hands of colonial Virginians who are undergoing this same Great Awakening.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And it feels, in some ways, like a confirmation of the tenets of the Great Awakening.

David Thorson: It's an example of the power of the Great Awakening. This Muslim “heathen”-- the power of God and Christ converts him. This is an example of the power of evangelism.

Jacqueline Langholtz: He represents the truth for this. It also reminds me a little bit of Pocahontas and her conversion.

David Thorson: I think that's a great observation, Jacqueline, because if we think about Pocahontas. If we think about Selim. Are they telling their story? We know of these people through the lens of others. Who's controlling their narrative?

5. Interlude in Williamsburg

Martin Clagett: Selim lived with Reverend Craig for some time and finally he was telling Reverend Craig how he sorely missed his parents and his homeland. Reverend Craig wrote to Robert, the Councilor, Carter a prominent person in Williamsburg, and asked him, is there some way they could arrange to get Selim back to his parents?

In the meantime, while arrangements were being made, Selim was sent to Williamsburg, and there he was known to have read Greek with both President Horrocks of the College of William and Mary and William Small, professor and mentor to Thomas Jefferson. He was passed around, being such an exotic and interesting person, from family to family, as a welcome guest and informative entertainment. He spent, however, the majority of his time with the Pages at Rosewell, where he was a great favorite.

David Thorson: College of William Mary, Colonial Williamsburg-- this is the center of political, economic and intellectual power in the entire colony of Virginia at that time. So think about the people that Selim is encountering, these are the powerful elite of Colonial Virginia. And the Page family, John Page is very good friends with Thomas Jefferson. So, it's a matter of speculation as to whether or not Jefferson met Selim in Williamsburg.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Jefferson's a student at the College of William Mary. And you hear a fondness in my voice, Class of 05. That's me, I'm class of 05.

David Thorson: Not 1805 or 1905?

Jacqueline Langholtz: Keep it nice.

David Thorson: Yeah, so, Jefferson's there 1760, he’s 17 years old. He's a student. And we know that he owned a copy of the Qur'an. He buys that when he's in Williamsburg.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Interesting.

David Thorson: It goes back to his possible encounter with Selim.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Selim seems like the kind of person that a lot of people in Williamsburg are talking about.

David Thorson: It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody. You can imagine he's the talk of the town.

Jacqueline Langholtz: His conversion, does it remove some of his “otherness” in the thinking of the other leading figures in this story? It definitely does.

David Thorson: I don't think there's any question about that. Selim's level of education, his conversion to Christianity now put him in a completely different category. Is he the equal in the eyes of these colonial Virginians? I'm not sure we can say that, but he has currency. He has agency that others would not have who didn't possess that education or that conversion to Christianity.

There's another aspect of this story that fascinates me because I think to myself: how could colonial Virginians relate to his story? The best-selling work of fiction is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and we may remember vaguely the story. . .

Jacqueline Langholtz: Now remind me, are there pirates . . .

David Thorson: Pirates, a shipwreck. But this is also a tale of conversion to Christianity. So there's these parallels.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And you're saying this is popular and being read at this time?

David Thorson: Absolutely. Any well-educated colonial Virginian is going to have Defoe's works in his library. And then contemporaneous with the publication of Robinson Crusoe is A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. So here's this guy, right? He's right out of two books.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Meanwhile, is he a guest in many people's homes? He’s got to have benefactors here. I mean, who was literally paying for him to eat and be clothed and giving him a place to sleep?

David Thorson: I think that's where John Page, Jefferson's friend, comes on the stage. It's pretty clear that of all the people that he encounters, that it's John Page who takes Selim under his wing. His family goes back generation after generation at Rosewell, probably the grandest of the plantation houses in all of colonial Virginia at that time.

Jacqueline Langholtz: And they seem to have a closeness.

David Thorson: And that friendship, literally, lasts for decade after decade.

Return to Algeria

Martin Clagett: They  wrote to Lord Hillsborough in London and asked if there was some way that he could send Selim to London to meet the Algerian ambassador and get  Selim back to his parents by the good graces of the English nation. Finally, Lord Hillsborough arranged it, Selim met the Algerian ambassador in London, and he arranged passage for Selim back to his family, back to Algeria.

Once he arrived in Algeria, his parents received him gladly, but when they found out he had adopted the Christian religion and he refused to renounce it, they sent him out of the house and  away from them. He made his way back to England and finding no benefactors there nor a way to make a living, he resolved to return to America.

First, he made his way to Colonel Dickinson's in the western part of the state. After a while, he returned to Williamsburg with John Page to  Rosewell, and resided for most of the rest of his life with the Pages.

David Thorson: Around 1762, 1763,  (1768 – see the John Blair letter to Hillsborough) he goes back home to Algeria, where his conversion to Christianity and his refusal to re embrace the Muslim religion creates a rift in the family. And now he's persona non grata in his own family. So what's his identity?

Jacqueline Langholtz: He doesn't seem to fit in either place.

David Thorson: Does he belong anywhere? Is he a castaway no matter where? And what fascinates me is this: the next time we hear from him is about 1789, 30 years later, when he shows back up on the shores of Virginia.

Jacqueline Langholtz: That is a significant amount of time.

David Thorson: What's he doing? No one knows.

(See Bishop Meade’s account below  – he goes from Algeria to England back to Virginia – stays with Mr. Carter, Mr. Craig, Mr. Templeton & Colonel Dickinson  - note that Bishop Meade had heard the history of his return from the moths of these gentlemen)

Jacqueline Langholtz: And we have to imagine that Selim is 50 or older at this point, just by quick math. And I have to wonder, was he lonely? Did he have love interests? Did he have a family? We don't know of any children. That whole aspect of his life, we know nothing.

David Thorson: There's a 30-year gap in his story, and we know none of the details.

Selim's life story seems to be nothing but trauma. He's a teenager when he's captured. He goes through all these horrible experiences, through two forms of enslavement. He goes back home. He's rejected by his own family. He's really an outcast as a Christian in Muslim Algeria. Is there any place where he was loved or he was happy, even in a marginal sense? And then we find out that he's back with John Page. I think he's returning to the one place where he had currency, where he had agency. And who does he find himself with? The one person who seems to have genuinely cared for him, and that's John Page.

7. The Portrait

Martin Clagett: At one point during his stay, he accompanied John Page to the Philadelphia Convention where Charles Willson Peale was doing portraits of all the delegates. When it came to John Page, he insisted that Selim's picture be painted . That picture was sent back to Rosewell, and when it arrived, the whole family was astonished to find it was not a picture of their father but, rather, Selim. Nevertheless, it was given a place of honor above the mantel in the Great Hall at Rosewell.

When John Page died in 1808, his papers and the portrait ended up at the house of his youngest daughter, Lucy Burwell Page. During the Civil War, the portrait disappeared and Lucy Burwell Page said that it was taken by a Union soldier. Ms. Margaret Cook, the archivist at the College of William and Mary, found for me letters from a Union soldier named Sam Putnam to his parents in Worcester Massachusetts in 1864. Those letters reported that, "I have some letters for you that I have found in an old house in Williamsburg that belonged to the former Lieutenant Governor John Page. They're from heroes of the Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, Sage of Monticello, Charles Lee, ‘Light Horse’ Henry Lee, and others." He later wrote that he had a couple of his comrades bringing up more books and letters from Williamsburg, and noted, "I'm glad to hear that you got that great bulky elephant of a portrait." It doesn't specifically say that it was Selim the Algerian, but it is not unlikely. Where that portrait is, where those letters are, remains unsolved for the present. But it's likely that they ended up in Massachusetts.

David Thorson: During the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, the home of the Page descendants in Williamsburg, these soldiers of the U.S. Army are looting it, and (In the Spring of 1864, Federal troops stationed in Williamsburg, looted the home of Robert Saunders, son-in-law of John Page, and they took not only Peale’s portrait of Selim but also critical correspondence between Jefferson and Page. Both the picture of Selim and most of the correspondence have disappeared.) it's not only the portrait of Selim, but it's letters from Jefferson, letters from other founding fathers are all part of what they're looting and then sending home to New England. So letters between Jefferson and John Page are part of the booty that's stolen. But the portrait of Selim disappears. It's never seen again.

Jacqueline Langholtz: It has disappeared to this day.

David Thorson: And it has disappeared to this day. So the only image we have of Selim is a line drawing that was made from the portrait. And that's the image that you see in books that have been printed about Selim ever since.

Mental Illness and Death

Martin Clagett: There are conflicting reports about Selim's final years, according to an account by the daughter of John Page, her father took him to Rosewell. It was there that he resided for much of his remaining years and became part of the Page family and was generally considered a favorite by all that knew him.

Near the end of his life, Selim got so sick that they -Page likely moved him to the Lunatic Asylum- probably took him over to the madhouse. People who visited him said he'd only wear regimental outfits and he always slept outdoors. But he remained kind and cheerful all through his illness. He would have coherent periods, at times would recover to some degree of clarity, and finally passed away.

Jacqueline Langholtz: Williamsburg's first, it's called a public hospital -it was called the Lunatic Asylum- is the first of its kind that's dedicated to treating people with mental illness. And the goal there was to provide housing for what they termed people of a disordered mind. That's a catch all phrase for psychological disorders, cognitive disabilities, and various other forms of mental health distress.

David Thorson: Today, I would not be the least bit surprised if a medical professional would have diagnosed him with PTSD from all of his traumatic experiences. And he is in a pioneering hospital to treat those who are mentally ill. It just adds one more layer of fascination to his story.


Martin Clagett: In 1848, a newspaperman saw the portrait of Selim in the Saunders library, which he described as, he wrote, "I saw a portrait of a man of 50 or more, of rather swarthy complexion, a full short cut beard, his head crowned by a straw hat tied on with a checkered handkerchief and an Indian blanket thrown partly off his shoulders." If anybody hears this and they have that portrait, hopefully a bell will go off.

Thus, the mystery of the portrait and the penultimate segment of the story of Selim remain, like Selim's vision, surreal and opaque, but tantalizingly within grasp.

Jacqueline Langholtz: When you and I were first talking about this story, I said that I'd recently heard an analogy that stories can serve as windows or mirrors. A window might give us a unique perspective into something, something previously unknown to us. And a mirror is going to actually tell us something about ourselves, right? Something within the story that seems to resonate or that gives us a larger truth. What do you think about that?

David Thorson: I think it's a great way to learn more about the story of Selim the Algerian because it's not his story.

Jacqueline Langholtz: We're not reading his account.

David Thorson: We're not reading his account. His story is always retold by others. So his story is seen through a lens of other people, and the windows and the mirrors of his story are really windows and mirrors into their lives, not necessarily Selim's life. You really find yourself wondering, is it reflecting the people that he encountered in colonial Virginia?

His story gets told again and again. The details change with various retellings. It seems to disappear and then it comes back in a new version. But there's something compelling about Selim’s story that it always gets revived.

Jacqueline Langholtz: I can't believe it hasn't been made into a movie already.

David, it was delightful to be back and across the table from you and I learn something every time I see you.

David Thorson: Thank you, Jacqueline. This was most enjoyable to share this unusual tale of Selim. And thank you all for listening, and thanks to Martin Clagett for the latest version of the story of Selim




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Narrated by Martin Clagett 

Co-hosted by David Thorson and Jacqueline Langholtz

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn

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