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  • Frontier Forts

    by Hannah Reece April 29, 2024 10 min read 2 Comments

    Frontier Forts

    By: Daniel Geyer  

    The defeat of General Edward Braddock, along with his British and Colonial army, in July of 1755 against the French and Indians on a small field along the Monongahela River, left a vacuum to which the frontier became a hostile place to live.  Raiding parties took full advantage of the retreating British regular and colonial soldiers, attacking settlers, villages and communities all along the eastern Appalachian range.  The colony of Virginia was one of the first to take defensive measures, even before the war started, by allowing settlers in areas previously uninhabited to move in, create frontier forts and attempt to defend the lands.  However, this was not enough in the attempt to stave off the formidable French and their Indian allies.  The actions taken by the Virginia government became the foundation of the defense on the frontier against the French and their allies.  The goal was to create a buffer, an area of defensive positions, that would keep the French and allies at least away from the Piedmont.   

    Prior to the defeat of Braddock, the only defensive position the English had beyond the Blue Ridge (the ridge of mountains that stretches from present day Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to northern Georgia) was Fort Cumberland, in present day Cumberland, Maryland.  This fort, previously named Fort Mount Pleasant, was founded by a joint gubernatorial committee of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and built between August and October of 1754.  The purpose of this fort was to be defensive as well as a supply base for Virginia’s Ohio Company.  Braddock, along with men from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland would all converge on Fort Cumberland using two roads, one of which was newly completed, from Winchester, Virginia to Fort Cumberland, the other road, not yet completed, from Frederick, Maryland to the same fort, before setting out for Fort Duquesne and Braddock’s destiny.  One point of interest, as Colonel Dunbar attempted to use the road from Frederick to Fort Cumberland, he found the road only completed as far as the Conococheague Creek where it deposited into the Potomac on the north. Just west was a ford, which he used to move his troops to Winchester where he took advantage of the new road to Fort Cumberland.  This ford would become very useful in the coming years and a place of interest where Washington felt a defensive position should be.  In April of 1755, Governor Sharpe of Maryland met with General Braddock, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, then Postmaster General of the Colonies, to arrange for supplies, of which Franklin acquired one hundred and fifty wagons of the Conestoga variety from Pennsylvania to transport the needed supplies to Fort Cumberland.  

    In July of 1755 Braddock and his army moved west towards Fort Duquesne, with Indian scouts led by noted Pennsylvania Indian Agent and relative of Sir William Johnson, George Croghan.  Croghan’s life was full of adventure and disaster followed by great fortune throughout his service to Braddock and to Pennsylvania as well as New York, but his military service would end after his horrible defeat at the hands of the French.  His continued service to the crown and to the colonies was invaluable, he was commissioned by the crown as a peace negotiator in the Pontiac wars. Other Native American agents assisted Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland in the attempt to negotiate peace or at least the end of hostilities throughout the French and Indian War, however, none were elevated to a more exemplary stature than George Croghan.   

     

    After the fateful day of July 9, 1755, war broke out all along the Blue Ridge mountain range, from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  As Washington made his way back to towards the Piedmont of Virginia, after he and General Braddock limped back towards Fort Necessity, the site of Washington’s surrender the previous year, Braddock died on July 13th of his wounds. The Ohio Valley was surrendered to the French and their Indian allies as Washington moved east with what was left of Braddock’s army.  The frontier became a battlefield of civilian, militia and Native American.  The areas were vastly underdeveloped, the Wilderness Road was nothing more than a deer trail (this was the road that Braddock used in his attempt to get to Fort Duquesne), only the Winchester / Cumberland Road was wide enough for one wagon to move through it at a time.  Washington arrived in Winchester by early August and arrived in Fredericksburg on September 6, and would be appointed Commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces.  Governor Dinwiddie had given up his grandiose plans of leading a “gentleman’s” war against the French with himself as the ranking General.  

    October saw the English in the “Most Deplorable Situation,” as their only fort west of the Allegany Mountains was cut off, and the bloodshed was moving east.  Lieutenant Colonel Adam Stephen, who found himself in command of Fort Cumberland surrounded by about 150 Indians had written that they found themselves in “Barbarous Circumstances, and unheard of Instances of Cruelty.  They Spare the Lives of the Young Woman, and Carry them away to gratify the Brutal passions of Lawless Savages.”  Pennsylvania fared no better, nor did Maryland.  The entire Blue Ridge had begun to bleed with the Briton’s losing ground and people.  To make matters worse, the British high command had to divert those troops intended to be concentrated in America to the continent to aid Frederick and Ferdinand.  This left the colonials will little more than a contingent of British Regulars supported by the Colonial militias.  Pennsylvania and Virginia called for militia to be raised, but allowed the local governments to pursue militia organization as well.  However, this did not stop the skilled Indians who relied on guerrilla warfare, using the forests, rivers, mountains and valleys to escape will little to no trace.  They had a keen interest in not only plunder and exploitation, but also were competitive between tribes.  “While they are our Friends, they are the Cheapest and Strongest Barrier for the Protection of our Settlements; when Enemies, they are capable of ravaging in their method of War, in spite of all we can do, to render those Possessions almost useless.” 

    In late October of 1755 Washington began the fortification of the Frontier, working with local militia to build small local forts.  Discussions commenced between Washington and Thomas Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck, as to how to properly defend the frontier.  Small forts were key according to Fairfax, although nothing would stop the errant raids from the Natives, he speculated (quite knowingly, more knowledgeable about Indian affairs than most), that large forts with smaller forts in between would have to do.  However, drafting militia to build these forts or even to assist in Fort Cumberland’s defense proved difficult.  “Most of the settlers [in the Shenandoah Valley through to the Blue Ridge] ‘refused to stir’, preferring to ‘die with their wives and families’.”  Pennsylvania had its share of rioting and refusals as well.  In November of 1755 threats were pouring in from the frontier that the men were willing to march on Philadelphia in order to get supplies to defend themselves.  Pennsylvania passed the Supply Act in November of 1755 authorizing its string of frontier forts that “would synchronize Pennsylvania’s defenses with those of Maryland [as well as Virginia’s].”  

    These forts, as they were called, consisted mainly of a block house, materials were primarily of stone construction, which gave its defenders the ability to shoot, reload and cover while doing so and usually consisted of two stories, so that the defenders had ample space to defend the people inside.  However, they did not spring up overnight, and many areas continued to refuse to build them as pockets of settlements were Quakers.  By March of 1756 the Virginia Assembly had passed an act calling for the formation of frontier forts, a “chain of forts along the eastern slope of the Alleghenies.”  After which, Washington and Fairfax strategized on how best to place these forts.  In the Spring of 1756 the British formally declared war on the French.  It was not until November of 1756 that Washington formally submitted his plan for the Valley’s fortification and protection.  Washington’s plan extended from North Carolina to the Potomac River.   

    The fort to the north would protect the crossing of the Potomac on the south beach of the river opposite of the Conococheague Creek, that of Fort Maidstone.  A second fort, approximately a day’s ride south from Maidstone, was Fort Loudoun.  No less than 25 forts sprang up within 25 miles of Fort Frederick, Maryland in the spring of 1757.  Also, in the spring of 1757 the Philadelphia Conference, attended by the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, as well as George Washington and John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun met to discuss the war and its campaigns.  By June of 1757 the chain of forts was partially completed, and Fort Loudoun in Winchester was provisioned.  It was at this time that many Indians joined the British at Winchester, those being the Catawba, the Cherokee, Nottoway and Tuscarora. They announced their friendship, and requested gifts.  However, by late September of 1757 the French and Indians were learning to avoid the string of forts, while none of the main forts, garrisoned by Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania militia were ever attacked directly, they provided a valuable piece towards the wars end.   

    Forts Frederick and Cumberland in Maryland, Forts Maidstone and Loudoun in Virginia, and Pomfret Castle, Fort Augusta and Shirley in Pennsylvania all supported the frontier line of defensive forts spread out along the Blue Ridge Mountain range.  Their positioning was integral to the overall plan that Washington had to support and supply the frontier with weapons, ammunition and other supplies to defend against large scale attacks, but they were no good at repelling small scale Indian raids that plagued the rich valley for nearly three years before Fort Du Quesne fell in September 1758, after the French abandoned and burned the fort, and the British renamed it Fort Pitt.  The collaboration between the Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland governments to create a unified series of forts was unprecedented, and at times, difficult to manage, but all governors offered their services to each other assisting in building and supplying the forts.  After the victories of 1759 and 1760 the larger forts changed focus, from supply bases to check points, “designed to ensure that firearms and other contraband were not transported across the Appalachian Mountains for the Indians by unscrupulous traders.” 

    The fall of Fort Vause to the French, Shawnee, Miami, and Ottawa troops on June 25, 1756 caused an increased panic on the frontier.  “Covered wagons, loaded with the belongings of families heading for safety, blocked the roads.”  Hordes of families loaded up their prized possessions and migrated back towards eastern cities, such as Lancaster, Fredericksburg, York, and other points east.  The sheer volume of men, women and children fleeing the frontier became troublesome to many of the leaders in the area.  Refugees were in such number that some garrisons had nearly three hundred which they had to provide shelter for.  Leaders such as Conrad Weiser, James Burd and Edward Shippen stayed as long as they could, but even they only were able to hold out for so long.  “In May 1756 James Wood, the founder of Winchester, did decide to evacuate his family from his plantation near the town.  His decision created a panic in Winchester and ‘caused many to think their Case desperate’.”  

    For two years the frontier was dotted with raiding parties which laid waste to the land and property in both Pennsylvania and Virginia. Rifts became apparent between the elite of the frontier and the ordinary settlers.  Many frontiersmen, who were of German, Irish, Scot, or Welsh descent harbored ill feelings towards the leadership of the elite.  “Ethic and social disputes emerged as neighbors sought safety and refuge.”  What made it worse was that the Pennsylvania Assembly failed to authorize a well-funded defense bill.  In Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie failed to comprehend the magnitude of the divisions in the frontier of Virginia.  The authorities in many counties refused to march their militias outside of their county lines, and when Fort Vause fell in 1756, the commander of Frederick County militia refused to assist James Patton in Augusta County.   

    When Washington was appointed commander of the twelve hundred strong Virginia Regiment, Fort Cumberland was receiving daily attacks.  Adam Stephen, founder of Martinsburg ( in present day West Virginia), was the commander of Fort Cumberland, wrote that the forces attacking or raiding the frontier were about 150 strong, but were divided so that he could not pursue any one of the groups at a time.  “One party descended on settlements on the Greenbrier River in Augusta County, and another attacked the settlements on Patterson’s Creek east of Fort Cumberland and then pressed down the Potomac to Town Creek, Maryland…A third part, composed principally of Delaware, commanded by Shingas, descended on the south branch of the Potomac.” 

    In North Carolina, that colony was not as taken off guard when the attacks began, as the governor there, Arthur Dobbs, had visited the frontier in 1756, and owning several thousand acres of which he was receiving quitrents, he was seriously concerned about the wellbeing of his tenants.  Before leaving the frontier, he ordered that Fort Dobbs be constructed.  Francis Brown wrote that “the oblong square fifty-three feet by forty, the opposite angles twenty-four and twenty-two; in height of oak logs regularly diminished from sixteen inches to six it contains three floors and there may be discharged from each floor at one and the same about a hundred muskets.” The Cherokees and North Carolina settled with a temporary peace in February of 1756 and the Catawba continued their raids, however peace did not last long.  In late 1758 the Cherokee, urged by the French, soon attacked Fort Dobbs.  The Commander, Hugh Waddell carried the war to the Cherokee, forming an expedition and taking to the field between 1759 and 1760.  “The fighting in 1760 virtually destroyed the power of the Cherokees to make war, and peace resulted the following year.” 

     Today many of these forts can be found in various states of repair.  One of the best restored is that of Fort Frederick, found in Washington County, Maryland.  Others, such as many of the stone block houses in Berkeley County, West Virginia or Franklin County, Pennsylvania are in such disrepair that they are hardly recognizable, others have left no trace of their presence.  Another well preserved fort is that of Fort Hunter in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River.  The French and Indian War was a defining moment for this area along the Blue Ridge, and marked the first time in history that various colonies worked in concert to provide a common defense and witnessed the first large scale military action in North America.  The Blue Ridge saw the transference from frontier life to a militarized zone, changing the area indelibly. 

    2 Responses

    George Skidmore
    George Skidmore

    May 17, 2024

    I too would like a copy of the map, if available. Happy to pay for it. My family and their in-laws built one of the smaller forts, named Fort Hinckle, in or near Augusta County Virginia.

    Tommy
    Tommy

    May 13, 2024

    I would love to view that map in a higher resolution so I might zoom in to appreciate what I’m looking at… any possibility!! Tgx

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