Crude forts helped keep early settlers alive

May 02, 2006|By JOHN BRYAN / Hager House historical interpreter and JOHN NELSON / Hager House historic sites facilitator

Editor's Note: The Washington County Commissioners are expected to designate this week Washington County History Week. To celebrate the week, The Herald-Mail is publishing a five-part series written by local historians about the events, people and products that shaped the county.

The story of the Colonial Era is one of growth and turmoil. During the mid-18th Century, as settlers moved into the southern end of the Cumberland Valley, they certainly were aware that Native-Americans had inhabited this region. To avoid conflict, every move would be planned with caution as lands were cleared, houses built, crops planted and crucial friendships established.

Their worries would soon turn to fears when the local tribes began to align themselves with either French or British expansionists who were competing for the vast wealth of natural resources within the Ohio Valley. This competition had already lasted for two centuries in North America and had resulted in several wars: the Beaver Wars, Queen Anne's War and King Williams War.


As the mid-18th century dawned for settlers in Washington County, it was increasingly obvious that a major conflict between the competing French and British colonial interests was looming on the horizon and that their backyard ? the Ohio Valley ? would be the battleground.

By the 1740s, the British were consistently making in-roads into the previously French-dominated Ohio Valley. To check this incursion, the French in 1749 set a series of lead plates along the Ohio River claiming the land for France and by 1753 had established a chain of forts in the area that included Fort Duquesne and Fort LeBoef.

In an attempt to counter the French claims, Virginia Gov. Dinwiddie in the fall of 1753 sent a young Col. George Washington to Fort LeBoeuf ? near what is now Waterford, Pa. ? to request that the French abandon the Ohio County which Britain also claimed. The French declined and Washington returned to report to Dinwiddie.

Washington was ordered back to the Forks of the Ohio River where he engaged French troops at the battle of Jumonville Glenn. However, following a sound drubbing at Fort Necessity ? near what is now Uniontown, Pa. ? in July, Washington for a second time returned to Virginia in defeat.

Gov. Dinwiddie refused to accept this turn of events and sent a third expedition to the west under the command of Gen. Edward Braddock. Braddock's route passed through southern Washington County. But his actions culminated in a disastrous defeat. Braddock was killed by a force of French troops and Indian warriors at the Battle of the Monogahelia in July 1755.

With Braddock's death, hostilities were in full swing and the fledgling frontier settlements, like those in the Cumberland Valley, were now open to the ravages and depredations of Indian attack.

The very real threat of war became evident when, on Nov. 2, 1755, 100 Delaware and Shawnee Indians descended on what was known as the Great Cove, in modern-day Fulton County, Pa., less than 40 miles from Hagerstown. This raiding party killed or kidnapped 47 people of the 93 families in this area. Details were made known to Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Hunter Morris. Despite his pleadings, the Quaker-controlled Pennsylvania Assembly were slow to act. However, other attacks on frontier settlements in the Commonwealth forced the legislature to pass a militia law and build forts.

An attack on Coombe's Fort in 1756 (a settler's fort, located north of present-day Hancock), along with a flood of reports of attacks and massacres on fellow settlers, in the surrounding areas of Virginia and Pennsylvani made all too clear the reality that provincial governments could not afford them with protection. One problem was that the area where the Tonoloway Creek flows into the Potomac River was a virtual no-man's land ? settlers residing there were not sure if they lived in Pennsylvania or Maryland.

These early Cumberland Valley settlers were faced with two choices: either abandon their plantations or fortify their homes.

Within what is now Washington County, nine settlers, including Jonathan Hager, future founder of Hagerstown, chose to fortify their homes with defensive features to ensure protection for their families and neighbors. These private frontier forts were the homes of: Thomas Cresap, known as "Long Meadows" along Marsh Pike; Isaac Baker's fort, north of Clear Spring; the Jonathan Hager House in Hagerstown City Park then owned by Jacob Rohrer; Jonathan Hager's second house, west of Hagerstown; Lancelot Jacques' fort, just east of Fort Frederick; the home of Allan Killough east of Pectonville; Thomas Mills' fort on the east side of Licking Creek near Pectonville; Maj. Thomas Prather's fort, near the community of Four Locks; and the home of Evan Shelby, north of Clear Spring.

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