Sunday, July 5, 2020

ARP156 The Siege of Fort Henry

We are still working our way through August 1777 where so much has been happening.  Much of it has been in upstate New York as General Burgoyne made his way from Canada toward Albany. I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes that a big part of the British war effort was making use of their Indian allies throughout North America.

British-Native American Relations 

The relationship between the British government and North American tribes during this period is one that is often ignored or misunderstood by casual students of the Revolutionary War.  I think many have expressed a belief that the British pretty much ignored the Indians and kept separate from them most of the time.  Every so often a pompous British general would give some condescending speech to the native tribes when the British needed them to go to war, or to take more of their land, but otherwise, there was not much interaction.

Fort Henry (from Wikimedia)
This was not the case.  Like any effective empire, the British government maintained regular relations with native tribes through Indian agents.  I’ve already mentioned Sir William Johnson, who was an Iroquois agent for decades and who was important during the French and Indian War.  I also mentioned his son and nephew, John Johnson and Guy Johnson who continued his work during the Revolution and who were actively involved in supporting the Burgoyne campaign in 1777.  These are only a couple of examples of hundreds of men who worked as Indian agents for the British Empire.

Indian agents were effectively ambassadors, whose purpose was to maintain relations between the British and local tribes.  But unlike most ambassadors, who leave the home country for a few years, go to work in a foreign embassy, and then return home, Indian agents generally devoted their lives to the position.  These are men who had been adopted into tribes, often took native wives and began families whose children would also often serve as Indian agents themselves.  They lived fully within the tribes, sharing the same hardships and challenges that faced the rest of the tribe members.

This brings me to another canard.  Many people tend to think of Indians as a nomadic people who lived as savages and had minimal interactions with the European colonists, and that most of those interactions were in wartime.  This also was not the case.  There were some tribes who did move about more than others, although these tended to be further west and typically involved following regular annual patterns of migration for food gathering.  But a great many tribes lived in one place.  Many natives owned private land, built plantations, and lived much like the colonists.  Some even owned black slaves.  They often grew cash crops for sale in Britain, and had extensive interactions with the neighboring colonists.

I’m not saying the natives lived in the same integrated communities as the Europeans.  That was pretty rare.  But the groups did have pretty close relationships in most cases for purposes of trade and to prevent any disputes from getting out of hand.

In part because of the longstanding relationships of British agents with their tribes, most native groups tended to support the British.  This was not just because agents regularly provided tribes with gifts and other benefits, which they did, but also because agents convinced many tribal leaders, truthfully, that the British government was the one thing standing between these tribes and groups of colonists who wanted to push them off their lands.  Colonists had for decades been trying to push westward and settle new lands and their colonial populations grew. The main thing preventing them from doing so was policy from London that prevented western settlements that would likely result in more warfare with the natives.

Native Populations

Way back in Episode 4, I gave an overview of the native tribes that were relevant to the colonists in this era.  For a quick recap, the Algonquin speaking tribes had been pushed back into Canada in the decades before the war.  Their rivals, the Iroquois, were centered in upstate New York.  The Iroquois confederacy was made up of six tribes which had come to dominate territory as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Illinois by developing a trading relationship, first with the Dutch, then with the British, which gave them access to guns and other technology.  This allowed them to dominate their neighbors.

Gen. Burgoyne addressing Tribal Chiefs (from art com)
As I’ve discussed in recent episodes, the Revolution divided the Iroquois, with many of the larger tribes ultimately siding with the British.  Two smaller tribes backed the patriots.  This schism led to the end of the Iroquois Confederacy as a regional power.

Historically, the Iroquois claimed neutrality, but tended to favor the British and support British policy.  They took on the role of chief negotiator with the British on behalf of other tribes that they claimed to control.  Other mid-Atlantic tribes, such as the Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee, had been forced to move west as the Iroquois ceded their lands to the colonists.  These tribes tried to keep the peace most of the time because they simply did not have the power to resist without being destroyed.  However, they were generally hostile toward the colonists who had pushed them off their native lands and always looked for an opportunity to prevent further encroachments.

Farther to the south, the Cherokee dominated the areas in the western Carolinas.  The Cherokee had risen up and attacked in early 1776 at the instigation of British agents.  The patriots had crushed the Cherokee and forced them to cede even more land and move further west, see Episode 102.

South of the Cherokee were the Creek, who had some involvement in Georgia, but largely left the fighting to the Seminole in Florida who supported the British.

As I discussed back in Episode 151, the British had tried to involve native warriors as part of what became known as the Saratoga Campaign into upstate New York. More than a thousand warriors participated directly with the British and Germans in that campaign.

But aside from those warriors, British agents also attempted to stir up other warriors that would hopefully distract the Americans and force them to deploy more soldiers elsewhere.  This would improve the chances for Burgoyne’s expedition in upstate New York.

Beginning in late 1776 and into 1777, Delaware and Mingo warriors began a series of attacks on settlers in the Ohio valley. They did not have the numbers to strike eastward at larger settlements, but frontier villages in what is today Ohio and Kentucky fell victim to a great many attacks.

One common tactic would be to attack an isolated farm or just kill a farmer out in his field.  When the local militia assembled and tried to chase down the killers, they would retreat, giving the indication that they were a small group of renegades.  They would let the militia chase them for miles until they led the militia into an ambush of a much larger group of Indians.  The warriors would then fall on the militia, which had ventured too far from the protection of their forts.

Edward Hand

To combat the native warrior threat, General Washington assigned General Edward Hand to protect the American frontier.  Hand moved his command to Fort Pitt, modern day Pittsburgh.

Edward Hand had been born in Ireland in 1744.  He attended Trinity College in Dublin where he received enough medical training to become a surgeon’s mate with the British regulars.  In 1767, his regiment sailed to Philadelphia where Ensign Hand was stationed at Fort Pitt with the British Army.

Gen. Edward Hand
(from Rockford Plantation)
In 1774, he had resigned his commission and moved to Lancaster to begin a medical practice.  A year later he got married.  Around that same time, he also took up a leading role in Pennsylvania’s patriot movement, forming a regiment of Associators.

Hand was among the first Pennsylvanians to join the Siege of Boston.  He took a commission as a lieutenant colonel in Colonel William Thompson's 1st Pennsylvania Regiment.  One of the first regiments of riflemen to join the New England Army after George Washington took command.  Hand became Colonel of the First Continental Regiment.

During the British invasion of New York in 1776, Hand commanded a group of twenty-five soldiers who held off 4000 British trying to land at Throg’s Neck, see Episode 112.  That defense was only possible because of the British leadership’s ridiculous choice of a landing site, but still an impressive feat.  Remember also Colonel Hand was second in command of a brigade defending Trenton when General Cornwallis was attempting to retake the town.  After the French General Fermoy simply turned his horse and ran way, it was Hand to took command and commanded the delaying action that prevented the British from entering Trenton until shortly before dusk.

Ohio Valley

A few months after his leadership in the Princeton Campaign, Congress promoted Hand to brigadier general and sent him to Fort Pitt in his first independent command.  Congress tasked him with handling the hostile Indian attacks all along the frontier.  Congress had planned to provide General Hand with two thousand soldiers and supplies to embark on a campaign through Indian territory and wipe out tribal villages and food stores as had been done with the Cherokee War in the western Carolinas a few months earlier (see Episode 102).

By the summer of 1777, the native violence in the Ohio Valley was not seen as pervasive enough to justify an all-out patriot attack.  At the time, only a small number of warriors were on the warpath.  An all-out assault on native lands might actually increase the level of hostility against frontier settlers.  As a result, Congress called off the campaign, but left General Hand at Fort Pitt with a smaller garrison, ready to respond as needed.

Col. Henry Hamilton
(from Wikimedia)
At the same time, British agents were doing their best to motivate local tribes in the Ohio Valley to attack the patriot settlements.  Agents visited tribal councils, handed out muskets, scalping knives, war paint, and other necessities for a campaign, and encouraged warriors to attack.  In Detroit, British Colonel Henry Hamilton, no relation to Alexander Hamilton, offered to pay for patriot scalps if warriors returned with them.  He became known among the Indians as “hair buyer.”

In some areas, native warriors took control of frontier areas, guaranteeing the safety of anyone who declared allegiance to the King.  All others were told to leave within a week or be massacred.  Many patriots fled as a result.  Much of this happened in western New York and had been expected to be applied further south in the Ohio Valley.  But after the defeat at Fort Stanwix, most of the native leaders abandoned the effort.

Even so, local tribes, the Wyandot, Shawnee, Mingo, and Delaware, did continue their attacks in the Ohio Valley.  Settlers who remained, typically remained in or near forts that provided protection against Indian raids.  One such fort was Fort Henry in what is today Wheeling, West Virginia.

Colonists had built the fort in 1774, during the violence with the natives that eventually became Lord Dunmore’s War (see Episode 44).  At the time, it was called Fort Fincastle which was one of the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore’s titles: Viscount Fincastle.  After Independence, Patriots renamed the fort after the new Governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry.  It was a small wooden stockade meant to hold a few dozen people.  It was bounded by a river on two sides, as well as a ravine on the third side, meaning it could only be attacked from the east.

The Siege

General Hand sent out a warning in early August that there was a good chance of an Indian attack.  Most of the locals took shelter in Fort Henry, and local militia began patrolling for Indian warriors.  After several weeks of finding nothing and with harvest season upon them, many of the locals returned home

On September 1, 1777, one local man, who we only know as Mr. Boyed, and his slave rode out to tend to their horses.  They ran into an ambush near the fort, where six warriors attacked them.  Boyd was shot dead, but his slave returned to the fort.

Receiving word of the attack, Captain Samuel Mason and his company of fourteen soldiers rode out from Fort Henry to track down the small group of Indian attackers.  The company found the six warriors retreating into the fog, and pursued them.  Suddenly, the troop found itself surrounded by a much larger Indian ambush into which the smaller group had lured them.  The Indians massacred and scalped the militia, with only two of them managing to escape and run back to the fort, pursued by warriors.

Hearing the sound of gunfire, another militia captain at the fort, Captain Joseph Ogle, rode out with another company to provide support to Captain Mason’s returning company.  However, Ogle’s men ran into the same raiding party that had already massacred Mason’s company and were now turning on them.  Most of Ogle's company was killed although the captain and a few of his men were able to take cover and eventually make their way back to the fort.

The situation inside the fort was pretty desperate.  With most of the militia defenders killed in the initial ambush the fort only had twelve men to defend the fort and about eighty women and children.

The attackers were led by a Wyandot Chief named Pamoacan, and with about 200 warriors from various local tribes.  They also had with them an Indian agent.  As the warriors took up positions around the fort and waved the scalps of the garrison’s former comrades, the British agent marched up to the fort with a drummer signaling parlay.  He announced that he could guarantee the King’s protection to those inside the fort if they surrendered immediately.  Otherwise, the warriors would storm the fort and kill everyone.

The fort commander, Colonel David Shepard, refused the offer.  With that, the warriors attempted to storm the fort by battering down the main door.  They were unable to do so.  Both sides kept up a heavy rate of fire for the rest of the day and overnight.  The twelve defenders inside the fort had women reloading their guns as they shot, in order to keep up a higher rate of fire than their small numbers would ordinarily allow.

The following day, September 2, the warriors attempted to use a battering ram to knock down the front gate, but the door held.  They also tried to set fire to the forts walls, but again the defenders drove them back. Late that day, the warriors pulled back to organize for a final assault on the fort.

McCulloch’s Leap

Things looked pretty bleak for those inside the fort, but that evening, a group of militia reinforcements arrived by canoe.  Colonel Andrew Swearengen and fourteen soldiers slipped into the fort under cover of darkness, doubling the size of the garrison.  A short time later, another group of forty mounted militia rushed past the surprised warriors and into the fort.  The fort defenders opened the doors to let in the reinforcements.

However, as the Indians pursued, they had to shut the doors before the commander of the reinforcements, Major Samuel McCulloch could make it inside.  McCulloch turned his horse toward the pursuing Indians and managed to dash through their lines without being harmed.  As he rode past his attackers, he ran into another Indian raiding party which left him surrounded.

McCulloch's Leap (from Wikimedia)
Warriors surrounded McCulloch on three sides, with a cliff preventing him from escaping on the fourth.  Considering his options, McCulloch opted for the cliff.  According to contemporary stories, McCulloch spurred his horse and leaped off the cliff.  The Indians rushed up to the edge, expecting to see a dead horse and rider at the bottom.  Instead, they saw McCulloch had somehow landed safely and ridden away.  The event later became celebrated in local lore as “McCulloch’s Leap”

Now, if you are skeptical that a horse and rider could jump off a 300 foot cliff and simply ride away, you are not alone.  My suspicion is that it was a very steep hill which McCulloch was able to ride down with a combination of good horsemanship and luck.  In any event, he did survive and escape.

The Siege Ends

The warriors returned their attention to the fort.  Where they had once faced twelve defenders, they now faced more than sixty.  Although they still outnumbered the garrison by more than three to one, Indians were never good at assaulting forts, and did not want to press their luck.

Fort Pitt (from Wikimedia)
They spent the night dancing and demonstrating in front of the fort to terrify the occupants.  The next day, the warriors burned all of the outbuildings, crops, animals and anything else of value that they could not take with them.  As they did this, some of the attackers continued to fire on the fort, but did not attempt an all out assault on the walls as they had done the two previous days.  Chief Pamoacan withdrew his warriors and went in search of other targets.

Casualties of the siege are again contradictory by source, but somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five militia were killed in the attack, with another five or so wounded.  The Indians suffered at least one dead and nine wounded, although since the natives carried off their dead and wounded and did not keep good records, casualties might have been higher.


Following the siege, Virginia’s Governor Henry and General Hand both wanted to begin the campaign against the native villages that they had planned months earlier.  However, Congress simply could not spare the soldiers at the time.  This was in the middle of the Saratoga Campaign in New York and General Howe’s assault on Philadelphia. Those campaigns took precedence over the frontier.

The patriot offensive in revenge for Fort Henry would have to wait.  The campaign against the natives would take place the following year in 1778, but that is going to have to wait for a future episode.  For the moment, General Hand retrenched his small force at Fort Pitt, and waited for the right time to act.

Next Week: General Howe finally lands his army in Maryland and begins his advance on Philadelphia.

- - -

Next  Episode 157 British Landing & Cooch's Bridge

Previous Episode 155 Battle of Bennington

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Further Reading


General Edward Hand:

Stevens, Paul L. “‘To Keep the Indians of the Wabache in His Majesty's Interest’: The Indian Diplomacy of Edward Abbott, British Lieutenant Governor of Vincennes, 1776–1778.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 83, no. 2, 1987, pp. 141–172, (free to read with registration)..

The Fort Henry Story:

The Story of Fort Henry:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Callahan, James M. History of West Virginia, The American Historical Society, 1923.

De Hass, Wills History of the early settlement and Indian wars of Western Virginia, H. Hoblitzell, 1851.

Stone, William L. Border Wars of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, Harper & Brothers, 1845.
by Stone, William L. (William Leete), 1792-1844

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities, Cambridge Univ. Press,

Calloway, Colin G. The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, Oxford Univ. Press, 2018

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1972

Waller, George M. American Revolution in the West, Burnham, Inc. Publications, 1976.

Williams, Glenn F. Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois, Westholme Publishing, 2005

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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