Military history


The State of the Central Colonies


BAD AS CONDITIONS were in New York, when Lord Loudoun stopped to consider reports from the rest of the colonies he found more cause for concern on western frontiers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. These provinces had all begun building forts in the backcountry during the winter and spring of 1755–56, staffing each with a small garrison of provincials or with local militiamen. Some of them—Fort Augusta at the forks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, Forts Cumberland and Frederick in Maryland, Fort Loudoun at Winchester, Virginia—were true forts, commanding strategic passes, designed and constructed according to accepted principles of fortification, and capable of storing the provisions necessary to stage offensive operations against the enemy. But most were simple blockhouses, and some were mere stockades enclosing settlers’ cabins. By the end of 1756 more than a score had been built in Pennsylvania, and seventeen in Virginia. In principle they comprised a “chain of forts” linked by frequent patrols of soldiers scouting for enemies. In reality, most were so undermanned that patrols seldom ventured far from their walls. Even when the whole “chain” had been completed the forts remained eighteen to twenty miles apart, making them better targets for French and Indian war parties than barriers against raiders. At most they furnished refuges to which the remaining backwoods settlers might flee in case of attack. Montcalm accurately described them as “pretended forts,” and most of them quickly proved themselves (in the judgment of George Washington) to be of “no Singular Service to our Country.” 1

None of the three colonies exposed to raids from the Ohio Country had made significant military progress against the French and Indians during 1756. Maryland, with the shortest frontier and the smallest backwoods population, had shown the least disposition to act. Its assembly had raised only 250 provincials in the spring and, by autumn, had concluded that even Fort Cumberland was not worth defending. Usurping the governor’s authority to control the disposition of the province’s troops, the legislature ordered Maryland’s troops to withdraw more than seventy miles eastward to Fort Frederick, which it officially designated as the westernmost position the province would defend. The only offensive action any Maryland soldier had undertaken all year was Captain John Dagworthy’s hard-fought campaign to assert his right, as an officer who in the previous war had held a royal commission, to issue orders to Colonel George Washington of Virginia, whose provincial commission bore only Robert Dinwiddie’s signature.2

The Old Dominion had shown much greater official interest, and marginally greater success, in defending its western settlements. In the spring the House of Burgesses had appropriated £55,000 for defense, authorized Colonel Washington to enlist fifteen hundred men in the Virginia Regiment, enacted a draft law to fill the ranks if an insufficient number of men volunteered, and stiffened the disciplinary regime of the militia. Yet despite the best efforts of Washington and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Stephen, Virginia’s provincial regiment never reached even half of its authorized strength. Unlike the New England provinces, which raised substantial armies by paying wages and bounties that compared favorably with what laborers and journeyman artisans could earn, Virginia’s assembly offered such miserable compensation that few men would enlist voluntarily, while it drew up a conscription law that mainly applied to vagrants and men too poor (or too lacking in initiative) to flee the colony. Nor did the Burgesses manifest much concern for the health and welfare of the officers and men who had already joined the regiment, a fact so painful to Washington that he repeatedly threatened to resign. Through the whole of 1756, Virginia made no effort to supply clothing or shoes to replace the ones that had worn out, and it paid its provincials so irregularly that, their colonel complained, “the Soldiers . . . suspect finesse.”3

Yet the root reason for such neglect was not, as Washington believed, the “ill judg’d OEconomy” and lack of honor prevailing among the “Chimney Corner Politicians” at Williamsburg. The fact was that the great planters who comprised the assembly feared French and Indians on the frontier less than the possibility that the war would encourage a slave rebellion in the tidewater. Their priorities could hardly be mistaken in the Burgesses’ decision to allocate 55 percent of the 1756 military appropriation to the militia, which bore the responsibility for internal security and control of the slaves, and 45 percent to the Virginia Regiment, charged with defending the frontier. As was the pattern in all the colonies from Pennsylvania to Georgia, the coastal representatives who dominated the legislatures attended more closely to their own interests than to the remoter concerns of a few thousand backwoods families.4

Despite Washington’s discouragement and almost continual complaints, he and his men did as creditable a job, under the circumstances, as could be expected. Virginia’s ragged and not infrequently shoeless provincials fought at least a score of small actions against French and Indian raiders in 1756, and in doing so suffered nearly a hundred casualties. Gradually, despite low morale, high rates of desertion, and the difficulty of stimulating reenlistment, Washington and his officers would succeed in instilling both discipline and a sense of common purpose in the Virginia Regiment; but by the end of 1756 that long process was just beginning. Although he could note with pride “that notwithstanding we are more contiguous to the French and their Indian allies, and more expos’d to their frequent Incursions than any of the Neighboring Colony’s, we have not lost half the Inhabitants which they have done,” because of the efforts of the Virginia Regiment, Washington knew better than anyone else how tenuous his unit’s hold on the frontier really was. Particularly in the absence of an effective alliance with any of the southern Indian nations—despite Governor Dinwiddie’s frequent offerings of diplomatic gifts, neither the Catawbas nor the Cherokees showed any lasting disposition to fight alongside Virginia—Washington realized that his troops would never be able to do more than parry, at great disadvantage and great cost, the raids that the French and Indians could direct wherever they chose.5

Of all the colonies reeling under the lash of raids from the west, Pennsylvania had come the furthest in improving its ability to defend itself by the end of 1756. That was true, however, only because the colony had started from a position of virtually complete defenselessness. Pennsylvania had never had a formally constituted militia, and through most of 1755 its assembly had made no effort to protect exposed backcountry settlements from attack. It was the settlers who paid the price: the annihilation of the Moravian pacifist community of Gnadenhutten late in November was only the most striking episode in the wholesale collapse of the province’s frontiers. This did not happen, as many contemporaries charged, because the Quaker oligarchs in the assembly preferred watching defenseless backwoodsmen die to troubling their own consciences by making military appropriations. Although the Friends’ pacifism and their history of amicable relations with the Indians cannot be minimized as influences in slowing the assembly’s movement toward military measures, the relationship was not a direct one. The most significant cause of Pennsylvania’s inaction lay instead in the character of provincial politics, which had been deadlocked since 1740 over the question of taxing proprietary lands.6

As proprietors of the province, the Penn family owned all Pennsylvania’s unallocated lands and enjoyed the sole right to acquire title to tracts held by Indian nations. Together with rents from the Penns’ manorial estates, the sale of lands from these reserves generated most of the family’s enormous annual income. Pennsylvania’s governors, who represented the interests of the family as well as those of the Crown, had steadfastly resisted the assembly’s efforts to tax proprietary lands. The assembly, however, would not agree to levy any tax on the population, even for the immediate defense of the colony, unless the proprietary lands could also be rated. So firmly did each side adhere to its accustomed position that neither would budge until Germans from the backcountry were actually carrying the mangled corpses of their relatives down High Street and Scotch-Irish backwoodsmen were threatening to take up arms against the assembly itself. Only then, in the midst of the greatest crisis in the province’s history, did two creative political outsiders—Benjamin Franklin and an ex-Quaker ally in the assembly, Joseph Galloway— manage to break the impasse by working out a compromise between the governor and the antiproprietary Quaker legislative majority. In return for a gift of £5,000, offered by the proprietors to the province in lieu of taxes, the assembly agreed to appropriate £55,000 “for the King’s use”—a circumlocution that allowed the Quaker legislators to avoid mentioning the military uses to which the king’s servants would undoubtedly put the money. Neither side gave ground on its constitutional claims concerning taxation, but at last Governor Morris could begin organizing the defense of the colony by raising a thousand provincial volunteers and starting to build forts along the frontier.7

Once the process of militarization had begun, the governor undertook more aggressive measures and the province’s old political alignments disintegrated. Governor Morris’s formal proclamation of war in April 1756, together with the actions of the seven commissioners he appointed to administer the province’s defenses, horrified the Quaker grandees who had for so long dominated the assembly. While most of the commissioners, like Benjamin Franklin and John Hughes, were not Quakers, two of them, John Mifflin and Joseph Fox, were members in good standing of the Philadelphia Meeting. Their concurrence in the commissioners’ decision to offer bounties for Indian prisoners and for the scalps of Indians over ten years of age hit the Quaker community like a bombshell. The Philadelphia Meeting reproached Mifflin and Fox, and when they would not disavow their action, disowned—excommunicated—them. This profoundly unsettling incident intensified a movement among Quakers to withdraw themselves from political life. By the October elections, what had so recently been an oligarchy of antiproprietary Quaker legislators had simply vanished from the assembly.

The onset of war thus forced Pennsylvania’s Friends to decide whether they would remain faithful to their political stance or to their peace testimony, and with virtual unanimity they chose pacifism. This act of collective conscience accelerated the Quakers’ abandonment of public life, renewed their commitment to benevolent activity, and summarily redrew the map of Pennsylvania politics. Henceforth the province’s Friends would focus their attention on informal diplomacy, opening their own negotiations with the eastern Delaware Indians in the hope of discovering the cause of the Indians’ alienation and promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict. And henceforth Benjamin Franklin and his allies in the assembly—Joseph Galloway, John Hughes, Isaac Norris— would become the arbiters of Pennsylvania politics, filling the vacuum created by the departure of the Quakers and taking over leadership of the province’s antiproprietary faction.8

These stunning, unanticipated developments finally broke the logjam that had for so long prevented Pennsylvania’s government from undertaking defense measures. But the backcountry settlers experienced little immediate relief from the attacks of French and Indian war parties. Throughout 1756 the raiders struck within seventy miles of Philadelphia, killing, looting, burning, and taking captives; most of the five hundred scalps that the commandant of Fort Duquesne counted and most of the two hundred prisoners who were still present at his post at the end of the year had come from Pennsylvania. Despite the best efforts of Governor Morris and his commissioners to establish discipline among the newly raised provincial troops and to encourage freelance Indian hunting by offering scalp bounties (including a special reward of seven hundred dollars for the heads of the western Delaware chiefs Shingas and Captain Jacobs), the security of the province’s frontiers increased not at all during a summer of bloodshed. On July 30, in a bold stroke, a party of French and Delawares led by Captain Jacobs attacked and burned Fort Granville on the Juniata River, a post that a shocked Loudoun knew was “one of our best Forts upon the frontier.” Once Fort Granville had been destroyed, the province’s westernmost post, Fort Shirley (located at Croghan’s old trading house of Aughwick), could no longer be defended and had to be abandoned. This effectively rolled the Pennsylvania frontier all the way back to Carlisle, a settlement not much more than a hundred miles from Philadelphia. When Governor Morris’s replacement, Lieutenant Colonel William Denny, arrived to stiffen Pennsylvania’s defenses, he “found the Frontier in a deplorable situation.” As if to confirm his judgment, within a few days raiders struck the settlement at Lebanon, east of the Susquehanna and barely seventy-five miles from the capital, killing settlers and burning everything up to the walls of the local fort.9

It must be noted that the only successful Anglo-American offensive to be mounted in America in 1756 did occur in Pennsylvania, but even that victory cost the Pennsylvanians more lives than it took from their enemies and probably aggravated the situation on the province’s frontier. The raid was a daring attempt to attack Shingas’s and Captain Jacobs’s base, the Delaware settlement of Upper Kittanning, a town of thirty houses on the Allegheny River perhaps twenty-five miles above Fort Duquesne. Colonel John Armstrong, a surveyor from Carlisle, led a party of three hundred provincials overland from Aughwick and succeeded in surprising the town at dawn on August 8. Resistance proved stiff, however, and Armstrong’s men suffered at least forty casualties before setting fire to the town and retiring, having recovered eleven English captives and taken perhaps a dozen scalps. Among the Indian dead was Captain Jacobs, the chief who almost exactly a year earlier had stood before the Pennsylvania Council and asked for aid against the French, only to be sent away “without meeting with the necessary Encouragement.” Throughout the fight, Jacobs had kept firing from the window of his house while his wife reloaded his muskets; and, Armstrong noted, he “seldom mist of Wounding or killing some of our People.” When, late in the battle, the attackers called upon him to surrender or have the house put to the torch, the wounded chief “replied that ‘they might if they would; he could eat fire.’ ” When the Pennsylvanians finally succeeded in setting fire to the house, the gunpowder stored within detonated with such force that “the Leg and Thigh of an Indian with a Child of three or four years old” were thrown to “such a height that they appeared as nothing and [then] fell in the adjacent Corn Field.”10

Had the French and Indians inflicted the same blow on a Pennsylvania settlement, it would inevitably have been called a massacre, but Armstrong and his men were greeted as heroes upon their return to Philadelphia, where they collected the reward the commissioners had placed on Captain Jacobs’s head. Of course, in the Ohio Indians’ view Armstrong’s victory was a massacre, and to avenge it they redoubled their efforts against the Pennsylvania frontier. Because the Kittanning raid came on the heels of Oswego’s fall, the western Delawares who renewed their attacks on the backcountry were liberally supplied with captured arms, shot, and powder. Their raids that autumn were the fiercest of the year, and with every success their hopes rose that they might not only defeat the English, but eventually drive the French themselves from the Ohio Country. So chaotic did the Pennsylvania frontiers become that only the timely completion of Fort Augusta—at the confluence of the west and north branches of the Susquehanna, near the eastern Delaware settlement of Shamokin—kept the eastern Delawares from joining their western cousins on the warpath. As the Pennsylvania authorities understood more fully than the Delawares, however, Fort Augusta was too isolated and weak to withstand a determined attack. Thus it was with some relief in the summer of 1756 that the governor and council of the province received the first tentative response to the peace feelers they had been sending through Quaker emissaries to Teedyuscung, the chief of the eastern branch of the Delaware nation.11

What moved Teedyuscung to open negotiations with the English was hardly Anglophilia—neither he nor any of the three factions in his tribe could reasonably be called pro-English—but a growing sense of desperation. Warfare had disrupted the lives of his people no less than those of the English. Because Indian agriculture did not produce large surpluses, even a single missed harvest could cause severe privation, and in the summer of 1756 the eastern Delawares were on the verge of losing their second harvest in a row. Moreover, the interruption of the normal patterns of hunting, as young men went off on raiding expeditions, meant the loss of both the group’s main source of animal protein and the skins and furs that provided its only trading commodities. In this respect the war had hit the eastern Delawares particularly hard, for while they depended upon European manufactures as heavily as any other Indian nation in eastern North America, the resident traders on whom they relied had all evacuated the Susquehanna Valley in 1755. The only other possible suppliers—French traders in the Ohio Country—were too distant to provide the volume of goods the eastern Delawares needed. Teedyuscung agreed to meet with representatives of the Pennsylvania government at Easton, a Delaware Valley town about fifty miles north of Philadelphia, because he hoped to gain concessions from the Pennsylvanians as the price for peace with his people and as a reward for his good offices in arranging negotiations with the western Delawares.12

Despite the specter of famine that drove him to negotiate, the price Teedyuscung intended to ask was a steep one: a formal admission from the Penns that the Walking Purchase of 1737 had been a fraud, and compensation to his people in the form of a grant, of 2,500,000 acres of the Wyoming Valley and adjoining lands, as a perpetual reservation for the eastern Delawares. These were audacious demands, for Teedyuscung was not only asking that the Penns surrender a vast proportion of the best land in the province, but risking the wrath of the Iroquois, who would be officially recognized as having been complicit in the Walking Purchase fraud. Yet while the first substantive meeting between Teedyuscung and Governor Denny, in November 1756, must have been a tense one—four Iroquois chiefs had come from Onondaga to observe Teedyuscung’s actions and report back to the Grand Council—it was also remarkably promising. Supported in the negotiations by Quaker advisors who had promoted and financed the negotiations from the beginning, Teedyuscung managed to wring three important concessions from Pennsylvania. Denny distributed a gift of trade goods worth four hundred pounds, promised to open a trade at Fort Augusta and to provide “a large uninhabited country to Hunt in,” and agreed to consider the charges of fraud impartially at a meeting to be held in the coming year. In return Teedyuscung promised only to bring whatever white captives he could obtain to the next conference.13

Although the results of the Easton conference were inconclusive, the mutual desperation of the Delawares and the government of Pennsylvania had led to the opening of real dialogue. The Quakers, having withdrawn from politics, had become able to act as honest brokers and could begin to hope that a peaceful solution to the conflict might be reached if both the governor and Teedyuscung behaved in good faith. For the first time since the beginning of the war in Pennsylvania, hope flickered in the gloom. Yet it was only a glimmer, and the raids and the killings along the frontier meanwhile continued unabated.

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