Protecting the Frontier -- Fort Loudoun’s brief life
More than 250 years ago a fort was built on Matthew Patton’s farm. It wasn’t the only one that popped up in 1756. Settlers and Indians were caught up in the growing pains of an English colony that put them on opposite sides. Blood was shed and captives taken. England approved a line of forts to protect the settlers. Fort Loudoun was constructed as a result of that edict. In a precursor to American spirit, with snow on the ground and more to come, Captain John Armstrong altered the proper English plans on how to build a fort and instead built a sturdy, practical stockade with shooting platforms and a few buildings in the interior. It may have lacked the architectural grace of Fort Ligonier but it served its intended purpose.
In the timeline of the world, the fort existed for a mere blink - from 1756-1765. Then the British abandoned it and Matthew Patton reclaimed his farm.
But what happened in Fort Loudoun’s brief life is noteworthy 250 years later. Noted author Neil Swanson theorized in his historical novel, The First Rebel, that the seeds of the American Revolution were sown here - complete with actual bloodshed. While others lay claim to being the birthplace of the Revolution, the story of Fort Loudoun certainly deserves to be included in America’s history pages.
Fort Loudoun came to being as part of a chain of frontier forts from the Blue Mountains in Easton to Franklin County ordered by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1756. The forts were needed as the French and Indian War resulted in many raids upon settlers. Settlers had been requesting such protection for several years and some had erected private forts to fill the need until the government decided to act. One such fort was McDowell’s, just up the creek from the site of Fort Loudoun. McDowell’s location was found not to be suitable to the British. The Widow Barr farm was also considered but the discarded.
The news that the Fort Loudoun site had been selected is found in a letter from John Armstrong to Governor William Denny, dated November 19, 1756:
According to the yr Honour’s Orders I have carefully examined Barr’s place, and could not find in it a proper Situation for a Fort, the soil being too Strong to admit the Ditch, and the Spot it self, Overlook’s by an adjoining Hill, but has fixed on a place in neighborhood near Parnell’s Knab where one Patton lived, the Spot I hope will be very agreeable to your Honour and to Mr. Myer, and as its near the New Road, will make the distance from Shippensburgh to Fort Lyttleton two Miles Shorter than by McDowel’s.
The letter continues:
“I’m making the best preparation in my power to forward the New Fort, as well as to prepare the Barracks, &c, all the others for the Approaching Winter. Yesterday the Escort of one hundred men returned from Lyttleton who left the Chattle &c, safe there and to-day we begin to Digg a Cellar in the New Fort; the Loggs & Roof of a New House having there been Erected by Patton before the Indians burn’s his Old One. We shall first apprise this House, and then take the benefit of it, either for Officers Barracks or a Store House, by which means the Provisions may the sooner be mov’d from this place (McDowell’s Mill) which at present divides our strength.
Armstrong and his men were determined to get the fort up as soon as possible with the harshest part of winter approaching and they succeeded. By December 22, 1756, Armstrong had transferred all the supplies from McDowell’s to Fort Loudoun, had constructed the barracks and began erecting the stockade walls. Heavy snows were slowing down the stockade work.
The fort was named after the Earl of Loudoun, John Campbell who became Commander of British forces in North America in July 1756. There were at least two other Fort Loudouns - one in Winchester, VA, and one in Tennessee.
Through much of its life, Fort Loudoun was a stopping off point for both men and supplies going westward. The Forbes Expedition of 1758 depended on the fort for protection as they constructed 200 miles of road in the Pennsylvania wilderness. It also was a meeting place for discussions with Indians to convince them to ally themselves with the British. Troops garrisoned at the fort defended the area but were also responsible for the maintenance and security for their part of Forbes Road. The new road was the line of transport for men, supplies and communication.
At the end of the French and Indian War in 1760, the fort’s garrison was reduced to a skeleton crew until Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763. This touched off renewed Indian military action.
Defenses at Fort Loudoun were strengthened by locals to combat the threat of Indian raids. The fort again became a stopping off point for westward going troops. Colonel Henry Bouquet’s 1763 and 1764 Expeditions rested at Fort Loudoun for a time before continuing west Bushy Run and Ohio, respectively.
In 1765, almost at the very end of its existence, the event occurred that makes Fort Loudoun more than just an ordinary frontier fort -- James Smith and his Black Boys firing on Fort Loudoun.
James Smith and his Black Boys
James Smith was born in Mercersburg in 1737. Indians took him captive in 1755 near Bedford while working on a wagon road. He was taken to Fort Duquesne and then to a village in Ohio. In 1760, he was freed in a prisoner exchange. Smith joined the army and was a Captain of Rangers against the Indians. He later was an Ensign in English Provincial Army.
He married and settled about a mile south of Fort Loudoun, near the present-day Mountain View Elementary School. While the official military actions and wars had calmed down, there were still Indian attacks on settlers. This situation was not helped by trade good companies who didn’t particularly care who paid for those goods, as long as someone did. This resulted in guns, powder, lead, hatches and knives ending up with the Indians and then being used against the settlers. Though the dangerousness of this was related to the government who issued permits to the traders, the trading continued. James Smith gathered a group of men who wanted to protect their land and their families and trained them to fight Indian style - using the cover of trees, bushes, fences as opposed to the very formal British style of lining up on an open field. The Black Boys as they were called began to stop wagons bearing trade goods and inspecting them for weapons.
In early March 1765, a very large wagon train from Philadelphia stopped in Mercersburg on their westward trip. They were warned by Justice William Duffield not to proceed further with their contraband but continued on. Duffield followed and warned the train again in McConnellsburg but again the wagon train went on.
James Smith gathered ten of his men and they all blackened their faces to prevent being recognized. They headed to Sideling Hill and prepared to stop the wagon train.
The Black Boys flagged down the wagon train with gunshots. Smith gave the wagon master one more chance to hand over the goods in question. When he refused, Smith and his men set fire to the goods.
The wagon master returned to Fort Loudoun to gain the protection of Lt. Charles Grant and the 42nd Highlanders who were stationed there. Grant sent Sergeant Leonard McGlashan and 11 men to the scene and secure any goods that had not been destroyed.
McGlashan reported that he met seven men at Cove Gap who scattered at his approach. The men appeared to have new blankets with them. McGlashan chased and captured one of them who had two rifles. His men captured another.
Till McGlashan and his men reached Sideling Hill, all that remained of the wagon train’s goods were several horse loads of rum. McGlashan and his party with the two prisoners were returning to Fort Loudoun when four armed men stopped them in Cove Gap. One of them questioned the sergeant about the prisoners and ended up being taken prisoner himself by the soldiers. The soldiers continued on their way briefly before being surrounded by 50 armed men. One man threatened to shoot McGlashan through the heart but was disarmed and added to the growing number of prisoners. The armed men were ordered to be disarmed but most retreated to safety. However, three more prisoners were taken. The soldiers were underway again but as they neared the fort, the armed men appeared again. McGlashan was tired and ordered his men to fix bayonets. The armed men moved aside and let McGlashan pass with the seven prisoners.
Two days later, March 9, 1765, Smith and 300 men appeared at Fort Loudoun. Grant sent a man out to speak to Smith. Smith acknowledged he was the head of the party and he wanted the prisoners released. Grant let Smith know the prisoners were due to be transferred to the Carlisle Goal under the escort of the King’s troops. Smith replied that he and his men were determined to fight than let the prisoners go to Carlisle.
Smith and his men were not idle while they waited for Grant’s decision. They managed to capture more than double as many British soldiers as Black Boys being held in the guardhouse. Grant eventually agreed to exchange the prisoners at two Highlanders for each Black Boy. However, Grant kept the guns taken from Smith’s men.
Two months later, a wagon train bearing liquor and communications for the troops were camped at the Rowland Harris place just north of the town of Fort Loudon. The wagon drivers were attacked by 30 disguised men who tied up the drivers, beat them severely, burned their saddles and killed five horses. One driver escaped and went to Fort Loudoun to seek Grant’s protection. Once again, Sergeant McGlashan was dispatched to Harris’s home to investigate.
The Black Boys were gone when McGlashan arrived. He recruited Harris to act a guide while they searched the area. Several Black Boys were spotted in the woods at Widow Barr’s place. A shot rang out. And then another. One of McGlashan’s Highlanders returned fire. Soon shots were flying everywhere. The Highlanders headed for Widow Barr’s house for protection. On the way to the house, one of the Highlanders shot James Brown in the leg and took him prisoner.
McGlashan was warned that if he tried to take prisoner Brown to the fort, he and his party would be killed. The group in the woods had grown to about 75 by this point and McGlashan had only 12 men with him. Wisely, McGlashan returned Brown and retreated to the Fort.
On May 10, 1765, Smith and 150 of his Black Boys appeared on the hill back of the fort. Accompanied by three County Justices, Smith wished to inspect the goods from the wagon train at Harris place. The goods had been moved to the fort after the confrontation. Lt. Grant refused this request stating he believed the Black Boys would destroy the goods. He also said he was under direct orders from Bouquet. One of the Justices argued that the goods could not move by military pass alone - a magistrate’s pass was also needed. Smith told Grant that this was not the King’s fort or the King’s road and that 500 men could not escort the goods without the magistrate’s pass.
A few weeks passed without incident and then on May 28, 1765, Lt. Grant was captured while out riding by five armed men. One of the men was James Smith. Grant was held in the forest seven miles from the fort all night. He was told that unless he surrendered the guns he was holding in the fort they would take Grant further into the mountains until the countryside rose up and took the fort. Grant maintained he had no authority to give up the guns. Plans were made to go south to Carolina and take grant with them. In the morning, they were eight miles into their journey when they asked Grant again about giving up the guns or paying 40 pounds. Grant agreed to pay the money and was taken to Cunningham’s Inn near Squire Smith’s in Mercersburg and gave the bond to pay the money if the guns were not delivered within five days.
Smith and his Black Boys laid low for months again, no doubt preparing for the final action against Lt. Grant and Fort Loudoun. It came on November 16, 1765, at 7 o’clock in the evening. At that hour, Fort Loudoun was surrounded by men shooting guns and yelling all night. More men joined the contingent and by 10 o’clock they were 100 strong. The men fired on all corners continuously. At 1 o’clock, Grant ordered his men down from the bastions. Grant had little ammunition on hand during the attack and ordered his men not to fire. During the siege, the soldiers only fired one return shot. The stockade was peppered with shots as was Patton’s original house being used as storeroom. Grant reported 20 campfires on the hill during the night.
Surrender of the guns was finally arranged through the issuance of several bonds. Grant gave custody of the guns to Magistrate William McDowell only after a bond of 200 pounds was executed to protect McDowell from arrest. The surrendered booty consisted of five rifles and four smooth bores.
James Smith and one of his right hand men, Samuel Owens, also drew up a bond to Lt. Grant stating the settlers would retire from the siege of the fort.
With the paperwork out of the way, Lt. Grant was escorted by 30 men under Ensign Herring to Fort Bedford.
After the James Smith siege, Fort Loudoun faded from history. Indian attacks grew less and the fort was decommissioned and the land returned to the Matthew Patton family.