Fort Pleasant: Soldiers and Civilians in the South Branch Valley, 1756-1762

by Terry Gruber
HC 77 Box 16
Kirby, WV 26729

The following is a work-in-progress and represents a summary, not a definitive history. I am still in the process of discovery and expansion. If you have knowledge of an ancestor with service at Fort Pleasant I would like to hear of it. Thanks --- Terry Gruber

In the spring of 1755, a great army of British regulars and provincials left Alexandria, Virginia for the Forks-of-the-Ohio anticipating a major victory that would force the French to surrender their newly-built Fort Duquesne. By the end of June, the army, defeated and panic-stricken, had raced back to an early winter quarters in Philadelphia, leaving their seasoned general, Edward Braddock, buried in the middle of the road in the Pennsylvania wilderness. The broken English command had the presence of mind to leave a few men behind at Fort Cumberland to protect the Virginia frontier, though all the garrison could really protect was the stores within the stockade. Before the onset of fall, smoke hung thick in the sky where the westernmost Virginia settlers lived on Patterson Creek.1 Before the end of the display of fall foliage on the convoluted landscape, tragedy visited the valleys of the South Branch and Cacapon. 2

The Virginia Regiment was in the middle of reorganization and recruitment when the fall raids began. Because the army was caught under-manned and strategically unprepared, the raiders from Fort Duquesne were virtually unopposed. In October, during a brief respite, two forts were raised on Patterson Creek to accommodate the new ranger companies camping in the area. By the end of 1755, the regiment had increased their numbers by several hundred and began to temporarily station militia from the counties east of the Blue Ridge at settler forts. Shortly after the new year of 1756, the new commander of the reorganized Virginia Regiment, Colonel George Washington, ordered Captain Thomas Waggener to leave Fort Cumberland with his company and proceed to the South Branch of the Potomac. His orders instructed him to construct two forts in the area above The Trough after consulting the local leaders on the best places to erect them. After completing the forts, Waggener was ordered to station detachments in the most advantageous locations to protect the settlers on the upper South Branch.3

At the time the forts were built, neither the local inhabitants or the soldiers could imagine the impact of the lower fort on the region. Called Fort Pleasant shortly after its completion, within a couple of years it became the military headquarters for the South Branch Valley, the seat of the county court and its vital records, and a significant location involved in the transformation of the economy from a local to a regional focus. Examining the history of this fort will give specific information about colonial frontier fort construction and, perhaps more importantly, illustrate the value a fort sometimes had within its neighborhood beyond mere defensive considerations.

Arriving on the South Branch, Waggener met with the local leaders and, based on their advice, began work on two forts, one located on Henry Van Meter's grant in present Old Fields, Hardy County and the other further upstream on Lunice Creek in Petersburg, Grant County. During the first years after construction, the forts were known as Waggener's Lower and Upper Forts, respectively. The Lower Fort acquired the name Fort Pleasant during 1757.4

Washington's instruction to Waggener for erecting the forts ordered him to "... build the Fort[s] as large as those on Patterson's Creek, and the same model ...". He expected Waggener to have the willing assistance of the local inhabitants in supplying labor and tools. Though there are no surviving letters announcing the completion of the forts, it is apparent that by May Fort Pleasant was completed and occupied.5

To gain an idea of the dimensions and design of the fort, a look at the instructions for the Patterson Creek forts is necessary. Washington simply ordered those forts to be "... Quadrangular Fort[s] of Ninety Feet, with Bastions ...". Inside the walls, barracks and a magazine were directed to be built. At the end of a 9 January 1756 letter to Waggener ordering him to the South Branch, there is a clue to the design of the bastions. As an afterthought, Washington wrote, "If you find that the plan of the Forts on Patterson's Creek, will be too tedious to erect (as the Bastions are of hewn logs) you are to make the whole a Stockade." What is meant by bastions made of "hewn logs" can be answered by looking at frontier fort construction at other locations in the British colonies.6

Forts were usually designed in a square or rectangular form, though the square was used more often. Projecting at opposite corners or, more usually at all corners, were the bastions. The bastions were the key to defense; swivels, wall mounts, or musket fire could be directed outward or along the walls between the bastions to prevent them from being breached. The walls, called curtains, and bastions were usually made of upright logs, or palisades, placed beside each other. Fill or wood platforms were sometimes used in the bastions to provide elevated firing positions. Loopholes were cut in the curtains to provide additional firing ports for use as secondary defensive positions. A fort constructed as described above could be erected quickly in as little as three days.7

However, if the strongest possible wood construction was more important than speed in erecting the fort, then a double-walled design was used. Logs were hewn, or squared, then joined along their length in two parallel walls with cross-bracing. Earth filled the space between the walls. A fort with walls constructed in this manner could withstand a sustained artillery assault, but was extremely time consuming to construct. On the Virginia frontier, the only fort constructed in this way was Fort Loudoun in Winchester.8

It appears that some Virginia Regiment forts incorporated elements of both methods in their design. The instruction concerning the bastions for the South Branch forts, as applied to the Patterson Creek forts, means that the bastions may have been double-walled and earth-filled while the curtains were palisaded. This design would be a compromise between the most defensible and the easiest construction. The key defensive position, the bastions, would have maximum protection while the log-palisaded curtains offered speed of construction. Given that the forts were begun in late January or early February and completed by the middle of May, there was probably sufficient time to construct the South Branch forts according to the design of those on Patterson Creek. Therefore, the bastion design of the Patterson Creek forts was, very likely, replicated on the South Branch.9

After a disastrous month of April in 1756, the House of Burgesses authorized the construction of a series of forts to be developed in the frontier counties. In a Council of War held in July 1756, Washington and his captains incorporated Fort Pleasant into the recently authorized "chain of forts". In response to Washington's query concerning inclusion of Waggener's forts into the chain, his captains replied:

The Forts built by Captain Waggener have had the desired effect --- The inhabitants of that fertile district, keep possession of their Farms, and seem resolved to pursue their Business under cover of them. They are therefore to be looked upon in the chain intended by the Assembly.10
For the people of the South Branch, the presence of soldiers at Fort Pleasant was a blessing. Besides believing that they were safer, the inhabitants were guarded by the soldiers during the spring planting and the fall harvest. The troops often supplied labor as well in these agrarian activities.11 This arrangement was mutually beneficial. With slavery barely introduced into the area, other forms of extra labor were needed to harvest a greater quantity.12 The soldiers supplied the needed labor which resulted in a surplus that, in turn, was used by the military. Additionally, the farmers acquired cash that could be used to improve their standard of living, purchase seed, or hire labor to grow more for the army for the next season.

Of course, there were unpleasant aspects to the presence of a few hundred men of "the lower sorts". An example can be found in a 6 September 1756 letter from Washington to Waggener:

I have had several complaints from the people that the Soldiers plunder and rob their Gardens, and destroy their Fowls, & everything they can lay their hands on. Pray endeavour to stop these proceedings, as they occasion the officers to be much reflected on.13
This sort of activity was not unique to the South Branch Valley; it occurred frequently wherever civilian and military life coexisted. It was simply the cost of protection.

Beside a military function, Fort Pleasant also served a civil function. At least by 1759, the fort served as the seat of the County Court until the court was moved in December 1761 to Pearsall's Level (present Romney). During the trying years of Indian raids, the safest place to conduct county business and keep the records of the proceedings was in a fort. Transacted from here were orders for new roads, grand jury indictments, indenture agreements, tithables compiled, levies taken, wolf bounties paid, and numerous other activities that directly effected the lives of Hampshire Countians. Fort Pleasant was probably chosen because it was the main fort in the part of the county that held the majority of the population.14

From the time the fort was completed through 1758, the post served as refuge on numerous occasions to the local settlers. Most of the military activities involved a detachment of the garrison setting out in pursuit of small raiding parties. Usually, the Indian raiders could not be found and the settlers taken were not recovered.

One chase, involving Hampshire County militia from nearby Fort Hopewell, began with one of the worst defeats in the area. The Fort Pleasant garrison heard musket fire across the river coming from the direction of Fort Hopewell, but because of high water, they were unable to offer assistance. The next day, the Fort Pleasant inmates were able to ford the river and assist the militia in a pursuit of the raiders, but too much time had elapsed for the search to be successful. This incident occurred a few days before 24 April 1756 and is probably the same event described by Kercheval in which dozens of men lost their lives as they were trapped between Indians and the rain-swollen South Branch in a narrow defile called The Trough.15

Beginning in 1757 and continuing through the end of the Fort Duquesne campaign in November 1758, the fort's importance diminished. During 1757, the Virginia Regiment was reduced and two companies were detached for duty in South Carolina. To accommodate the reduction of men available to protect the frontiers, the Patterson Creek forts were abandoned while other forts had their garrisons significantly reduced. The latter occurred at Fort Pleasant when Waggener changed his headquarters to Fort Hopewell, leaving Lt. John King and four others at Pleasant. However, the situation changed tremendously after Fort Duquesne fell.

Beginning within a month after the capture of Fort Duquesne, enterprising Hampshire Countians, from the area above The Trough, began to take advantage of a new market for food created by the presence of several thousand soldiers stationed at forts on the western Pennsylvania frontier. John McCullough, a trader from the South Branch, was the first to bring provisions for sale to the English line of forts in Pennsylvania. In January 1759, the local people engaged themselves in constructing a road from Fort Pleasant to Patterson Creek, so that the supplies could be brought to Fort Pitt more easily and directly.16 By the harvest of 1759, many Hampshire Countians took advantage of the new market opportunity as growers, transporters, or sub-contractors.

Fort Pleasant was used as the collection point for agricultural products of the upper South Branch Valley. From 11-13 September 1759, Lt. Col. George Mercer of the Virginia Regiment (also serving as Assistant Deputy Quartermaster General for Maryland and Virginia for the British forces) was at Fort Pleasant to procure provisions for the Crown forts in Pennsylvania. In a letter to his superior, Col. Henry Bouquet of the Royal American Regiment, he outlined his plans to collect provisions to be transported to Fort Pitt:

...[ I ] do not know that I ever was more perplexed, the People have been so hard to please. I have been to every little Fort, and Plantation for 10 or 15 Miles round. The Inhabitants have at last consented to exert Themselves ... I was obliged in Order to effect this to give a Price for it delivered here [Fort Pleasant], as I found by riding about that many had perhaps 6 or 8 Bushels only, which it was not worth their while to carry all the Way to Fort Cumberland. I have contracted with Persons to carry any Quantity, up to Redstone [ a storehouse south of Pittsburgh on the Monongehela River ], under 4000 Bushels, that may be delivered here; so that this Scheme will both forward the Service and oblige everyone who has even 2 Bushels of Forage to sell.17
Until its abandonment, Fort Pleasant appears to have continued its use as the point of aggregation and transshipment of the agricultural products of the South Branch Valley.

The fort was probably abandoned in February 1762. It was at that time the Virginia Legislature, weary of the expense of war, disbanded the Virginia Regiment. According to letters to the Board of Trade from Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier of January 1763 and December 1765, the colony maintained no garrisons or forts on its frontiers. By 1765, the stockade of Fort Pleasant had probably fallen down.18 However, there is some evidence that a new Fort Pleasant existed after 1770 for the occasional use of the Hampshire County militia.19 Be that as it may, the fort built by Capt. Thomas Waggener was gone by 1765.

During its useful lifetime, the fort benefited its neighborhood beyond simply providing a safe haven for neighborhood inhabitants in times of crises. Although it accomplished its purpose by encouraging the settlers in its neighborhood to stay on their homesteads, it unexpectedly became integrated into the lives of its neighbors in ways that were unimagined by the governor, legislature, and the military authorities when they created the fort. In a function that was, perhaps, more important than any other, the fort hosted the county court and its vital records. In a county that was just organized as hostilities broke out, the fort was a natural, centrally located site that provided the stability needed to organize and maintain an infant local government. Finally, when stability was restored to the area after 1758, it served as the focal point in an emergent market-oriented economy and post-war boom in land speculation and settlement in the county.

Fort Pleasant is one of a few forts built on the colonial frontier that attracted settlement around its walls. Like Forts Pitt and Bedford to the north, the land around the South Branch fort drew the interest of speculators. The fort's use as a regional provisions entrepot after 1758 may have lured savvy individuals and trading partnerships, looking for "ground floor" opportunities, to acquire title to nearly one thousand acres near the fort.20 Indeed, if the 1770 map of the fort (see note 9) has any degree of authenticity, the early stages of a town developed in the fort's shadow. However, the town never progressed beyond a small village. Instead, town development occurred several miles to the south, at future Moorefield, within the decade after the map was supposedly drawn.

Why development occurred at present Moorefield and to what extent did Fort Pleasant's presence contribute to the economic development of the area are a few of many questions that beg for answers. Studies such as Richard McMaster's concerning the development of the cattle industry in the South Branch area,21 though illuminating regarding early economic development, only suggest what forces may have acted upon the local subsistence economy and transformed it to a market focus.

Certainly, what happened at Fort Pleasant suggests that military activity was a major factor in the conversion of agricultural surplus into cash. What the people of the South Branch did with that cash is an open question. A look at the events which occurred around Waggener's Lower Fort, and in the rest of Hampshire County, during the period of the last great war between France and England may reveal how and why the economic transformation occurred.


1 The Gentlemen's Magazine, January 1756, 6 has a description of the activity around Fort Cumberland during the fall of 1755:

The plantation of Paterson's Creek is intirely ruined, the inhabitants about Stoddarts Fort have all left their plantations, and above 80 families have fled to the fort for shelter; the enemy has also ravaged all the country about Potomack with so strong a party, that they repulsed a considerable force sent against them from Fort Cumberland; the officer who commanded this party, writes that the smoke of the ruined houses is so great as to hide the adjacent mountains, and obscure the day. They cut off all but the young women, whom they carry away to their towns.
2 For a general account of military operations and the colony of Virginia and especially the early years, see James Titus. The Old Dominion At War: Society, Politics, and Warfare in Late Colonial Virginia, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 46-78.

3 W.W. Abbot, The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, 10 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983-1997), 2:265-66 (hereafter referred to as GW Papers). Washington's papers are invaluable in gathering information about civilian and military activity from 1755, the year he became Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, to 1758, when he resigned.

4 GW Papers, 3:246, n. 4, identifies the placing and names of the forts. The first mention of Fort Pleasant as a formal name for Waggener's Lower Fort is in "Return of the Virginia Regiment", 1 December 1757, GW Papers, 5:67.

5 The GW Papers have the information concerning construction and approximate completion of the forts. The completion of the forts may be extrapolated from a letter of George Washington to Thomas Waggener, 16 May 1756, 3:140-41 and speaks of "... a party of the culpepper Militia, to your upper fort " and states, "...I would have you order down your men from that [Harness's Fort], to your station at Vanmeeters". The design of and labor for the forts is in ibid, 2:266.

6 The dimensions of the Patterson Creek forts is in GW Papers, 2:137. The mention of hewn logs for the bastions is in ibid, 2:266.

7 The foregoing and following discussion concerning design of frontier forts of this period is taken, in general, from Charles Morris Stotz, Defense in the Wilderness, in Drums in the Forest, (Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1958). The more detailed information is taken from Louis M. Waddell and Bruce D. Bomberger. The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania 1753-1763: Fortification and Struggle During the War For Empire. (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996), 32-62, 72-96.

8 For the description of the design of Fort Loudoun in Winchester, Va., see Andrew Burnaby, Travels Through the Middle Settlements of North America in the Years 1759 and 1760, 5th ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), 41.

9 In William H. Ansel, Jr., Frontier Forts along the Potomac and Its Tributaries. (Parsons, WV: McClain Press, 1984), Ansel discussed the plan of Fort Pleasant with different conclusions. He spoke of the existence of a map/drawing of the fort, describing the dimensions of the fort as being 300 by 200 feet, blockhouses at the corners, and various other details. The author has studied a copy of this "map". Besides being of unknown origin, the map has many anachronistic features that put its interpretation as Waggener's fort in question. The most obvious features on the map/drawing that clearly indicate that the fort depicted is not the one built by Thomas Waggener are that the dimensions are far too large and, instead of bastions in the corners, there are "Fort Apache" style blockhouses.

In discussions with others concerning Washington's "hewn log" reference, it is alternately conjectured that the squaring of the logs indicate a blockhouse and that Washington meant that structural feature when he wrote "bastions" in his instructions. The author maintains that Washington's use of the word "bastions" is consistently intended to mean the 18th century military engineering meaning. Washington's fort plans contain bastions, labeled as such, and do not differ from other professional military engineering plans for forts of the period.. Furthermore at least on one occasion, Washington used the word "blockhouse" in reference to, what seems to be, a free-standing structure (see GW Papers, 3:245).

10 GW Papers, 3:244-45.

11 There are many references in the GW Papers to soldiers, both militia and provincial, assisting in the harvest, see 3:30, 3:146, 3:265, 3:277, 3:299, 4:291, for only a sampling of the references. It is not clear what crops were harvested nor in what quantity. It is a strong possibility that surplus quantities were consumed by the soldiers; the lack of food items brought in with the occasional supply wagons suggests that food was obtained locally and, based on past practices of the regiment in obtaining beef, the local people were paid for their produce. This assumption is further strengthened by the appointment of Henry Van Meter as commissary for Waggener's command. Washington said he would give Van Meter "...a reasonable allowance..." to perform his duty (ibid, 3:299). The purchase of cattle for consumption began shortly after the arrival of the first troops in Hampshire County in 1755 ( ibid, 2:133).

12 In a 23 February 1756 list of tithables sent to the Lords of Trade by Lt. Gov. Dinwiddie, Hampshire county had 558 white and 12 black tithables. According to Dinwiddie's note of explanation, to get a good estimate of the total population, he suggested doubling the number of blacks and quadrupling the number of whites. This would make a total of 24 blacks, assumed here to be slaves. White tithables were all males over the age of seventeen, black tithables were all blacks, male and female, over the age of fifteen. The tithable information is in R.A. Brock, ed. Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751-1758, (1884; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971), 352.

13 GW Papers, 3:393.

14 For the fort serving as the headquarters of the County Court see Donald H. Kent, et al. The Papers of Henry Bouquet, vols. 3 and 4, (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976 and 1978), BP is used hereafter. From two letters, the first Lt. Col. George Mercer to Bouquet, Winchester, Va., 28 Aug 1759 concerning the South Branch (3:630) in which Mercer stated that "...I shall be there at their County Court...", and the second written 16 days later Mercer to Bouquet, Fort Pleasant, 13 Sept 1759 (4:91-93), it can be deduced that the County Court was held at Fort Pleasant by 1759. An entry in Benjamin J. Hillman, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, vol. 6, (Richmond:Virginia State Library, 1966), dated 9 Dec 1761 established the County Court at "Pearsall's Level". The statement concerning the population is deduced through references in GW Papers, for the years 1755-58, that most of the inhabitants vacated Patterson Creek and the fact that there was little discussion concerning settlers in the Cacapon River valley. Forthcoming research results by the author will shed more light on county demographics during this period.

15 GW Papers 3:46 and Samuel Kercheval. A History of the Valley of Virginia. (1833; reprint, Woodstock, Va.: W. N. Grabill, 1902), 75.

16 Both McCullough's arrival at Pittsburgh and the new road are in BP, 3:10, 97.

17 BP, 4:91-93.

18 Fauquier's comments for 1763 are in George Reese, ed. The Official Papers of Francis Fauquier Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, 1758-1768, 3 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 2:1016 and for 1765 in ibid, 3:1318. Fort stockades usually lasted approximately three years before succumbing to decay.

19 If the above map/drawing of Fort Pleasant is authentic, then there was probably a second fort built by the county militia and not the colony. The author has seen a copy of a map of the area that shows the fort and road leading from it to the west toward Patterson Creek.. The map was dated about 1775. Further investigation is necessary to advance or discredit the second-fort theory.

20 See Gertrude E. Gray, comp. Virginia Northern Neck Land Grants, vol. 2. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988) 114, K-57; 123, K-221; 125, K-271; 129, K-342, K-344; 133, K-417; P-223. These grants were to individuals or merchant partnerships. The former were current or retired officers in the Virginia Regiment and served at Fort Pleasant, the later were involved in military contracts for provisions, either with the colony or the British forces in Pennsylvania.

21 Richard K. McMaster. "The Cattle Trade in Western Virginia, 1760-1830" in Robert D. Mitchell, ed. Appalachian Frontiers: Settlement, Society, and Development in the Preindustrial Era. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1991).

The author welcomes your e-mail comments and questions: Terry Gruber

Copyright 1998 held by Terry Gruber, Rock Oak Historical Services. The author grants permission to individuals to copy or reprint this article for personal use only. Address requests for permission for mass distribution or publication to the author.

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