FORT ASHBY

FROM "FRONTIER FORTS ALONG THE POTOMAC AND ITS TRIBUTARIES" BY WILLIAM H ANSEL, JR.

On October 26, 1755, Washington issued orders to Lieutenant Bacon of the Virginia Regiment directing him to either go to the plantation of John Sellers or one McCracken on Patterson’s Creek and there to select a location and to supervise the construction of a fort to be built by the men of Captain John Ashby’s company of rangers. In carrying out his orders, Bacon selected a spot on the plantation of John Sellers, being Lot Number 16 of the Fairfax Patterson’s Creek survey, and at the place where the present town of Fort Ashby, Mineral County, West Virginia is located. According to his instructions, Bacon was to build a square stockade of logs ninety feet on a side with bastions or blockhouses at each corner and enclosing about one fifth acre of ground. A barrack was to be built within the stockade, the works being of the same dimensions as Fort G. Parker or Cocke, of which Bacon was also ordered to supervise construction twelve miles higher up the Creek.

The place was completed by November 20, for on that day Lieutenant Bacon repaired to Fort Cumberland where he reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Adam Stephen that he had heard Indians whooping and had seen many of their moccasin tracks in the woods near the new fort. The next day, Captain Thomas Waggoner with one hundred men was ordered to Patterson’s Creek to search for the reported savages, but he found no sign of the enemy and returned to Fort Cumberland on the same day.

“Captain John Ashby with his company of rangers first garrisoned the new fort. He had been commissioned at the rank of captain and sent tot the frontier in June 1755. After General Braddock’s army began its march from Fort Cumberland across the Alleghenies to the Monongahela early in that month, about 150 Indians made a raid into the Patterson’s Creek and South Branch Valleys. They murdered thirty-five settlers and captured many others. Governor Dinwiddie immediately raised three companies of rangers and sent them to the affected areas. John Ashby and William Cocke commanded two of these companies. On October 28th, Washington issued orders to Colonel Stephen to deliver Captain Ashby’s company as he, Stephen, passed down Patterson Creek, thirty pounds of goose shot and to direct Ashby to be careful with it.

Captain Ashby had not been in command of the fort very long until he was beset with problems all stemming form a failure to enforce discipline. On December 20th, ten soldiers in his command informed him they were going home and then summarily left the fort. On December 27, 1755, Captain Charles Lewis, with twenty-two men, was ordered from Fort Cumberland with instructions to go to Fort Ashby to look about the trouble there. On reaching the place on the same day, Lewis found the fort in poor condition for defense. The men were surly and undisciplined and Captain Ashby seemed to have little control over them. Lewis inquired of the number in Ashby’s command, and he was told that the exact count was unknown as Ashby’s lieutenant had the roll and he was absent. Lewis assembled the men and fund only twenty-one present and fit for duty. The troops appearing to be mutinous, Lewis caused the Articles of War to be read to them by Lieutenant Bacon, who had supervised construction of the place, and Captain Lewis otherwise soon convinced the garrison that he was to be their commander.

At the same time, Captain Ashby appeared to have other troubles in addition to mutinous soldiers. On December 28th, Colonel Washington at Winchester wrote to Ashby noting that he was surprised to hear of the many irregularities which were allowed in Ashby’s camp. Rum was being sold to the soldiers by one Joseph Coombs, yet it appeared the liquor actually belonged to Ashby. But the main complaint reaching headquarters was as to the misbehavior of Ashby’s wife. Washington charged that she sowed sedition among the men and was the leader of every mutiny. He then firmly instructed Ashby to remove her from the fort immediately, otherwise he, Washington, would drive her out himself on his next visit to Patterson’s Creek.

Captain Ashby soon thereafter gained control of his wife’s activities for there is no record that Washington enforced his threat to “drive her out”. Captain Charles Lewis remained in charge of the fort for a few weeks when Captain Ashby resumed command, a position he continued to hold during much of the French and Indian War. In a short time, the defense became known as Ashby’s Fort and the name remains so to this day.

But Ashby continued to be plagued with troubles caused by unruly soldiers. On March 29, 1756, he had forty men in his command, but for some reason, ten of these soldiers “took a disgust to him,” and unceremoniously walked off to join Colonel Stephen’s command at Fort Cumberland. On July 25, 1756, Colonel Stephen advised Washington that a detachment of militia at Ashby’s absolutely refused to escort an express rider to Fort Cumberland as they were in such fear of the Indians they would not leave the fort on any account, and Ashby was powerless to do anything about it. On October 2, 1755, before his fort was built, Ashby, with his company, had agreed to meet Captain Thomas Cocke and his men of the Virginia Regiment at Solomen Hedges’ plantation located about three miles above present Burlington for the purpose of doing scouting work along the Creek. For some reason Ashby left the rendezvous before Captain Cocke arrived, which caused consternation in Cocke’s command, as the Indians were in considerable numbers throughout the region. Captain Cocke, not finding Ashby, then beat a hasty retreat the fort at Welton’s on Lunice Creek in present Grant County.

Captain Ashby had not been at his for on Patterson’s Creek many months until he learned that undisciplined men make poor soldiers. About August 1, 1756, a courier arrived at Fort Ashby carrying dispatches for Colonel Washington who was then at Fort Cumberland. Since the Patterson’s Creek area was infested with Indians at the time, the messenger requested that a detail of soldiers be furnished to conduct him to the Maryland fort, as he was afraid to make the journey alone. Captain Ashby then selected about sixteen men, all from a militia detachment stationed at his fort, to accompany the messenger, and he named one of his subordinate officers, Lieutenant Robert Rutherford, to take command of this party. After beginning the twelve-mile march to Fort Cumberland, Rutherford and his troops experienced no trouble until they were along Turner’s Run within a mile or so of Short Gap, when they were suddenly fired upon by a band of Indians lying in ambush near the road. The militia acted quickly, without hesitation and in unison – they all turned and fled back to Ashby’s at full speed without taking the trouble to fire a shot. Lieutenant Rutherford ordered, threatened and even begged his men to stand and fight but without avail. Left alone, he could do nothing more than follow his flying men. What became of the courier is not recorded, but he probably made his escape with the others, as there is no record that anyone was killed or wounded.

Washington was much disgusted when he heard of this affair. He never had any use for militiamen, and this incident did nothing to strengthen his faith in them. At one time he stated “they are obstinate, self-willed, perverse, of little or no service to the people, and very burthensome to the country.” But in the Rutherford rout, his chief criticism was directed at Ashby and his officers because of their failure to properly control the men.

On April 19 1756, a numerous band of Indians descended on Patterson’s Creek. They surrounded Ashby’s fort and called upon the Commander for a parley. Ashby conferred with one of the chiefs, and he was informed by the Indian that more than four hundred savages were encircling the fort. In a letter written to Colonel Garrett VanMeter of the Hampshire County Militia bout this affair, Ashby said that he saw a vast number of Indians but that they did not number four hundred. He also noted that he gave the chief a dram of whiskey and that the savages then all went away without firing a gun. Later he heard them attack the fort at the mouth of the Creek, but he was uncertain as to what happened there.

The Indians were in the neighborhood of this fort on many other occasions. Captain Ashby himself had a narrow escape from death or capture in 1757 when he wandered form the fort without his rifle. Coming unexpectedly upon three Indians, Ashby took to his heels and outrunning the savages, reached the fort in safety, although two or three shots were fired at him. Since the fort was almost constantly manned by troops, the Indians considered it too strong to be attacked outright. But they were in its vicinity doing as much mischief as possible. In 1756 Charles Keller was killed near this fort, while in October 1755, a settler named McCracken and members of his family were killed on Patterson Creek Lot No 17, only a mile form the stockade.

From a military standpoint, Fort Ashby appeared to have been poorly located. The nearest stream was two hundred yards to the west and this would have required the garrison to dig a well within the stockade so as to be sure o a supply of water when the Indians were in the neighborhood. The main defect in location, however, was that the fort was dominated by a hill to the south, barely three hundred yard away, the present Fort Ashby cemetery, from whence the enemy could fire into the stockade. That it was built at its present location, however, is shown by a map or plat of the lots of the Town of Frankfort prepared in 1787, whereon the fort is shown at the place where it now stands with the notation “Ashby’s fort still standing.”

The chief value of Fort Ashby to the war effort (Washington said it was the only value) was that it was situate on the military road leading from Fort Loudoun at Winchester to Fort Cumberland. Its garrison was thus in a position to escort convoys north the Will’s Creek and south to Fort Cocke, twelve miles away. It also offered refuge to settlers living in the neighborhood, but because of its small size, not many people could live within the place for any material length of time.

After all danger from the Indians was over, the log barracks situate within the stockade was converted into a dwelling and was used as such for more than one hundred thirty-five years. The Potomac Valley Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, purchased the place on July 28, 1927, and on Feb 5, 1935, this organization conveyed the property to the County Court of Mineral County for restoration purposes.

“In 1794, the old fort was again the scene of military activity. In October of that year, Major General Daniel Morgan with 500 or more troops encamped around the fort while awaiting orders to proceed over the Alleghenies to crush the dissidents engaged in theWhiskey rebellion. On October 18th, Brigadier General George Matthews with 700 men arrived, and a few days later, Colonel Carter Page with 500 additional troops reached Fort Ashby.” This army of more than 1,700 men was by far the largest number of military personnel ever to assemble around the fort up to that time. When this army departed for Fort Cumberland the citizens of the area were to see no more armed troops of appreciable numbers until the outbreak of the Civil War, 67 years later.

Captain John Ashby served as a military leader on the frontier throughout the years of conflict with the Indians. He was from the Shenandoah Valley and after termination of the French and Indian War, he went back to his land there. On December 21, 1747, Lord Fairfax had conveyed to him 213 acres situate on the “north side of John’s Run on the banks of the Shenandoah River.” And on March 17, 1760, the Proprietor conveyed an additional 375 acres to him “adjoining Nation’s Run and George Wright line near the Waggon Road.” Ashby operated a ferry across the Shenandoah River near his home for many years.

Although Washington and Captain Ashby were at odds on occasion during the French and Indian War, they always remained on friendly terms. Washington first met Ashby on March 12, 1748, when he spent the night at his home while with surveyor James Genn on the trip to the south Branch to do survey work for Lord Fairfax. Even at that time Ashby carried the military title of captain. Washington was at Ashley’s home for eight consecutive days during March 1769, while surveying lands along the Shenandoah. On March 15, 1774, while on a trip to Berkely County, Washington spent the night at Ashby’s. On January 2, `774, Captain Ashby visited Washington at Mount Vernon and spent the night there. Washington’s last visit to Ashby’s home took place on October 2, 1784, when he was returning from a trip to the Ohio River. Captain remained a prominent man in the Shenandoah Valley during his lifetime. He was the great-grandfather of General Turner Ashby and Captain Richard Ashby of Civil War fame.

The question of the ownership of the land upon which Fort Ashby was constructed has never been fully resolved. Washington’s original orders directed Lieutenant Bacon to proceed to the plantation of John Sellers or one McCracken so as to determine the location of a fort. The records fail to disclose that John Sellers ever owned land in Hampshire County. The fort was constructed on a tract of 300 acres, being Lot No. 16 of the Fairfax Patterson Creek survey. On November 18, 1748, Lord Fairfax conveyed this lot to Charles Keller, so he should have been the owner of the land upon which the fort was built in 1755. Keller was killed by the Indians near the fort in 1756, and thereafter, on June 1, 1779, Fairfax conveyed the same lot to John Keller, a son of Charles.

John Sellers is listed in both the 1782 and 1784 census records for Hampshire County, but John Keller is not. Charles Keller’s name would not have appeared as he was already deceased. John Sellers’ name is included in the census list a s compiled by Michael Stump who lived on the South Fork above Moorefield in what is now Hardy County, and this fact indicates strongly that John Sellers lived on that stream also when he was enumerated. On November 5, 1787, when a number of citizens living in the Fort Ashby area petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia to establish a town at the place to be known as Frankfort, the first name affixed to the petition was that of John Sellers, and the instrument stated that the town was to be located upon the land owned by him. No person by the name of Keller signed this paper. On December 7, 1787, when the General Assembly passed the act establishing the Town of Frankfort the legislation provided that 139 acres be laid off in lots on the “property of John Sellers.” Within the next few years many of these lots were sold and the deeds were either signed by the Town Trustees of by John Keller, the name of Sellers not appearing thereon. This variance in names has never been satisfactorily

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