FORT PEARSALL

FROM “FRONTIER FORTS ALONG THE POTOMAC AND ITS TRIBUTARIES”

BY WILLIAM H. ANSEL, JR

This stockade was located along or near the South Branch River west of present Romney in Hampshire County, West Virginia. It stood on Lot No. 16 of the Fairfax South Branch survey, this land having been originally conveyed by Lord Fairfax to Samuel Earl on June 16, 1749. On July 28, 1761, Earl conveyed this lot to Job Pearsall, who remained the owner until Nov 10, 1766, when he sold it to Luke Collins. Lot 16 contained 323 acres and was situate on the east side of the river just north of the point where United States Route 50 now crosses the stream. It extended back from the river in an easterly direction 240 rods (3,960 feet) on the south boundary and 182 rods (3,003 feet) on the north side, sufficient distances so as to include a part of what is now known as Indian Heights, all of Indian Mound Cemetery and a part of the land now within the corporate limits of Romney. There appears to be no record that Colonel Washington ever ordered a fort to be built at Pearsall’s as was the case at Parker’s and at Ashby’s on Patterson’s Creek. The original structure was built by Pearsall with the help of his neighbors who would have included William Buffington, Luke Collins, Nicholas Casey, Thomas McGuire, John Collins, as well as members of the Kuykendall and Parsons families. The Formans were neighbors also, but they were probably busy at the time building their own fort three miles down the river. Pearsall doubtless began construction of his stockade in the fall of 1754, for by that time it was apparent that border warfare was inevitable.

To have taken the name Pearsall, the fort must have been built on land under the ownership or the control of a person by that name. In 1754, Job Pearsall owned no land along the South Branch, as he did not acquire Lot 16 until seven years later. He must, however, have been a tenant of Samuel Earl, who was a resident of Winchester, and Pearsall occupied this land with Earl’s consent and probably under an oral agreement to purchase the real estate, which was a common arrangement in the eighteenth century.

As first constructed, the fort was a small affair, perhaps consisting of a log stockade built around Pearsall’s cabin. But because of its strategic location, being on the military highway connecting Forts Loudoun and Cumberland, and also on the Shawnee Trail leading from Cresap’s fort at Oldtown to the upper reaches of the South Branch, it soon attracted the attention of Washington as well as Governor Dinwiddie. By early 1756, the place had been enlarged at public expense to a size sufficient to accommodate a garrison of up to one hundred men, and it soon became a very important link in the chain of forts being built or refurbished so as to defend the frontier. So important, in fact, that the Virginia Regiment, and at times, the rangers and the militia took such complete charge of the place that Job Pearsall was pushed into the background.

Because of the practice of calling the forts by the name of the commanding officer, by 1756, Pearsall’s was being referred to as McKenzie’s fort, probably more often that it was called by the name of the original builder. Captain Robert McKenzie commanded a company in the Virginia Regiment and he was in charge at Pearsall’s longer that any other officer. In Washington’s orders and correspondence, he often mentioned McKenzie’s fort when it was apparent he was referring to Pearsall’s. On August 5, 1756, Washington wrote Captain McKenzie from Winchester, the wording of the letter clearly showing that McKenzie was at Pearsall’s fort. Washington ordered that if Pearsall desired meat from the public stores, it was not to be given to him but he must buy what he needed. McKenzie was also told to use his fields as he saw fit on the premise that one of the reasons for posting troops at Pearsall’s was for his protection and he could do no less for the benefit of the troops.

The tenor of this letter would indicate that Washington and Job Pearsall were not quite so close as they probably were at the beginning of the war. In the same missive, Washington advised Captain McKenzie about the water supply at the fort. He was told to build a fence eight or ten feet high, covered on top; that it should be strongly staked and straight and to lead within a sail’s length of the water.

The problem of a water supply for the garrison may have an important bearing as the exact place Fort Pearsall was located. As heretofore noted, the fort was on Lot No. 16, that being the home of Pearsall, it being unlikely a fort constructed upon property under someone else’s control would have taken the name Pearsall. Lot No. 16 as surveyed by James Genn in 1748 included the bottom land on the east side of the river lying north of present United States Route 50, and being between the river and the bluff, known as Yellow Banks where Indian Mound Cemetery is now located. The fort to be on Pearsall property must of necessity have been located somewhere in the area of the cemetery or on the lower bluff known as Indian Heights or on the bottom land along or near the river. Since there appeared to be no constant source of water on the elevations that belonged to Pearsall, the water referred to by Washington could have well been the South Branch River. If the fort was on the bottom land near the river it would have been overlooked by the bluff n which Indian Mound Cemetery is located. Although a defect, it would have been no different from other frontier forts as many were commanded by higher ground.

On May 14, 1756, Washington assigned forty-five men and five officers under command of Captain James Hamilton to the garrison at Pearsall’s, but then hearing that Indians were in the vicinity, he increased the command to ninety-four soldiers from Prince William County and six officers, which appears to have been the largest garrison at Pearsall’s during the war. On May 17, 1756, Colonel Henry Peyton with this company of militia was ordered to make Fort Pearsall his headquarters and from there to send out scouting parties as far north as the mouth of the South Branch. On May 17th, Captain Hamilton was ordered to take Captain Minor’s place at Fort Kuykendall, seven miles up the South Branch, as soon as Colonel Peyton returned, he being engaged in escorting Colonel Innis to Cumberland. On July 13, 1756, Captain Robert McKenzie was ordered to take command at Pearsall’s and with further instructions to escort all wagon trains and expresses as far as Fort Ashby and to scout the area well around Pearsall’s. A year later, June 16, 1757, the garrison at Pearsall’s consisted of thirty-five men, all attached to the Virginia Regiment. During this year Washington had some difficulties with his second in command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adam Stephen, who was stationed at Fort Cumberland. For some reason Colonel Stephen sent orders to Captain McKenzie at Persall’s to vacate that fort and to march to Cumberland with his men. When Washington received the news, he quickly countermanded the order and sent a sharp letter of rebuke to Stephen. In late July of 1757, Colonel Stephen ordered certain repairs to be completed at Fort Pearsall. This caused Washington to write a letter to Captain McKenzie on July 29th wherein both Stephen and McKenzie were rebuked, the former because he had no authority to give such orders, and the latter because he did not consult with Washington first before obeying Stephen’s instructions.

Fort Pearsall seemed to have been a favorite resort of the friendly Catawba, Creek and Cherokee Indians attached to the British service, especially so when Captain McKenzie was in charge of the fort. Being great beggars, the Indians would importune McKenzie for blankets, arms, liquor and for anything else that he would be inclined to give them. ON June 12, 1757, Washington was forced to write McKenzie ordering him to cease giving horses to the savages on the premise that if he continued this type of philanthropy the Virginia Regiment would soon be out of riding stock. About the first day of October, 1757, Washington dispatched twenty Cherokee warriors commanded by one of that tribe’s principal chiefs to Pearsall’s to engage in scouting work in the forts vicinity, as the South Branch Valley was overrun by enemy Indians at that time. The Cherokees did not remain long at Pearsall’s. Hearing that Richard Pearis, an Indian trader, was at Fort Cumberland, they immediately set out for that place. Pearis had great influence with the southern Indians and they desired to operate against the French Indians under his direction.

For Pearsall became an important place on the frontier not only because its garrison was in a position to escort military convoys west and north as far as Fort Cumberland and east to Fort Edwards, but being situate on the road leading up the river, it became a supply depot and a staging area for troops being sent south to Fort Pleasant and beyond.

No record can be found that would indicate that Fort Pearsall ever came under attack by the French and Indians as was the case at Fort Edwards, which was besieged on two separate occasions. But Indians prowled in the vicinity of Pearsall from time to time and did considerable damage. About the first of August, 1757, Captain McKenzie reported to Washington at Winchester that five men had been captured and another killed an scalped while harvesting in a field not far from Fort Pearsall. On May 17, 1756, Washington ordered Captain John Field who commanded Spotsylvania and Orange County militia, to take charge at Fort Pearsall. He was also directed to summon a council of war to devise a plan to combat the Indians “who were numerous in the neighborhood of the fort.” In September, 1758, Sergeant John David Wilper who was in command at Fort Pearsall, and who feared an Indian attack, wrote Washington at Fort Cumberland that he and only fourteen privates made up the whole garrison and that his men were from the commands of Major Andrew Lewis and Captains Waggoner, McNeill, McKenzie and Bates.

It is probably that in addition to Pearsall’s stockade, a blockhouse was also erected on the west side of the South Branch at or near the mountain pass now know as Mechanicsburg Gap. The council of war held at Fort Cumberland in July 1756, suggested that a blockhouse should be built there to guard that important pass as it was much used by the French and Indians. On July 13, 1756, Washington wrote Captain Robert McKenzie to “remove to Pearsall’s Forts and take the command there,”indicating thereby that more than one defense was located in the neighborhood. In orders to the militia dated May 15, 1756, Washington directed officers and their various commands to be posted at specific forts, naming them. But in orders to Captain Hamilton, his two officers and forty-seven men were directed to take up their station “At or about Pearsall’s.”

After the Capture of Fort Duquesne in November 1758, there was a lessened need for troops on the frontier and in 1759, the garrison at Fort Pearsall was withdrawn. But during the fresh Indian disturbances resulting from Pontiac’s Conspiracy in 1763, the old fort was again garrisoned and considerable repair work was done to it. In 1766, Job Pearsall petitioned the Virginia House of Burgesses to be reimbursed for a great quantity of timber used by Washington’s men in building and maintaining the fort through the 1756 – 58 period. He also alleged that in 1763 a garrison was again stationed at the fort and much timber was cut to restore the place, and that this garrison remained until the winter of 1764. Pearsall also stated that he had acted as guide to scouting parties on numerous occasions and in very foul weather, and that his health was impaired thereby. Pearsall’s claim was not acted upon at the time and there appears to be no further record that the prayer o the petition was ever granted, possibly because Pearsall sold his land to Luke Collins in November, 1766, and thus took no more interest in the claim.

In another petition to the House of Burgesses, Job Pearsall, George Parker, John Dickson, John Kuykendall, Sarah Decker, John Forman, William Buffington, Margaret Snyder, Mary Snyder, Nathaniel Kuykendall, Henry VanMeter, Thomas McGuire, Benjamin Kuykendall, James Fowler, Abraham Hite, Joseph Edwards, David Edwards, Jeremiah Smith, John Walker, John Crouch and Benjamin Rutherford all made claims to be reimbursed the cost of furnishing meat, flour and other supplies to the garrison at Fort Pearsall and at other forts during the 1756 – 58 period. Most of the above petitioners lived along the South Branch not far from Fort Pearsall, but a few resided at some distance. George Parker lived on Patterson’s Creek at present Headsville; Joseph and David Edwards resided on the Great Cacapon at present Capon Bridge, while AbrahamHite and Henry VanMeter were from the Old Fields area. Most of these claims were authorized to be paid by the Assembly.

Captain Robert McKenzie, who was long associated with Fort Pearsall, later secured a commission in the British army. During the Revolutionary War, he adhered to the cause of England and was wounded at the battle of Bunker Hill. Washington considered McKenzie one of his best officers. On November 20, 1760, he wrote McKenzie declaring that he could state to the world that while he, Washington, was in command of the Virginia Regiment, the conduct of captain McKenzie had been good without fault or reproach.

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