Much of West Virginia’s early settlement took place under a state of border warfare with the Indian groups, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo (Western Seneca), which claimed most of the present state. To colonize this contested territory, the settlers had to be protected. Frontier forts were a major part of their protection.
During the French and Indian War (1754–63), the Virginia Colonial government established an extensive frontier defensive system. Central to this system was a chain of forts, most constructed and manned by colonial troops (called the Virginia Regiment), where settlers could go for refuge. County militiamen sometimes garrisoned these forts, but by the 1750s the militia system had deteriorated to such a degree that regular colonial troops were required to protect the frontier.
Forts were constructed during the 1750s along the South Branch of the Potomac, the Cacapon River, Patterson Creek, Opequon Creek, and the main Potomac River itself, as well as along the Greenbrier River. Among the better-known forts of this period are Ashby, Edwards, Maidstone, Pleasant, and Seybert. In what is now the Eastern Panhandle, forts were constructed roughly every 15 miles, under the overall supervision of Col. George Washington, commander of the Virginia Regiment. Although detailed descriptions of French and Indian War forts are rare, members of the Virginia Regiment were instructed to build square stockades, 60 to 100 feet on a side, with two opposite corner bastions.
By the Dunmore’s War-Revolutionary War era (1775–83), the frontier had moved westward, and defense had shifted to more local or county control. The defensive system of the 1770s to the 1790s consisted of three primary parts: militia, scouts, and forts. The better-known forts of this period include Arbuckle’s, Donnally’s, Prickett’s, Savannah, and Westfall’s.
After the French and Indian War, the Virginia militia system had been revived. The militia was a county organization in which nearly all adult males were required to serve. Each county had at least one regiment of militia, commanded by a colonel, and the regiment was further subdivided into companies of 20 to 80 men. Each company was commanded by a captain. The county militia was under the overall command of the county lieutenant, a civilian officer and member of the county government. The county lieutenant could order out militiamen for service within the county, but for operations outside the county he had to call for volunteers, a limitation that often frustrated offensive plans.
The primary duties of the militia during the frontier wars included garrisoning the forts, protecting farmers during planting and harvesting, and pursuing Indian raiding parties. Western Virginia militiamen also participated in a number of offensive campaigns during the late 18th century. The most notable of these was the Point Pleasant campaign in 1774, culminating in the Battle of Point Pleasant.
The forts often were the base for scouts, or spies, who were dispatched to roam circuits of 30 to 70 miles each, looking for evidence of Indian raiding parties. Scouts were generally roaming throughout the region when danger was anticipated, from spring until fall. Scouts were also posted at known passes and advance areas during times of particular danger.
Forts were both privately built and built by the militia. Fort building styles varied widely, from individual two-story blockhouses, to bastioned stockades with a limited number of cabins, to very large stockades with corner blockhouses and many interior cabins. Many of these forts were built across eastern and northern West Virginia during the 1770s and early 1780s and in central and western West Virginia during the late 1780s and the 1790s. The privately built forts were more often blockhouses, or small stockades; militia-built forts were often larger. Counting forts of all types, there were dozens of forts built in present West Virginia in the half-century following 1750.
The local frontier defensive system was aided at times by the colony, state, or nation through peace negotiations with Indians, the construction of larger forts on the Ohio River (forts Randolph and Henry) and infrequent offensive campaigns. For the most part, however, the settlers depended on their local forts, militia, and scouts. Since the frontier settlements of the 1770s and after survived and expanded, and few, if any, of the forts of that period fell, this defensive system should be viewed as a success. Permanent peace came to the Western Virginia frontier only with elimination of the Indian threat within the Ohio Valley, which is usually dated from Gen. Anthony Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Last Revised on April 23, 2013
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Cite This Article
McBride, Kim and Stephen McBride "Frontier Defense." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 23 April 2013. Web. 23 February 2017.