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VIRGINIA’S 1774 BORDER DISPUTE WITH PENNSYLVANIA

By Jim Blair

The purpose of this article is to wade through the complexities of the prelude to and early stages of the Revolutionary War, as they relate to a boundary controversy, and present them in a concise manner, pointing out the highlights. While other significant events occurred and other major players were involved, their mention would add confusion to this goal and preclude brevity


Post Treaty Clashes

In 1773 a conflict resulted from escalating violence between British Colonies and American Indians, who previously held treaty rights to hunt in what is now West Virginia, Southwestern Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In accordance with the October 1768 Treaty of Hard Labour with the Cherokee Nation and the November 1968 Treaty of Fortwix, the colonists could move into this area, which was assumed by Virginia to be under its control.

Although the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had entered into the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Shawnee Tribe led an Indian resistance to the loss of their hunting rights. In 1773 Daniel Boone led a group of about 50 emigrants, in an attempt to establish a settlement in Kentucky County, Virginia. On October 9, 1773 Boone’s oldest son James and a group of men and boys were attacked by Indians largely comprised of Delaware and Shawnees. James and at least one other member of the group were captured and tortured to death. The deaths of Boone’s party were among the first events that led to what became known as “Dunmore’s War.”

Violence with the Colonists and Native-Americans continued with a major event in April 1774. Joshua Baker, an English Colonist operated a trading outpost across the Ohio River from the mouth of Yellow Creek. Baker got word that warriors from the Mingo Tribe planned to kill him and his family. The Mingo Indians were, among others, a mixture of Seneca, Delaware and Shawnee natives. In consequence of this information and knowledge of other attacks, Baker got approximately twenty men led by Jacob and Daniel Greathouse to be on hand should such an attempt occur. The next day four male Mingo natives and three squaws, family members of Mingo Chief Logan, visited the outpost and became intoxicated on Baker’s rum. They began to mock and provoke the colonists. The Greathouse men then appeared, brutally killed the Mingo contingent and desecrated their bodies. This colonial posse then ran to the bank of the Ohio River, where a Mingo party was crossing the river by boat. Their sniper fire eliminated twenty Mingo braves. Chief Logan, in what became known the “Yellow Creek Massacre” or Logan Massacre, “considered these atrocities an act of war.

Dunmore’s War

In response to these hostilities, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, and British Royal Governor of Virginia, asked the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a declaration of war with the hostile Indian nations.


Lord Dunmore


Arthur St. Clair, an agent for Pennsylvania Governor John Penn, became concerned that Dunmore was leading the colonies into war. He, therefore, pursued the erection or strengthening of fortifications east of Pittsburgh. These strongholds of defense included, among others, Fort Hannastown, Fort Allen in the Herrold’s settlement, Fort Proctor in Unity Township, Fort Shields near New Alexandria and the Markle’s Blockhouse, on the plantation of Gaspard Markle near West Newton. The first four of these garrisons sent a petition to Governor Penn in 1774 warning of pending Indian wars and seeking further protection, as the local colonists were in terror of falling victim to savage barbarity. For their efforts, history has conferred the inhabitants of these forts with the distinctive label of Protectors of the Frontier.

In a master plan designed by Lord Dunmore, he and Colonel Andrew Lewis were to rendezvous at the mouth of the Kanawha River. Colonel Lewis was to lead a left wing of forces down the Ohio River while Dunmore’s group proceeded from Fort Gower in October 1774. Lewis was later advised to cross the Ohio and meet Dunmore at the Shawnee towns on the other side. Before Lewis crossed, at what is now Point Pleasant, West Virginia, his forces of 1100 strong were met with a surprise attack led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk and allied tribes. Although the Indian forces lost only 40 warriors, Captain George Mathews of the Virginia militia was credited with a flanking maneuver, which caused the Indians to retreat across the Ohio in apparent defeat. In the aftermath, Lewis’ army had 215 casualties, of which about 75 were killed.


Chief Cornstalk


Dunmore and Lewis later met with Chief Cornstalk on Sippo Creek in present Pickaway County, Ohio. They set up temporary quarters known as Camp Charlotte. Peace negotiations were then commenced. In the outcome, Cornstalk agreed to cease hunting south of the Ohio River; to discontinue harassment of River travelers; and to recognize the Ohio River boundary as that established with the Fort Stanwix Treaty. The capitulation of the Shawnee at Camp Charlotte virtually brought this last conflict, solely with Native-Americans, of the Colonial era to a close.

In hindsight, Dunmore’s War was more than an armed conflict between the people of Virginia and the Shawnee Indian Nation. It was an offensive response to protect Virginians and the borders of the colony (a good defense is a good offense).

Fort Dunmore

Even before Virginia’s conflict with the Indians one of Dunmore’s first acts as Governor was to claim Southwestern Pennsylvania as part of Virginia. Dunmore hoped to use this conflict with the Indians to secure Virginia’s claim to Southwestern Pennsylvania. To forcibly settle this boundary line dispute with Pennsylvania, Dunmore took possession of Pittsburgh and attached it to the colony of Virginia. At this point in time, Fort Pitt was rebuilt and named Fort Dunmore. Because of the intercolonial boundary controversy and “oppressive proceedings of Virginia,” St. Clair advised the removal of Pittsburgh trading concerns to another venue to effect trade. The location of Kittanning was expanded to achieve this result.

Lord Dunmore admitted that the land once belonged to Pennsylvania. However, his argument was that it was lost by that colony because the French were allowed to take possession of it. When Great Britain recaptured it, in the French and Indian War, the title was vested in the crown. Because Virginia was a Crown Colony, the title passed to that colony rather than to Pennsylvania, which was a proprietary government. Pennsylvania countered with the claim that Pittsburgh was in Westmoreland County and the County Seat was Hannastown.

Governor Penn offered a compromise to the dispute, but it was rejected by Virginia because it gave Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania. Had Virginia accepted this proposition Pennsylvania would have lost Beaver, Lawrence and Mercer Counties; nearly all of Washington County; and parts of Butler, Venango, Crawford and Erie Counties.


Governor John Penn

American Revolution

Dunmore’s British Royal Governorship made him loyal to the crown. As a result, he became an adversary of the colonists. The day after the beginning of the Revolutionary War in April 1775, Dunmore ordered the seizure of weapons and gunpowder from the colonial magazine in Williamsburg, Virginia and had them transferred to a British ship. His deceptive reasoning for this action was his concern that rebellious slaves might get their hands on the arms. Furthermore, on November 7, 1775 Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves if they became members of the British military and declared their loyalty to the British resistance. Because slavery was the dominant form of colonial labor in Virginia, Dunmore concluded that the fear of emancipation and the arming of slaves would quash colonial insurrection. These contradictory measures, indicating his British allegiance, put him in the crosshairs of colonial revolutionaries.

Further angering the rebellious colonists was Dunmore’s engagement in biological warfare by inoculating slaves with smallpox and sending them into the Virginia mainland. This measure backfired because most of his enlisted slaves died from the disease. Despite his villainous attempts at sabotage, the gunpowder incident and Dunmore’s Proclamation, Fort Dunmore was regained and renamed Fort Pitt during the colonists fight for independence,

Germanic Influence Opposing Dunmore’s Vision

Attention is called to the fact that in the region west of Laurel Hill there was no stronger united group in Pennsylvania during the territorial dispute between the two states than the Germans of the Herrold’s and Brush Creek settlements. There were two principal reasons why Pennsylvania Germans preferred the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania to that of Virginia. First, Pennsylvania Germans were lovers of religious liberty, a principle that was planted on Pennsylvania soil by the Lutheran Swedes on the Delaware before William Penn was born. Second, the Pennsylvania Germans were opposed to slavery. The Pennsylvania Germans of Herrold’s and Brush Creek brought with them into the Westmoreland frontier their opposition to slavery, an institution that flourished in the early years of the Old Dominion.

Dunmore under-estimated the German resolve and the role Westmoreland County pioneers played in helping to save Southwestern Pennsylvania for Pennsylvania jurisdiction. Their importance is seen when it is considered what would likely have happened if the Virginia colony had been able to bring the region west of Laurel Hill permanently under Virginia control. In that case, Braddock Road and Forbes Road would have become avenues over which the Virginia influence for the extension of slavery would have passed into what is now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Moreover, these states would likely have become slave states. Owing to the fact that the Old Dominion did not prevail in exercising authority in Southwestern Pennsylvania, these historic roads became the highways over which Pennsylvania German influence, in opposition to the extension of slavery passed into Ohio, Indian and Illinois, making them free states. It should be noted here that these states were pivotal states in the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Dunmore’s Flight

In an ironic twist, Andrew Lewis became a Brigadier General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and commanded forces, which drove Dunmore and loyalists out of Virginia in July 1776. Dunmore’s ill-fated attempts at securing British power and increasing colonial hostilities led him to seek exile. His asylum took the form of boarding the British warship Fowey off the coast of Yorktown. With Dunmore out of the picture, the boundary line controversy was finally settled during the Revolutionary War when it was agreed to extend the Mason Dixon Line, which had been halted during Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763.

Brigadier General Lewis

Post-script: Gaspard Markle was the author’s 5th great uncle and six Protectors of the Frontier were part of his lineage as direct ancestors.

References:

Fort Ligonier and it’s Times, C. Hale Sipe, The Telegraph Press, Harrisburg, PA, 1932

Lord Dunmore’s Little War of 1774, Warren Skidmore, Heritage Books, 2002

Lord Dunmore, Wikipedia

Dunmore’s War, Glenn F. Williams, Westholme Publishing, LLC, Yardley, PA, 2017

Original American Villain, U.S. History Scene, Ted Brackenmyre

The Pennsylvania and Virginia Boundary Controversy, John E. Potter, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1914

Yellow Creek Massacre, intriguinghistory.wordpress.com, Feb. 10, 2014

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