Friday, July 19, 2013

Field Research

Today, while on our trip to Lewistown, PA, for the 2013 Hochstetler Gathering, we stopped at reconstructed Fort Loudon outside the village of Fort Loudon. The fort isn’t staffed, although according to the fort’s minimalist website several local events take place there annually.

I took these pictures during our brief stop there. This was one of a chain of forts built during the French and Indian War along what was then the Pennsylvania frontier to serve as a supply depot and as protection for the settlers from Indian attack. Named after the British commander in chief, James Campbell, the Earl of Loudoun, the fort was built in November 1756 in a valley between the Tuscarora, Blue, and Kittatiny Mountains, less than a year before the Indian attack on our ancestors in which 3 family members were killed and 3 carried off into captivity. Farther north, Fort Northkill, the closest fort to the Amish Mennonite settlement on Northkill Creek, was located about 4 miles from Jacob’s farm.

I learned that in 1756 Lord Loudoun sent parties of soldiers out to the western forts to recruit men for the militia, including among the German settlements, under the pretext of providing protection for the western settlements. These recruiters had little success, not only among the nonresistant Amish Mennonites, but also among the other settlers. Everyone realized very quickly that if they joined the militia, they would be forced to go wherever the British commanded them to go, which could mean leaving their families and homes unprotected. You can understand why they were less than sympathetic to British attempts to recruit militia units for their own benefit.

Although there’s no contemporary record of a recruitment party coming to Fort Northkill, it was one of the western forts, which makes it plausible that they may very well have made a stop there too. Running with this idea, I wrote a chapter, set in November 1756, in which Jacob, along with the other military-age men of the Northkill settlement, was summoned to the fort. This becomes a test for Jacob and the members of his community to remain faithful to their nonresistant beliefs as well as foreshadowing the decision he would make on the night of the Indian attack. Serendipitously, at the time I wrote this chapter, I knew nothing about Fort Loudon or that it was built that very month.

While I was writing the chapter, I did an extensive search through my print resources and online for descriptions and information about Fort Northkill. I found very little. However, I did run across one small detail that proved very useful. Fort Northill was described as poorly built, with crooked green logs used for the stockade, which became even more crooked as they dried, leaving gaps one could see through. Check out these photos I took at Fort Loudon and the following description from the plaque in front of it.

“Built by Colonel John Armstrong on farmland owned by Matthew Patton, the fort was essentially a simple square stockade measuring 127’ by 127’ and containing two or three modest buildings inside. An unusual feature, perhaps unique to this fort, was the corner shooting platforms supported from below by posts. This arrangement did not impress Rev. Thomas Barton, an Anglican minister serving as a chaplain in the army of General John Forbes, who noted in a visit during the summer of 1758 that Fort Loudoun ‘was a poor piece of work, irregularly built and badly situated at the bottom of a hill subject to damps and noxious vapors. It has something like bastions supported by props, which if the enemy should cut away, down tumbles men and all.’ ”

As you can see in the pictures of Fort Loudon’s stockade wall, the logs are indeed crooked, and one can see right through them. Presumably an arrow or bullet could find its way through as well. I think Rev. Barton was right about the bastions too, and I suspect that this kind of arrangement wasn’t all that unusual. This reconstruction of the fort doesn’t include any buildings, which the original fortress was described as having. But judging from the construction of the walls, they probably weren’t very impressive or sturdily built. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t feel extremely safe in such a fortress during an Indian attack!

Needless to say, I’m delighted that we found this fort and took the time to stop there. I now have a more vivid image in my mind of what Fort Northkill would have looked like in November 1756, when Jacob and his neighbors were summoned there by a British recruiting party. Although the original description I wrote is pretty close to the mark, I can now make a few corrections and add details you can only find on site. I’m excited about making my account even more authentic!

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