Most of the fighting in the Revolutionary War took place east of what then was the Ohio Territory. But there was conflict on the western border of the colonies- Pennsylvania and New York in particular. Many Native American tribes sided with the British in the war, seeing the expanding Thirteen Colonies as a legitimate threat to their traditional lands. They attacked settlements from their territories to the west. Supported by the British from Fort Detroit with supplies and weapons, settlers clamored for something to be done.
Fort Laurens was built out of this concern. In 1778, Continental Congress authorized the commander of forces in the west, Brigadier General McIntosh, to lead a thousand men towards Detroit. With only 250 regulars, he raised the rest from area militia. His mission was to attack Fort Detroit and to fight British-allied Native Americans.
McIntosh built a small fort, Fort McIntosh, 20 miles south of Pittsburg as a base. After concluding a peace treaty with the Delaware tribe, he moved into the Ohio Territory towards Detroit. By November, the weather was worsening, and he decided to build another staging fort on the Tuscarawas River to wait out the winter season. At this time an army needed to hack its own road out of the wilderness, which was difficult and time-consuming. Winter made this even harder. Thus Fort Laurens was born- named after the leader of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens.
Fort Laurens was built on a rise above the river. It was a typical stockade created by driving split hard-wood timber vertically into a three-foot trench, one timber next to the other, and then packing dirt back into the trench to hold the beams upright. Each timber was about six inches thick and stood roughly fifteen feet tall. A square blockhouse stood just to the right of the landward gate, hanging over the walls so the garrison could fire down onto anyone attacking the gate. The large wall covered the three landward sides; the river largely protected the fourth. Two larger buildings were constructed inside the stockade and served as a storehouse and barracks. Additional huts covered the parade ground inside the walls. They were temporary structures that had more in common with the huts quickly thrown up at Valley Forge than a traditional fortification. Overall, Fort Laurens covered about an acre. It lacked artillery and could not withstand a typical siege. But, it would be enough to hold off the kind of infantry assaults that characterized fights with Native Americans.The Siege of Fort Laurens, 1778–1779 by Eric Sterner
In 2018 I traveled from Columbus northeast to Bolivar Ohio, the site of the Fort Laurens Museum & Park.
The area was peaceful.
The Ohio & Erie Canal was built directly through the edge of the fort’s site in later decades, but by then the fort was in ruins. This section of the canal is now in ruins as well.
You may notice the lack of a river at the park. The Tuscarawas was moved in the 1960s to make way for the construction of Interstate 77 during the era of highway building. It runs from Ohio to South Carolina.
An archaeological excavation was started in 1972 on the remains of Fort Laurens. It lasted two years and found many artifacts. Informational signs were placed around the outlines of the old fort.
Near the museum is the Tomb of the Unknown Patriot of the American Revolution. He was laid to rest here in the bicentennial year 1976.
Back to 1778:
Conditions in the Ohio wilderness during winter were extreme at Fort Laurens, made more difficult by arduous resupply efforts. Dissension among the garrison was rife. General McIntosh marched most of his men back to Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania. Left behind to man the fort were 150 soldiers under Colonel John Gibson. He had difficulty keeping order among his men.
In January 1779, the (in)famous white settler turned Native American & British ally Simon Girty (with a party of Native Americans) scouted out the area of the fort and engaged in a minor firefight with a group of soldiers. Finding out from a captive that conditions were bad and morale was low in the fort, British forces under Captain Henry Bird- with a large contingent of Native American allies- proceeded to lay siege to Fort Laurens in late February. Gibson had been tipped off by Moravian missionary David Zeisberger who had learned what was coming from friendly Delawares, but reinforcements were far away.
The siege lasted a month. Conditions among the defenders were miserable. At one point, soldiers boiled moccasins and ate them in a stew. Two soldiers who slipped out of the fort brought back a slain deer and many soldiers ate their portions raw.
Fortunately for the Colonials, the British and Native Americans sieging the fort suffered from hunger and weather conditions as well. They lifted the siege in late March and left- this often was the result of sieges that went on for any length of time in this era when the fort could not be rushed by a wave of soldiers or battered down with cannon.
And it was fortunate for Capitan Bird that they left. Three days later, a relief force arrived from Fort Pitt with 700 soldiers, most of whom left after some time and returned to Fort Pitt.
Colonel Daniel Broadhead, the new commander at Fort Pitt, advised General George Washington that Fort Laurens was too far from Detroit to accomplish its mission. Washington ordered the fort abandoned and the last soldiers left in August 1779. The Continental Army returned east to fight the British, and frontier militia took over the duty of defending the frontier.
A small museum is located right next to the grounds of the old fort. I was happy to visit.
The young man on duty at the museum was an archeology student at Kent State University. I chatted a bit with him, since I majored in anthropology- we had subjects of study in common. I was the only visitor at the time in the museum, which we both lamented.
The fort was a small place in a large wilderness at the time. The soldiers endured hardships.
There were examples of the archaeological dig from the 1970s.
I watched a brief movie about Fort Laurens. Replicas of flags from the era lined the small theater.
I browsed the exhibits. I purchased a Fort Laurens t-shirt that I wear proudly to this day. Support history!
Artifacts from the archaeological dig were on display.
Everyday items used 230 years ago.
The remains of 20 soldiers who died at the fort are interred here.
Life-sized mannequins of the British, Colonials and Native Americans were a highlight of the visit. The gentleman working here said at times you can almost feel that they are alive. The quality of workmanship was very good.
The weaponry of the time was well-represented.
I was impressed with the displays and artifacts at Fort Laurens. It was well-worth the trip.
The Treaty of Greene Ville line goes through Bolivar, a line from Fort Laurens to Fort Loramie in western Ohio. But that’s a subject for a future post 🙂