Fort Ashby

Sunday Gazette-Mail, State Magazine
January 10, 1971

Fragment of the Old Frontier

By William C. Blizzard

French is not the native tongue fo most West Virginia hillbillies. But it might have been.

It might have been for several reasons. A major reason it is not was a chain of crude log forts built in the middle of the 18th century along the eastern edge of what is now West Virginia.

More than a score of these forts were built, yet only one, at the town of Fort Ashby in Mineral County, W. Va., is yet intact and supported by its original timbers. That, at least, is the concensus [sic] of those learned in such matters.

Others, more cautious, say Fort Ashby is the only such veteran of the old Indian wars extant in West Virginia. And others assert it is the only such fort yet standing south of the Potomac River.

I'll leave a final decision on this to investigators with more time and travel money. It's true that the Fort Pitt Blockhouse yet stands on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, a Daughters of the American Revolution museum. But this Fort Pitt structure was not completed until 1764, a blockhouse- come-lately made possible by the earlier protection of the area by lesser-known forts.

Fort Ohio was built in 1749 at Ridgely, on the West Virginia side of the Potomac, but was abandoned when Fort Cumberland was erected about 1754, directly across the river in Maryland. Fort Cumberland was, for its time and type, a large, elaborate fortification.

Nothing is left of Fort Cumberland today; it has been effaced by the Maryland town that bears its abbreviated name. Local accounts say that early settlers made good use of the cut timbers for firewood and construction.

When Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia ordered George Washington, in 1756, to supervise construction of a chain of forts on what was then the western frontier for English settlers, Washington was not impressed with the defense advantages of Fort Cumberland, despite its size.

Washington's attention to this sector of the Potomac drainage reflected his belief that it was the key to saving the Allegheny frontier, and perhaps the New World, from French domination. In addition to Fort Cumberland, he built Sellers Fort at the mouth of Pattersons Creek, a few miles away, to reinforce Fort Ashby on the same Potomac tributary.

He also built a large, strong fort at the mouth of the Little Cacapon River, another North Branch of the Potomac tributary between Cumberland and Berkeley Springs. This was Fort Cox, and it may have been that Washington here, as in other cases, simply enlarged and strengthened an earlier fort.

According to Otis K. Rice, in "The Allegheny Frontier," Fort Cox had a complement of 500 men, one-fourth the number assigned to the entire chain of more than 20 log defenses scattered along the eastern border of West Virginia.

What happened to Fort Cox? Some local historian must answer that question; all general references I've read are silent. It must be assumed, until contrary information is established, that it met the fate of Fort Cumberland.

Just why Fort Ashby yet stands when more magnificent contemporary structures are now dust is not known. But it's true that during a tornado a great stone mansion may be swept away, leaving intact a cardboard doll's house on the site of the former nursery. The great storms of history are just as capricious.

At present, Fort Ashby is one of 26 sites approved by the W. Va. Antiquities Commission as worthy of special development and preservation. If a board of review concurs, and recommends restoration to the U. S. Dept. of Interior, federal funds may become available for extensive work on the old fort.

Fort Ashby was one of a score of such defenses that played a vital role in 18th-century history. Probably the salient historical question posed for modern nations during the first three-quarters of the 18th century was this: Which of the major European countries was destined to own and control the vast wealth of the North American continent?

That a major blow against colonialism, the beginning of a long process, would also occur on the North American continent before the century was out was not then known. England, France, and Spain had all established claims in the New World before the birth of the century.

But it very early became clear that Spain was a minor contender, and the real struggle was between London and Paris. The fact that the continent was already occupied appeared to disturb neither combatant. Both French and English used the original Americans, the Indians, to further their own ends - and eliminated them when they became troublesome.

England and France resolved their quarrel in the manner usual to civilized, Christian nations bent of increasing their worldly goods. That is, they slaughtered one another with great system and efficiency. The side killing the most people won.

The culminating slaughter that resolved this long struggle is known to American schoolchildren as the French and Indian War. It was really a French and English war; Indians fought on both sides, but would have done better had they united, moved West, and awaited developments.

The Indians, of course, didn't do this. Instead, they were the terror of the English settlements of Virginia, which by the 1750's had their western limits along the upper Potomac and its tributaries, the South Branch valley of the same river, and the Valley of Virginia.

The English and French had been battling on New World soil long before this. The formal beginning, in 1689, is known as King William's War. Hostilities continued through Queen Anne's War and King George's War and culminated in the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

King William's War ended in 1748. The ink on the treaty of peace had scarcely dried when the French sent an expedition under Celeron de Bienville to drive English settlers from the Ohio Valley and place leaden plates on the principal tributaries of that river. At about the same time, the English formed the Ohio and Greenbrier companies to advance their colonial ambitions.

Both sides knew the forks of the Ohio, the present location of Pittsburgh, to be of great military importance. The English built an early fort at what is now Cumberland, Md., and aimed toward Pittsburgh by way of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers.

The French prepared fortifications upon the Allegheny. Gov. Dinwiddie of Virginia, after sending George Washington on a useless trip to haggle with the French over their occupation of the region, took stronger measures.

In 1753, he sent an English force to build a fort at the forks of the Ohio. The following year he sent George Washington with a larger force to aid the original expedition.

It needed aid. Washington found the first English force in the fort at Cumberland. It had begun a stockade at what is now Pittsburgh, but had been attacked by the French and forced to surrender and depart. The French took over at the forks of the Ohio, calling their bastion Fort Duquesne.

Washington decided to seize Fort Duquesne, a decision that hindsight proved not pregnant with wisdom. In May, 1754, he engaged a small party of French before reaching his goal.

Although he easily won this first engagement of the French and Indian War, the action called down upon him a swarm of French and Indians. He withdrew to the Great Meadows on the Youghiogheny, about 50 miles from Fort Duquesne.

There, in July, he decided to make a stand against the enemy in a hastily constructed blockhouse he called Fort Necessity. This turned out to be an unwise military decision. Col. Washington was soundly trounced.

George Washington's career could have ended then and there, at the ripe old age of 22. But the French permitted him to surrender and march homeward, drums beating, with full military honors.

Almost exactly a year later, not many miles from the same spot, Washington was again defeated in an English attempt to capture Fort Duquesne. Once more he cheated death, although Gen. Edward Braddock was killed and most of his troops killed or wounded.

It was after Braddock's defeat that the chain of forts that included Ashby was either built or reinforced by Washington under Dinwiddie's orders. The military emphasis was upon the Potomac and its tributaries, with lesser attention to the southern frontier, although it, too, was under Indian attack.

The importance of these early forts can hardly be overestimated. Crude as they were, they managed to hold the area until finally, in 1758, an English force succeeded in forcing the French from Fort Duquesne.

The English promptly erected Fort Pitt upon the smoking ruins (destroyed by the French themselves) of Fort Duquesne. The crucial battlegrounds of the war moved elsewhere; with French capitulations at Quebec and Montreal, English domination of the continent was assured, despite continued resistance of the Indian Chief Pontiac.

The garrison at Fort Ashby, fated to outlive its sister forts, saw only one serious engagement during the French and Indian War. This was an ambush, outside the fort itself, of a Lt. Robert Rutherford and party, on the way to Fort Cumberland to deliver a message to Washington. Rutherford was deserted by supporting militia, who ran back to the protection of the fort, incurring thereby the anger and disgust of Col. Washington.

But Fort Ashby continued to shelter settlers for many years under the command of Col. John Ashby, who gave th stockade and the later town its name. George Washington had his last connection with Fort Ashby in 1791, when, as President of the United States, he ordered troops there to take part in suppression of the tax-related protest known in American history as the Whiskey Rebellion.

The town of Fort Ashby was not so named until 1932. Before that, it was called Frankfort, with a post office name of Alaska.

A factor in the survival of Fort Ashby, or the portion remaining, was its use as a dwelling. Through the years, several families lived in it.

The last owner was about to tear it down when the Potomac Valley Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at Keyser bought it on July 28, 1927. The old fort was temporarily saved, but sat virtually in ruins until the Works Progress Administration, with technical supervision by the National Park Service, began restoration under an order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on Sept. 14, 1938.

Fort Ashby was then owned by the Mineral County Court, the DAR relinquishing it so that federal funds could be made available. The fort was returned to the DAR about five years later and opened to the public on July 4, 1939.

Electricity was installed in 1960. Historical items are actively solicited and installed from time to time, although the two-story log structure is far from crowded with artifacts.

The DAR keeps the fort open from Decoration Day until the latter part of August, every day except Monday. Visistors [sic] are charged no fees, but donations are accepted.

Fort Ashby today is a two-story log structure about 50 feet long and 40 feet wide. An enormous stone fireplace divides the lower floor with a chimney about 20 feet wide and four or five feet thick.

There's a wooden floor now, although it was originally of packed earth. Mrs. Alton Fortney, Sr., who guided me through the fort, said that horses once dragged logs through a wide door directly into the gaping fireplace.

The State of Pennsylvania long ago had the federal government reconstruct Fort Necessity as a national monument, now the Fort Necessity National Battlefield site. It would seem that Fort Ashby, the last remnant of a history-making chain of forts that once guarded the same area, should be better known to West Virginians and to all Americans.

Exploration, Settlement and Conflict (1600-1799)