Bridgeville Remembered

The Revolutionary War Years

By John F. Oyler

In 1770 John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, replaced Governor Dinwiddie as head of the colony of Virginia. By 1774 Indian raids on settlers in western Virginia had become so severe that he formed an army of about eighteen hundred men, which he personally led into the Ohio country. He split the army into two parts. One group, under his leadership, proceeded to Fort Pitt and then down the Ohio River. The other half, led by Colonel Andrew Lewis followed the Kanawha River to Point Pleasant, where they defeated a large force of Shawnees led by Chief Cornstalk. The combined Virginia forces then crossed the Ohio River and forced Cornstalk to sign a treaty ending hostilities.

On the way back to Virginia Lord Dunmore stopped long enough at Fort Pitt to install a subordinate, Dr. John Connolly, there as commandant. Early in January, 1775, Connolly renamed it Fort Dunmore, and initiated a number of measures establishing Virginia’s claim to the area. His aggressive actions eventually forced members of the local Pennsylvania government to retaliate.

Arthur St. Clair, a magistrate at the Westmoreland County Seat in Hannastown (near Greensburg) had Connolly arrested and incarcerated. Following extensive negotiations Connolly was released on parole, based on his promise to behave. He promptly arrested two Pennsylvania magistrates and put them in the Fort Pitt jail.

The dispute was still escalating when events in Massachusetts in mid April precipitated the formal beginning of the Revolutionary War. Dunmore and Connolly, of course, were avid Royalists. They concocted a plan to raise an army of Royalists and friendly Indians in the Ohio Country, which would then march to Williamsburg and put down the rebels there – Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Connolly travelled to Boston to present the plan to British General Thomas Gage. It was approved, and Connolly headed west to initiate it. Somehow Washington got wind of the scheme and alerted patriots about it. Connolly was apprehended in Hagerstown, Maryland. When documents detailing the plan were found in his possession, he was arrested. Lord Dunmore was more fortunate; he escaped on a British man-of-war.

The situation in the Chartiers Valley had changed dramatically. Instead of being responsible for protecting them against the Indians, the British Army was now their enemy. General Harry Hamilton, commandant at Fort Detroit, was accused of inciting the Indians against the settlers by paying a bounty for scalps –“ten bucks for an adult male, five bucks for a woman of child” – earning him the nickname “The Hair Buyer”.

The settlers responded by forming local militias. Christian Lesnett’s name appears on the roster of four different militia companies – those commanded by Captain Andrew Van Swearingen, Captain Bilderbock, Captain William Hoagland, and Captain David Reed. Captain Reed’s roster also includes Francis Lesnett, Frederick Lesnett, Richard Boyce, Adam Heckman, and John Fawcett. Heckman is also listed as a member of Stockley’s Rangers and Captain Robert Ramsey’s Company. It is obvious that all the able-bodied men in the area were active in repelling raids by the Indians, supported by British soldiers.

In July, 1776, the Continental Congress authorized the organization of the Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line. Eight companies, perhaps six hundred soldiers, were mustered in at Kittanning and deployed to garrison forts in western Pennsylvania – Presque Isle, Le Boeuf, Venango, Armstrong (Kittanning), and Fort Pitt.

By December it was obvious that General Washington needed the Eighth more desperately than did the frontier; they marched across Pennsylvania in the dead of a severe winter and joined him in New Jersey in 1777 where they participated in a number of battles. A company of sharpshooters, led by Captain Van Swearingen, was seconded to General Daniel Morgan’s regiment and performed admirably in the Saratoga Campaign.

The Eighth spent the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, then were sent back west to continue their original mission. We have no proof that any of the settlers in this area were part of the Eighth during the years they were with General Washington, but it does appear to be highly likely.

Many well known stories have remained from this era – Betty Zane’s courageous dash from Fort Henry to the Zane Cabin with an apron full of gunpowder, Lewis Wetzel’s lifelong campaign against all Indians, Sam Brady’s incredible leap across the Cuyahoga Narrows, the tragic Gnadenhutten Massacre, and Colonel William Crawford’s ill-fated Sandusky Campaign. It is constructive to re-read these stories and realize that the Lesnetts and their neighbors were contemporaries of these folks.

The Author

  • John Oyler's column,
    "Water Under The Bridge",
    appears weekly in the
    Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication.
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