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This Day in History: The tragic fall of Fort Freeland

On this day in 1779, Fort Freeland falls to a force composed of British soldiers and Seneca warriors. But it did so only after a show of “stout resistance”!

The stories of our American Revolution aren’t all tales of victories, obviously. But they are often stories of bravery and determination—which is exactly what this one is.

American Revolutionary war monument in Belleville, New Jersey. Jacob Freeland, upon whose property Fort Freeland was built, is listed on the monument.

At this point in the Revolution, American settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier felt that they needed protection. The British had allied themselves with local Indian tribes, and many settlers had thus taken refuge in local forts. By July 1779, those in Fort Freeland were in a tense situation. Only 21 able-bodied men were present to protect the fort.

Unfortunately, 300 Seneca Indians and 100 British soldiers attacked the fort on July 28.

The Americans didn’t have much ammunition, but they did what they could. The women in the fort melted down anything they could find to make bullets. Americans were not exactly winning, but their resistance was strong enough to force the British captain to a decision. He decided to offer terms of surrender before American reinforcements could arrive. All women and children were granted safe passage. Men of fighting age agreed to be prisoners of war. Soon, the deal was done. The British and Seneca pillaged, then burnt, the fort.

Then they killed some of their new prisoners of war.

Americans at nearby Fort Boone did not realize that a deal had been struck. They heard the sound of fighting and determined to help. One of the participants in that raid later stated that they “knew not the number of the [British] invaders, and cared not.” He recounted that Captain Hawkins Boone led “[t]hirty-two stanch men” toward the scene. When they arrived, they discovered the British eating and celebrating in their camp. Despite being outnumbered, Boone launched a surprise attack! Apparently, one American, Captain Dougherty, became “inflamed” when he saw one of the Seneca holding the fort’s flag. The Indian chief’s wife later recounted that Dougherty “shot the Indian at the first fire,” then kept shooting any Indian who attempted to pick up the fort’s flag. The Indian chief, “exasperated at the sight of such bravery, sallied out . . . [and] killed Capts. Dougherty, Boon, and fourteen men, at the first fire.”

The Americans were badly outnumbered. They could not have hoped to win—and they didn’t. But all these acts of courage and sacrifice added up, didn’t they? In the end, the mighty British army would be defeated by the ragged group of colonists who were fighting for their freedom.

P.S. Logistical note for those who care: Dates and numbers are hard to quantify in this story. Some accounts claim that this battle occurred on July 29. Also, different accounts give different numbers for the British/Seneca troops or the Americans.But all accounts agree on one thing: Americans were badly outnumbered, both at Ft. Freeland and during the later surprise attack by Boone. The picture is of an American Revolutionary war monument in Belleville, New Jersey. Jacob Freeland, upon whose property Fort Freeland was built, is listed on the monument.

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stories can be found on my website, HERE.

Primary Sources:

  • M. Patterson, Reminisences of Benjamin Patterson, the Soldier and Scout (1903)

  • Frederic A. Godcharles, History of Fort Freeland (Lycoming Historical Society Proceedings and Papers No. 4) (1922)

  • Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna (1889)

  • William W. Betts, Jr., The Hatchet and the Plow: The Life and Times of Chief Cornplanter (2010)

For an alternative view on the use of the phrase “Native American” versus “Indian” or “American Indian,” please see this piece.



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