New Light on Washington's Fort Necessity
A Report on the Archeological Explorations at Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site
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On July 3, 1754, in an open meadow between two mountain ridges in southwestern Pennsylvania, was fought the first battle of the long struggle between France and England for control of North America. The English colonial troops occupied a little makeshift fortification known as Fort Necessity. The larger French army, which finally won the engagement and forced the English to withdraw temporarily from the disputed "Ohio Country", was fighting from the cover of woods that bordered the meadow.

The scene of this important, but little-known opening battle of the French and Indian War, is now a national shrine. As Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site, it has been administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, since 1933. It is located in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, on U.S. Route 40, 55 miles west of Cumberland, Maryland, and 11 miles east of Uniontown.

To more adequately interpret the site to the visiting public, the National Park Service found it necessary to supplement the scanty documentary information by archeological exploration. Excavating began in August, 1952, under the author's supervision, with little expectation of finding more than a few "relics" and possibly the remains of certain entrenchments, which, according to the records, lay outside a stockade erected by the English just a month before the battle. The chance of discovering any remnant of the original stockade seemed very slight, in view of the extensive excavations carried on in connection with the earlier development and the project offered little challenge as an archeological problem.

As it turned out, however, the archeological explorations of 1952 and 1953 proved to be both exciting and productive. Assumptions as to the fort's location, size, and shape, which, through more than a century of repetition, had come to be accepted as established facts, were found to be in error. Most important was the recovery of relatively complete information on the original fort, including both the stockade and the outer entrenchments, permitting an authentic reconstruction on the exact original site. Reconstruction, as a matter of fact, was not a major concern when the work began, as the reproduction constructed in 1932 was believed to be on the original site and, on the whole, correct as to details.

The present report describes the archeological explorations and interprets the discoveries in the light of available recorded information. I would have preferred giving only a general narrative account of the digging, with emphasis on interpreting the data. However, it is widely held, and undoubtedly with justification, that the digger should first of all make available the complete record so that others may use the data as they see fit, or can better appraise the archeologist's interpretations. Unfortunately the bald record is not particularly interesting. I even considered relegating it to an appendix, but even this seemed to be too much of a departure from accepted reporting practice.

It may seem that I have included more background material than would be required for the reader to follow the account of the excavating and the subsequent interpretations. I have elaborated on certain incidents prior to 1952, not just to set the stage for the archeological project, but, as I will point out in the Introduction, because this project is such a clear demonstration of the rewards that come from the historian and the archeologist joining hands in a cooperative venture. It is also an excellent example of faulty criticism of historical data, brought out so clearly in the controversy, which went on for over a century, as to whether the fort was triangular or diamond shaped.

The usual archeological report takes up at an early point the geography of the site and the flora and fauna. The natural environment certainly played a part in the historical events that we are dealing with here, but the situation is not exactly comparable to the excavation of an Indian shell midden. Rather than devoting a separate section to the geography of the site, data of this sort will be presented in appropriate places along with the description of the excavations and analysis of the findings.

Acknowledgments are not easy because so many people had a hand in the project in one way or another. The neighbors of the Battlefield Site, as well as people in surrounding communities, were genuinely interested in the excavating and reconstruction and helped in many ways from furnishing historical information to seeing that I had proper nourishment and shelter. The following are singled out, not because they were any more cooperative than the many who are not listed, but because they rendered some particular service or assistance. Mr. Melvin J. Thorpe, Superintendent of Fort Necessity National Battlefield Site, took care of all the time-consuming and irksome administrative details, as well as helping directly with the field work and looking after the project in my absence. Dr. Frederick Tilberg, Historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, assembled documentary materials prior to the excavating, and conferred with me throughout the project in the relating of archeological discoveries to the historical evidence. Exhibits in the reconstructed storehouse were planned and executed by the Branch of Museums, National Park Service, under Mr. Ralph Lewis' direction. Mrs. Preston Martin, Custodian of the Mount Washington Tavern Museum, helped in innumberable ways, as did Mr. Martin, then Superintendent of Fort Necessity State Park. Dr. William Blake Hindman of Uniontown gave us the benefit of his long and scholarly study of the historical records and his intimate knowledge of the site. Mr. Harry Blackford, Civil Engineer, who mapped and excavated the site in 1931, turned over all of his notes and records and cooperated unstintingly, even though our more extensive explorations brought out evidence contrary to his earlier findings. Walter J. (Buzz) Storey, Jr., Staff Writer for the Uniontown Evening Standard performed a service that is difficult to appraise. Through his lively, timely, and accurate news stories and his daily column, he kept local interest alive and did much to keep up the morale of all of us on the job. Technical advice and related assistance was furnished by Dr. J. H. Easterby, Director of the South Carolina Archives Department; Mr. Minor Wine Thomas, then of Colonial Williamsburg; Dr. Charles W. Porter, III, Mr. Harold Peterson, Mr. Frank Barnes, Dr. J. Walter Coleman, and a host of others in the National Park Service. Identification of stockade specimens was furnished by the Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mr. James Holland lent a willing and valuable hand in reviewing the manuscript, advising on references, and in many other ways. Mrs. Virginia Harris did all of the typing, including the final duplicating copy, and much of the editorial work.

J. C. Harrington
National Park Service
Richmond, Virginia

December 1, 1955

Later note: The reader will wonder, and rightly, why Hugh Cleland's work. George Washington in the Ohio Valley, is not cited extensively in this report. Unfortunately, my manuscript, with the exception of Appendix 1, had been completed and typed for publication before I had seen Professor Cleland's book, which contains many of the contemporary accounts quoted and referred to here. However, some of the accounts, such as the Shaw document, are not quoted in full by Professor Cleland, and are, therefore, retained in the present work. Moreover, it will be more convenient for the reader of this report to include them here.

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Last Updated: 04-Mar-2009