The Valley in the Middle 1700s
At the time of the French and Indian War (which was officially from 1756 to 1763, but if one counts the first fatal attack in western Virginia and ends with the last, was from 1752 to 1766), the central Shenandoah Valley was a sparsely settled frontier. The only “town” was today’s Winchester, incorporated in 1752. Founded by James Wood near a former Indian encampment known as Shawnee Springs, it was named Frederick Town during this period.
Settlement in far western Virginia, which stretched from the Potomac River in the north to the Mayo River just above the North Carolina border in the south and included today’s West Virginia, had been encouraged since the early 1700’s. Colonial governors wanted a buffer between the French and their Indian allies in the Ohio River Valley, and the primarily English settlers in eastern Virginia. In 1732 Governor William Gooch granted 100,000 acres to a German immigrant, Jost Hite, who had already acquired 40,000 acres with his business partner Robert McKay. The two homesteaded the 140,000 acres with 16 families brought with them from Pennsylvania.
In 1738 the Virginia assembly created Frederick and Augusta counties. The assembly encouraged settlement on the frontier by passing an act that exempted settlers from taxes for 10 years and provided non-English residents with an easy naturalization process. In 1753 Virginia’s Ohio Company offered special inducements to those who settled on the company’s 500,000 acres along the Ohio River, believing that settlement would extend and secure the colony and advertising that its terms were better than Pennsylvania’s “or other adjoining provinces." 1
The expansion by the French into the Ohio River Valley led to conflicts with claims by the Virginia frontier settlers. The Indian natives also viewed the increased number of European settlers, especially those in the Shenandoah Valley, with alarm, seeing them as unwelcome encroachers on land they considered theirs.
First Far West Attack
By November 1753 the Ottaway Indians had had enough and struck the first blow in what became the French and Indian War. A group of warriors attacked the Robert Foyle homestead in what is now Randolph County, West Virginia. Foyle, his wife and five of their six children were slain. One son managed to survive and raised the alarm for the nearby Taggert family, all of whom escaped with him to settlements in Augusta County. The Foyle homestead was on the far outer frontier, 100 miles west of Frederick Town (Winchester). 2
The British subsequently laid plans to remove the French and their Indian allies from the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. In September 1754 Major General Edward Braddock was chosen to push the French from their military outposts on the Ohio River. George Washington was offered and accepted a post as a volunteer on Braddock’s staff. 3
The following July, Braddock’s troops were attacked by Indians on the east bank of the Monongahela River, nine miles from its confluence with the Allegheny. Braddock was killed and 67 percent of his army was killed, wounded, captured or missing.4
Plan for Defense
Following Braddock’s defeat, Washington proposed a chain of some 20 forts to be spaced apart about a day’s march (15 or 18 miles), each with 80 or 100 men to defend it. He proposed that a command fort be built in Winchester as a base of operations. On May 23, 1756, work began in earnest on that command post, Ft. Loudoun. It was not completed until 1758.5
Spurred by the construction of Virginia’s fort, Maryland began construction of Ft. Frederick in June 1756, at present-day Big Pool, near the town of Hancock. Neither fort was attacked during the French and Indian War nor did the forts deter attacks on frontier homesteads, some within just a few miles of the posts. The wooden Ft. Loudoun has long since vanished, but Ft. Frederick, built of stone, still stands in the midst of a state park.6
By the time war was officially declared against the French king in 1756, it was clear that the full complement of forts could not be built; there simply were not nearly enough soldiers to man them. Instead, Washington recommended building a few forts, one each in Hampshire, Augusta and Bedford counties.7
In addition, there were a number of “settler forts” already in existence. These were homes surrounded by stockade fences made of vertical logs where neighboring settlers could gather for protection. Some were log buildings and others were made of stone, often two stories high and built over a spring.
Attacks Reach Cedar Creek
Settlers were killed and captured all along the central Virginia frontier in 1757, from the headwaters of the South Branch of the Potomac to Catawba Creek, Jackson’s River, Craig’s Creek, Cedar Creek, the Cowpasture River and inward on the forks of the James River. Houses were burned and livestock killed.
On Sept. 19, 1757, Indians reached the vicinity of Stephen’s Fort, located about 12 miles southwest of Winchester. Some 34 settlers were killed or captured.8
Stephens’ Fort was one of five settler dwelling forts located within seven miles of each other on and near Cedar Creek. From south to north, these were Bowman’s Fort, just north of Strasburg. It was about 3.5 miles south of Nisewanger’s Fort, which was located on Middle Marsh Run, a tributary of Cedar Creek. Nisewanger’s was about 2.6 miles southeast of Stephens’ Fort, Froman’s Fort was about 1.5 miles north of Stephens’ and Fry’s Fort was close beside Froman’s.
The southernmost stockade dwelling, Bowman’s Fort, was built by George Bowman, Sr., a son-in-law of first settler Jost Hite. He came to the Shenandoah Valley with Hite in 1732 and purchased 1,000 acres of land from Hite.
It is thought that the original fort was a stockaded log dwelling, built about 1753, that served as a tavern and boarding house. The limestone house that stands today on the west bank of Cedar Creek just south of The Great Warrior Path (today’s Route 11) is thought to have replaced the log structure around 1770.9
Eight Indians struck near Bowman’s Fort in 1763, sneaking into the area under the leadership of Abraham Mitchell. Mitchell was a former area settler who had turned against his fellow frontiersmen. The war party killed George Miller, a Bowman neighbor, along with his wife and children. Another Bowman neighbor, John Dellinger, was also killed and his wife and infant son captured. The baby was killed during the Indians’ retreat.10
Nisewanger’s Fort, a small but substantial stockaded stone dwelling, was built 1.5 miles southwest of Middletown in 1755 by John Nisewanger. He had purchased 355 acres on the west side of Long Meadow (Jost Hite’s property) from Captain Lewis Stephens in 1749.
John’s grandfather, Christian Nisewanger, was in the Shenandoah Valley as a hunter before Jost Hite. He acquired 435 acres of land from Hite’s patent in 1736. Christian Nisewanger’s widow, Maria Magdalena, married Jost Hite in 1741, three years after the death of Hite’s first wife, Anna Maria DuBois.11
Stephen’s Fort was built by Virginia Militia Captain Lewis Stephens on the east bank of Cedar Creek. Stephens had a mill, which along with his dwelling was located on the east bank of Cedar Creek on 195 acres of land he purchased in 1745.
The fort was in the present community of Marlboro and stood on the east side of the mouth of Stephens’ Mill Branch (now Fawcett Run) on Cedar Creek. Troops from Washington’s Regiment were garrisoned there in the fall of 1757.12
Built by another of Jost Hite’s sons-in-law, Paul Froman, in the early 1750’s, Froman’s Fort was a stockaded stone house. It was located on the west bank of Froman’s Run between the Run and Cedar Creek.
Froman owned a 300-acre tract of land he purchased in 1739. Indians attacked in the vicinity of the fort at least twice, but there is no record that they attempted to attack Froman’s Fort directly.13
Benjamin Fry purchased 500 acres of land on both sides of Cedar Creek in 1744. His stockaded stone dwelling, Fry’s Fort, was built in 1750.
It was northwest of today’s Marlboro on the south side of Cedar Creek, less than a mile east of Froman’s Fort. Two miles southeast on Cedar Creek was Stephens’ Fort and about 4.5 miles southeast was Nisewanger’s Fort. Bowman’s Fort was seven miles south.
Stephens reported to George Washington in September 1757 that 46 people had fled east to Fry’s Fort from the Great Cacapon River on the far side of North Mountain.
Benjamin Fry’s son, Samuel, was an ensign in command of 25 Rangers responsible for protecting a wide area of the Shenandoah Valley during the French and Indian War.14 Fry’s Fort was the base of operations for the Rangers in 1758.15
By 1764 the Indian attacks on settlers in the Virginia frontier had nearly ended, but a formal peace agreement with the return of captives was not arranged until 1766, the year of the last recorded incident.
The incident took place about two miles south of Woodstock along Route 11near Narrow Passage Creek. The Sheetz and Taylor families were on their way to either Miller’s Fort or the fort-like Sheetz Mill when they were attacked by five Indians. The men were killed but the women managed to fight off their attackers with axes. Several of the Indians were wounded and the group fled, leaving the women and children to make their way to the fort.
The widow Barbara Sheetz continued to successfully run her husband’s grist mill, located on Narrow Passage Creek just above where it enters the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, long after this final French and Indian War attack.16
By Barbara Magill, Volunteer
Last updated: July 6, 2022