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Musket Balls and Buttons:

An Archeological Dig in Pocahontas County Uncovers the Past

May 29, 2010
By WAYNE SHEETS Contributing Business Writer

With two sides protected by water and 50 feet above its surroundings, the point of the arrowhead-shaped property was the perfect place for a militia's fort. The waters of the North Fork of Deer Creek on the east and Deer Creek to the northwest provided ample fresh water as well as protection. Its height above its surroundings made attacking the fort a formidable challenge and provided safety during the flooding times of the year. Not to be without consideration is the fact that, facing southwest, those who manned the fort also enjoyed the serenity of warm sun-bathed evenings when the sun sank low in the west.

Here in 1774 in what was then August County, Virginia, was built one of the several militia forts in the Greenbrier Valley that provided protection in times of conflict with the Native Americans during Lord Dunmore's War. This war fought between Virginia settlers and Ohio Valley Indians over control to what is now West Virginia and Kentucky ended with the defeat of Chief Cornstalk's forces by Andrew Lewis in the battle of Point Pleasant in October that same year. According to archeologist Dr. Steve McBride, the fort served as a place of refuge during these frightful times and during more relaxed times it more than likely served as the community's social, economic and political center. The nearest settlement of any size would have been Staunton to the east and separated from the local settlers by what was one of the most feared wilderness mountain ranges in known America.

"Documents suggest that the fort was garrisoned again during the Revolutionary War which started the next year and remained garrisoned until 1782 or 1783," McBride said. "We don't have much documentation on this but we suspect that settlers probably came to the fort in times of danger many times especially during the spring to fall season when the weather was warm and would tend to be more dangerous than the winter months.

Article Photos

(CU and The Inter-Mountain/Wayne Sheets)
SERIOUSLY OLD — Artifacts uncovered at the Warwick Fort archeological site include everything from jewelry (small white item in the center with a hole drilled in it), to a human tooth (top center) to nails and pieces of flint that were discarded when making arrowheads.

"Probably in any given month there would have been between 10 and 20 militiamen stationed here with as many as 50 of the local adult men being a part of the militia," McBride said. He said that in times of danger the elderly men, women and children would also have been at the fort.

McBride said that he did not yet know how big the Warwick Fort might have been. Forts whose size they have been able to determine have generally been roughly 90 feet by 100 feet. "Arbuckle's Fort and Fort Donnelly in Greenbrier County are about 85 feet by 110 feet - they are four-sided rectangular forts with bastions of small defensive points in two of the corners. Roughly 90 feet to 100 feet would be a typical size," he said.

"We have found a bastion in the western edge of this fort but we're still not sure of its size. The artifacts seem to be concentrated in an area probably about 50 or 60 feet from that bastion. This makes us think that there may have been another bastion a little farther out. The area we're working now seems to suggest that this was the habitation area of the fort. We found a large cellar that had been backfilled with a lot of animal bone and other artifacts. There was probably a building on top of the cellar. It had a small entrance way with a bulkhead-type structure that was typical of cellars of that era," McBride said.

Basing his assumptions on what he has learned from similar forts in the Greenbrier Valley, McBride said that the inside of Warwick Fort probably had a dirt floor devoid of the grass that was there when the fort was built. "It would have been worn out from all the foot travel inside the fort," he said. Being unsure of what might have been at the fort and its approximate size because of minimal exploration to this point in time, he said, "There probably would have been at least one building here. Other forts of this type, though, had multiple buildings - some for habitation, probably some outdoor cooking areas, campfires and kettles. One of the forts we've excavated had evidence of a blacksmith shop being inside the fort. There may have been ephemeral structures like tents or lean-tos where militiamen in the warmer months would have slept outside. There could have been multiple buildings here though; we just haven't gotten that far along with our excavation.

"The problem here," McBride said, "is that this site has been plowed. If they erected the buildings on the ground surface without digging a footer trench it would be hard for us to know about it. The structures could have been log structures with some rock piers and we wouldn't find any evidence with the exception of some nails that were left in the ground when the building rotted away or was taken down."

McBride said that they were scattering their exploration units around in an effort to pinpoint more about where buildings were and where special activities took place - such as cooking and blacksmithing. "We haven't found evidence of any blacksmithing yet because we haven't done nearly as much excavation at this site as we've done at others," he said. "At Arbuckle's Fort, for example, we found an area we knew had been a blacksmithing area because we found slag, coal residue and some unfinished iron objects or raw materials they called bar stock - the iron they would get to work on.

"We have found some interesting artifacts both here and at a secondary site about 300 yards to the east of the fort," McBride said pointing in the direction of the area. "We actually started our explorations at that secondary site. We wanted to get a better handle on what that site was. Comparing the artifacts we found over there to those we've found here at the fort, it appears that the site east of here was of a domestic occupation. There seems to be more historic ceramics over there than here. It may have been either a cabin site contemporaneous with the fort or it may have been a little outpost where some of the militia lived in a cabin - we really don't know which. It seems to have more of a domestic flavor and not so much of the military flavor we find here at the fort site.

"In addition to the artifacts left behind by the prehistoric people such as the many arrow heads we've found, we've found an interesting array of historic items left by the modern people who inhabited the fort. We've found musket balls, buttons, shards from a fancy English tea pot, crock ware, items that appear to have been jewelry, junk and even a human tooth," McBride said.

McBride said that they found some shards of white ceramics with a blue pattern on it but couldn't figure out what they were until they found the spout of a fancy tea pot with the same intricate pattern on it. "Finding something that gentile for a fort of this kind was rather surprising," he said. "It seems a little unusual that they'd have something that delicate here. Most of the vessels they used were mud-glazed "red ware," the more utilitarian vessels used by those garrisoning forts of this type, or wooden or metal containers because of their durability."

According to McBride, the tea ceremony was quite important in the 18th century especially for the officer class. He pointed out that they might have wanted to replicate those kinds of ceremonies especially if they had visiting officers or some other kind of social event.

McBride said that oftentimes the forts served other purposes besides defense. They became the social, economic and political centers because there weren't any towns back then. The forts became what geographers called "central places" for the community. They might become a place of trade; maybe having a store where traveling merchants would come. They would have political meetings and social gatherings. "We have evidence on some of the forts of school being taught in them and dances being held in the fort. We don't have much in the way of documentation on this fort but it could have been something as simple as the entertainment for each other."

McBride's latest dig ended on May 8 and he said he didn't know when he and his crew would be back. "We receive grants from such supporting organizations as the West Virginia Humanities Counsel, the state of West Virginia and from Fairs and Festivals. He indicated that their return depended on when he would get another grant to continue his efforts to unravel the secrets of the fort. He also stated that in addition to learning as much as they could about the fort, a part of their efforts was for public education as well.

More than 230 school children visit the site and help with the dig.

"Right now," he said, "my wife Kim is working with the students in the science lab at Green Bank Elementary School cleaning, separating and classifying the artifacts we've uncovered this week. We have a high school senior intern working with them as well."

McBride has been researching the Greenbrier Valley Frontier Forts for more than 20 years. He said that the interesting thing about Warwick Fort was the fact that it didn't look like it had 19th or 20th century occupation on top of the earlier occupations. The material goods were so sparse during the 17th and 18th centuries because of frontier conditions and there wasn't the mass production and consumption of items we see later. When the sites have longer occupations, the 18th century tends to get masked by the later ones. This one didn't have a later occupation. It looks like it was a militia fort built in the 18th century and then when the Indian troubles were over it was abandoned.

According to McBride, the Warwick Fort is the most northern and farthest up-stream of the series of forts built in the Greenbrier Valley. Others in the area include those at Cloverlick, Edray and the one nearest the southern boarder of Pocahontas County near the Denmar-Beard community. "There are probably more like the settler-house fort near Hillsboro and there are probably a few others that I don't know about.

 
 

 

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