Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Attack on Harbert's Blockhouse

I simply must learn more about the history of the United States just prior to the Revolutionary War when colonists were pushing west and bumping up against Native Americans who were not thrilled to share land with them.  One of my by marriage ancestors, Thomas Harbert, was killed during such an incident. I found a description of his death and the events surrounding it in a book I discovered on Google Play entitled, Chronicles of Border Warfare, by Alexander Scott Withers and others.

The Harbert blockhouse was built on Jones Run on the Virginia (now West Virginia) frontier in 1775. After the death of Chief Cornstalk in November 1777, the Shawnee went on the warpath and attacked the Harbert blockhouse in March 1778.

"Anticipating the commencement of hostilities at an earlier period of the season than usual, several families retired into Harbert's blockhouse in the month of February. And notwithstanding the prudent caution manifested by them in the step thus taken; yet, the state of the weather lulling them into false security, they did not afterwards exercise the vigilance and provident care, which were necessary to ensure their future safety. On the third of March, some children, playing with a crippled crow, at a short distance from the yard, espied a number of Indians proceeding towards them; and running briskly to the house, told 'that a number of red men were close by'.

Artist rendering of the Indian Wars along the Virginia frontier

John Murphey stepped to the door to see if the danger had really approached, when one of the Indians, turning the corner of the house, fired at him. The ball took effect, and Murphey fell back into the house. The Indian springing directly in, was grappled by [Thomas] Harbert and thrown to the floor. A shot from without, wounded Harbert, yet he continued to maintain his advantage over the prostrate savage, striking him as effectually as he could with his tomahawk, when another gun was fired at him from without the house. The ball passed through his head and he fell lifeless. His antagonist then slipped out at the door, sorely wounded in the encounter.

Just after the first Indian had entered, an active young warrior, holding in his hand a tomahawk with a long spike at the end, also came in. Edward Cunningham instantly drew up his gun to shoot him; but it flashed, and they closed in doubtful strife. Both were active and athletic; and sensible of the high prize for which they were contending, each put forth his utmost strength, and strained his every nerve, to gain the ascendancy. For a while, the issue seemed doubtful. At length, by great exertion, Cunningham, wrenched the tomahawk from the hand of the Indian, and buried the spike end to the handle, in his back. Mrs. Cunningham closed the contest. Seeing her husband struggling closely with the savage, she struck him with an axe. The edge wounding his face severely, he loosened his hold, and made his way out of the house.

The third Indian, which had entered before the door was closed, presented an appearance almost as frightful as the object which he had in view. He wore a cap made of the unshorn front of a buffalo, with the ears and horns still attached to it, and which hanging loosely about his head, gave to him a most hideous aspect. On entering the room, this infernal monster, aimed a blow with his tomahawk at a Miss Reece, which alighting on her head, wounded her severely. The mother of this girl, seeing the uplifted arm about to descend on her daughter, seized the monster by the horns; but his false head coming readily off, she did not succeed in changing the direction of the weapon. The father then caught hold of him; but far inferior in strength and agility, he was seen thrown on the floor, and must have been killed, but for the timely interference of Cunningham. Having succeeded in ridding the room of one Indian, he wheeled, and sank a tomahawk into the head of the other.

During all this time the door was kept by the women, though not without great exertion. The Indians from without endeavored several times to force it open and gain admittance; and would at one time have succeeded, but that as it was yielding to their squeezing out at the aperture which had been made, caused a momentary relaxation of the exertions of others. Those were not however, unemployed. They were engaged in securing such of the children in the yard, as were capable of being carried away as prisoners, and in killing and scalping the others; and when they had effected this, despairing of being able to do farther mischief, they retreated to their towns.

Harbert blockhouse in 1939

Of the whites in the house, only one was killed and four were wounded; seven or eight children in the yard were killed or taken prisoner. One Indian was killed, and two badly wounded. Had Reece engaged sooner in the conflict, the other two who had entered the house, would no doubt have been likewise killed; but being a Quaker, he looked on, without participating in the conflict, until his daughter was wounded. Having then to contend singly, with superior prowess, he was indebted for the preservation of his life, to the assistance of those whom he had refused to aid in pressing need."

The Shawnee continued raiding along the creeks and branches of the Monongahela river during the summer months of 1778.

If you are interested in the Harbert family I would highly recommend Echoes from the Blockhouse: The Thomas Harbert Family Saga by Brian Harbert and David Harbert. Brian also maintains The Harbert Family website.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story and a great find! I can't imagine being as brave as these settlers were!