Benjamin Franklin and his tie to Monroe County’s frontier forts
First of a four-part series highlighting the history of the four frontier forts that were built in Monroe County from 1755 to 1756 at the command of Benjamin Franklin.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
The year 1755 in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania was filled with unrest and strife. Tensions had been rising between the native inhabitants and the European settlers who had been moving into the area, and the interactions between the two groups became greatly strained.
For years before 1755, the natives had harbored negative feelings about the unfair results of the Walking Purchase of 1737 (which had stripped them of their ancestral lands) and the northward movement of thousands of European settlers, who were moving in and displacing the natives.
Backed by the legal claim of the Walking Purchase, the colonists felt that they had the right to move on to the land; the native people, however, knew that they had been treated unfairly and that they had been swindled out of their ancestral lands. These local tensions, fueled with the Iroquois Nation’s allying itself with the French to the North, forced the British to erect forts along the Blue Mountains to “protect” British interests and its colonial citizens. The forts were also intended to repel the threat Indians and any French forces that may have tried to invade British domain.
Benjamin Franklin, at this time in his life, was a well-respected, wealthy, 50-year-old Philadelphian who had retired from his printing company and was an important member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Assembly received reports that French troops had attacked and defeated British and American forces in western Pennsylvania and that Indian hostilities had resulted in the death of roughly 400 settlers only 80 miles north of Philadelphia.
In response, the Assembly placed Benjamin Franklin and James Hamilton, another member of the governor’s council, in charge of creating a chain of forts along the Blue Mountains between 1755-1756. This chain of forts followed the mountain range that ran from the northeastern-most point in Pennsylvania at present-day Bushkill in a southwesterly direction to the Maryland border. Under direction of Governor Morris, Franklin traveled to Bethlehem on December 18, 1755, to oversee the creation of these forts. His orders were to have erected several frontier forts, which came to be known as “Franklin Forts.”
In general, the forts included a series of log buildings that were surrounded by a wooden stockade fence. The land around each of the forts was cleared so that no ambush could take place. Varying in size, the forts were often located near a water source and a neighboring large plantation or farm. It was the idea that soldiers stationed at the forts could offer protection to the farmers so that the farmers would be able to harvest their crops without fear of an Indian attack. The forts were also intended to serve as a safe location to store the harvest.
In December 1755, Franklin sent British captains Ashton and Trump to the frontier to erect the fort, located in what is now the western part of present-day Stroudsburg, just north of the Stroud Mansion along 9th Street between Main and Monroe streets. The fort took longer to build than Franklin had anticipated, because the workers faced particularly harsh weather in January 1756 and because their inventory of worthwhile, serviceable tools was insufficient.
To remedy the situation, Franklin, as documented in a letter to Gov. Morris, sent axes of good quality along with two wagons “loaded with bread” to Ashton and Trump. Franklin also reported that 20 militiamen oversaw the delivery of supplies to the fort. Within three weeks, the construction of Fort Hamilton was completed; records suggest the date of completion was on or near January 20, 1756.
Shortly after the completion of Fort Hamilton, Capt. Trump was relocated to another post to oversee the building of Fort Norris. (Fort Norris, located in the western portion of Monroe County, will be the focus of an upcoming article). On April 26, 1756, Capt. Craig, from Bath, Northampton County, was assigned to oversee the daily activities of the 41 soldiers stationed at Fort Hamilton.
Two months later, in June 1756, Commissary James Young was appointed to travel to Fort Hamilton in order to report to Franklin and Hamilton on the structure’s condition, the inventory of supplies, and the overall state of the fort. Young reported that the fort was located along “a Good Waggon road … in a Corn field by a Farm house in a Plain and Clear Country.”
Fort Hamilton encompassed 6,400 square feet and was roughly square in shape with four half bastions (angular projections intended for the placement of artillery). While Young had been impressed with the location of the fort, he was not pleased with its construction. According to Young, the fort was “ill contrived;” in some places there were 6-inch gaps between the logs that comprised the curtain wall. A few of the stockade posts were not dug deeply enough into the ground and could have easily given way with little effort during an attack. Although poorly built, the fort was reasonably well supplied for a frontier fort; Young listed the supplies in Fort Hamilton as “1 Wall Piece, 14 G’d Muskets, 4 wants Repair, 16 Cartootch Boxes, filled with Powder and Lead, 28 lb Powder, 30 lb Lead, 10 Axes, 1 Broad Axe, 26 Tomahauks, 28 Blankets, 3 Drawing Knives, 3 Splitting Knives 2 Adses, 2 Saws, 1 Brass Kettle.”
Many of the settlers in the vicinity of Fort Hamilton had fled during the Indian uprising in 1755. When they learned that Fort Hamilton was being built, many felt a sense of protection and returned to their farms. Unfortunately, with the settlers’ return to the area, Native Americans began attacking again. There are accounts of farmers being attacked and murdered, including an account of 17-year-old Andreas Gundryman who was killed and scalped as he was carrying firewood from his woodpile to his cabin. His home was less than half a mile from Fort Hamilton.
Historians are not certain how long Capt. Craig remained at Fort Hamilton, but it was recorded that the fortification had had yet another supervisor, Capt. Nicholas Wetterholt, before 1757. On April 7, 1757, Capt. James Van Etten replaced Wetterholt. It is from Van Etten’s accounts that historians have learned about life in and around the area forts. Van Etten (who was also in command of Fort Hyndshaw in present-day Bushkill) kept a detailed journal of frontier life and the roles that the Franklin Forts had in protecting and offering support to the area’s colonial farmers.
Van Etten’s diary entries abruptly end on July 22, 1757. It is believed that Van Etten left the service of the Crown, because his name does not reappear in historical records until the Revolutionary War. After Van Etten left the fort, the command was given to Lieutenant James Hyndshaw.
Over the next year, Fort Hamilton was slowly abandoned. In March 1758, James Byrd visited Fort Hamilton on his tour through the area and found it in “pitiable condition.”
Fort Hamilton was intended to have 50 men garrisoned within its walls at all times, but it appears that there were never many more than 41 soldiers at one time. Indeed, much of the time, there were fewer than 20 men stationed at the fort. While Fort Hamilton was the most centrally located of the frontier forts, it was situated in the least populated area and saw little activity.