Historians, students dig W.Va.'s Fort McCoy (video)
WILLIAMSBURG, W.Va. -- When William and Agnes Nancy McCoy arrived in the Sinking Creek Valley of Greenbrier County from Eastern Virginia in 1769, they found a spring bubbling out of a cave, forming a creek that disappeared into the ground a few hundred yards downstream.
They must have envisioned grassy pastures and grazing cattle on the valley floor stretched out before them and on the gentle slopes surrounding the spring. By the time the year ended, they had built a log home on a knoll overlooking the natural font.
The McCoys were part of a second wave of white settlement in the Greenbrier Valley region of what is now West Virginia. Pioneer families began moving into the area in the 1750s, but were driven out by repeated attacks by American Indians during the French and Indian War. After the war ended in 1763, settlers began returning to the Greenbrier country, this time more aware of the likelihood their presence would be challenged by the region's native people.
The McCoys built their two-story home of large hand-hewn logs, sturdy enough, they hoped, for its occupants to survive an Indian attack.
As it turned out, their fortified home, known later as Fort McCoy, not only withstood an attack by American Indians in 1778, but endured the ravages of time, as well. Decades after the fear of Indian attack ended, the log structure was incorporated into the construction plans for a large barn built on the site when McCoy's descendants built a new home a short distance away.
From about 1850 until earlier this year, the former fort served as a storage shed inside the barn, but a tornado in 2006 and last year's derecho severely damaged the old barn to the point of imminent collapse. In 2012, the building was included on the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia's "Most Endangered Properties" list.
The Williamsburg District Historic Foundation acquired the barn and a small tract of adjacent land. Earlier this year, the foundation demolished most of the barn and disassembled the fort inside, saving and numbering its log components for planned re-assembly as an interpretive roadside exhibit.
At that time, the 1769 building was the oldest standing fort in the Greenbrier Valley, where a network of more than 30 similar forts and blockhouses protected settlers during the last half of the 18th century.
"The idea was to have a series of neighborhood forts, built six to 10 miles apart, that would give settlers a place to protect themselves if Native Americans attacked," said Dr. Kim McBride, a Greenbrier County native and now co-director of the Kentucky Archeological Survey.
This past summer, Boy Scouts attending the National Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve helped archaeologists led by McBride begin a sub-surface survey of the fort site. Last week, eighth-graders from Greenbrier County schools helped continue that work, carefully scraping through layers of soil to uncover features, and sifting through that soil to identify artifacts.
"One of the questions we're trying to answer now is whether this building was surrounded by a stockade," a ring of vertical logs anchored in the ground outside the fort, McBride said. "Some of the forts had stockades, while other, smaller, forts were sometimes just the stronger long houses in an area. We know from the work with the Boy Scouts that no stockade connected into this building, but maybe there was one surrounding it."
William McCoy, a lieutenant in the Virginia militia, saw combat during the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant. During the Revolutionary War, he helped organize defenses in the Greenbrier Valley to protect settlers from attack by the British and their American Indian allies.
On May 29, 1778, Fort Donnally, located one mountain ridge and seven miles away from Fort McCoy, was attacked by a force of more than 50 Wyandot warriors from the Sandusky area of Northern Ohio. About 60 women and children were "forted-up" at Donnally at the time of the attack, along with 20 militiamen and several of Donnally's slaves. One of the slaves, Dick Pointer, fought off the initial attack with the help of a white servant, and managed to awaken the fort's other occupants before another attack could be mounted.
Seventeen Indians were killed in what turned out to be a daylong siege. Following their defeat, the Wyandot divided into smaller groups and either returned home or raided other settlements in the area.
Fort McCoy was attacked the following day. Militiamen from Renick were summoned to help the Sinking Creek Valley settlers repel the attack. McCoy was not at his fort at the time of the attack, since he was part of a militia force sent to assist the militiamen at Fort Donnally.
The only written account of the attack that McBride could find says only that the raid resulted in "a great loss of life," but doesn't spell out which side suffered the loss.
Gunflints and musket balls are among artifacts that have been unearthed at Fort McCoy. Other items include fragments of creamware china made in Staffordshire, England, during the early 1760s, a copper spoon, glassware, wrought-iron nails, bones, part of a ceramic pipe, hinges and a folding knife. The fort's foundation stones and fireplace hearths at opposite ends of the building are among features that have been unearthed.
Also discovered at the site were a number of Indian artifacts dating back thousands of years before the attack, including an undamaged, perfectly symmetrical spear point unearthed Tuesday.
"The McCoys weren't the only people attracted to this place by the spring," McBride said.
A volunteer crew of professional archaeologists helped Kim McBride and her archaeologist husband, Steve, oversee work by eighth-graders from Eastern Greenbrier and Western Greenbrier middle schools. Among them was Jacob Ramsay, who grew up in the Williamsburg area and is now an archaeologist for the Monongahela National Forest.
"When I was a kid, I was always finding arrowheads and hearing stories about the forts," Ramsay said. While a fifth-grade student, he visited Arbuckle's Fort, north of Alderson, which the McBrides were then excavating.
"Later on, I went through [archaeology] field school with the McBrides, and now I'm back in Williamsburg as an adult, having kids come out and learn about their history," Ramsay said. "It's a neat circle."
"We hope the kids learn a little about archaeology and about the history of the area," Kim McBride said. "A lot of them had relatives who 'forted-up' somewhere in the Greenbrier Valley during the 18th century."
"It's so fascinating to see what's happened to the family homestead," said Sue Miles of Morgantown, a fifth great-granddaughter of William McCoy who visited the dig site Tuesday. "I can imagine the feeling of relief people must have felt when they reached a safe place like this when the raids were taking place."
After age-damaged timbers from the fort are replaced, Fort McCoy will be reassembled and become the focal point of a roadside historic display maintained by the Williamsburg District Historic Foundation.
Last week's excavation work was funded through a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.