"Lord Dunmore's War: The Last Conflict in America's Colonial Era," Glenn Williams
Approximately six months before the Massachusetts Minutemen fought the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Virginia militia units fought a Shawnee-led Indian Confederacy in what is known today as Dunmore’s War.
The war, which was fought primarily in modern-day West Virginia, was named for Virginia’s royal governor John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore. A former lieutenant in the British army, Dunmore personally commanded the military operation to end the Shawnees’ brutal frontier raids against Virginia settlers which had steadily increased over approximately 12 months.
“At this point Dunmore is kind of a friend to America,” said historian and author Glenn F. Williams at the July 19, 2017 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “He had a liking for Americans, and when he served in Parliament, he seconded the motion to repeal the Townshend Acts. He didn’t become a villain until 1775 when he attempted to maintain royal authority against the independence-minded Virginians.”
Williams is the author of the recently published book entitled Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era.
Tensions between Virginians and various Indian tribes over this geographic area erupted during the French and Indian War. Virginia’s frontiersmen fought the French and their Indian allies with little help from British regulars.
Shortly after Great Britain and its colonies won the war, the British government issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation attempted to prohibit colonial settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains, and reserve this land for the Indians. The proclamation was extremely unpopular with most frontiersmen who had fought for this land during the recent war, and in some cases had already established their homes in this region.
Between 1768-1772 four new treaties were negotiated with Indian tribes to expand colonial land west of the mountains into parts of modern-day West Virginia and Kentucky. However not all of the Indian tribes, especially the Shawnees, agreed to the land sale. The Shawnees regarded much of this land as their hunting grounds, and viewed colonial settlements as encroachments on their land.
“The settlers and the Indians had two very different views on land use and land concepts,” said Williams. “This resulted in violence and counter-violence between the two sides. Both were guilty of committing torture, murder and other atrocities.”
By the Summer of 1774 the increasing number of Indian raids drove many Virginia settlers into forts constructed along the frontier. Deciding that Virginia needed to switch from a defensive strategy of protecting settlers to an offensive one of attacking the Shawnee villages, Lord Dunmore called out militia units from Virginia’s western counties.
Dunmore opted to organize the militia units into two wings. He placed his southern wing under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis. The northern wing, which Dunmore personally accompanied, was placed under the command of Colonel Adam Stephen.
“Technically Stephen was in command of the northern division but Dunmore was actually in charge,” said Williams. “This arrangement was similar to the one during the Civil War when U.S. Grant accompanied the Army of the Potomac, which was technically under the command of George Meade.”
Lewis chose a site along the Greenbrier River, eight miles from White Sulphur Springs, as the staging area for his militia units. He named his division’s campsite Camp Union. Dunmore and Stephen selected Winchester as the staging area for the northern division. Both wings would march toward the Ohio River, cross it and march into Indian territory where the militia would either destroy the Shawnee villages or force them to seek a peace treaty.
Dunmore and Stephen marched the northern division to Pittsburgh, Wheeling and down the Ohio River where they crossed it and built a fortification which they called Fort Gower. Lewis marched the southern division down the Kanawha River to where it empties into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant. The two wings of the army were approximately 70 miles apart and located on opposite sides of the Ohio River.
Meanwhile the Shawnee chief named Cornstalk learned about the two approaching wings of Virginia militia, and decided to attack the 1,100-man southern division under Lewis before it could unite with the 1,300 troops under Dunmore and Stephen. Cornstalk secretly crossed the Ohio River with 800-1,000 braves near Lewis’ campsite at Point Pleasant.
Early on the morning of October 10, 1774 when four Virginia soldiers went hunting, they stumbled upon a huge number of Indians. After briefly exchanging gunfire, three of the four were able to run back to Lewis’ camp and warn officers about the close proximity of numerous Indians.
Lewis elected to send two detachments with 150 men apiece to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force. Commanding the two detachments were Colonel William Fleming and Colonel Charles Lewis, Andrew’s brother. The two forces made contact with the Indians, who launched an aggressive attack with their much larger army against the 300 Virginians. Fleming was wounded, Charles Lewis was killed and both reconnaissance-in-force columns were forced to retreat before they would get overwhelmed.
Andrew Lewis sent reinforcements from his Point Pleasant camp to establish a defensive line. The Virginians were successful, and by late afternoon they had repelled several Indian attacks. Shortly before dark the Virginians launched a counterattack which drove the Indians back to where they were able to form a good defensive position. Darkness ended the battle. The Indians re-crossed the Ohio River during the overnight hours with their dead and wounded braves.
Meanwhile Dunmore and Stephen marched the northern division toward the Shawnee villages that were located in modern-day Ohio. Cornstalk’s battle-weary army was in no position to stop them. When Dunmore’s forces reached the Scioto River, they halted and constructed a fort which they called Camp Charlotte. Located just across the Scioto River from this new fort were the Shawnee Indian villages.
Rather than fight for their villages or retreat from them, the Shawnees capitulated. Instead of burning the Shawnee villages and/or slaughtering the tribe, Dunmore gave the Shawnees a very lenient peace treaty.
The Treaty of Camp Charlotte called for the Shawnees to turn over all white prisoners from not only the recent conflict, but from all previous ones dating back to the French and Indian War. The Shawnees were also forced to recognize the Ohio River as the boundary between Indian land and Virginia settlers, and were prohibited from hunting on the Virginia side of the Ohio River. They were also prohibited from interfering with any Virginia boats and trade along the river.
To guarantee that the Shawnees would keep the treaty, Dunmore required the Shawnees to provide a certain number of “hostages” (who were chiefs or sons of chiefs) to live in Williamsburg until such time that the Virginians were convinced of Shawnee intentions to comply with the treaty.
When Dunmore returned to Williamsburg after this military campaign, he received a hero’s welcome. Suddenly he was one of the most popular men throughout Virginia.
However Dunmore’s popularity wore off in less than 12 months. While he and the militia were fighting the Shawnees, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and planted some of the first seeds toward American revolution and independence. Shortly after shots rang out at Lexington and Concord, Dunmore emptied the Williamsburg public magazine of all its gunpowder. This decision outraged the public and forced Dunmore to flee Williamsburg on June 8, 1775 for the safety of a British naval vessel.
Glenn F. Williams is a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. He has served as the historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Army Project, the Army Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration and the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program.
Williams also serves as the president of the American Revolution Round Table of the District of Columbia. He is the author of several American history books and articles, including the award-winning Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign against the Iroquois.
Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. President Bill Welsch asked the audience for any additional nominations regarding this year’s Preservation Partner. When no new nominations were made, President Welsch closed the nominations and said he will soon send online ballots to all dues-paying members to vote for one of the four earlier nominees.
2. Several brief announcements were made by President Welsch and members of the audience.