The Historic Environment of the Forts of The Holston Militia

Copyright and All Rights Reserved by:
Lawrence J. Fleenor, Jr.
Big Stone Gap, Va. March 2005

Three battles or military campaigns that shaped modern America were fought by the settlers of Southwest Virginia and Upper Northeast Tennessee.  They fought as units of the Virginia Militia, a formally organized arm of the Commonwealth.  At the time, they were usually referred to as “The Holston Militia”.

The American Revolution is generally said to have run from 1775 to either 1781 or 1783.  However, in the Valleys of the upper Holston, Clinch, and Powell Rivers the conflict lasted from 1774 to 1794, and was fought against the Mingo, Shawnee, and Cherokee, as well as the British.  During the years 1775 to 1781, these Indian tribes were both instigated and armed by the British to fight the Americans as a major strategic campaign by the British government as part of its efforts to subdue the insurrection.

The Revolution had its origins in the settlement of the French and Indian War. While it is true that in the Northern Colonies issues of the tea tax, and the Stamp Act were of paramount importance, the issue of greatest importance in the South was the British closing of the frontier.

In Virginia settlement was to be confined to east of the New River.  At the time of the French and Indian War, there were permanent settlements already established in the Holston Valley, and there were semipermanent hunting camps in the Valleys of the Clinch and Powell.

Nevertheless, both settlement and land sales within the lands west of the New River proceeded, even with the active connivance of the Royal Government of His Majesty’s Colony of Virginia.

The Shawnee, and their allies, the Mingo, owned the New River Valley.  In 1774 they launched a military effort to clean this region out of its illegal settlements.  In response to this threat, Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, ordered the frontier to be fortified.  Following their invariable practice of carrying the war to the enemy, rather than passively waiting for him to invade their homes, the Militia marched down the New River, and collided with the Shawnee at its mouth, where on October 10, 1775 the Battle of Point Pleasant, the only battle in Lord Dunmore’s War, was fought.  The fighting was intense, and lasted all day long.  It could have gone either way, but in the end the Shawnee returned to their towns on the Scioto River in Ohio.  The militia followed and laid waste to their towns.

In 1775 Daniel Boone started leading immigrants into Kentucky, which was also Shawnee territory.  Theodore Roosevelt, in his two volume history, The Winning of the West, sagely observed that if the Militia had lost the Battle of Point Pleasant, the United States’ western border would today be the Alleghenies.  There would be nothing American west of Cumberland Gap.  As it was, the settlement of Kentucky and of the Old Northwest Territory was a very close thing, and almost failed.  However, due to the punishment taken by the Shawnee in Lord Dunmore’s War, they were too shaken to have opposed these western settlements to any significant extent for two years after the Battle of Point Pleasant, and by the time they began their campaigns against these settlements, they were too deeply seated to be uprooted.

The same proposition can be made for the Great Cherokee War of 1776.  The British armed the Cherokee, and sent them against the settlements in the Holston, Clinch, and Powell Valleys.  To meet this threat, new forts were built.  The Cherokee did succeed in driving all the settlements out of Lee County and forced the evacuation of all of their forts except for the one at Rocky Station.  The Holston Valley was evacuated all the way back to Black’s Fort at Abingdon, and after a number of attacks, Fort Rye Cove was evacuated in Clinch Valley.  This severed the Wilderness Road that sustained the Kentucky settlements.  Before its evacuation, the garrison at Rye Cove Fort saved Kentucky, and its settlements barely held on.  But, again, it was an extremely close thing.  If one lone militia messenger from the Kentucky settlements had not succeeded in penetrating the Cherokee pickets at Rye Cove, the USA would never have made it west of Cumberland Gap.  On at least three occasions, the garrison of Rye Cove sent relief forces on the run to relieve Shawnee sieges of Boonesboro, Kentucky.

In the fall of 1780, again the Holston Militia fought a battle that saved America.  The British had given up on trying to win the Revolution in the North, and had invaded the South by Charleston, South Carolina.  Lord Cornwallis was marching north toward Virginia, and had a unit of crack American Loyalist troops under Col. Ferguson screening his movement from possible attack by the Holston Militia.  Indeed, the Holston Militia fell upon Ferguson’s command at the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina on October 7, 1780.  Ferguson was killed and his troops nearly annihilated.  This battle set in motion a series of events that in the end forced Cornwallis to take his army to the coast at Yorktown, Va., where they could receive the protection of the British Fleet.  The rest is history.

The British forgot to tell the Cherokee to quit attacking the frontier when they, themselves, quit fighting.  The Cherokee maintained a bloody warfare against the frontier settlements until April 1794.  Indeed, the two decades that the Holston Militia fought for its existence was the bloodiest and longest war with the Indians in the United States.

This era of American history can be best understood by a study of the system of forts constructed by the Holston Militia in the Valleys of the upper Holston, Clinch, and Powell Valleys.  The book, The Forts of the Holston Militia, details the location of 36 of these structures, and gives period narratives concerning them to provide context.