For much of the American Revolution, the British waged war on their rebelling colonists in the Ohio River Valley via proxy, relying on western Indian nations (Shawnee, Wyandot, Mingo, Chippewa, Ottawa, and others) to attack isolated American settlements and villages across the Ohio River. The Continental Congress, already unable to meet the needs of its own army along the coasts, could offer little in the way of assistance. So, frontier defense largely fell upon the local militia. They adopted a two-pronged strategy: 1) build forts and blockhouses along the frontier, giving settlers a place of safe haven when Indian raiding parties were about, and 2) preemptive raids against Native American villages in an attempt to disrupt their preparations for raids against the settlers.
In 1777, however, Congress realized that more aggressive measures were required: the war would have to be carried against the heart of British power at Detroit, from where the British coordinated, supplied, and rewarded Native American raids. With that in mind, Congress and Continental authorities at Pittsburgh began planning an offensive to capture the British post between Lakes Huron and Erie. First, they would need to secure the continued neutrality of the Delaware Indian nation in the Muskingum River Valley, which today is in Eastern Ohio. Second, they would need to build a substantial network of forts capable of sustaining an overland offensive. Building a new fort in Delaware territory would serve both goals.
After the Delaware signed the Treaty of Fort Pitt in 1778, General Lachlan McIntosh, commanding at Fort Pitt, marched a small army of militia and Continentals (dominated by the 9th/13th Virginia and the 8th Pennsylvania) overland to the eastern tributary of the Muskingum, known today at the Tuscarawas River. There, on November 18, 1778, the Continentals began gathering materials to build a fort on the west bank, which they named after Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress. Short on supplies, McIntosh could not winter his army at the fort and departed with it on December 9, leaving 150 ill-supplied and under-nourished men behind to man the post under the command of Colonel John Gibson.
Fort Laurens was typical for a frontier fort: a four-sided wooden stockade on high ground along a river. The fort had two gates, one facing landward and one on the river side, with an overhanging blockhouse on the landward gate. Outside the fort, a ditch and earthen berm covered the three landward sides for added protection. Wooden huts were scattered along the interior walls, but they were even flimsier than those constructed at Valley Forge. Fort Laurens was a reasonable defense against Indian raiding parties, but it contained no artillery and would fall quickly should the British manhandle even small artillery pieces to the fort’s walls. The entire structure covered about an acre.
It didn’t take long for the British and their Indian allies to notice this new fort in the Ohio Territory or realize what it might portend for the spring. They laid a loose siege to it in February, 1779, when British Captain Henry Bird, a handful of his soldiers, and about 180 Native Americans ambushed a wood-gathering party within sight of the fort. After that, it became dangerous for the Americans to venture outside the walls and they faced even greater privation, although the British and Indian besiegers may have suffered nearly as much due to the poor weather. A relief force lifted the siege in March 1779 then returned to Fort Pitt, leaving only 106 men to defend the post.
Meanwhile, McIntosh departed Fort Pitt and was replaced by Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who concluded that the fort was too far away from the Delaware to protect them and insufficiently forward to sustain a campaign against Detroit. He recommended abandoning the post. George Washington concurred and the last members of the garrison marched out in August.
The fort fell into subsequent decay. Construction of the Erie Canal in the 19th century destroyed the remains of two eastern bastions and the 20th century addition of Interstate 77 did still more damage. Today, a small, but excellent, museum stands at the Fort Laurens site. It contains artifacts from archeological digs conducted in the 1970s, displays, dioramas, and exhibits that tell the story of the fort and its soldiers and the archeological work that uncovered much of the story. A footpath follows portions of the fort’s original outline with interpretive markers every few yards. Much of the surrounding ground is a park, so it is cleared of trees and underbrush as it would have been in the winter of 1778-1779. The park also contains the mass grave of soldiers who died at Fort Laurens, five of whom remain unknown. Zoar Community Association operates the museum for Ohio History Connection, the renamed Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, which owns the fort. Its sits just off I-77 in Bolivar, Ohio, less than a 90-minute drive south of Cleveland.
Thomas I. Pieper & James B. Gidney, Fort Laurens, 1778-1779, (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1976).