The War on the Pennsylvania Frontier Part 1 of 5: Fort Roberdeau

When we think of Pennsylvania in the Revolution, we often focus on sites like Independence Hall, Valley Forge, or Brandywine. The southeastern corner of the state was its most populated region, the center of its industry and commerce, and the main theater of military action. On the surface it seems the Revolution only occurred in this one corner of the large state, yet other events took place on its far flung frontier.

Philadelphia merchant Daniel Roberdeau was an early supporter of the Revolutionary movement. He served on the Philadelphia Committee of Safety and was appointed a General of state militia in 1776. Roberdeau then served in the First Continental Congress and continued there until 1779. During the Brandywine and Valley Forge campaigns, he was commander of the army’s Flying Camp, a mobile force of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware militia. By 1777 the Continental Army was desperately short of lead for ammunition. Calls went out for Philadelphia residents to remove and donate the downspouts on their homes, much like a World War II scrap metal drive. To address the shortage, on his own initiative Roberdeau spearheaded an effort to protect the lead mines in Bedford County, which supplied the army. Roberdeau financed the construction of the fort himself.

Built in 1778 to protect lead mines in the area and settlers during times of Indian raids, the fort was unusual in its design. It was constructed using horizontal logs since the limestone of the valley is so close to the surface that it prevented the normal procedure of digging the post holes for the vertical logs. It not only protected the mines, but the workers who labored there as well as local families. On June 4, 1778, Roberdeau wrote to General Washington of his success: “I have built with Logs at the Mine in Sinking Spring Valley at the foot of Tussee Mountain, a Fort, Cabbin fashion, 50 yds square with a Bastion at each Corner. The Fort consists of 48 Cabbins about twelve feet square exclusive of the Bastions.” Inside the stockade was a large furnace and a tall chimney specifically designed for smelting lead, unique in a frontier fort. Nearby workers dug three mines, the first was just outside the fort. The second, a few miles away, was the most productive, while the third was too difficult to continue. The work was exhausting and the amount extracted was disappointing.

Local loyalists and Indians remained a constant threat for the miners and their guards. The lead mining ceased in the fall of 1779 when supplies from Europe were more readily available. It never produced a large amount of lead, and likely did not make a profit for Roberdeau, who invested his own finances in the project. The fort was then abandoned. The fort was never attacked, but served its purpose in supporting lead mining, and ultimately, the larger war effort. After the war Roberdeau moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and later to Winchester. He died there in 1795. The fort has been reconstructed twice (first in the 1930s and again during the Bicentennial) and is a source of pride for the local community.

Remnants of the powder magazine were visible in the Twentieth Century, identifying the location of the fort. Located between Altoona and State College, the fort has a small visitor center and shop, and is open to the public during the summer months. It preserves and interprets a lesser known part of the war in an area far removed from the main fighting. 383 Fort Roberdeau Road Altoona, PA 16601 814-946-0048

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