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During the mid-1750s, the mountainous ridges and valleys of south central Pennsylvania were an important theater for colliding European and Native American cultures. The "no man’s land" of the time, these unsettled forests were located between colonial Philadelphia to the east and the Ohio Country to the west  The area that is located in the southeastern part of modern-day Huntingdon County lay along new trade routes through the mountains. Before the construction of Fort Shirley, a small trading post built by George Croghan was located along one of the routes. Croghan, an Irish immigrant referred to as the "King of the Traders," made his home in the fertile fields along Aughwick Creek, just north of the modern-day Shirleysburg (Volwiler 1926). It was here that a well-populated settlement, Aughwick Old Town, sprang up adjacent to George Croghan’s homestead and trading post. Because of Croghan’s presence, the location became an important council place between Natives and the provincial government of Pennsylvania. (Donehoo, "Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania", 1928, p. 8) Aughwick was chosen as a prime location to keep a safe distance from the French at Fort Duquesne, who put a price on his head, as well as the authorities back east, that would arrest him for bankruptcy since his trading activity was interrupted by the start of the Seven Years' War.
In 1754, Washington suffered a defeat and Natives Americans loyal to British, including tribal leader and acquaintance of George Washington, Queen Aliquippa and the Half King sought safety at Aughwick under the care of George Croghan. In 1755, after General Edward Braddock' s defeat George Croghan and followers, including Native Americans, return to Aughwick and in summer months fortify the trading post. In 1756 Armstrong uses the site, then Fort Shirley, as a staging area to attack Kittanning.
The Kittanning Expedition
In September 1755, Croghan fortified the post after General Edward Braddock's defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela. This was done in order to protect his stores and the 200 Iroquois that had fled there after George Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity. A few months later, the post was taken over by Pennsylvania. The post became a small fort that would protect villagers against attacking Natives, and would be a launching point for militia expeditions. Shirley along with Forts Granville, Lyttelton and Patterson formed a defensive chain that stretched from the lower Juniata River and Aughwick Creek valleys. Croghan’s fort was strengthened by provincial troops and officially named Fort Shirley early in 1756 by the British under Hugh Mercer.
After Braddock's defeat, the forts in the Juniata Valley came under attack by several Native tribes, as well as French troops. The worst of these attacks came at Fort Granville on August 3, 1756 when Louis Coulon de Villiers succeeded in taking the outpost, and in the process killed the lieutenant in charge of the fort. Fort Shirley served as Colonel John Armstrong’s advanced post for the raid on Kittanning in the fall of 1756; and although the expedition was viewed as a success, this garrison was abandoned by Provincial forces later that September.
Fort Shirley on the Cultural Landscape
Located in Southern Huntingdon County, Aughwick Creek is a tributary of the Juniata River, providing a travel route through the rugged mountains of Pennsylvania’s Ridge and Valley Province. The land north of present-day Shirleysburg occupies prime agricultural ground on the eastern bank of the Aughwick, where the floodplain is wide along the bend in the creek.
A small tributary stream, named Fort Run, joins Aughwick Creek at the northern end of a farmed corn field. The story of Fort Shirley cannot be told without elaborating on the life of its "high profile" founder, George Croghan, who likely had his eye on this land as early as 1747 during his expeditions as a trader. He built a house and trading post here in 1753 after moving from the Cumberland Valley. Weiser (1916) writes: "This famous valley heretofore referred to as Aughwick, is described as being in the extreme southern part of Huntingdon County, one of a series of valleys through whose entire length ran the celebrated path from Kittanning to Philadelphia, being the great western highway for footmen and packhorses" (1916:573).
The Evans Map, dated 1749, guided trade and travel from Philadelphia and Lancaster to the central mountains of Pennsylvania. Of specific interest is the westward route labeled "new trail" that ends just past Black Log. Croghan’s homestead was off the map to the west.
Always pushing the envelope of the western frontier, Croghan states in a letter written to Sir William Johnson dated September 10, 1755: "I Live 30 Miles back of all Inhabitance on ye fronteers…" (Volwiler 1926, 48). By 1755, Croghan was essentially "hiding out" in the back country of the province, since he lost many assets provisioning Braddock’s expedition, in addition to his losses in the Ohio Country during the previous year.
An early map of south-central Pennsylvania was produced by John Armstrong in 1755, and showed the proposed chain of forts to protect the western frontier (Waddell and Bomberger 1996, 18-19). Darlington’s 1882 map was copied from Armstrong’s map on file at the Public Record Office in London. Croghan was commissioned by the Provincial governor to manage the establishment of this line of forts in 1755, and used his existing fort for the defensive location at Aughwick.
The European concept of lines of forts was no doubt influenced by local topography, in that their presence facilitated the movement of goods and people through travel arteries and provided fortified refuges in times of hostility. A similar situation is documented in colonial Massachusetts, wherein a chain of frontier forts traversed a straight-line distance of 38 miles over the rough terrain of the northern Berkshires. Coe writes: "[a]ll construction in them was timber, with no masonry beyond chimneys and chimney bases, and no earthworks" (2006:5). One of Coe’s archaeological case studies was also called Fort Shirley, by the same namesake. Another similarity lies in the pioneering activities of the local leaders and the speculation of "wild lands".
Croghan's Trading Post and Aughwick Oldtown
To reveal the location of Fort Shirley, it is necessary to understand the cultural and geographical significance of the settled land adjacent to the fort. A substantial settlement, Aughwick Old Town, developed around George Croghan's homestead, a place where Native Americans and whites conducted trade and found refuge. In a letter dated 16 August 1754, Croghan wrote to the governor of the province that the Half King and his fellow Mingo Seneca people had been staying with him at Aughwick since Washington’s defeat (Hazard 1897, 140-141).
In a deposition given on August 27, 1754 on file in The British Public Records Office, some Native American allies of Washington informed a Captain John B. W. Shaw that they were going to "Jemmy Arther" for protection. The reference to Jemmy Arther is likely an early reference to the trading post of Jerhemia Wardner, employer of George Croghan. Having no place to go after losing their village at the Forks of the Ohio, the Half King expected his people to be harbored and protected by the provincial government of Pennsylvania. Croghan pleaded to the governor that he could not provide for this many families alone and that he needed funding or compensation.
Conrand Weiser visited Croghan’s homestead at Aughwick on September 3, 1754 to investigate the situation and reported to Governor Hamilton that Croghan had a plentiful bounty of butter, milk, squash, pumpkins, and ample acres of the best Indian corn he had ever seen. Included in the Pennsylvania Colonial Records, Weiser also reported that; "…he had encountered about twenty cabins about Croghan’s house, and in them at least 200 Indians, men, women and children…" (Hazard 1878, 149). From announcements regarding runaway slaves near the frontier, we know that Croghan was listed as a contact person for their return. Croghan attracted quite a population with his entourage of partners, employees, servants, slaves, and pack teams, when widespread violence and military actions disrupted his thriving business.
As the political climate was abruptly changing during the time leading up to the French and Indian War, Croghan emerged as a colonial militia leader and the most capable Indian Agent. Croghan scouted for and supplied Braddock’s failed expedition during the summer of 1755; in fact, he and his seven scouts made the first engagement with French forces. Had Braddock accepted the help of the Seneca, Mingo, and Oneida warriors rallied by Croghan, the results may have been much different; however, only seven of the 40 warriors that traveled with him from Aughwick took part in the expedition due to Braddock’s distrust of them.
After Braddock’s death and upon returning to his home, Croghan received credible intelligence reports that war parties from Kittanning were planning to attack the frontier from the West. Rather than waiting for provincial funding, Croghan erected a stockade fort at his own expense during the fall of 1755 to protect his stores and the settlement at Aughwick Old Town.
A cunning frontiersman, Croghan had no doubt thought out his homestead’s defenses, so when the time came to formally fortify his position during the fall of 1755 he likely incorporated existing buildings into the stockade enclosure. He was quite familiar with the fighting tactics of Native American war parties, and was looked to by the provincial government as an expert on fort construction. In addition to his fort at Aughwick, Croghan laid the plans for and oversaw the beginning of the construction of Fort Lyttleton.
The situation at Aughwick was somewhat different from the erection of military forts, as Croghan’s fort was built after his cabin and store houses, implying that they influenced the positioning of the stockade. He is reported to have done the construction with the help of his men and local labor. Originally referred to as "Croghan’s fort", it was taken over by provincial forces and renamed "Fort Shirley" in January 1756. Croghan was commissioned by the Governor as a captain and commanded Fort Shirley for the first three months of 1756 until Captain Mercer assumed command of the garrison of 75 men. In a letter written by Governor Morris to General Shirley, dated February 9, 1756 (and published by in the Pennsylvania Archives) Hazard writes;
"…about twenty miles northward of Fort Lyttelton, at a place called Aughwick, another fort is erected something larger than Fort Lyttelton, which I have taken the liberty of naming Fort Shirley. This stands near the great path used by the Indians and Indians traders, to and from the Ohio, and consequently the easiest way of access for the Indians into the settlements of this Province" (1878, 569). The fort remained active as a key outpost till its abandonment was ordered by the governor in 1756. Montgomery writes: "We see thus that Fort Shirley during the times of Braddock’s disastrous venture was an important post to and from which bodies of armed men under Provincial authority were being constantly directed…" (1916, 573). Due to its advanced location, Colonel Armstrong and his troops set off from Fort Shirley on August 29, 1756 during the Kittanning Expedition in reprisal for the destruction of Fort Granville.
Written in the Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania Volume VII (Hazard):
"As Fort Shirley is not easily defended, and their Water may be taken possession of by the Enemy, it running at a Foot of a high bank Eastward of the Fort, and no well Dugg, I am of Opinion, from its remote situation, that it can’t serve the country in the present Circumstances…" (1851, 32-233).
According to Hunter:
"Except that it was a stockade fort and that it was 'something larger than fort Lyttelton,' little is definitely known about the structure of this defense" (Hunter 1960, 394). General Forbes described Fort Lyttleton and Fort Louden as measuring 100 feet square; thus providing a minimum size for the stockade of Fort Shirley.
Court Cases and Deeds The ownership of the tract where the fort once stood can be tracked by using deeds and surveys available on the PHMC website and other sources. Croghan was the first owner of the land where the fort stood after the area was opened up for settlement. In fact, he is said to have purchased the Aughwick tract from the Onondaga rather than from the Penn family; and therefore, this transaction was a point of contention with the provincial government.
Ownership of Croghan's land at Aughwick was contested in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in a case heard in Huntingdon in 1799. In this case John Armstrong’s sons, James and John Jr., were defending their ownership of the land along with Thomas Duncan against John Morgan, the plaintiff (Hudson 1849, 141-152; and Cases of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court circa 1803: 529-530).
After a visit to the local survey company, Africa Engineers, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, we believe that we have found the map of the survey ordered (if not done by) (Figure 2) John Armstrong; who, had a vested personal interest in the property at Aughwick as he owned the deed to one of the three tracts (also redrawn and reprinted in Africa 1883, 342a).
The parcel appears again in the records when the land is deeded to James Fowley in 1773. Rev. Philip Fithian, who was commissioned to survey the Presbyterian churches scattered about Pennsylvania in 1775, wrote about the fort and his stay at the Fowley's home. Published by the Huntingdon County Historical Society, he writes in his diary: "We crossed Ofwick (Aughwick) Creek and arrived …at Mr. Fowley's who lives within the walls of old Fort Shirley" (1937:16). Ownership of the parcel is then transferred to Paul Warner in 1776 and recorded by another survey map.
In 1783 an Irish immigrant named Samuel McCammon came to Shirleysburg from Bucks County and bought the tract that included the fort stockade. This is perhaps the most important account of the change of ownership, as Mr. McCammon is reported to have built his house from the round logs of the old fort house (Jordan Vol. III 1936, 716). From this, we know that the fort stockade was still visible at this time. It is possible that all the usable wood from the stockade and structures was scavenged for use in the construction of cabins and out buildings, leaving only subsurface features and artifacts to reveal the fort's location. Any mention or surveys after this period would have been done without visual reference to the stockade.
There are multiple accounts, from both primary sources and historical interpretations, regarding the location of Fort Shirley; and each of these come along with their own specific complications and contradictions. The first account for the location of Fort Shirley after the Colonial Period appeared in a newspaper called The Standing Stone Banner (published 1853-1855) that was edited by J. Simpson Africa and Samuel G. Whitaker. The Banner's description appeared in the Pennsylvania Archives (Hazard 1856, 458) during the first attempt to locate the frontier forts of Pennsylvania.
In Lytle's History of Huntingdon County, he states:
"… (I am) indebted to Samuel McVitty, ESQ., formerly of Shirleysburg, now of Clay Township, this county, with reference to the natural surroundings in its immediate vicinity. The site of the fort has been frequently pointed out to him by those who had seen it, and by Isaac Morgan, who claims to have forted in it in his boyhood days. It was a log fort of considerable strength and size, standing on the edge of the plateau, south of the fort run and west of the road entering Shirleysburg from Mount Union (sic) Aughwick was situated about half-way between the fort and Aughwick Creek, where the depot of the East Broad Top Railroad now stands. Mr. McVitty spent many hours of his youthful hours in gathering arrow-heads, stone tomahawks, beads, and musket balls from this historic ground" (1875, 64-65).
In his history of Huntingdon County, Africa writes:
"The fort stockade was located on the left or south bank of Fort Run, about half-way between the Benjamin Leas house and the farm of Nelson Barton, and a little south of a line drawn between the two. The house of Capt. Croghan, who was in command of the fort, stood a little west or southwest of the fort, near a large pine-tree then, and for three-quarters of a century after, standing near where the station of the East Broad Top Railroad now stands" (1883, 341-342).
A report on the frontier forts was published by Weiser (1916), but according to Waddell and Bomberger (1996) it was assembled without critical analysis or organization. However, according to Weiser:
"The writer, after an inspection of the site found it on an elevated plot of ground, where now stands the Shirleysburg Female Seminary, within the limits of the borough of Shirleysburg and on the east side of it about one-fourth of a mile from Aughwick. A small stream passes southwest through Germany Valley between the spot where the fort was located and the end of Owing’s Hill, and empties into Aughwick Creek" (1916, 567-566).
The reference to an "elevated plot of ground" is unclear, as the seminary location is set back from Fort Run and its confluence with Aughwick Creek. The report also states that the fort supposedly stood opposite a high ledge of rocks used for target practice; however, modern highway construction impacted this hillside so that it cannot be used as a reference.
Another historian, Charles Hannah, presents a photo of the field from 1909, labeling it as the field where Fort Shirley Stood (Hannah 1911, 253). The Huntingdon Borough Sesquicentennial publication (1938), repeated Lytle's 1875 description of fort while Samuel McVitty recounts of local elders talking about the fort’s size and recalls collecting military and Indian artifacts in the field as a child thus reinforcing an oral account of the fort's location.
One of the oldest parcel maps documenting the tract where the fort stood is dated November 23, 1762 and was obtained through the Hamilton Library Collection in Carlisle; unfortunately, the fort location is not indicated. Next we have Surveyor General Armstrong’s survey map of the parcel apparently dated 1761; this, was obtained at the local engineering office and it does show a location for the fort. The map indicates that the parcel that includes the fort was deeded to Jeremiah Warder and Company in right of George Croghan. This map was later redrawn for a plate published by Africa (1883, 342a).
At first glance, the scale and proportions seemed to be relatively accurate when compared to modern aerial photographs and topographic maps of the site. Therefore, we wanted to check to see if the mapped location of the fort could mark the spot. To evaluate the accuracy of the map we went to the Huntingdon County Mapping Office where we had the map overlaid onto the GIS database.
While fitting the maps, it was discovered that the survey from Carlisle was close to 100 perches (1 perch=16.5 ft.) too short along one of the survey legs. This may explain why there is another survey map dated November 25. While a more accurate survey map, the date is difficult to decipher; thus, complicating our understanding of the timeline of events surrounding the surveys and court documents. Using distinct features as control points we attempted to match the survey maps to the modern aerial image. We then re-surveyed the three-mile-long tract using the survey notes to reveal that the boundaries match up best nearest along Aughwick Creek, while distortion and inaccuracy occurs along Owing’s Hill and Fort Run. From the GIS, we know that the symbol used to represent the fort measures 600 by 400 feet, which is much too large to have been drawn to scale. Additionally, the overlay places the fort on the steep hill and in the middle of Route 522, so we know that the placement of both the fort and Fort Run are skewed. The GIS is flexible in the different view options as shown in this figure; with the redrawn parcel boundary over the areal on the left, and the parcel boundary over a hill-shade surface on the right.
Penn State University Summer Field School 2010
After reviewing the maps and assembling the written clues, a team was assembled for the Summer of 2010 to conduct a preliminary investigation of the site. The presence of a palisade fort was discovered as well as an indication of both Native Americans and activities of the troops garrisoned there.
When chosen by Croghan, the location was appealing as a good spot for a homestead rather than defensible ground for a fort. Bearing this in mind, it must consider that the 1750s landscape may have been transformed by geomorphologic processes (i.e. flooding, erosion, and stream channel migration) as well as subsequent farming activity. Before the excavation began, visual inspections of various air photo series, there are few (if any), to find apparent effects on the vegetation coverage from subsurface features. At first glance, the site appears to be a seemingly featureless cornfield; but by using clues from the written record and the maps, four localized areas are sought for additional investigation.
There are no obvious traces of the fort or any other structures from Croghan’s homestead visible on the aerial photographs of the site. Adding to the complications is the fact that old Pennsylvania State Route 522 could have impacted the fort and village sites. One way to focus the search for a compound structure such as Fort Shirley is to use geophysical prospecting techniques to detect any traces of subsurface features such as foundations, the palisade wall, and the powder magazine. After narrowing the search using the written record, maps, and GIS; a geophysical survey was started in November 2009 with the help of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A site grid has been established and the test blocks have been staked-out using a laser total station; then, ground-penetrating-radar and resistivity equipment were used to collect data during close interval traverses (0.5 or 1.0 m). The geophysical data will be interpreted further to help guide subsequent archaeological testing.
In lieu of professional archaeological excavations, conventional wisdom suggests that the site is somewhere near the Female Seminary or Leas House. In 1984, a frizen[clarification needed] and a .30 caliber lead ball were recovered using a metal detector (approximately 20 ft.) directly behind the Leas house. This location is nearer the old railroad station mentioned in the latter accounts of the fort, but further from the mapped location suggested by the Armstrong survey. Military and Native American artifacts are rumored to have been collected from this part of the field over the past 100 years or more; but, these accounts should be substantiated with informant interviews.
1937. Souvenir Historical Book, Sesqui-Centennial Celebration of Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Huntingdon County Historical Society, Huntingdon, PA.
Africa, J.S. 1883. History of Huntingdon County Pennsylvania. Huntingdon County Historical Society, Huntingdon, PA.
Burns, Jonathan A., Drobnock, George John, and Smith, Jared M. 2008. Croghan at Aughwick: History, Maps, and Archaeology Collide in the Search for Fort Shirley. Paper Presented Pioneer America Society October 2008.
Coe, M. D. 2006. The Line of Forts: Historical Archaeology on the Colonial Frontier of Massachusetts. University Press of New England, Hanover.
Donehoo, George P., Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania, The Telegraph Press, Harrisburg, PA, 1928
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Hunter W. A. 1960. Forts on the Pennsylvania Frontier, 1753-1758. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA.
Jordan, J.W. 1936. A History of the Juniata River Valley in Three Volumes, vol. III. National Historical Association, Harrisburg, PA.
Lytle, M.S. 1876. History of Huntingdon County, in the state of Pennsylvania: from the earliest times to the centennial anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1876. W.H. Roy Publishers, Lancaster, PA.
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Weiser, J. G. 1916. The Frontier Forts in the Cumberland and Juniata Valleys. In, Report of the Commission to Locate the Site of the Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania, Vol. I, edited by T.L. Montgomery. W. S. Ray, State Printer, Harrisburg, PA.
- Wainwright, p. 69-85
- Waddell and Bomberger, p. 88
- Waddell and Bomberger, p. 17
- Waddell and Bomberger, p. 24
- Volwiler, Albert T. 1926. George Croghan and the Westward Movement, 1741-1782. Arthur H. Clarke and Co., Cleveland, OH.
- Waddell, Louis M, and Bruce D. Bomberger, The French and Indian War in Pennsylvania 1753-1763, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania., 1996, ISBN 0-89271-057-8.
- Wainwright, Nicholas B. 1959. George Croghan, Wilderness Diplomat. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C.