Last week, I wrote about the conflict between history and memory. Occasionally, memory wins that conflict, and it is blended with history. This is perfectly fine and can even fill gaps in the historical record. However, memory sometimes replaces history entirely. That memory becomes the truth. This becomes a serious problem when that memory is biased, lacks the entire story, or is just plain wrong. Perhaps the worst of these “truths” in Mason County concerns the relation between the Battle of Point Pleasant and the American Revolution.
It’s the founding moment in our county’s history. There’s no question that Lord Dunmore’s War, and the Battle of Point Pleasant, opened the Ohio Valley to settlement and made our towns possible. It was even more important to the westward expansion of Colonial America. Yet, many in Mason County argue that it is something more. The Battle of Point Pleasant, rather than those of Lexington and Concord, is the first battle of the American Revolution.
Supporters of the “first battle” history nearly always point to three explanations as proof, all of which revolve around Lord Dunmore, the colonial Governor of Virginia and commanding general during this war.
The first, and least common, is that Dunmore somehow instigated the war to distract Virginians from the American Revolution brewing in Massachusetts. The only problem here is that the war only involved people on the frontier. Nobody in Eastern Virginia cared.
The second, one that comes up quite often, is that Dunmore was ordered by the British Parliament to wage war against the Shawnee and force them into an Anglo-Native American alliance against the rebellious colonists. Again, there’s one big problem with this theory. Waging a war against someone isn’t really the best way to form an alliance. If Parliament had really wanted an alliance with the Shawnee, they’d have sent Sir William Johnson to negotiate, as they did with the Iroquois.
The third theory, which tends to be the most popular, is simple. Lord Dunmore and his loyalist supporters betrayed the Virginians; therefore, the Battle of Point Pleasant is as much a fight against the Crown as the Shawnee. The first historian to make this claim was John Stuart, a veteran of the battle and early settler in West Virginia. It was soon picked up and expanded by historians Alexander Scott Withers and Joseph Doddridge, though its most vocal supporter was Livia Poffenbarger, local activist and editor of the State Gazette.
As evidence for the claim, Stuart points to an encounter he had with Andrew Lewis in 1779, five years after the battle. Lewis told Stuart that “he was well informed that on…the day of our battle, Dunmore and the noted Dr. Connelly with some other officers, were taking a walk when Dunmore observed to the gentlemen that he expected by that time Colonel Lewis had some hot work.” Stuart realizes that this eerily lines up with a conversation he had with William McCulloch, an Indian trader and messenger from Dunmore who was in camp the day before the battle. Asked if the Shawnee would fight, he told Stuart, “Aye, they will give you grinders, and that before long.” Combining the two encounters, it would seem that Dunmore knew of Cornstalk’s plan to attack Lewis’ army and did nothing to stop it. That by itself is a grave accusation, but it is taken one step further.
During the battle, the Native Americans claimed to have 1,000 warriors, with 1,000 more on the way. Stuart notes that these matched the size of both Lewis’ main army and the reported size of reinforcements under Col. William Christian, though in reality Christian only had 300 men. In Stuart’s opinion, they could only have learned those exact numbers one way. Lord Dunmore told them. Dunmore’s lack of assistance can be explained by his distance and wish to reach the Shawnee towns as quickly as possible, but this is the final nail in his coffin. Some authors even go so far as to say that Cornstalk himself, or possibly Blue Jacket, visited Dunmore’s camp the night before the battle.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt Stuart’s case that Dunmore and Connolly both joined the British during the Revolution.
With only this information in mind, it’s easy to see why Point Pleasant has been called the first battle of the Revolution. Next week, in the final part to this series, I’ll explain the historical facts as they relate to these accusations and make it evident that something needs done to correct our history.
Information from John Stuart’s “Memoirs of the Indian Wars.”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.