Last week, I left you with the “truth” of the Battle of Point Pleasant, as put forth by John Stuart and championed by Livia Poffenbarger. Now, however, there must be a reckoning. Is this celebrated frontier battle truly the “beginning of the revolutionary war that obtained for our country the liberty and independence so enjoyed by the United States,” as Stuart wrote in his Memoirs of the Indian Wars, or is it perhaps even more important?
The entire argument boils down to the motivations and actions of one man: James Murray, 4th Earl Dunmore and Royal Governor of Virginia. The most ardent “first battle” supporters tend to support a theory that Dunmore seized upon an inevitable war with the Native Americans as an opportunity to effectively cripple Virginia on the eve of the Revolution. By betraying Lewis to the Shawnee, Dunmore hoped to destroy the most effective militia in the colonies. Then, playing the part of an avenging angel, he would double-cross the Shawnee, destroy their towns, and force a peace treaty so heavily in favor of Virginia that it would take the fight out of even the most passionate rebel. After all, who would fight a governor that did so much for them? Of course, none of this happened after his supposed betrayal due to Lewis’ victory at Point Pleasant. But what of this betrayal?
Stuart points out that the Native Americans somehow knew the exact size of Lewis’ army and accuses Dunmore of giving this information to Cornstalk. There are two problems with this idea. First, it is absolutely ridiculous to think that Dunmore could have passed information to the Shawnee, either in person or via messenger, under the watchful eyes of his officers, which included such notable patriots as Adam Stephen, Daniel Morgan, and George Rogers Clark. Second, Stuart seems to have forgotten that they encountered Native American warriors, scouts, and hunting parties a total of seven times between Lewisburg and Point Pleasant. Any one of these groups could have taken a rough count of the army’s size.
Another oft-cited piece of Stuart’s memoir is Dunmore’s supposed walk with John Connolly and some other officers, during which he said that Lewis “had hot work.” This supposedly shows Dunmore’s knowledge of the Shawnee plot and was related to Stuart by Andrew Lewis himself in 1779, five years after the battle and in the midst of the Revolution. Again, there are numerous problems. By 1779, Andrew Lewis had resigned from the army and was serving as an Indian Commissioner in Pittsburgh, Stuart was settling Lewisburg (quite a way from Pittsburgh), and both Dunmore and Connolly were actively supporting the British. Add this to the earlier stated fact that almost all of Dunmore’s officers later became influential patriots and would’ve noted something such as this, and this supposed walk was almost certainly made up by Stuart.
A final curious point, the Indian trader’s warning to Stuart, has a much simpler explanation. His job required visiting the various Native American towns throughout Ohio. He and other traders knew better than anyone that a war was coming, and he was not afraid to say it.
In short, the entire “first battle” argument arose because Stuart refused to give credit where credit was due. Rather than accept that the Native Americans, particularly Cornstalk, had an understanding of military strategy that easily rivaled that of colonial leaders, he tried to pin their near success on the only other military power in the region, the British. This is understandable in the years following the outbreak of the Revolution, as colonists suddenly questioned the motives of every loyalist, but that does not make it true. This anti-British paranoia lasted well-through the Civil War and explains the work of many other early historians. But what of Poffenbarger? Why did she champion the “first battle” history when every other historian, notably Virgil Lewis, was saying otherwise?
It’s simple, really. Poffenbarger was a newspaper editor and publisher who had successfully saved the dying State Gazette, and promoting Point Pleasant as the “first battle” was the ultimate marketing strategy. Think of the benefits that Point Pleasant would have received had we, rather than Lexington and Concord, been nationally recognized as the first battle of the American Revolution.
Information from John Stuart’s Memoirs of the Indian Wars and letters written by William Fleming, Andrew Lewis, and Adam Stephens, among others.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.