A full two hundred years of debate has asked the question, was Point Pleasant the first battle of the American Revolution? After all, did the war not take place while Boston was blockaded and occupied by British troops, the Powder Alarm sparked early fears of a war, and the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia? From a chronological perspective, it certainly seems like the events could be related.
The simplest answer, straight from the horse’s mouth, is that it was not. The following passage is the last in the Fort Gower Resolves, drafted by the entirety of Dunmore’s Northern Army and Lewis’ Southern Army while encamped at Fort Gower on the march home.
“Resolved, that we entertain the greatest respect for his Excellency the Right Honourable Lord Dunmore, who commanded the expedition against the Shawnees; and who, we are confident, underwent the great fatigue of this singular campaign from no other motive than the true interest of this country.”
Furthermore, the following section is the first in the Fincastle Resolutions, signed by several officers of Lewis’ army after they returned home, including Colonel William Christian and Captain Evan Shelby.
“To the Delegates from this colony who attended the Continental Congress held at Philadelphia: Gentlemen, Had it not been for our remote situation, and the Indian war which we were lately engaged in, to chastise those cruel and savage people for the many murders and depredations they have committed against us (now happily terminated, under the auspices of our present worthy Governour, his Excellency the Right Honourable the Earl of Dunmore) we should before this time have made known to you our thankfulness for the very important services you have rendered to your country, in conjunction with the worthy Delegates from the other provinces.”
In other words, thank you for dealing with the problem in Boston while we sorted out another on the frontier. Like the Fort Gower Resolves, they then go on to praise King George III, criticize Parliament, offer their hope for an amicable solution to the crisis, and make clear their willingness to die in defense of liberty.
These two passages make it clear that Lord Dunmore’s War ought to be considered a totally separate frontier war in its own right, rather than trying to argue and compete with Lexington & Concord as the “first battle.” We certainly cannot take at face value the statements made many years later, when some officers tried to claim more glory for their victory.
The men who fought and died at Point Pleasant in 1774 did not consider their victory to be the beginning of the Revolution, nor should we. They considered it a war of revenge, solely between them and the Native Americans.
Now, this is not to say that Point Pleasant did not have an impact on the Revolution, much like the earlier French & Indian War (1754-1763). It proved once and for all that the colonies could field a well-equipped and trained army if necessary, which was a major morale boost in the early days of the war and a substantial influence on the idea of the self-sufficient American frontiersman, and the westward expansion into Kentucky made possible by Point Pleasant allowed Patriot forces to stall and defeat British forces in the Ohio Country and Great Lakes region.
Like the Boston Massacre (1770), Battle of Alamance (1771), and Gaspee Affair (1772), the Battle of Point Pleasant is important but simply not the “shot heard ‘round the world.”
Rather, we must grant the Battle of Point Pleasant the long-deserved distinction of being the ONLY major battle of Lord Dunmore’s War, an honor only we can claim. Instead of pretending that we are the “first battle” and competing with Lexington & Concord, we ought to focus on Point Pleasant’s importance to the expansion of our young nation.
Indeed, Lord Dunmore’s War made possible every state west of the Appalachians. Through the 1774 Treaty of Camp Charlotte, the colonies gained all of the land “south and east of the Ohio River.” From these lands, West Virginia and Kentucky, American forays into the Old Northwest during the Revolution ensured that almost everything east of the Mississippi was ceded to the new nation under the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Control of the Old Northwest, and the fact that farmers in the region were more likely to ship their goods downriver to French and Spanish-held New Orleans rather than over the Appalachians, justified the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. And so on and so forth, using each prior gain as justification for the next, until the United States spanned from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
To think, all of that began right here at Point Pleasant, the first major western expansion of the United States.
Information from the various resolves and resolutions of the Southern Army.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.