Fort Laurens was constructed in the Ohio Country in 1778. During the American Revolution, most American Indians residing in the Ohio Country allied themselves with the British. While they were neutral in the conflicts, the Lenape (Delaware) who had converted to Christianity under the Moravian brethren's missionary efforts in Eastern Ohio were among the few local American Indian groups who were friendly to invading Anglo-American settlers. In the fall of 1778, Lachlan McIntosh served as the commander of an American army sent to the Ohio Country to defeat the Wyandot, strong allies of the British, as well launch an attack against the British garrison located at Detroit, Michigan. During the month of November, McIntosh decided not to carry out his orders due to the winter months that lay ahead. Rather he decided to wait until the warmer spring months before conducting his attacks. He ordered the construction of a fort along the Tuscarawas River (near modern-day Bolivar, Ohio) to help his men survive the harsh winter weather.
Named Fort Laurens, after the president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, the Americans completed the structure by early December 1778. It was to serve three purposes. First, the Americans hoped to utilize Fort Laurens as a base to attack the British garrison located at Detroit. Second, it would hopefully deter American Indian nations loyal to the British from conducting raids against American settlers in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Finally, by offering protection to the neutral Lenape -- the so-called "Christian Delawares" -- the Americans might convince them to forsake their neutrality and join the settlers' cause. Unfortunately for McIntosh, his men disliked living in such a hostile environment. Rather than have a mutiny on his hands, McIntosh decided to take the bulk of his men, just over one thousand of them, to the safer confines of Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania. He did leave behind approximately 150 men under Colonel John Gibson's command. Less than two weeks after McIntosh's departure, the men at Fort Laurens rose up against Gibson, but he was able to restore order.
Fort Laurens quickly drew the attention of British soldiers and their American Indian allies in the Ohio Country. In January 1779, Simon Girty, a British agent and interpreter among the region's American Indians, led a small group of Seneca-Cayuga natives to reconnoiter the fort's defensive features. The men came upon sixteen militiamen from Fort Laurens. They attacked and killed two of the Americans and captured one other. The captive revealed the awful conditions in the fort and the resulting low morale among the Americans. Captain Henry Bird of the English army hoped to take advantage of the situation. With a handful of British soldiers and 180 American Indian allies, consisting of Wyandot, Mingo, Munsee and Delaware peoples, Bird laid siege to Fort Laurens beginning on February 22, 1779. Gibson learned of the attack before it took place. Half King, a Wyandot chief, had sent messengers to the Moravian communities along the Tuscarawas. He told the "Christian Delawares" (Moravian Lenape) that they either had to assist the Wyandots in their attacks on the American settlers, or the Wyandots would attack the Lenape. Delaware chief Killbuck, immediately alerted David Zeisberger, the Moravians' leader, who warned the Americans at Fort Laurens. McIntosh, still at Fort Pitt, quickly sent 120 militiamen to assist the men at Fort Laurens. They arrived too late to be of help. The British had already surrounded the fort, and the American force, believing it would be destroyed if they tried to help the fort's garrison, returned to Fort Pitt.
Throughout late February and early March, conditions in Fort Laurens deteriorated quickly. To avoid starvation, the men became desperate enough to boil their moccasins to make stew. Two men snuck out of the fort to go hunting. They killed a deer. When they returned to their comrades with the carcass, many of the men, ravenous with hunger, ate their portion of the deer meat raw.
Conditions outside of Fort Laurens were only slightly better. The British and the American Indian confederation, also facing starvation, lifted the siege of the fort on March 20, 1779. Three days later a relief force, consisting of seven hundred men from Fort Pitt, arrived. As soon as Gibson's men became able to travel, the bulk of the Americans returned to Fort Pitt. Only 106 men, under the command of Major Frederick Vernon, remained behind.
In the meantime, Colonel Daniel Brodhead replaced McIntosh as Fort Pitt's commander. He informed General George Washington of Fort Laurens' inadequacy. It was too far from Detroit to serve as a staging ground to attack the British garrison located there. It also was not close enough to protect the Lenape at the Moravian missions in Schoenbrunn, Gnadenhutten, and Lichtenau. Washington ordered the fort's abandonment. The last soldiers left Fort Laurens on August 2, 1779.
Fort Laurens was the only fort that the Americans built in the Ohio Country during the Revolution. Once Fort Laurens was abandoned, the Continental Army had no real presence and played no major role in the area for the rest of the war. Militiamen became responsible for the defense of American settlers in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Today, the Ohio History Connection operates a museum at the site of Fort Laurens.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Pieper, Thomas I., and James B. Gidney. Fort Laurens, 1778-1779: The Revolutionary War in Ohio. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1976.