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Battle Narrative

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The Battle of Sideling Hill

 

(Below is the story of the battle in narrative format.  While this narrative is presented as facts, very little of the information about the Battle can be stated with absolute certainty.  This material represents the conclusions drawn from the references available.  To see the details of the research which led to these conclusions and the references used, refer to the pages that follow.)

 

The Battle at Sideling Hill took place on April 4th, 1756, less than a mile north of Maddensville, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania.  The entire sequence of events was actually a series of three battles beginning on April 1st.

The Beginning -

The roots of the battle however began three years earlier.  In 1753 William McCord obtained a land grant from the Penn’s, the Proprietors of Pennsylvania, on the western frontier of what is now Franklin County.  This land and the large surrounding area had been a favorite hunting ground for the Delaware Indians for centuries.  As a result, they had built temporary shelters in the area for use during their hunting trips.

McCord reportedly told them they were no longer welcome and they should stop roaming the territory near his home.  The Delaware’s assured him they would not cause him or his neighbors any problems, and ignored his warning. McCord eventually proceeded to burn their lodgings.  Some were rebuilt and were burned again.  The Indians withdrew from the area but they did not forget.

As early as 1754, the Ohio Delawares had allied with the French in the French and Indian War and were making regular incursions into the frontier areas, frequently killing and capturing the settlers there.  Late in 1755, uder the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, the Pennsylvania government overcame the resistance of the Quaker legislature and began building a series of frontier forts for defense against these raids.  Fort Littleton which will play a significant roll in the battle was one of these.  Many families followed suite and built private forts to protect themselves and their neighbors.  In early 1756, William McCord and his brother converted William's home into one of these stockades.

The First Battle -

Sometime in late March of 1756, a band of approximately 100 Delaware warriors left their village of Kittanning in Western Pennsylvania on the Allegheny River to raid the frontier settlements to the east.  This tribe had allied themselves with the French who provided them with supplies, arms, and ammunition.  This band was led by their two most famous warrior chiefs, Shingas and Captain Jacob.  It is said that the target of these raids was always determined in advance and one of the targets of this expedition was to be a matter of vengeance against William McCord’s earlier mistreatment of the Delawares.

At some point in their march they divided into two equal groups which proceeded separately.  This probably happened in the area where the Little Aughwick and Sideling Hill Creeks converge to form the Aughwick Creek.  The plan called for the two groups to rendezvous at this same location after the completion of their bloody mischief for their return to Kittanning.

Sometime early on Thursday, April 1st the band lead by Shingas arrived at McCord’s Fort.  They were well aware of the settler's practices; knowing that families spent the nights inside the stockade but during the day during the growing season, most, if not all of the men left to tend to their fields.  This day, all but one of the farmers had left by mid-day.  Just after noon, Shingas launched the attack. 

Jean Lowry was at the Fort this day and much of the rest of the story comes from her journal.   A younger sister of William McCord, she and her five of her six children were among the captives taken.  She was pregnant, and with great difficulty she marched with the Indians and other captives back to Kittanning.  The common practice of these Indians was to adopt the captured children into the tribe and to sell the adults as prisoners of war to the French and Canadians which amounted to white slavery.  Lowry spent six weeks as a prisoner of the Delawares before being presented as a gift to the French commander of Fort Machault.   Her child was delivered on July 4th, at Fort MacHault but died four days later.  She worked as a servant for the commander for 14 months, at which time he sent her to Montreal to serve in the same capacity for his wife.  This occurred in July of 1757.  She continued as a servant there until she was eventually exchanged for French prisoners in September 1758.   She ultimately returned to Philadelphia via Quebec and England, in April of 1759, almost exactly three years after her capture.  Her journal was published in 1760 in Philadelphia.

McCord’s Fort was the fortified home of William McCord.  Like most of these stockades it was 2 stories with loopholes through which to fire at attackers.  At the time of the attack there were 27 people gathered at the Fort.  Lowry’s husband, John, was the only adult male present and was on the ground floor with 2 of their children.  She was on the upper level with the other three children.  John killed one of the Indians before he was shot and killed.

Soon after the attack began, the Indians began using flaming arrows to set the structure ablaze which quickly achieved that purpose.  Lowry notes she was “big with child” and thus deeply concerned about her fate as she believed it was the Indian practice to not take women in that condition as prisoners, but rather to simply kill them.  She eventually lowered herself and the three children out one of the upper windows into captivity.  To her surprise and relief, she was taken captive.

All of the 27 settlers present were either killed or captured.

The Chase -

The Delawares then organized themselves and their prisoners for the return to their territory to the west.  The speed of their travel was inhibited by the captives which included children as young as two, two pregnant women and the practice of binding some of the captives.

As word of the attack spread across the valley, it reached Alexander Culbertson who was the captain of a local Militia unit.  He then spread the word that he was organizing his unit along with any other settlers that wished to join them to pursue the Delaware’s and rescue the captives.

Given the speed of travel in the 18th century, the spread of the news of the attack and then the delivery of Captain Culbertson’s order and the gathering of the troops, lasted well into the evening.  Some of them came from as far away as Shippensburg which was nineteen miles from McCord’s Fort.  At dawn the following day, the 31 men who had gathered began their trek through the wilderness on the trail of the Indian party and their captives.

Lowry reports she marched three days through the wilderness, up one mountain and down, then through the mire of the valleys in between and then up and down the next mountain.

Captain Culbertson followed their trail for two days.  When they came near Fort Littleton he determined to detour from his tracking and proceed to the Fort to solicit assistance in the form of more troops.  Captain Hance Hamilton was in command of the Fort.  He assigned Ensign Dr. David Jameson and 18 men to accompany Culbertson.

The troop, now numbering 50 men, started north following the Little Aughwick Creek hoping to reestablish contact with the trail of the Delawares.

The Second Battle -

Unbeknownst to Culbertson, the band he was tracking had that day established a camp at the confluence of Little Aughwick Creek and Sideling Hill Creek to await their rendezvous with Captain Jacob's band.  On Saturday evening, April 3rd, his forward scouts discovered the fires of that camp.  Following the standard military practice of the day, indeed of the millennium, he delayed his attack until dawn of the following day.  The delay undoubtedly cost him his life and that of many of his troops.

At sunrise they mounted their attack.  It was quickly a rout.  The surprised Delaware’s hastily retreated to the surrounding wilderness abandoning their prisoners and many of their weapons.

Lowry reported, “At the first attack only one Indian was killed and another wounded, upon which they all fled and were soon hid among the laurel, (a great deal of it growing in the place) our people then came up and untied me, and removed us to a rising ground at a little distance:  No expressions can sufficiently show my joy when instead of savage Indians I found myself in the midst of friends and neighbors, who had assembled so quickly and pursued so diligently for our rescue.”

The Third Battle -

Unfortunately, her joy was very short-lived.  The timing of the rendezvous of Shingas and Captain Jacob could not have been more perfect for the Indians or any worse for Culbertson and his men.  While they were busy moving, untying, and comforting their newly freed neighbors, Captain Jacob and his warriors arrived on the scene.  In their haste to free and comfort the captives, Culbertson’s men had failed to secure the weapons left on the field when the Shingas' Indians fled.

With the arrival of their reinforcements, the Delawares were able to recover their weapons and surround the settlers.  Now outnumbering Culbertson’s troops by two to one, they immediately initiated a new attack.  This battle lasted over two hours.  The Militia commonly carried twenty-four charges of powder and ball and when that was exhausted they were forced to flea.  Five of the captives were also able to escape.

Those who did escape made their way back to either Fort Littleton or McDowell's Mill; most of those traveling to Fort Littleton arrived there before nightfall.  The Fort’s only doctor, Ensign Jameson had been left for dead on the battlefield so Captain Hamilton sent an express at 8:00 p.m. that evening, urgently soliciting medical help for the wounded and assistance with a burial party for the dead.

Twenty of the rescue party had been killed and another twelve wounded.  This was the highest casualty rate of any Pennsylvania battle during this war.  The dead included Captain Culbertson.  While Ensign Jameson had been left for dead, he revived and although severely wounded, made his way alone to Fort Littleton two days later.  It was initially reported that Captain Jacob had been killed and his scalp taken, but his prompt return to the war proved this untrue.

The Aftermath –

Because of the controlling influence of the Quakers on the Pennsylvania Government, it had been far too negligent in implementing the military actions necessary to defend its frontiers from the French supported and encouraged Indians. 

The importance of the Battle of Sideling Hill was that it finally convinced the people and the government that this was a real war, and not simply a frustrating series of Indian incursions on the frontier. 

Within a week of the government in Philadelphia learning of the Sideling Hill tragedy, it officially declared war on the “Enemy Indians;” established a bounty for the scalps of said Indians; and passed a strong new law regarding the organization and behavior of the Province Militia.  Continued similar aggressive activity by the government throughout May and June, made it clear that the battle had changed Pennsylvania from its passive attitude towards self defense to a posture of active and aggressive measures to defend the frontier and defeat the French and their Indian allies. 

Because of its effect on the people and government of Pennsylvania, and the ultimate influence on the outcome of the war, the importance of the Battle of Sideling Hill cannot be over estimated.

 

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Copyright 2009 - Jim Wilks

 

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