Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Washington's Lost Colony

In 1754, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia promised Virginia officers 200,000 acres of land in western Virginia in exchange for their service in the French and Indian War.  However, by 1770, the land was still unclaimed, so on behalf of the men, George Washington led a small expedition to explore the uncharted lands.  By November 2 of that year, the small party arrived in what is believed to be present-day Arbuckle, and there, found plentiful game and rich land.

Washington returned home on December 1, and the following June, hired Captain William Crawford to survey some land on the south side of the Kanawha River.  This surveyed land turned into Washington's personal 10,990 acre claim to Gov. Dinwiddie's land proclamation.  The tract ran about 17 miles along the Kanawha River, starting about two miles from its mouth, and ending approximately at the present-day Putnam County line.  Washington decided to sell what he considered to be valuable and potentially profitable tracts to western settlers, but had no buyers due to rising conflicts with settlers and local Indians in the area.

As a result of this conflict, October of 1774 saw the Battle of Point Pleasant, a battle in which the colonists were victorious, resulting in a temporary peace with the Shawnee.

Washington, believing that this peace agreement would finally lure settlers in the area decided in January of 1775 to appoint an overseer of his western lands, and ready it for settlement.  He appointed James Cleveland, and sent with him a number of indentured servants from England, purchased in Alexandria, Virginia.  The men were to clear lands, plant peach tree seeds, and generally ready the land for habitation at an area around the middle of the tract of land.

The mission seemed doomed from the beginning.  There were not adequate supplies for the men, and some of those were lost near Parkersburg when winds and a leaky canoe overcame the men.  Arriving in the Pt. Pleasant area, the men stopped over at Ft. Blair where they were introduced to Captain Russell, who would assist the group several times over their tenure. 

It took three days of exploration, but the group finally decided where the middle of the tract a bend that is believed to be at the present site of Nine Mile Creek.  While at the settlement, Cleveland wrote home to George Washington, and three of those letters do survive today.  The first one, however, is less than complimentary to the region.  Cleveland called it the worst land ever.  The abundance of game that Washington observed five years earlier was gone, and not even the fish were biting.  The closest place to buy corn was in Ft. Union (present-day Lewisburg), which was over 165 miles away.

Trouble also loomed with the indentured servants.  Cleveland was constantly having to deal with runaways.  Some were caught, but many either escaped to freedom, or were presumed dead.  However, even with all of these obstacles, Cleveland managed to eke out a fairly successful establishment, with the help of Captain Russell.

By August of that year, a tax appraisal was done, dated for the fourth.  It noted that the men had cleared and fenced 28 acres, had planted 2,000 peach seeds, erected 14 buildings, and had large crops of corn and various other items.  This appraisal wasn't delivered, however, until April 2, 1776, when Captain Crawford delivered it to the Fincastle Court House in Virginia.

Unfortunately, Washington was never able to check in on his project.  Two months before the tax appraisal was completed, Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary War troops, and went off into battle.  Also around this time, Ft. Blair was ordered to be evacuated, due to another bout of Indian uprisings against white settlers, and Captain Russell began plans to leave within 6-8 weeks.

After the appraisal of August 1775, no additional records of the settlement have been found.  In addition, after the war, Washington retained the lands, up until his death.  No sign of the 14 buildings, peach trees, or anything else indicating a settlement was ever found, and the men were not heard from again.

Several theories abound as to what may have happened.  Ft. Blair was burned by the Indians in August of 1775, so perhaps the settlement here was also burned, and nature allowed to reclaim it.  Perhaps the men fled, or joined Captain Russell's retreat.  Perhaps...we simply are not meant to know the fate of James Cleveland and his band of unnamed indentured servants. 

Photo from the WV State Archives

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