When I first took this photograph of the grave of Captain Mathew Arbuckle, I thought there was a body in the grave. But I was wrong . . . .
We forget about such things today, but in 18th century America, you stood a realistic chance of being killed by a tree, which is exactly what happened to the most important frontiersman of the early Greenbrier Valley frontier, Captain Matthew Arbuckle. But he wasn’t alone, as far as Rev War era soldiers go. I found an interesting article in the Journal of the American Revolution, called, “Killer Trees of the Revolution,” by Joseph Lee Boyle, from April of 2019, discussing death-by-tree during the Rev War period.
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Around a hundred people are tragically killed in the United States each year by falling trees or limbs. Death or injury by trees was also among the hazards of war between 1775 and 1783.
The first reported soldier to die was British, ironically killed by the Liberty Tree of Boston. Samuel Haws recorded in his journal that an eyewitness told him that on August 31, 1775, “After a long spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing, and foaming with malice diabolical, they cut down a tree, because it bore the name of liberty. A tory soldier was killed by its fall.” A newspaper account recounted that “a soldier in attempting to dismantle it of one of its branches, fell on the pavement, by which he was instantly killed.”Killer Trees of the Revolution,” by Joseph Lee Boyle, from April 16, 2016.
One of the names mentioned, is a local one, which I’ve discussed before – a super fascinating character, and probably the most important local militia leader, from the Greenbrier Valley frontier, Captain Matthew Arbuckle. Arbuckle was “one of the most experienced woodsmen and Indian fighters of his time,” and “he was of large [size], more notably of large courage” (Documentary History of Dumore’s War 1774 by Thwaites and Kellogg at page 103; Charleston Daily Mail, July 22, 1934).
Two days before the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, the Rockbridge County militia of Virginia paraded near the Haw River in North Carolina and “and at last fired in platoons and battalions; in doing so one of the North Carolina militia was shot through the head; a bullet glancing from a tree, struck Geo. Moore on the head—of our battalion.” The damage to Moore was not recorded.
Several others were not as fortunate in 1781. Captain Matthew Arbuckle had been commissioned to lay out a route from Lewisburg to Warm Springs, Bath County. In June of that year, returning from the capital at Williamsburg, Arbuckle was caught in a violent storm near the banks of the Jackson River and killed by a falling tree. Far from Virginia, in Montreal, German soldier “George Nohre, Private in Brigade-major Captain Piquet’s Grenadier Company, died 20 August, in the service of the King, in an unfortunate manner, while cutting wood, in St. Jean Parish, in the District of Montreal. While cutting down trees, one fell on him.”Killer Trees of the Revolution,” by Joseph Lee Boyle, from April 16, 2016.
Well, there was a lot more to Matthew Arbuckle than death by tree. Some say he was possibly the first white frontiersman to have traveled through the interior of Virginia, all the way to the Ohio river – at least the first non-prisoner frontiersman, as captives of the Indians would have made the trip. In 1764, he traveled the entire length of the Kanawha river, arriving at Point Pleasant (West) Virginia. So he was an early explorer of much of the present state of West Virginia – then just the western frontier portions of Virginia.
He was born in present day Botetourt County, Virginia – then Augusta County, in 1741. He served in the Augusta County militia beginning in the late 1750’s, in the post-French and Indian War era, serving under Capt. Alex Sayre’s company, which is his first appearance in the records. By 1767, he was listed as a lieutenant, and in 1770 was commissioned captain of the newly formed Botetourt County militia, when that county was created (not the present county limits of Botetourt – this was the Greenbrier Valley area – now Greenbrier County).
Records also note that in 1773, Arbuckle went on another trip into the Kanawha Valley, along with John and Peter Van Bibber, and the Rev. Joseph Alderson, departing from the “Wolf Creek Fort” on the Greenbrier, and heading into the Kanawha Valley. On the trip, about fifteen miles above present day Charleston, this party discovered the “burning spring,” which once existed there (See Trans-Allegheny Pioneers, by John P. Hale, p. 239). However, as a side note, 20 years or so earlier, it had been seen by Mary Draper Ingles, as she was taken by it as a prisoner, and later returned by it upon her escape, and I recall other early narratives mentioning it as well.
Arbuckle featured prominently in the military defense of the Greenbrier Valley frontier, and all of what would become West Virginia. In 1774 or thereabouts, at the inception of Lord Dunmore’s War, as an army was being raised to march to the Shawnee country for a showdown between Virginia and the Shawnee, Arbuckle oversaw the construction of a fort at the confluence of Muddy Creek and Mill Creek, near present day Alderson, West Virginia. This became known as Arbuckle’s Fort. It isn’t believed that the fort served as a home, but rather purely as a militia fort for the protection of the inhabitants of the Muddy Creek area.
When Andrew Lewis’ army finally gathered at the rendezvous point at Camp Union, on the “Big Levels” of the Greenbrier Valley, it was Arbuckle who served as the chief scout and guide, leading them towards Point Pleasant, and cutting a new trail as they went in order to bring the cattle and supplies along. It’s known that on the first night of the march, the main portion of the army encamped in present day Asbury, West Virginia, which is a couple of stone’s throw from Arbuckle’s Fort. I don’t have any doubt they must have passed right by the fort, purposely camping near it. Of course such an army would not have fit within the fort, but it must have passed it at the very least.
Following the Battle of Point Pleasant, in the time period following Lord Dunmore’s War and the inception of the Revolutionary War, Arbuckle took up residence near Fort Savannah, as Camp Union began to be called, and built a log cabin. It stood near the intersection of Randolph Street and U.S. Route 219, though it predated the layout of the town of Lewisburg. It may have been inside the fort, or at least adjacent to it. One source puts the Arbuckle family inside the fort, and perhaps indicates that the fort itself was his home:
It appears possible that the Arbuckle family may at some time have actually lived in the fort at Lewisburg. An old family Bible, once in the possession of Hon. John W. Arbuckle, great grandson of Captain Matthew and onetime state senator, recorded that James Arbuckle, third son of Captain Matthew “was born in the Fort where Lewisburg now stands . . . .
It was a common practice to so construct forts that the outside walls of interior buildings served as portions of the stockade walls and, in fact, the leader frequently lived inside the fort.Captain Matthew Arbuckle, A Documentary Biography, Joseph C. Jefferds, Jr., 1981, p. 24.
That book was published in 1981, and the author had no way of knowing that indeed, both Donnally’s Fort and Byrnside’s Fort would later be discovered to have utilized this design.
Arbuckle’s company mobilized and left Fort Pitt by May of 1776. George Morgan (Of the famous merchant firm of Baynton, Wharton & Morgan and by that time acting as Indian Agent for the middle department)wrote Lewis Morris on May 16, 1776, that “Captain Arbuckle, with a company of Virginia Forces, departed from hence yesterday for the mouth of the Great Kenhawa where they are to rebuild the fort and to remain until further orders from the Convention. I thought it necessary to send an Indian with them, and a proper message on the occasion to the Delawares and Shawnees, accompanied by one of his officers, which I am sure will have a good effect.” (Captain Matthew Arbuckle by Jefferds p44). The Dunmore’s war era fort at Point Pleasant, Fort Blair, had been abandoned and subsequently burned by Indians. Arbuckle’s company arrived and built a new fortification, Fort Randolph, named for Peyton Randolph of Virginia. By October of 1776, Arbuckle’s company was reorganized on paper as the 5th company of the 12th Virginia Regiment (Captain Matthew Arbuckle by Jefferds p44).
Around 1776, Arbuckle was ordered to construct Fort Randolph, the large fort at Point Pleasant, and to be its commanding officer. It was in this position that some famous events occurred. The following year, in 1777, the year of the bloody three sevens, Cornstalk, Chief of the Shawnee, along with Cornstalk’s son, were murdered there while under Arbuckle’s care.http://ofsortsforprovincials.blogspot.com/2018/08/captain-matthew-arbuckles-company-fort.html
In the post, he includes some research on the clothing and equipment of the company of frontier soldiers:
The men enlisted in Arbuckle’s command appear to have provided their own arms (apparently all rifles) and clothing.Arbuckle wrote to General Edward Hand on October 6, 1777 that he had “…no country arms. Every man a good rifle his own property in good order; scarecely 200 flints in the garrison.” (Captain Matthew Arbuckle by Jefferds p87). John Entsminger’s pension application states that “…in the same month of October at the same Keeney’s Fort, he inlisted under Lieut. James Gilmore & was enrolled in Capt. William McKee’s company for the term of two years, attached to what was called the Western troops and was marched to Fort Randolph at the mouth of the Great Kanhawa River [Great Kanawha River] where Capt. Matthew Arbuckle commanded two companies, he being the senior captain, and continued at that station for two years, & was then honorably discharged in October he believes in 1778 having for this time furnished his own rifle & clothing for which he has never received any compensation during which time he was engaged in several sharp skirmishes in one of which his Lieutenant William Moor was killed at his side.”http://ofsortsforprovincials.blogspot.com/2018/08/captain-matthew-arbuckles-company-fort.html
Somebody asked me the other day, if I had found any good descriptions of 18th century long arms, described in detail from period narratives. My response was that I don’t recall many, if at all. They usually just said “rifle” or “rifle gun,” or “shotgun” or something of the sort. Unfortunately. Even in records describing the repair or sale of guns, they almost never used descriptive language. Some period paintings leave some good information, since a picture’s worth a thousand words and all . . . .
Anyways, back to Matthew Arbuckle, though the Cornstalk tragedy occurred under his watch, by all accounts, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t stop the angry mob. Indeed, Cornstalk’s famous sister, Nonhelema, the “Grenadier Squaw,” by all accounts that I’ve read had a good relationship with Arbuckle, and she was definitely a friend to the Virginians, as her brother had sometimes been. As an aside to this, one of my favorite authors, James Alexander Thom, along with his wife, wrote a historical fiction type novel about Arbuckle and Nonhelema, which was a really good read, and one of the great stories of a strong female character. Surprisingly, while women in the cities of the civilized world of the 18th century led typical and probably boring lives, there were a surprising amount of adventurous and courageous women on the frontier, whether on purpose, or by necessity.
In a July 26, 1777 letter to General Edward Hand, writing from Fort Randolph, Capt. Arbuckle mentions intelligence received from Nonhelema, and then instructs Gen. Hand to keep her name out of any correspondence, lest her information be discovered by the enemy.
The news relative to the Indians I had from the Grenadier Squaw & her friends, who are now at this garrison; by whom I learn that Capt. McKee at Fort Pitt must be an enemy to the United States by engaging his Indian friends to carry off his effects to the Indian towns, which being effected he would himself then make his escape to Detroit. To corroborate which his Squaw was at the Detroit Treaty where she record goods without cash; but promises to be paid by the said McKee very shortly.
The Grenedier Squaw denies her name may not be mentioned, fearing she might suffer either by McKee or the Indians.Draper MSS 3NN71-74
This is referring Alexander McKee, colonial British Indian agent. In this letter, Arbuckle was accusing him of a being a traitor to the Americans, and warning he was defecting to the British/Indians. Interestingly, it wasn’t well received by Gen. Hand, who forwarded it to Congress, and wrote on December 21, 1777,
The remarks made in the enclosed letter by Capt. Arbuckle on McKee’s conduct, tho’ coming (in my opinion) from a bad author, knowing her to have an implacable hatred to the woman who lived with McKee, may yet have some weight with Congress. The same person was at Fort Randolph when I left it the 21st ultimo – she assured me that McKee had written letters to Detroit . . . .Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio 1777-1778, Thwaites and Kellogg, p. 184-186.
But Arbuckle was exactly spot on, and Nonhelema’s intelligence was indeed reliable. A few months later, on March 28, 1778, Alexander McKee, Matthew Elliot, and the notorious Simon Girty all defected together, on the same night, fleeing Pittsburgh and absconding into the Ohio country, towards Detroit.
Back to the Of Sorts for Provincials post:
Three men of the garrison lost rifles and clothing in a boat accident as they were transporting provisions down the Ohio from Fort Pitt, two of which seem to have been distinctive as they had brass boxes [N.B. having viewed scans of the original document as shown below the linked transcription by Mr. Harris is in error and the rifles had brass boxes NOT brass barrels]. This potentially implies the majority of the rifles in the garrison may have been less expensive wooden boxed rifles.
Men of the garrison who later consented to joining the other companies of the 12th Virginia with the main (Continental) army outside of the state of Virginia successfully petitioned for the value of their rifles as they had been entitled to an allowance of 20 shillings per year under the terms of the original enlistment as a state regular battalion.
Officers, or at the very least Captain Arbuckle, seemed to have been dressed in “regimentals” as they are referenced in and 1851 deposition of Nancy Edgar (Captain Matthew Arbuckle by Jefferds p102). Captain Arbuckle was killed in 1781 by a falling tree in a storm (the same tree struck Nancy Edgar’s father), and his probate inventory (Captain Matthew Arbuckle by Jefferds p97-99) contains several items worth noting:
“Coat Jackett & britches shoes stockings…hat & stock with gloves…1 Beeded Hoppis…One riffle gunn & shot bag…One silver stock buckles knee buckles & sword buckles…1 large silver handled butcher knife…”http://ofsortsforprovincials.blogspot.com/2018/08/captain-matthew-arbuckles-company-fort.html
A letter survives, written by Matthew Arbuckle, to Capt. John Stuart, back in the Greenbrier Valley, written at Fort Randolph on November 2, 1776:
Sir – I think it my duty to acquaint you with every particular relative to Indian affairs as they occur to me here in hopes what information I can give you . . . . Since I wrote you last I immediately after that accident sent two spies cross the Ohio with orders not to return for ten days without making some discovery – nine of which elapsed without any.
But yesterday (which was the tenth) as they were returning about a mile from the Ohio bank just opposite this fort they saw some Indian signs & was immediately fired on by an Indian not above eight yards distance. Just at the very moment the foremost of the spies was jerking his gun off his shoulder in order to shoot . . . the Indian bullet took the box of his gun (just opposite his breast) & lodged there the spy received very little damage, only grazed on the arm in two or three places either by part of the bullet or of the box lid – such as buck shot might have done.
The spies shot at him as soon as possible both & he fell but recovered immediately & he and his partners cleared themselves as quick as possible with the loss of his shot pouch, powder horn & many other little articles of the damn’d savages. [They] had the assurance to camp there within a mile of this fort but on their own side of the river. They were so provident as to bring a string for a prisoner, but unluckily lost it in the fray along with the other articles.
I intend on keeping out spies both up, down, & over the Ohio constantly & shall always endeavor to protect the inhabitants of the frontiers to the utmost of my power I hope you will inform me particularly what success we have had against the Cherokees as soon as convenient. We are not certain what nation of Indians they are of, whom our spies defeated, but they suppose them to be either Shawnees or Mingoes.
I am Sir you very Hb’le Serv’t, Matthew Arbuckle
P.S. you will much Oblige me by giving M’rs Arbuckle an acc’t from me at this place as soon as convenient.Draper MS 1U40; Thwaites and Kellogg, The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, p. 211.
So Fort Randolph, under Capt. Arbuckle, was protecting the strategic primary trail used by Indians to travel towards the Greenbrier settlements, where Arbuckle lived, as indicated by his letter to Stuart, asking him in the post script to assure his wife he was okay. Such a task was not easy, and involved sending out scouting missions which apparently may go nine days without any sign of Indians, and which can turn into a firefight at the drop of a hat. Imagine walking through the woods for nine days straight, and then getting fired on day ten, from about eight yards away. That would take a crazy level of concentration and skill in the woods. The letter also gives us yet another rare descriptive element as to the rifle carried by this Indian spy, telling that it had a wooden patch box lid, which was struck by the Indian’s buckshot.
A record survives of the stores at Fort Randolph as of June 8, 1777, which lists the following:
Nearly about 2000 lbs. of powder
Nearly about 500 lbs. of lead
Nearly about 20000 lbs. of flour
Meat [none? – no weight is listed]
The above is a true state of the stores at Fort Randolph. – Matthew Arbuckle, Captain.Manuscript 20686, Old Records Division, Adjutant General’s Office, War Department, Washington D.C.
That’s a lot of powder, lead and flour. It shows the true necessities on the frontier. You can always get more meat, but you can’t go into the woods and get flour, and you can’t go in and get lead and powder. Without lead and powder, they would be defenseless, and unable to hunt meat. It’s also interesting that there were 20,000 pounds of flour there in June, and that it was already depleted by November:
Colonel John Dickson, who commanded the militia forces intended for Hand’s expedition and which were involved in Cornstalk’s death, reported to General Hand that when his troops arrived at Fort Randolph November 5, 1777 they found the garrison out of salt and very short of flour, even though a major expedition against the Indians was planned.Captain Matthew Arbuckle, A Documentary Biography, Joseph C. Jefferds, Jr., 1981, p. 21.
Following the murder of Cornstalk, Arbuckle, reported personally to Williamsburg in order to meet with Governor Patrick Henry, and possibly to testify at the trial of the individuals charged with Cornstalk’s murder, which occurred in Rockbridge County. Shortly after returning to the Greenbrier Valley, he would become involved in West Virginia’s second largest Indian vs. settler battle, behind only the Battle of Point Pleasant – the attack on Donnally’s Fort. Arbuckle just happened to be home in Greenbrier at the time of the battle. His friend Nonhelema, the Grenadier Squaw, had dressed some of Arbuckle’s men as Indians back at Fort Randolph, in order to bypass the oncoming 200 strong Shawnee war party, headed towards the Greenbrier settlements. The two men indeed made it past, just in time.
At the small fort known as Donnally’s Fort, settlers forted up inside just in time. After a short siege, a relief party arrived, including Capt. Arbuckle, and Capt. John Stuart, which somehow made it into the fort while still under siege. Arbuckle described what happened in a June 2, 1778 letter to Gen. Hand:
. . . on ye 29th May they attacked Col. Donnallys fort guarded only with 25 men, who made a brave defense from sunrise till 3 o’clock in the evening when Col. Same Lewis & myself with a party of 66 men, determined to relieve them marched up fired on the enemy who give way on every side & let us pass in every man unhurt.
Seventeen of the Indians were killed dead in the spot, they continued their siege till night when they halls nine of their men away, the rem’d we sculped in the morning[.] They came well equipped with pack horses and driving cattle, but the campaign I believe is partly broke up, no mischief has been done since the battle[.] Three men were killed that day, by their imprudence & one sot through a port hole in the fort as their attack was violent & had at first possession of the most of them, but was soon obliged to retreat.
I am your Exclnt(t) Serv(t) Matthew ArbuckleDraper MS 18J76; Kellog and Phelps, Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio, p. 64; Captain Matthew Arbuckle, A Documentary Biography, Joseph C. Jefferds, Jr., 1981, p. 93-94.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Capt. Arbuckle met his untimely end. It was described by his son, Charles, in a letter dated August 15, 1845:
I can with certainty say where and when his life terminated; he, in company with Archer Matthews, Esq. were on their return from Staunton and on the 27th June in the year 1781 overtaken in a storm about two miles west of Jackson’s River on the road leading to Anthony’s Creek, was killed by the fall of a tree top.Charles Arbuckle to Lyman Draper, Draper MS 8ZZ15; Captain Matthew Arbuckle, A Documentary Biography, Joseph C. Jefferds, Jr., 1981, p. 28.
That puts the place of his death, as not far from here. As you can see from the mountains in the distance, there’s no good way through, and it’s still mostly unbroken forest today, all the way to the Lewisburg, WV area:
The new road was supposed to head to Anthony Creek. But even Anthony Creek is super rugged, still today. Here are some pics of it, as it gets close to the Greenbrier river:
The cemetery at the old stone church in Lewisburg, West Virginia has Captain Arbuckle’s grave:
But . . . there’s no body in there. He was apparently buried at or near the place where he died, and the body has never been found. Some say it’s lost to history, underneath the water of Lake Moomaw, where the Jackson River is now dammed up. I have some leads on where it may be located, based on some research I’ve been doing. I would love to find him one day. But there’s a little cemetery, called the Welsh Cemetery, right at the marker for the Clendenen Massacre on the “Big Levels” outside Lewisburg, which has some of Captain Arbuckle’s family members. After Arbuckle died, his widow married Alexander Welch, a surveyor and native of Scotland.
Matthew Arbuckle was the quintessential frontiersman, involved in some of the most important events of the Revolutionary War frontier in Virginia, and no-doubt should be considered as one of the fathers of what is now West Virginia – especially the Greenbrier Valley. Though his body hasn’t been found, his legacy lives on, and there are still Arbuckles around Lewisburg, W. Va. today, one of whom is a local lawyer I’ve practiced with, his wife being the past Circuit Clerk of Greenbrier County. Matthew’s son, Matthew Jr., himself went on to become a famous Civil War era military officer out west. An interesting story as well, which is the reason there’s an “Arbuckle’s Fort” out west too.
It would be the ultimate feat of Scavengeology if we were able to find his body someday and fill that grave in the Old Stone Church cemetery.