John Kincaid’s Rev War Narrative, Frontier Forts, Lead Mines, Scandal, and Forensic Pathology

I came across this interesting Rev War pension application, signed by one John Kincaid, with some cool local details, pertaining to the harshness of the winter of 1778-1779 in what is now Lewisburg, (West) Virginia, and as always, one thing leads to another, including a doppleganger John Kincaid, references to our fort, other forts, scandal, war, and even forensic pathology.

John Kincaid pension application page 1

Kincaid’s narrative states, “[t]hat he was born in the County of Augusta in the State of Virginia on the Eleventh day of January , 1758” Most people of that area, especially on the frontier, you’ll see in these pension applications, really had no idea when they were born – sometimes not even the year. “That he was drafted to serve a six month tour against the Indians in the company commanded by Alexander Handly of Botetourt County, to guard Point Pleasant . . . .” This would be Fort Randolph, commanded by Matthew Arbuckle.

A view of Point Pleasant and the mouth of the Great Kanawha River, from the Ohio shore, as it appears today. Probably not all that different in this view, if you pretend the bridge isn’t there.

The Handleys, or Handlys, one of whom was mentioned in the narrative, were early settlers of the Greenbrier Valley, who settled property adjoining that of James Byrnside and our fort – Byrnside’s Fort. So I looked into the relationship between this Alexander Handly and these Handlys, a.k.a. Handleys.

One of the several Handley/Handly graves in the cemetery overlooking Union, WV. This is the grave of Mary, wife of James Handley, brother of Alexander Handly. She died in 1844.

I found that the Handlys who lived here in the “Sinks of Monroe,” where we are located, had a son named Alexander, born in 1781, in Monroe County. But thereafter he lived on Craig Creek in Botetourt, now Craig County, Virginia. However, being born in 1781, he obviously can’t have been a Rev War soldier. Then I found him. There was an Alexander Handly/Handley who was born in 1746 in Botetourt, and died sometime near the end of the Revolutionary War, as a prisoner of war. This must be the same guy. If this is him, this does indeed provide a direct connection to the Handlys who were next door neighbors to the Burnsides. Alexander would be the brother to Major John Handly, and therefore also the brother to the subject of my recent post, Grandma’s Story About Being Captured by Indians in 1779, Margaret Handly Erskine. What a small world . . . .

John Kincaid pension application page 2

Kincaid’s narrative, continues, “[t]hat he marched under the said Captain to the big Savannah, now called Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, where he remained until the winter set in very hard, and so grate was the freeze and inclemency of the weather, they were all discharged, and this applicant returned to his home, on Jackson River, in Botetourt County, now Alleghany County. during this first tour of duty this applicant served the full period of two months; After this applicant was discharged, from this his first tour of duty, he remained at his home, until the month of January 1781 . . . .”

This is a small park / parking lot, in downtown present-day Lewisburg, West Virginia, which was the site of “Camp Union,” a.k.a. “Fort Savannah,” which was the large frontier fort created at the Lewis Spring for the purpose of hosting the rendezvous of Gen. Lewis’ Army during Lord Dunmore’s War. Presumably this was where Kincaid was garrisoned during the winter. The stone foundation seen in the photo is the foundation of the old Lewisburg Town Prison, then turned Greenbrier County Jail, I believe, on part of the original fort site.
I found the original survey for the bounds of the original Greenbrier County prison, in Lewisburg, surveyed out in November of 1786. It also indicates that James Byrnside owned a lot adjoining the bounds of this spot. Reading the survey, it’s unusual, because it runs counter-clockwise in its calls, and they usually run clockwise. Anyways, it notes that there was already an existing “wooden jail,” presumably a log cabin. Possibly a remnant of the old fort? It also indicates that one “James Stephens” has a home there. This is mostly a square survey of 162 square poles, which equals out to roughly one acre of land. That’s probably about the lot of the park that’s there now, along with the Lewis Spring, parking lot, and the log “barracks” building across the street. James Stephen’s home must have been right near that corner somewhere. Now US Route 219 should cut off the corner on the right side of the diagram, which is about where the log barracks are, and the lower point is about where I believe the stone foundation presently stands, which is likely where the old log prison was.

The previous winter from the one mentioned by Kincaid, was 1777-1778, which was George Washington’s famous Valley Forge winter encampment, where troops died, and suffered, from the severe cold.

The next winter, in which Kincaid writes that it was so severe that his entire company was eventually disbanded without ever leaving the fort at Lewisburg, was the same winter that George Rogers Clark made his epic trip across the Illinois Country to capture most of the entire northwest territory for Virginia. Winters just seemed to have plain sucked in those days.

John Kincaid pension application page 3

That particular winter was also the time that Fort Laurens was constructed in the Ohio country, and essentially left abandoned, with a starving garrison of men with no supply chain. Many Virginia Militia units were attempting to get supplies up there that winter, and to the other forts along the Ohio, as well as more reinforcements. This was during the Revolutionary War, and the theater on the western side of the mountains had no efficient, easy, nor reliable supply chain. In fact, the morning of February 23, 1779, Fort Laurens woke up surrounded by 180 British and Indians, and any friendly reinforcements a very long ways away.” I found an article detailing the fate of a garrison work detail which had been caught outside the fort on this morning:

[A] work party walked into the ambush on an open plain just south of the fort.  The seventeen men killed lay where they fell; the two men captured were taken away.  One was released after the war.  The fate of the other is unknown. The attackers were not powerful enough to directly assault the fort.  However, they laid siege and tried to starve the garrison into surrender.  They almost succeeded.  The men were reduced to literally eating their roasted moccasins and belts . . . .

The bodies of the ambush victims, now decayed and gnawed by wolves, were collected and buried in a mass grave in a rough cemetery 200 feet west of the west side of the fort near others who had died of various causes.  There, the bodies would remain for two centuries. In the 1970’s during archaeological work the fort cemetery was discovered and along with it the remains of the ambush victims.  A thorough skeletal analysis “examining the variety and pattern of lesions found on the victims of the ambush” was published in 2003.  The opportunity to examine the remains of Revolutionary War casualties is very rare . . . .

The bones were also examined for evidence of blunt force trauma which would be caused by a “relatively low-velocity impact over a relatively large surface area.”  The brutality of the attacks was unmistakable.  Five of the twelve skulls had a least one blunt force lesion.  All such wounds were either on the right side or on the midline of the skull.  Four of the six blunt force fractures were circular with approximate diameters of 30 mm ( 1 3/8 inches) . . . .

All 12 skulls had fine lesions, those caused by thin, sharp weapons used to scalp the victim.  It is interesting to note that only one fine lesion was across the front of one skull.  All other fine lesions were on the sides and rear of the skull.  There are various forms or techniques involved in scalping.  These cuts indicate that the head was held by the attacker’s left hand while the right cut around the hand with a knife thus enabling the left hand to rip off the scalp . . . .

Clearly, the attacks on these men were extremely violent.  In every case one or two blows from the hatchet or war club would kill.  One may speculate that the excessive force, amounting to mutilation, was thought to be a terror tactic to intimidate those who would find the bodies, or in this case, those remaining inside Fort Laurens.  For the modern researcher, however, the bones of the victims provide an insight into the violence of frontier combat during the American Revolutionary War.

Ambushed! Victim’s Bones at Fort Laurens, by Hugh T. Harrington, Journal of the American Revolution, February 7, 2014;

Turning back to John Kincaid’s narrative, it appears that after being released home from the severe Greenbrier winter, Kincaid served another three month militia tour with a company of Botetourt Militia Rifleman, where they were engaged in several skirmishes with Lord Cornwallis’ troops around Jamestown, Virginia. And finally, he apparently was one of the Botetourt Rifleman who were enlisted to guard British prisoners captured at the Battle of Cowpens. But then it gets a little sideways . . . .

Yet there’s another Revolutionary War pension application, by another “John Kincaid,” which I’ve examined before – mostly because that one mentions Byrnside’s Fort. Apparently, both being of identical names, yet different people, both having submitted for pensions, there were some problems. The first John Kincaid lived in Alleghany County, Virginia (Covington, Va area), and the other John Kincaid lived in Fayette County (West) Virginia. The US Pension Office confused the two, and ended up accusing the Alleghany County John of being a fraud, which they later realized he wasn’t. But it was based on the pension application of the Fayette County John. Bureaucratic incompetence is nothing new.

The Fayette County John Kincaid’s narrative I’ve mentioned previously in the Memoirs of Col. John Stuart, of Greenbrier – Part 3 of 3. He was a member of one of the families who, convinced by James Byrnside, became one of the first families to re-settle the Greenbrier Valley following its 1763 destruction by Cornstalk. And in fact, these Kincaids were adjoining landowners to Byrnside, and built their own log blockhouse for protection.

A surviving log blockhouse along the Greenbrier River from about the same time (James Graham’s fortified cabin)

In this John Kincaid’s pension narrative, he mentions that:

that he was drafted in the month of February in the year 1781 under Captain John Henderson and Lieutenant John Woods and Major Andrew Hamilton had the command. He then lived in Greenbrier County Virginia. He started to the place of rendezvous on or about the 14th day of February and met at James Byrnsides the place of rendezvous on the 15th day of that month 1781 . . . .

[T]hey were then marched to the fort “Chessel” (Fort Chiswell in Wythe County, VA) then in Montgomery County Virginia. After remaining there some six or eight weeks he was marched back to Woodses’ fort near New River in Greenbrier County and was kept employed in guarding Indians and Tories. He was here under Captain Archibald Woods. He aided in retaking eleven American prisoners from the Indians after killing two Indians in the engagement. After having served the foregoing period and performed the foregoing services, he was discharged by Captain Woods and Henderson both signing a written discharge – which discharge is either lost or mislaid.

John Kincaid (from Fayette County) pension application, at page 1

When researching these documents, it also usually pays dividends to look at the witness verification excerpts of these pension narratives, because there’s usually helpful information hidden there. In this particular one, Byrnside’s Fort is again mentioned:

John Patterson on the day personally appeared before me Edward Williams a justice of the peace in & for Fayette County & made oath that on the 15 day of February 1781 he met with one John Kincaid who now resides in said Fayette County and appears to be about 73 years of age at James Byrneside’s in the County of Greenbrier Va. the place of rendevous of Capt John Henderson’s company of drafted malitia to which company this affiant and said Kincaid both belonged. that he does not certainly know how long he served, this affiant having left said company at the expiration of about five months – leaving as he believes said Kincaid in the service – and further this affiant saith not [signed 16 Sep 1833] John Patterson

John Kincaid (from Fayette County) pension application, at page 3

Byrnside’s Fort, as it appears today.
Some of the first logs uncovered behind the 1858 plaster installation at Byrnside’s Fort. You can tell because of the rough and rugged nature of the grain that these are extremely hard and durable white oak logs, chinked with rocks, so as to be close as possible to bulletproof.

There are other pension applications which mention being part of the company drafted in 1781, which rendezvoused at Byrnside’s Fort, and then marched south to Fort Chiswell, with the purpose of going on to Kentucky after that. However, the narratives all mention that the militia company ended up staying at Fort Chiswell, rather than proceeding to Kentucky. This witness, one John Patterson, a supporting witness for John Kincaid, affirms in his verification that he personally saw John Kincaid at the rendezvous at Byrnside’s Fort in 1781.

Interestingly, Patterson wasn’t a known pension narrative which mentions Byrnside’s Fort – at least not that I’ve seen documented. So I looked that one up, and Patterson’s narrative is really pretty epic. He had quite a military career, and it does mention the fort in his narrative as well, towards the end, when he gets to 1781. I won’t transcribe it right now, but here is the entire document, which is a worthy read:

The likely reason that militia units were being raised in the isolated border region of the Greenbrier Valley for the purpose of sending to Kentucky was that, in 1781, Kentucky was in trouble. They were within close striking distance of the Ohio Shawnee populations, and were suffering from a severe shortage of dependable and frontier “Indian Spies” – armed and capable militia rangers who could hunt, scout, guide, and fight in the frontier style of fighting.

Kentucky had received a substantial influx of new settlers from the east, most of whom were not seasoned frontiersmen and indian fighters, or who were orphans and widows. Another dynamic occurring in Kentucky, and some of the border regions at the time, was that it was strongly suspected that many of the immigrants recently moving west were Tories driven from the east. See Draper Mss., 26J30.

The tools of the frontiersman.

A visitor to Kentucky mentioned in letter to Col. George Morgan, that, “Should the English go [to Kentucky] and offer them protection from the Indians, the greatest part will join.” See Draper Mss., 46J09. In late 1780, Col. Brodhead wrote that, “there are a great number of disaffected inhabitants on this side of the mountain, that wish for nothing more than a fair opportunity to submit to the British Government, and therefore, would be glad to have the regular troops withdrawn.” See Draper Mss., 3H26 (cited by Frontier Retreat on the Upper Ohio, 1779-1781, by Louise Phelps Kellogg, Wisconsin Historical Collections.)

An example of how frontier log cabins in Kentucky and other border regions appeared – though these are in Ohio at Schoenbrunn Village, a really cool spot to visit.

One such group of Tories had concocted a conspiracy to seize the lead mines in southwestern Virginia, which just happen to be in the vicinity of Fort Chiswell – where the Greenbrier militia company was headed on their way to Kentucky in February of 1781. Could that conspiracy have been part of the reason they were headed there first? Or possibly the reason they ended up staying there for their entire enlistment periods, rather than continuing on to Kentucky?

The Wythe County lead mines were the main source of lead for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. In the 1760’s or so, Col. John Chiswell (i.e., Fort Chiswell) had “discovered” lead outcroppings in the vicinity of the New River in southwestern Virginia. He thereafter traveled to Bristol, England, to recruit experienced lead smelters to resettle at the mines in Virginia. Around the same time period, a fort was constructed around nine miles from the site by Virginia aristocrat, William Byrd, II, and named in Chiswell’s honor. Fort Chiswell is now partially paved over by I-77 near the interchange with I-81.

In 1773, following the formation of Fincastle County, Virginia, the county officers held their first official courthouse meeting at the “Lead Mines,” which seems like an odd place. But that’s where they held court, and you’ll see it mentioned in documents of the period. This general location is no longer called “Lead Mines,” but rather Austinville, Virginia, referring to a later owner of the spot, who happened to be the father of a guy who went to Texas for a thing. Fort Chiswell and the Lead Mines, are often discussed together, because many people presume the fort was built to protect the mines. But they were separate entities with separate purposes. The fort was already an established strategic location for general military and frontier purposes:

[W]hat began as a meeting place for a military expedition in 1756 at Alexander Sayers’ Camp, four years later became a military ren- dezvous for the Virginians and the Cherokees. In February 1761, when the name Fort Chiswell first appears in Colonial records, the camp was turned into a military headquarters for the army. For the next thirty years, the “big fort” stood on the hillside catering to soldiers and travelers, and serving as a political center for the original Montgomery County.

Fort Chiswell and Chiswell’s Lead Mines of Wythe County, Virginia, by Mary B. Kegley; THE SMITHFIELD REVIEW, Vol. XIV, 2010

William Byrd had also established another fort down to the west. Byrd and his men marched from Fort Chiswell to the “long island” in the South Fork of the Holston River, constructing a fort over that winter on a level of the north bank of the South Fork of the river, which he called “Fort Robinson,” for Col. Chiswell’s son-in-law, with whom both he, Chiswell, and Robinson, were 1/3 interest co-owners in the lead mines discovered by Chiswell. This was actually in present day Sullivan County, Tennessee. Their purpose in heading that direction was conflict with the Cherokee. Thus it was abandoned two years later, and rebuilt nearby as Fort Patrick Henry in 1776, when conflict once again resurfaced.

A map of the state of Virginia, (1859) constructed in conformity to law from the late surveys authorized by the legislature and other original and authentic documents

Things came to a head in 1766. Col. Chiswell killed one Robert Rutledge with a sword at the Cumberland County courthouse, resulting in a murder charge. But prior to trial, it’s believed that Chiswell committed suicide, rather than stand trial. He died on October 14, 1766. Then following the death of Chiswell’s son-in-law, John Robinson, who was Treasurer of the Colony of Virginia, it was discovered that he had illegally “loaned” 8,085 pounds of the colony’s money to the company operating the lead mines, as well as other friends and associates. That left two of the three mine owners dead, and William Byrd, II holding the bag. In the ensuing Revolutionary War, the mine was operated on behalf of the State of Virginia, to provide lead to the cause.

Around 1790, Moses Austin and his brother Stephen operated the mines for a few years. The spot thereafter became Austinville, Virginia, and remains by that name today. Moses had a son named Stephen, who went on to become a famous early Texan, you might have heard about. Also around 1790, the courthouse location was removed from Lead Mines, and new county seats were established in two new county seats: Wytheville, for Wythe County, and then Christiansburg, for Montgomery County. The lead mining at Austinville turned to zinc mining, and apparently dried up around 1980.

My friend Jim Webb, from Hillsville, Virginia, who has lived his entire life in the area, and also being a collector, and student of local history, wrote that:

The mine property is covered with all sizes of iron balls, many the size of baseballs, and are said to be canon balls, but no cannons are said to have been at the mines, and as the size vary, they are cast iron balls used in the various ball mills, used to reduce the ore for refining.

Different mills used different size balls, some as large as 100 pounds. As the balls wore down, they were replaced, sometimes leaving the small worn balls to wear further, sometimes to the size of marbles, which the boys found to be wonderful ammo for slingshots.

Those the size of baseballs played havoc with the bulldozers when they were moving the mountains of tailings.

Jim Webb handwritten notes.

An advertisement which ran in the Virginia Gazette in 1791 for lead and shot sold by Moses Austin & Co.

Jim also told me that some of the isolated mountain areas in that region that have been notorious through the years for having isolated groups of what were described as essentially, an Appalachian version of river pirates. Maybe more akin to old fashioned “highwaymen,” just there aren’t any highways running through those parts – just men you don’t want to encounter. Apparently they still exist today to some extent, at least through their descendants.

The shot tower near the site of the lead mines. You can see it from I-77, where it crosses the New River.

Jim recently gave me his entire file including everything he had written and compiled about the Virginia lead mines. Among the items, was a large (physically large) old photostat copy of an old photo showing what is described as a shot tower at the lead mines in Austinville. Now the famous stone shot tower is post-Revolutionary War, and was used throughout the Civil War. So presumably, some other sort of shot tower was used during the period in which lead was produced for the patriots in the Revolutionary War. Austinville itself is not technically where the stone shot tower is. And if it’s really as old as it’s supposed to be, which I believe it must be, there must have been an earlier shot tower closer to the mines; and it must have been made of wood; and this must be it.

This is an old photograph which I was given by my friend Jim Webb, who grew up in this area, and has been researching it his entire life. This shows a shot tower at the lead mines. But it’s clearly not made of stone. Is the stone one newer than previously believed? Or was there another shot tower made out of wood?

It could be that this wooden shot tower/shaft was the original privately constructed operation which had been in use by Chiswell, and others during the Rev War, under the orders of George Washington. Then, in 1791, when Virginia auctioned off the lead mines, the Austins used this wooden tower. Whereas the government, quickly doing what government does, builds a bigger and better facility nearby for official shot creation, using lead from the nearby privately owned lead mines.

In 1779, the forefathers of these same folks became suspected of being involved in a conspiracy to take over the lead mines for the British. Col. William Preston, commanding the Montgomery Militia, arrested the ringleaders and attempted to have them prosecuted. Their buddies, and perhaps relatives I would imagine, began to burn houses, kill domestic animals, and even murder the prosecutors. This was Montgomery County at the time.

They were at a loss, and appealed to the neighboring counties for help. Washington County, led by Col. William Campbell, “a bold Scots-Irishman,” marched towards the lead mines, and, being joined by one Maj. Walter Crockett, with a combined 130 men, “broke up the next of loyalists.” In so doing, they “shot one, hanged one, and whipt several,” followed by confiscation of their homes. On October 22, 1779, the Virginia legislature passed a resolution indemnifying Campbell, Crockett, and their men, for their actions in suppressing the frontier insurrection. See Frontier Retreat on the Upper Ohio, 1779-1781, by Louise Phelps Kellogg, Wisconsin Historical Collections, p. 24.

The shot tower near the site of the lead mines

By March of 1780, the loyalist mountain-folk were already back at it again, with news reaching Col. Preston once again that a plot was afoot for loyalist Tories to capture the lead mines for the British. He seized the three ringleaders, and even disarmed the entire militia companies to which they belonged. He increased the number of men guarding the lead mines, and sent out spies towards the Cherokee country, because the rumors also whispered that the British had enlisted the Cherokees in this plot. However, in reality, the Cherokee, though their assistance had been requested, had apparently declined involvement.

An old log cabin at the site of the shot tower.

At about the same time as this was shaping out, George Rogers Clark, desperately needing help in Kentucky, had sent to Virginia for men. Thomas Quirk was then ordered to march men from Fort Chiswell, near the lead mines, out to Kentucky. This then exposed the lead mines once again, and at the worst time, since things were coming to a head against the British, and General Nathaniel Greene desperately needed the frontier militia rifleman, including the salty Scots-Irishman, Capt. Campbell:

In January 1781, after the American victory at Cowpens, Nathanael Greene was leading his small army north from the Carolinas toward the safety of Virginia, pursued every step of the way by the aggressive Lord Charles Cornwallis and his professional British army. Greene wanted desperately to turn and face Cornwallis in open combat, but he was far too weak to do so. He reached out in all directions for reinforcements, which included a series of urgent requests to William Campbell to bring 1,000 mountain riflemen to his aid.

While Greene was intensely focused on his hope for a large reinforcement of frontier rifle militia, William Campbell was beset by problems back home that undermined his recruiting efforts. Greene was understandably focused solely on the British troops that were pursuing him, but the frontiersmen had to defend the lead mines, keep one eye on the Cherokees, another on the local Loyalists, and be ready to defend against their attacks while considering what resources they could spare to support Greene and his Continental Army. Because of these conflicting priorities, Campbell was able to lead only sixty men to reinforce Greene, instead of Greene’s hoped-for 1,000 riflemen. Campbell and his small detachment arrived in Greene’s camp on March 4, 1781, and were involved in the skirmish at Weitzel’s Mill two days later where they fought with their accustomed skill.

The Service of Colonel William Campbell of Virginia, by John Beakes, Journal of the American Revolution, June 18, 2014.

It could just be that while they needed men in Kentucky, as things turned out, by the time the Greenbrier Militia got there, they needed them more in Virginia. The British were on the run, the Tories were plotting for their lives; and the Cherokee were thought to be sending war parties. I just noticed that there is a book out, titled, The Invasion of Virginia 1781, by Michael Cecere. That would be an interesting read.

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