The Actual Site of the Kelly Cabin and Fort Morris: the First Permanent Settlement on the Kanawha

The oldest documented settlement by colonial settlers in the Kanawha Valley was made by a man named Walter Kelly, who moved there in 1772 out 1773, having previously lived on Muddy Creek, in the Greenbrier Valley (near Alderson, WV). Some records claim he came from North Carolina. Yet another claims he came from Barbados. But all tend to agree that he originally emigrated from Ireland. He built a cabin near the mouth of a creek which emptied into the Kanawha River. That creek mouth, shown in the above photo, is now called Kelly’s Creek, and is about 20 miles upriver from present day Charleston, West Virginia. The spot is now the small town of Cedar Grove, West Virginia.

From US Route 60 near that spot, there is a historical marker titled, “First Settlers,” which mentions Kelly, as well as his successor, William Morris – who had more success than Kelly at staying alive.

Kelly and his family claimed title to several hundred acres of land at this spot by “tomahawk title,” which is basically making axe marks on the trees, followed by actually occupying the land by building a cabin, planting crops, etc. It was no wonder much of the 19th century history of these frontiersmen in their old age is consumed by real estate litigation…..

At this time, the nearest colonial settlement was the Greenbrier Valley – probably Donnelly’s Fort, just West of Lewisburg, West Virginia, and not far from US Route 60, the same road the above marker is on – albeit a hundred or so miles down the road….

Kelly wasn’t there long before there were indications of trouble. Colonel Charles Lewis, who very shortly would himself be killed by the Shawnee at the Battle of Point Pleasant, was then in command of the frontier militia via his post in Williamsburg, Virginia. He sent Capt. John Stuart (the “father of Greenbrier County”) towards the frontier in order to warn the settlers of danger. As told by Withers’ Chronicles of Border Warfare:

When the express arrived at the cabin of Walter Kelly, twenty miles below the falls, Captain John Field, of Culpepper (who had been in active service during the French war, and was then engaged in making surveys) was there with a young Scotchman and a negro woman. Kelly, with great prudence, directly sent his family to Greenbrier, under the care of a younger brother. But Captain Field, considering the apprehension as groundless, determined on remaining with Kelly, who from prudential motives did not wish to subject himself to observation by mingling with others. Left with no persons but the Scotchman and negro, they were not long permitted to doubt the reality of those dangers of which they had been forewarned by Captain Stuart.

“Very soon after Kelly’s family had left the cabin, and while yet within hearing of it, a party of Indians approached, unperceived, near to Kelly and Field, who were engaged in drawing leather from a tan trough in the yard. The first intimation which Field had of their approach, was the discharge of several guns and the fall of Kelly. He then ran briskly towards the house to get possession of a gun, but recollecting that it was unloaded, he changed his course, and spring into a corn-field, which screened him from the observation of the Indians; who, supposing that he had taken shelter in the cabin, rushed immediately into it. Here they found the Scotchman and the negro woman, the latter of whom they killed; and making a prisoner of the young man, returned and scapled Kelly.

“When Kelly’s family reached the Greenbrier settlement, they mentioned their fears for the fate of those whom they had left on the Kenhawa , not doubting but that the guns which they heard soon after leaving the house, had been discharged at them by Indians. Captain Stuart, with a promptitude which must ever command admiration, exerted himself effectually to raise a volunteer corps, and proceed to the scene of the action, with the view of ascertaining whether the Indians had been there; and if they had, and he could meet with them, to endeavor to punish them for the outrage, and thus prevent the repetition of similar deeds of violence.

“They had not, however, gone far before they were met by Captain Field, whose appearance of itself fully told the tale of woe. He had run upwards of eighty miles, naked except his shirt, and without food; his body nearly exhausted with fatigue, anxiety, and hunger, and his limbs grievously lacerated with briers and brush. Captain Stuart, fearing lest the success of the Indians might induce them to push immediately for the settlements, thought proper to return and prepare for that event.

“In a few weeks after this, another part of Indians came to the settlements on Muddy creek, and as if a certain fatality attended the Kelly’s, they alone fell victims to the incursion. As the daughter of Walter Kelly was walking with her uncle (who had conducted the family from the Kenhawa) some distance from the house, which had been converted into a temporary fort, and, in which they lived, they were discovered and

fired upon; the latter was killed and scalped, and the former, being overtaken in her flight, was carried into captivity.

So, in other words, even though Walter had sent his wife and kids away, led by his brother William, from the Kanawha, and back to the supposedly safer Greenbrier Valley, the Indians proceeded to attack the Greenbrier Valley. And unfortunately, they killed his brother, William, and kidnapped his daughter. Ironically, they were the only victims on Muddy Creek during that raid – after just having killed Walter a few weeks earlier. Here’s the 1774 newspaper article:

From the Virginia Gazette, September 8, 1774, Williamsburg, Virginia. It announces the death of Walter Kelly on the Kanawha, as well as William Kelly on Muddy Creek, by the “Northern Indians.”

Walter’s son, James.

Walter Kelly had a son named James Kelly. Interestingly, I found his pension application dated 1833 in Hickman County, Tennessee. He served in the southern campaigns, being involved in brutal fighting, including the Battle of Cowpens, and the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Then, he returns to the frontier. He enlisted as a private volunteer under Capt. Matthew Arbuckle and Col. Andrew Donnally. It’s slightly confusing, but it seems he was stationed at Arbuckle’s Fort – the same place his family had previously fled in 1773 or 1774. Apparently he wanted to avenge his father’s death.

Here’s the exact spot where Arbuckle’s Fort stood. I found a rifle ball directly at the base of the old monument, which is built on the fort’s chimney foundation.

The site of Arbuckle’s Fort, near Alderson, West Virginia. Greenbrier County.

He was on leave to a local fort, Donnelly’s Fort, when it was attacked. That would be 1778. He relates in the application that:

[I]n the night the fort was attacked by indians – the indians got one of the gates open but we beat them back & whipped them – the second day afterwards he returned to Fort Arbuckle – shortly after this Arbuckle discharged men & I went home – I served in this tour two years, during which time we were engaged in a great many scouting parties.

http://revwarapps.org/s1544.pdf

Here’s the actual site of Donnally’s Fort, where the 1778 attack occurred. I found an actual human tooth in the ground here. It was black, as if it was a bum tooth, and appeared to have been broken off.

The site of Donnally’s Fort. Greenbrier County, West Virginia.

The Morris Family / Fort Morris

Shortly after Kelly built his cabin on Kelly’s Creek, the Morris family had arrived, led by Major William Morris, his family, and his three brothers. However, one source I found stated that Morris purchased the Kelly property from Walter Kelly’s widow…. This is how the mouth of Kelly’s Creek appears today:

According to an old newspaper article I found, Morris “built a rough log cabin and surrounded it with a high log stockade as a protection against bands of marauding Indians….”

A monument at this same site – though up closer by the road – has an etching of what the fort possibly looked like:

A depiction of Fort Morris on William Morris’ memorial plaque.

That looks like a pretty good depiction – though it shows the fort up on the hillside, closer to where the road is, rather than actually down at the mouth of the creek. And maybe that’s where it was, since apparently Walter Kelly was still alive and living in his cabin when the Morris’ arrived at the same location. I talked to a local guy I met working at the local sewer plant, which is very close to the mouth of the creek. He said he’d lived there his entire life, and to his knowledge, other than the historical marker by the road, nobody knows where either of these cabins/forts actually stood.

According to the newspaper article, as a 12 year old boy playing on the docks of Scotland Yards along the River Thames, in England, he befriended some sailers, who offered him voyage to America, to which he agreed, unbeknownst to his distraught mother. He apparently met a man in Philadelphia who became a benefactor, and treated him as a son. He remained in his home until the age of 22, when he married and moved to Culpepper, Virginia and raised a large family. This was circa 1749.

Then, in 1773-74, along with his wife, eight sons, and two daughters, moved to the mouth of Kelly’s Creek. At that time, other than Walter Kelly himself, there was no other white settlement. When General Andrew Lewis’ army marched into his settlement, in early October of 1774, building a road along the way, he apparently joined up and served in the Battle of Point Pleasant. He first got “neighbors” in 1788, when the Clendenin Family built Fort Clendenin, about 20 miles down river, at what is now Charleston, West Virginia. He was still there in the year 1789, when Kanawha County was formed. By then, there were 118 residents in the new county. His will, written in 1792, may be the first will recorded in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

The Fort Morris settlement was purportedly the end terminus of the “Old State Road,” built between Lewisburg and the Kanawha Valley. Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone were frequent visitors. They built the “White House Inn” which became a stage coach stop. It was later operated by Col. Henry Tompkins, and later hosted such visitors as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. See http://genealogyframeofmind.blogspot.com/2009/06/morris-of-kanawha.html

Here’s an old pic of a marker placed in 1915. I didn’t see this, so I’m not sure if it’s till there. There are no open fields in the area at this point.

So this may be that field today, which is Cedar Grove school. That marker may have been out where that soccer field is, looking back towards where I took the photo. Behind me is the Kanawha River – though it’s completely overgrown at the spot, and you can’t see through the brush.

Note the brush on the opposite bank of the mouth of Kelly’s Creek. I’m told it used to be a manicured park with picnic tables.

On the other side of the creek, from where I took the above photo, there’s a small boat ramp and parking lot, with a sewer plant next to it. Here’s a short video showing both sides of the creek mouth, as it currently appears. I wish I knew which side Kelly’s cabin was located.

There’s a nice marker in memory of William Morris back up by the road, next to the historic chapel located on the site.

From the chapel site, there’s a nice spring just East of the top of the hill. Then to the right is a little gorge, where Kelly’s Creek runs through. This could have been an early building site, with good water access, and being up out of the flood plain.

There’s another memorial plaque for William Morris on the chapel itself, which is fitting because legend has it that it’s built on top of his grave.

Located on the site of Fort Morris and Walter Kelly’s cabin, is an old chapel, built in 1853, known as “Virginia’s Chapel.” It was built as a graduation present for Virginia Tompkins, by her father, William Tompkins.

It was used by both the North and the South during the Civil War. The Confederates used it has a hospital, while the Union officers utilized it as a stable, which according to Virginia’s niece, Rachel Settle, resulted in damage to the building. William Tompkins (the guy who operated the White House Inn), who was probably Virginia’s Uncle, wrote to the Federal Government, and obtained $700 for repair of the damage.

The chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its nomination form states that the chapel is built directly on top of William Morris’ grave, and that other Morris family members are buried in the church’s charming cemetery. Morris family tradition states that building the church on top of Morris was “the only way they could keep him down.”

I searched many of the old stones for the name Morris, or Kelly, and couldn’t find any. But many, many of them are rudimentary and unmarked. Or faded.

The road running through this little area on the North side of the Kanawha is US Route 60, also called the “Midland Trail,” which essentially follows the original roadway cut by General Andrew Lewis and his army marching to Point Pleasant in 1774, and then later becoming the first state maintained road in this area of then-Virginia. A historical marker where you park commemorates the Lewis march through the area. There are several more along the roadway with the same sign, including in Asbury, Greenbrier County, and Lookout, in Fayette County (if I recall correctly). And probably more.

To be continued…..

8 thoughts on “The Actual Site of the Kelly Cabin and Fort Morris: the First Permanent Settlement on the Kanawha

  1. William R “Old Billy” Morris was my 5th great grandfather. The article shows information and pictures of the site of the Muddy Creek massacre of 1763. Catherine Vanderpool See and her children were captured by Cornstalk and his Shawnee warriors. Her husband, Frederick, and all but one man in the settlement were killed. The Shawnee attacked the Clendenin settlement too. One of Catherine and Frederick’s daughters married into the Morris family. Pantha Jane Morris, the daughter of Carroll Morris and Frances See, was my second great grandmother, and the mother of Roxalena Caroline Everett Staton, my great grandmother in my dad’s maternal line.

    Cedar Grove is right across the river from East Bank, WV where my dad went to school. Jerry West also went to this school. There is a stadium there named Calvert Stadium, named after a popular coach who was a cousin of my Dad’s. No wonder my dad always talked about Jerry West. I wish my dad would have talked more. Bill Calvert was a navy man, he was a coach at East Bank high school, and he died from the same disease that my brother Jimmy had when he died.

    I have visited this area and the statium and surrounds more than once. It’s a beautiful area of West Virginia. Our family settled there in the 1700s, some of the first pioneers to reach the area.

    I was delighted to see that you put all this info together in one spot.

    Thanks

    • It’s especially interesting that Kelly’s brother fell to the same fate. I didn’t know that. Being aware of the earlier Muddy Creek massacre in 1763 opens a window showing how long this conflict continued and gradually migrated westward.

    • I believe Walter Kelly might have been my great great grandfather. My grandfather was Jesse James Kelly from Perry County, Tennessee. He was a Union Soldier I’m the Civil War. I have his enlistment.

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