The Search for Renick’s Fort, and the life of an “Indian Spy”

Renick’s Fort was a small frontier “Indian Spy” style fort, in the chain of Greenbrier Valley Virginia frontier forts, during the 1770’s. As is usually the case, there’s nothing left of it, and we actually don’t even know where it stood, despite the fact that records give us the exact location – at least down to the “fork” of Spring Creek, a tributary of the Greenbrier River.

It is likely that [Renick’s] fort was more sizable than some of the other neighborhood forts, and was specifically mentioned as having been manned with “embodied corps”. . . .

It is mentioned as being occupied in 1777, 1778, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 under [militia captain] Andrew Hamilton. Hamilton seems to have been promoted to major in 1782, at which point William Renick, who had been a Lt. under Hamilton, became Captain. 

William Renick was at the battle of Point Pleasant and the murder of Cornstalk . . . . Pensioner Chapman describes its location as at the forks of Spring Creek, which is a tributary of the Greenbrier River in northern Greenbrier County.

Frontier Defense of the Greenbrier and Middle New River Country, by W. Stephen McBride, Kim A. McBride, and J. David McBride, Report No. 375, University of Kentucky, June 1996, at page 58.

This is the general spot described, which I scouted out last summer. It’s not actually in the location today called “Renick, West Virginia,” which common sense first tells you is the location. There is a “Renick,” and it is in the general area, but it’s located along the Greenbrier River, a few miles away, where there’s more tillable farmland.

Renick’s Fort, sometimes spelled “Renix,” is mentioned in several pension applications. It’s mentioned as being at the fork of Spring Creek. The only real “fork” of Spring Creek is this location, where Friar’s Hill Road meets Leonard-Cordova Road, and Crane Road. One pension narrative, Joseph Hanna, describes the location on Spring Creek, five or six miles up the creek, which is approximately this location. Pension applicant James Gillilan describes it as two miles from his own house, which is unknown to me, and also says it’s about 10 miles from Fort Donnally. That’s probably pretty consistent with this spot. Well, let’s just go ahead and measure. Yep: almost exactly 10 miles. Wow. Spot on.

Yellow line, showing the ground distance from Donnally’s Fort to where I believe Renick’s Fort was located, which according to James Gillilan, were 10 miles apart. You probably got pretty good at counting distance when it was your job to go back and forth between the places for years on end, all the while, going slowly, and watching and listening for Indian sign, and therefore possible sudden death at any time for the inattentive.

William Renick had settled in the area as early as 1769, and was Sheriff of Greenbrier County in 1784. The land he eventually settled on, is a few miles away from this location, and closer to the Greenbrier River. William owned 1,120 acres in 1783. The Renick home still standing there, is a magnificent historic home.

The Renick home, in Renick, WV, as it still stands today.

This is the vicinity of Renick, WV, just north of Lewisburg, West Virginia, in Greenbrier County. It’s about where Spring Creek flows into the Greenbrier River. But it’s not where “Renick’s Fort” was located.

The location of that beautiful home was not the original Renick homeplace. The first one was further up in the woods, following Spring Creek all the way to the forks, where the woods clear out and reveal some big flat open fields, where two creeks come together to form the main “Spring Creek.”

A portion of the Greenbrier Valley showing Renick, WV, in relation to the existing Renick House, and the probable Renick’s Fort site, a few miles back into the mountains.
An old roadbed along Spring Creek
Roadbed along Spring Creek near the “forks” of that creek
The little valley of bottomland along Spring Creek, as you drive towards the forks.
Fields around the forks of Spring Creek

It must have been somewhere right around here.

I recently wrote about the Renick family in my blog post, Felix Renick’s Drawings, his interesting family, and his life as a scavengeologist on the Ohio Frontier:

 [T]he Renick family (sometimes spelled “Renix”) is mentioned numerous times in the notes of the legendary historian, Lyman Draper, and also in Wither’s Chronicles of Border Warfare . . . .

In 1757, the Renick family was attacked by a war party of about 60 Shawnee. They found Robert Renick’s wife and children home alone, and kindapped his wife, Elizabeth, and their children, Joshua, William, Betsy, Margaret, Nancy, Thomas, and Robert. The war party then went on to a neighboring home, where they found Robert, who was visiting. They then killed and scalped him, in front of his terrified family. The youngest child, shortly thereafter had his brains dashed out against a tree by one of the warriors due to the fact that he wouldn’t stop crying. Joshua, age five at the time, adopted easily into the tribe, and quickly became friends with a young Shawnee about his own age, named Tecumseh. Tecumseh made quite an impression on his white friend, as he thereafter did not want to return to his previous life.

Joshua Renick’s family never could get him to return to life as a British colonial subject in the east. He remained with the Indians, married an Indian woman, and eventually became a chief of the Miami tribe. In 1764, Elizabeth was ransomed by Col. Bouquet’s army, with two of her sons, William, and Robert. Another child returned later. Thereafter, Elizabeth had great difficult in getting any of her kids to return to living as white settlers. It’s an interesting story, to say the least. Now, here’s the connection with the Greenbrier Valley: One of Elizabeth’s children, William, became an early settler of the Greenbrier Valley, constructing “Renick’s Fort,” and then later building a beautiful home.

William Renick is also mentioned in the post I did on Col. John Stuart’s Memoirs, in Part 3 of 3. He discusses the fact that they raised a small militia army of local Greenbrier County frontiersmen to rendezvous at Point Pleasant in 1777, during the Revolutionary War, at a time when the British were encouraging Indian attacks on the frontier, where they were to be met by General Hand, coming down from Fort Pitt:

The chief of the officers in Greenbrier agreed to the proposal, and we cast lots who should command the company. The lot fell on Andrew Hamilton for captain, and William Renick lieutenant. We collected in all, about forty, and joined Colonel Skillern’s party, on their way to Point Pleasant.

Col. John Stuart’s home, still standing outside Lewisburg, WV

They indeed went on to Fort Pitt. That’s when there were a number of skirmishes and Indian attacks. Most importantly, and tragically, that’s when Cornstalk was murdered at Fort Randolph, which then stood at Point Pleasant. Both Stuart and William Renick were there:

But the canoe had scarcely touched the shore until the cry was raised, let us kill the Indians in the fort;— and every man, with his gun in his hand, came up the bank p’ale with rage. Captain Hall was at their head, and leader. Captain Arbuckle and I met them, and endeavored to dissuade them from so unjustifiable an action; but they cocked their guns, threatened us with instant death if we did not desist, rushed by us into the fort, and put the Indians to death. 

Memoirs of Col. John Stuart, of Greenbrier – Part 3 of 3
October 26, 2019 by John Bryan, Attorney at Law

Point Pleasant, as it appears today, looking from the Ohio shore. Fort Randolph was built almost directly on the point. Cornstalk’s body is buried there, a stone’s throw from where the fort stood.
Cornstalk’s grave, at Point Pleasant

Renick’s Fort is mentioned in the pension application of Jonathan Hughes, dated September of 1833, from Jefferson County, Indiana:

That from the time he entered the service as aforesaid he continued to act as an Indian Spy under command of the above named officers until sometime in the spring of 1777 (he thinks in the month of May) he was attached to Capt. Hamilton’s Company, in the same County, and was stationed at Major Rennix’s Fort [Renick’s Fort] in what was then called the Big Levels [now Lewisburg] in the County aforesaid.

A few days after he arrived Rennix’s Fort, a body of Indians consisting of about 300 warriors attacked Col. Donnelly’s Fort in said County [Fort Donnally], and as it was expected that their next attack would be upon McCoy’s Fort about 3 miles from Donnelly’s Fort this applicant with a few other members of the company to which he belonged, volunteered and hastened to the relief of McCoy’s Fort from which, the Indians having made the anticipated attack, were repulsed with considerable loss, whereupon this applicant and his comrades returned to Rennix’s Fort where he had been stationed as aforesaid:

[T]hat sometime in the month of June or July 1777 he was again ordered to act as an Indian Spy, in which capacity he continued to act until the month of September next following – a period of three months, when he was discharged from the service, and returned to his place of residence, where he remained until the next spring 1778.

Pension Application of Jonathan Hughes S9591

The site of Donnally’s Fort, and the 2nd largest Indian vs. Settler battle in West Virginia.
Some artifacts I found at the site of Donnally’s Fort. Impacted lead rifle balls, and a broken French, amber colored gun flint.
The closest historical marker to Donnally’s Fort – off Route 60 near Lewisburg, WV. The other side of the marker is titled “Fort Donnally.” Cornstalk’s sister was probably responsible for saving the fort, and other settlers in the area.
The old D.A.R. marker in the field where Fort Donnally stood.

Renick’s Fort is also mentioned in the pension application of James Gillilan, dated December 17, 1833:

That he was among the first settlers of western Virginia that he came to the county of Botetourt now Greenbrier so early as the year 1769 and endured all the hardships of the Indian warfare that at the commencement of the Revolutionary war has had acquired such a knowledge of the County that he was compelled at Renick Fort to aid in guarding the frontier settlements and in the year 1777 he was chosen as Sergeant under Cpt. Hamilton but primarily to call out Indian spys[.]

[T]hat during this season he was frequently called out along the Greenbrier River to watch the Indian paths but that the inhabitants along Greenbrier settlements was much panicked that year but in this year 1778 so early as in May while he was stationed in Renicks Fort he received intelligence that upwards of three hundred Indians was on their way to Greenbrier Settlement and as Donleys Fort on their route he was requested to he was requested to repair to the defence that and that he immediately marched to the Fort but before he reached it the Indians had attacked it and with the timely aid of the arrival of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Stewart from a fort where Lewisburg now stands with about 60 men the Indians was repulsed without doing much damage to the Fort.

He arrived at the Fort soon after and there had been three men killed Pritchert, Ocheltree and Benes before the action commenced and that only one was killed in the Fort James Graham and he was killed by a ball passing through the porthole and ? and struck him. Sixteen or seventeen Indians lay dead in the yard. Co. Lewis with a party of men pursued them but he found they had parted and dispersed in every direction. He then with others went out in scouting parties to watch the path fearing they would lurk about the frontier settlement[.]

[T]he repeated irruptions of the Indians and the frequent murders and the greate devastation commited by them on the Greenbrier inhabitants during the Springs and Summers of 1778-79-80-81 & 82 rendered it indispensably necessary that a continual watch should be kept out. [H]e witnessed a party of about twenty Indians who ranged about the border settlement frequently dividing and lurking in small parties at one time they were to be found on Mudy and Peters Creek killing these inhabitants at other times in the neighborhood of the Little Levels [Pocahontas County, along the Greenbrier River] where fall to their prey at different periods Henry Baker, W. C. Keever, Prior Smith, Drinners and famileys[.]

[A]nd in the summer 1782 he was elected Ensign in Capt. Renicks Company in which capacity he acted three months in that year although owing to same cause his commition did not issue until the Spring after that. Early the Spring 1783 he and others was called to range along the frontier country to watch the paths oft traveled by the Indians and that when not spying he was stationed to guard Renicks Fort in the capacity of Ensign. He continued to spy and guard the fort from the first of April until the first of Sept a period of five months. He during all the revolutionary war witnessed the murder and bloodshed of the inhabitants of western Virginia and in all these suffering seems he was one of the actors. 

Pension Application of James Gillilan R4029

Frontiersman walking a blindfolded horse across a mountain creek crossing.
18th century pack horse saddles, as would have been used by the Indian Spies. The two to the right were found in the Greenbrier Valley.

James Gillilan gave a little more specificity a couple years later, when he wrote another declaration to presumably supplement his application and/or file:

I the undersigned James Gillilan, being called by W. G. Singleton for a statement of my service in the war of the Revolution & age give the following to wit—I shall be 86 years old the 16th of March next – was born in Augusta County Virginia and lived where I now live during this ware of the Revolution – on land which I now own and acquired by “settlement rights” from the year 1776 to 1783.

Myself and family during the summer season were forted at Renick Fort, two miles from my house, in the winter season we left the fort and returned to our cabin – all the people in my settlement lived in Renick Fort for the time above mentioned – in the summer season kept up a garrison – and worked our little crops as well as we could – would all turn out in a body and work each others places by turns – whilst some were working, others would be watching and guarding to give alarms of the approach of Indian. I was sergeant of the Garrison, Hamilton was Captain ? and after him Renick was Captain.

When on an occasion required I went out from this Fort in pursuit of Indians but don’t recollect of being that way but once, then only for a few days. This was when this attack was made on Donleys Fort some ten miles distant from the Fort at which I lived. I think I was in this service four days. There was no attack made on the Fort in which I lived. In corn husking season, more or less of us were quickly engaged in working corn, potatoes,etc. “after our corn was laid by we remained in the fort” until corn gathering time. Then we would turn out all together and get our corn in. I was employed all through this war in the manner above stated. I acted as ensign being elected this before the ware closed but was not commissioned until after it did close. Jany 24, 1835.

James Gillilan Affidavit, January 24, 1835

This gives a great description of the manner of life of an “Indian Spy” or Virginia Militia Ranger, in the deep frontier of the Greenbrier Valley settlements during the Revolutionary War period. They all give similar descriptions, and they had some trouble convincing the bureaucrats in Washington that they were entitled to pensions for their service. Renick’s Fort was probably close to identical to the nature of Byrnside’s Fort. Privately built by a prominent and wealthy settler and father of the local community, providing a place of defense for the local surrounding settlers.

Virginia Rifleman, painted 1781 by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine de Verger, Sublieutenant, Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment. Probably very close to how one of these Indian Spies would have appeared. Many also served as “Virginia Rifleman” in the Revolution, which essentially meant that they were experienced frontiersmen, able to fight in the Indian manner, and either had rifles, or smoothbores capable of being accurately aimed.

By law, all of the male settlers of appropriate age were required to join and serve in the local militia unit, which by necessity and common sense, coordinated with the construction and location of these privately built fortified homes and forts. Because all men were vested with the responsibility and the obligation to participate in the militia, and their mutual defense. Also by necessity, and by experience, the local settlers were experienced frontiersmen, Indian fighters, and rangers, because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t survive on the frontier, and they probably wouldn’t have attempted it in the first place – at least not at that point in time.

A 1777 watercolor of a Virginia rifleman attributed to Lt. Richard St. George Mansergh St. George of the British 52nd Regiment of foot. Probably very close to how one of these Indian Spies would have appeared. Many also served as “Virginia Rifleman” in the Revolution, which essentially meant that they were experienced frontiersmen, able to fight in the Indian manner, and either had rifles, or smoothbores capable of being accurately aimed.
Items perhaps carried by an Indian Spy.

This provides direct first hand evidence of the crops grown by these settlers: corn and potatoes, and “etc.” I wish he had continued . . . . They planted their crops on their own lands, and during the growing season, which was also the warfare season, they lived together in the local fort, only venturing out to tend to their crops when they could bring their friends with guns. These lessons were learned the hard way. More “green” settlers, who had moved to dangerous areas, were frequently killed while tending their crops alone, or unarmed. These people had learned those lessons long ago, and only did so with armed guards.

A “Virginia Rifleman” painting by Don Troiani, probably not far off of what an Indian Spy, or deep frontier militia ranger would look like. Add another guy, and a packhorse or two.

Looking back at Jonathan Hughes’ pension application, he mentions that when appointed as an Indian Spy, at least on one occasion, they drew rations for eight days:

[T]his declarant together with James Boggs William Hamilton & William Gilkinson all volunteered to go to McCoys Fort which was at that time weak where he staid a few days and was then called back to Rennicks Fort by Captain Hamilton and and appointed an Indian Spy with William Gilkenson and we were directed to draw rations for eight days and went as Spies untill our rations were exhausted and then drew for eight days more and continued that course through the summer untill the last of September of that year

Pension Application of James Gillilan R4029

Many of these Indian Spy pension narratives are consistent that the Indian Spies worked in teams of two. So here, he mentions a period “outside of the wire,” or “beyond the pale,” of eight days. Others mention the use of packhorses on these trips, and the use of “cold camps,” or in other words, they were not allowed to make fires – for obvious reasons.

A photo I took of Culbertson’s Creek, about halfway between the site of Renick’s Fort and the site of Donnally’s Fort. Undoubtedly, the Indian Spies traveled this beautiful spot.

The pension application of Joseph Hanna, No. Va. R4576 also mentions Renick’s Fort:

[He] was called out . . . that owing to the invasions of the Indians along the western part of Virginia the inhabitants were compelled to erect forts or garrisons for their defense and government ordered a sufficient number of men to be embodied for their defense and those garrisons were also furnished with ammunition by government[.]

[T]hat for this purpose he volunteered in the spring of 1779-80 and 81 and served under Capt. Andrew Hamilton from the first of May until the first of October in each year in a garrison situated on Spring Creek, a tributary stream of Greenbrier River . . . .

And that in the Springs of 1782 and 83 he served from the first of May util the first of October in the same garrison above named under the command of Capt. William Renic[.]

[T]he nature of his service was to remain in garrison for its defense in case it was attacked by Indians and occasionally to go out in scouting parties or to spy after Indians that the company to which he belonged was divided[:] a part remained in Renicks Fort with him and a part was stationed five or six miles higher up Spring Creek [McClanahan’s Fort on Culbertson Creek].

[T]hat among his spying company he recollect was Joseph Mase? William Price, George Davison and others[.] [T]hat they speed and ranged the county along the waters of Spring Creek, Cobasons [Culbertson Creek] and Sinking Creek between the fort where he was stationed and Walker’s Meadows.

Pension Application of Joseph Hanna R4576

A photo I took of Culbertson’s Creek, looking the other direction from the above photo, about halfway between the site of Renick’s Fort and the site of Donnally’s Fort. Undoubtedly, the Indian Spies traveled this beautiful spot.

So what would Renick’s Fort would have looked like? It probably would have had a large log blockhouse in the style of a log home, with a small stockaded enclosure, at the very least, and possibly other structures. We know what the similar purposed Byrnside’s Fort looks like, because it’s still there, minus the stockade – though we can see where it connected to the blockhouse. Another nearby blockhouse still standing, albeit one that was stand-alone, and without a stockade around it, is the Graham Cabin.

The James Graham cabin. Originally built as a blockhouse, fortified home. There would have been no lower windows – only a door, and no porch and porch roof. It was indeed attacked by Shawnee, and a man shot by the Shawnee war party right through the front door. Others were killed, and Mr. Graham’s daughter was kidnapped.

It likely would have had other small outbuildings, and some sort of stockade of vertical logs, of some sort. We know that at least two similar purposed forts nearby were made by attaching the stockade directly to the log blockhouse (Byrnside’s Fort and Donnally’s Fort), so that may have been the Renick structure as well.

An example of a small log outbuilding and a rough version of a log stockade wall.

I’d say it’s more likely that the blockhouse was in the style of a home, rather than just a square tower with an overhanging second story, because it was William Renick’s home, rather than a pure fort-only structure. The overhanging tower blockhouse doesn’t allow for outside chimneys, which were much safer. The ones at Byrnside’s Fort were actually built away from the logs in case of fire, like the ones you see at Colonial Williamsburg.

Andrew Donnally’s Fort, which is rst mentioned as a fort or garrison in 1776 by Capt. John Stuart and Col. William Fleming, is the only one of these Sinking Creek/Muddy Creek forts with detailed historical descriptions. This was undoubtedly due to the major Indian attack thereon May 29, 1778, which created a urry of period letters and reportsand a number of later descriptions and reminiscences. Descriptions of the fort by Capt. John Stuart and Anne Royalle are particularly useful. According to Stuart,

…they had the advantage of a stockade fort round the house….The house formed one part of the front of the fort and was double, Hammon [Philip Hammond] and the negro [Dick Pointer] was in the kitchen…. The ring of Hammond awakened the people in the other end of the house and upstairs….

Stuart later [1833] clarifies the relationship of the house to the kitchen when he stated that, “the kitchen making one end of the house, and there Hammond and the negro were.” In this version Stuart also describes the fort as “a stockade fort around and adjoining the house.” He also notes that the fort contained at least one bastion, port holes, and at least one gate. Anne Royalle, following an interview with battle participant Dick Pointer, wrote,

Col. Donnally’s house made a part of the fort, the front of it forming a line with the same, the door of the house being the door of the fort.

Therefore, according to both John Stuart and Dick Pointer (as written by Anne Royalle), Donnally’s Fort consisted of his double-pen (house and kitchen), two-story log house with an intersecting and surrounding stockade that had at least one bastion and one gate. The stockade inter- sected the house along the front of the fort.

Frontier Defense: Colonizing Contested Areas in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia, by Kim McBride and W. Stephen McBride (2014) at page 12-13.

Check out the similarities between the similarly-purposed Byrnside’s Fort, and Donnally’s Fort, which together, provide almost all of what we can prove about the layout of such forts during the Revolutionary War era of the deep Virginia frontier:

Figure 11: Donnally’s Fort layout and excavation units, Frontier Defense: Colonizing Contested Areas in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia, by Kim McBride and W. Stephen McBride (2014) at page 12-13.

Note how the house itself takes advantage of being used as an integral part of the stockade wall itself. This save a lot of trees, given that it supposedly took around 1,000 trees to enclose a large sized frontier fort. We also confirmed that Byrnside’s Fort was set up in a similar manner, though the stockade walls instead attached to the front and rear of the house, respectively.

A diagram of the known layout of Byrnside’s Fort, so far. It’s currently unknown whether the stockade walls turn west, or east at the corner after it comes off the blockhouse. If the 18th century log addition is during the fort occupation, it must turn to the west, because that surely would have been built inside the stockade, rather than outside. If not, then it could go the other way. The answers will hopefully be in the ground, assuming the stockade poles were buried in a trench. If not, there may not be evidence of where they ran, exactly.

4 thoughts on “The Search for Renick’s Fort, and the life of an “Indian Spy”

  1. Very interesting. Our families went throuh a lot to settle this nation. We should always be greatful to them and remember that.

  2. I have recently found this site and I am really enjoying reading these stories. Thank you for all of your hard work in creating this.

  3. Thanks so much for all your hard work in gathering this history and for your generosity in sharing. So enjoyed reading!

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