Fort Wheeler, Columbia County, Pennsylvania
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Lieut. Moses Van Campen says, “Early in the month of April 1778, he was ordered to go with his men up the North Branch of the Susquehanna river to the mouth of Fishing creek and follow up this three miles to a compact settlement, located in that region, and build a fort for the reception of the inhabitants in case of an attack from the Indians. News had come thus early of their having visited the outer line of settlements and of their committing depredations, so that terrified messengers were arriving almost daily, bringing the sad news of houses burned, victims scalped and of families carried into captivity.
“It was no time to be idle; a few days, it might be a few hours, and the savage might be amongst those whom he was appointed to guard and repeat these scenes of cruelty and blood. He and his men, his command of twenty men, who, as well as himself, were familiar with the country, expert in the use of the rifle and acquainted with the Indian modes of warfare, without delay they entered vigorously upon the work, selecting a site for the fort on the farm of Mr. Wheeler (hence, when completed, it was called Fort Wheeler). It was built of stockades and sufficiently large to accommodate all the families of the neighborhood. Anticipating an early approach of the foe, they worked with a will to bring the fort to completion or at least into a condition that would afford some protection in case of an attack. The Indians, in approaching the border settlements, usually struck upon the head waters of some of the streams upon which settlers were located and followed them down through valley or mountain defile until they came near a white man’s house, when they would divide so as to fall in small companies upon different habitations at the same time. “Before the fort was completed a runner came flying with the speed of the wind to announce the approach of a large party of savages. The inhabitants gathered into the fort with quick and hasty rush, taking with them what valuables they could, and leaving their cheerful homes to the undisputed sway of the enemy. Very soon the Indians came prowling around under cover of the woods and all at once, with wild yells, burst forth upon the peaceful farmhouses of the settlement. Fortunately, the inmates were not there to become victims of the tomahawk and scalping knife. From the elevated position of the fort the inhabitants could see their dwellings entered, their feather beds and blankets carried out and scattered around with frantic cries and very soon after the flame and smoke leap to the tops of their houses and, finally, the whole settle down into a quiet heap of ashes. The Indians spent most of the day in pillaging and burning houses, some of them made an attack on the fort but to little purpose. Van Campen and his men were actively engaged in preparing for a vigorous defense in case of an attack to storm their unfinished works. They were successful in surrounding the fort at a distance of four rods with a barricade “made with brush and stakes, the ends sharpened and locked into each other so that it was difficult to remove them and almost impossible for one to get through. The Indians, seeing this obstruction, were disposed to fire at them from a distance, and keep concealed behind the bushes. Their shots were promptly returned and a brisk firing was kept up all the time till evening. It was expected that the Indians would renew the attack the next morning and, as the ammunition of the fort was nearly expended, Van Campen sent two of his men to Fort Jenkins, about eight miles distant, on the Susquehanna, who returned next morning before dawn of day with a plentiful supply of powder and lead. The remaining hours of darkness were spent in running bullets and in making needed preparation for the encounter they were looking for on the approaching day. They judged from what they knew of the superior force of the enemy and from the activity already displayed that the struggle would be severe.” In the morning they found the enemy had disappeared. “The Indians, not liking the preparations made to receive them, retired, leaving blood on the ground, but nothing else that would indicate their loss. But the Indians, not satisfied with this visit made another attempt to surprise this fort in the month of June. On one evening in the month of June,” says Lieut. Van Campen, “just at the time when the women and girls were milking their cows, a sentinel called my attention to a movement in the bushes not far off, which I soon discovered to be a party of Indians making their way to the cattle yard. There was no time to be lost. I immediately selected ten of my sharpshooters and, under cover of a rise of ground, crept between them and the milkers. On ascending the ridge we found ourselves within pistol shot of our lurking foes. I fired first and killed the leader; this produced an instant panic among the party, and they all flew away like a flock of birds, A volley from my men did no further execution; it only made the woods echo with the tremendous roar of their rifles; it sounded such an unexpected alarm in the ears of the honest dairy women that they were still more terribly frightened than the Indians. They started upon their feet, screamed aloud and ran with all their might, fearful lest the enemy should be upon them. In the mean time the milk pails flew in every direction and the milk was scattered to the winds. The best runner got in first.” Lieut. Van Campen appears to have made Fort Wheeler his headquarters this season when not engaged in scouting. After the Sullivan campaign, in the fall of 1779, when Van Campen returned to Fort Wheeler, his father living there – leaving there late in March 1780.
Fort Wheeler, the traditions of the many descendants of the men who occupied the fort say, was not abandoned but held by hardy settlers, when not garrisoned by troops and that it is the only one of its date of the line in front of Fort Augusta that was not destroyed. Of couse, I do not include McClure, Rice or Swartz, as they were built later. Near here lived Peter Meelick, who served as one of the committee of safety for this Wyoming township from its institution until superseded by another system.
There is nothing today to indicate where the fort stood except the spring is there. Mr. William Creveling, who owns the property, says many years ago he ploughed up the fireplace.
O. B. Melick, Esq., of Bloomsburg, says the place his grandfather, the Peter Meelick above named, and his father fixed upon as the site of Fort Wheeler is the same as that shown by Mr. Creveling. Mr. Theodore McDowell, since dead, showed the same site as the one he and his comrades when boys used to visit as the remains of Fort Wheeler. The graveyard, where the soldiers and others were buried, about thirty rods from the site, I regret to say, is not cared for. There is not a dissenting voice as to the site, but unanimity rarely found.
Mr. Isaiah Wheeler, on whose land the fort was built, and whose dwelling the stockades enclosed, was a settler who came here from the State of New Jersey, and some accounts say he died and was buried here. Col. Joseph Salmon, a man of prominence as a scout and of extraordinary courage in these times, when examples of courage were not rare, married one of his daughters. It is said an open manly rivalry existed between Van Campen and Salmon for her hand, when Salmon distanced the lieutenant and won the damsel.
Mr. Joseph Crawford, an old and respected citizen of Orangeville, says his father, John Crawford, was born in Fort Wheeler soon after its completion in 1778, being the second white child born in this vicinity.