Fort Penn played important role in local history

2013Feb-Map-Fort-PennMap depicting approximate location of Fort Penn in Stroudsburg.

In 2012, this column featured a series of articles which highlighted the forts that had been built under the direction of Benjamin Franklin during the French and Indian War between 1755-56.

The response to the articles has been favorable, but I have been contacted by a few interested readers who have asked why I did not include Fort Penn as one of the frontier forts.

Fort Penn was indeed a fortified structure of local importance, but it was not one of the four “Franklin Forts.” Fort Penn was built years later, in 1776, during another turbulent time in America’s early history, the American Revolution.

Here is an account of Fort Penn.

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

In 1775, Jacob Stroud, a military veteran of the French and Indian War, was placed in charge of the Lower Smithfield Military Company. He began this post at the rank of captain and was ultimately promoted to colonel.

As part of his initial duties, Stroud was requested by Northampton County officials to submit a report to them of the status of the company, including the number of men and the supply of equipment he had at his disposal.

Stroud compiled his report, but he bypassed the “local” chain of command and submitted the document directly to the Committee of Safety in Philadelphia. This bold move demonstrated that Stroud took his post seriously and with an air of authority that showed both Northampton County and Philadelphia officials that he was now in command of the area north of the Blue Mountains.

One year later, in 1776, Stroud was ordered by the executive council to build a stockade around his stone home. This fortified structure, which became part of Jacob Stroud’s command, was called Fort Penn, having been named for John Penn, governor of Pennsylvania.

Unlike the frontier forts of 20 years earlier, no one in authority was sent to inspect Fort Penn. It had been policy of the British military during the French and Indian War to send an inspector to each of the Franklin forts with the task of surveying the structure’s condition; inventorying supplies, and reporting on the overall status of the fort and its garrison.

However, to put it lightly, the political atmosphere of the area changed drastically between the 1750s and the 1770s. In the 1750s, the early colonists were British subjects who were fighting for the crown against the French and the Indians. By the late 1770s, the “colonists” had formed a new government and had become Americans. And the Americans were battling against the British crown, which had under its domain the strongest military force of the time.

Clearly, in the summer of 1776, the condition of a small fort located in the wilds of Stroudsburg was not of the utmost importance to the administrators of the new nation. Even if it were, it is doubtful that any military personnel could have been spared to conduct an inspection. There is no official written record that details the style of Fort Penn’s construction, although it is believed that the fort closely resembled the earlier stockade forts that had been commissioned by Benjamin Franklin. Accounts of the structure describe it as being soundly built and large enough to house 40 families; it is thought that Stroud paid to build Fort Penn with his own money.

Fort Penn did not see much activity during the American Revolution. While there were no battles there, the fort did serve three main purposes: to operate as part of a line of defense from Indian attack; to function as a depot for military supplies and munitions that were sent from Easton, and to provide a training area for new recruits for the Continental Army.

Perhaps Fort Penn’s most important role was receiving the survivors of the Wyoming Massacre that occurred on July 3, 1778. At that time, Americans were occupied with the Revolutionary War, but there was an upturn in the violence of the native peoples toward European colonists in New York.

Before 1778, relations between natives and Europeans had been relatively quiet, and the northeastern area of Pennsylvania had been largely ignored militarily. Because the area had experienced such little activity, the able-bodied men who lived in the Wyoming Valley (present-day Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area) answered Congress’ call to join the Continental Army.

This patriotic decision left the area defenseless. Unfortunately for the Americans who remained in northeastern Pennsylvania (women, children and men who were too old to serve), British sympathizer Col. John Butler, the leader of the Tory Raiders, traveled from New York with a group of Seneca warriors into Pennsylvania and descended upon the unprepared residents of the Wyoming Valley.

Victims of the initial attack of the Tory Raiders and the Seneca included many women and children, most of whom were murdered, some of whom were carried off into captivity. Those who were fortunate enough to escape fled southward through the dense forests and murky swamps toward the Delaware River. Survivors of the massacre traveled a path through present-day Coolbaugh Township in Monroe County.

Many perished in the unforgiving wilderness, and the area soon became known as “The Shades of Death.” The remaining survivors arrived at Fort Penn, roughly 50 miles distant from the site of the massacre, where Jacob Stroud and his men received and cared for them.

Following the massacre, Stroud became concerned for the safety of the residents in the immediate area, and he questioned the ability of his garrison to provide the necessary defense if attacked by the Tories or the Indians. The fort only had 60 men, and Stroud was anxious that they would be outnumbered if the Indians attacked.

In addition, although Fort Penn was large, it had become crowded with the survivors of the Wyoming Massacre, and Stroud was worried that he would not be able to protect adequately his own neighbors should they seek safety behind the stockade walls.

Stroud sent many letters to the Provincial Council pleading for additional munitions. On July 17, 1778, he sent a letter to Lt. John Wetzel stating, “I beg you will in all haste send me more ammunition, and you may depend on my taking all the care I can. … I assure you I cannot Stand nor keep my men here without more assistance.”

The council did respond to Stroud, sending 200 lbs. of powder and 800 lbs. of lead to the fort.

After a year of relative calm, the spring of 1779 brought increased hostilities as local Indians planned attacks on American citizens in the vicinity of Fort Penn.

Lt. Wetzel attempted to recruit militia men to send a skirmish party to engage the warring Indians, but the men refused; they only obeyed orders from Col. Stroud. By this time, Stroud had become the dominant figure in the area. His had established a positive relationship with local citizens. He cared for and protected his neighbors, and, in turn, they supported him. In addition, local residents were angered by what they saw as a lack of support given to Stroud by Northampton officials and the shortage of supplies at Fort Penn.

Wetzel felt his authority had been undermined. He accused Stroud of insubordination, and Stroud was required to travel to Philadelphia for a hearing in front of the Provincial Council.

After hearing the arguments from Wetzel and Stroud, the members of the council resolved that they disapproved of Stroud’s behavior and encouraged the two parties to “lay aside all animosities.” The council ultimately decided that “in consideration of Colonel Stroud’s good character as an officer, his activity and zeal in the public service, the board think proper to pass over on farther proceedings herein.”

Stroud returned to Fort Penn immediately following the hearing, and was even more determined to protect the people north of the Blue Mountains.

A pivotal decision made by Gen. George Washington helped Stroud succeed in his goal of safeguarding the interests of the people in his area. In June 1779, Washington, in an attempt to eliminate decisively the persistent Indian threat along the American frontier, ordered Gen. John Sullivan to march across the area to engage the Indians as enemies.

Sullivan began his march in Easton, with thousands of soldiers at his disposal. The army traveled through present-day Monroe County and ultimately into the state of New York. The Seneca and other Indians who had pushed southward to engage European settlers turned back in order to defend their homes. Sullivan’s victories against the Indians were greatly one-sided, and the campaign removed nearly all threat of an Indian retaliation.

In Spring 1780, Stroud was again charged with insubordination by “endeavoring to suppress the power of the lieutenant and sub-lieutenants” from other commands. For this, Stroud was court-martialed, with nine charges were brought against him.

The court-martial began in Philadelphia on August 1, 1781. Stroud’s defenders claimed that the plaintiff lieutenant had a personal grudge against Stroud. The court adjourned on August 22 with the intention of reconvening in Easton, Northampton County on September 3.

However, the proceedings never took place. During that two-week hiatus, the fighting of the Revolutionary War intensified, and it was believed that Philadelphia, the capital of the young nation, would be attacked by British forces. All militia were called up to defend the city in case of attack. The court-martial against Stroud collapsed, as attention was focused on these more important matters, and Stroud was “acquitted” of all charges.

Stroud returned home to Fort Penn, where he was warmly received by the townspeople. His popularity soared, and the citizens elected him to serve as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Stroud’s devotion to his neighbors, and theirs to him, was clear.

Over time, Stroud continued with his successful business ventures, protected his investments, and further developed “his” town north of the Blue Mountains.

Stroud died in 1806, yet the memory of him and of Fort Penn continue. Historians do not know the precise location of the fort, nor is there a detailed description of the structure itself; however, the general place in which Fort Penn stood has remained a source of pride to the citizens of the area. The last remains of Fort Penn were washed away in the Flood of 1886. A historical marker dedicated to Fort Penn stands on the 500-block of Main Street in Stroudsburg.

John Weidner’s market was located on at 518 Main Street in Stroudsburg. It was often referred to as the “Fort Penn Market,” evidence that the positive memory of Fort Penn among area residents was still strong decades later.