Massacre of Phillips' Rangers
In the summer of 1780, the American Revolution was in its sixth year. Even though the British surrender at Yorktown was only 15 months away, hard campaigning lay ahead. 1779 had not been a great year for the colonial army. As usual, they came up short in many engagements but won just enough to keep them going.
That ability to hang in there against the biggest superpower of their day had led to a game changing event in October 1777 with a victory at Saratoga, just north of Albany, NY. This much needed win was due in no small part to the actions of future traitor Benedict Arnold, who performed heroically that day. Saratoga convinced the French that the colonies could stand up to the British on the battlefield. They entered the war on the American side in 1778.
This turned the American Revolution into yet another European world war, with fighting in Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Eventually, the Spanish also declared war on Britain. It forced the British to strategically re-deploy troops which could have been used to put down the rebellion.
To counter this strategic setback, the British began a guerilla war fought in large part by Native American braves recruited by the Crown. Many of them came from the Iroquois nations of upstate New York. The campaign started in the fertile Mohawk and Hudson River valleys of eastern New York and spread south and west. War parties of 50 or more marauded at will. They were often accompanied by a few “advisors” of British regulars or Tories who dressed Indian style to blend in.
The American Indians of the northeast were some of the best light infantry fighters the world has ever seen. Their movement, reconnaissance and ambush skills were superb. They knew the land. They decided the time and location of any fighting, leaving their opponents almost completely in the reactive mode. They were also extremely violent and cruel. Scalpings, mutilations and looting were part of their way of warfare. They spared no one. The wounded were slaughtered. Captive women and children became slaves. Male captives were ritually tortured to death, sometimes for days.
These raids had the intended effects – stark terror and complete disruption of the interior regions of New York and Pennsylvania, which up until now had little direct involvement in the war. Many settlers were killed. Others abandoned their homes and headed for safer places. Still others stuck with it. The constant Indian threat was dealt with by a strategy of common defense. There were no regular army troops available, so the farmers and settlers formed militias. The local government would grant commissions to prominent citizens to recruit, train and equip local defense units to be called up when needed. These irregular units had keen knowledge of the area and were skilled woodsmen. They were called Rangers.
Another strategy was the construction of blockhouses on farms and other places. These were fortified buildings made of brick, stone or heavy timber that could be closed up with thick doors and shutters. Water, food and ammo would be cached inside. Defenders would fire through ports. The idea was to hold out until help arrived and/or inflict enough casualties on the attackers to make them break off.
In July 1780, the marauders came to central Pennsylvania. At Fort Bedford, militia commander Colonel John Piper received reports of war party sightings in the Woodcock Valley, which was 40 miles to the northwest and not too far from present-day State College, PA.
The local militia officer in that area was Captain William Phillips, who lived in Williamsburg in the northern end of the valley. Colonel Piper ordered Captain Phillips to muster a company of militia and do a reconnaissance of the Woodcock Valley. Phillips was to check on the reported presence and activity of war parties and offer armed escort for settlers wishing to leave.
Captain Phillips was able to muster only 10 men in the time allotted. He also took his14 year old son Elijah. The 12 Rangers conducted their reconnaissance and found no war parties. All of the homesteads they checked had been abandoned. They did however make contact with a settler who had been sent to look for help for a group of families holed up in a nearby blockhouse called Shoup's Fort.
In the interim, the families decided to evacuate on their own and rounded up others along the way. They were gone when the Rangers got there. The Woodcock Valley was essentially deserted and wouldn’t return to normal for several years.
On July 15, 1780 it rained heavily. Phillips’ Rangers took refuge in the deserted blockhouse/homestead of Frederick Hester. Unbeknownst to them, Hester had just fled with his family after finding his son dead and scalped a short distance away.
The night passed uneventfully, but they awoke on the morning of July 16 to find a war party of over 50 braves camped around them. The battle started shortly thereafter. The Rangers put up a ferocious fight. Hester’s blockhouse held up against gunfire, assaults and even fire for awhile. The hard rain the previous night left everything soggy. The Indians finally got fires started on the roof but the Rangers doused them with buckets of water up in the loft. This went on until mid-afternoon, when the fires finally took hold and the water ran out. Phillips negotiated a surrender with an English “advisor” which included terms that no harm would come to them.
Captain Phillips and his son were led away separately. They became British POW’s in Canada. The other Rangers were led a short distance, tied to trees and tortured to death. A militia company led by Colonel Piper found them two days later. He reported that all had multiple arrows sticking out of them and had been scalped. Evidence of their agony was offered by other reports that they had been cut open and that the leather thongs the Rangers were bound with had dug deeply into their flesh.
Colonel Piper’s men buried the Rangers in a mass grave 18 inches deep at the spot where they died. To this day, there are conflicting reports as to how many bodies were actually found and buried. Some say all 10. Others claim nine or seven, with the missing Rangers killed in the house and consumed by the inferno.
But we do know for certain that 10 Rangers died. We know their names. We know they weren't professional soldiers or mercenary hacks. They were farmers and family men who volunteered to help protect their community. Many of their ancestors still live in the region. They keep the memories and historical record alive.
In recognition of that, the current monument was built in 1926. It's an impressive structure just sitting out in the middle of the woods. According to historical records, it's about a half mile east of the Hester blockhouse where the Rangers made their stand. At the time it was built, nobody knew where they were buried.
Their mass grave was undisturbed until January 25, 1933 when a Civilian Conservation Corps working party stumbled upon it. American Legion Post 169 in Saxton, PA had the remains re-interred four months later in a burial vault right next to the monument and not far from the place where they were killed 153 years earlier.
Captain Phillips and his son Elijah survived their captivity. They had been separated the whole time and were repatriated the same way. Both made their way back to the Woodcock Valley. Given the usual fate of male captives, no one had any idea they were still alive. Little if anything is known about Elijah afterwards. Phillips himself was haunted by the fate of his men. This was made worse by rumors of deal making to spare himself and his son. The fate of William Phillips is murky. Some say he moved to Kentucky. Other reports say he stayed in the area and is buried at a cemetery in the valley.
Tragically, at the time of the massacre, the tide was already turning against the Iroquois. As a result of the raids, settlers were fleeing the valleys in droves and regional commerce, especially food production, was grinding to a halt. The resultant political pressure forced an intervention with regular troops. A year before Phillips' recon patrol, George Washington ordered a punitive expedition against the Iroquois.
Major General John Sullivan commanded the 4,000 man expedition. It was to be a summer-long scorched earth search-and-destroy mission deep into the Iroquois homelands – the only one of its kind during the war. Their ultimate objective was Fort Niagara, the British staging base for the raids. They got started too late, moved too slowly and fought too cautiously to take the fort. They turned around while they were still 80 miles away to avoid a winter siege. They burned a lot of Iroquois territory but never got the decisive engagements they were looking for to kill the warriors. The elusive Iroquois were not about to be sucked into that kind of fight. They simply pulled back and left their lands empty. However, Sullivan's march destroyed most of the support structure of the Iroquois and created extreme hardships for them. Their food and shelter were gone and the British weren't much help with either. The winter of 1779-80 was one of the harshest recorded in North America during the entire century. It killed more Iroquois than Sullivan's army did.
The expedition had bought some time, but the next summer, the war parties were back - including the one that butchered the Rangers. However, their frequency and intensity were much less. The brutal winter with scant food and shelter had greatly reduced Iroquois fighting power. Additionally, military and political forces were lining up against them. By this time, the independence handwriting was on the wall and the British were starting to think about cutting their losses. Things went downhill fast for the Iroquois. In 1784, they acceded to demands from the new United States government to stop their frontier hostilities and surrender all their lands. By 1800, they were either in Canada, on reservations or dead.
This type of horrific brutality was not uncommon nor was it confined to the Indians. All sides participated in atrocities in a brutal backcountry war that lasted thirty years – from the mid-1750’s to the mid-1780’s. This war was fought by colonists, farmers, patriots, soldiers, teamsters, Rangers, mercenaries, Tories, British regulars, Native Americans and just about anybody else who came along. It ebbed and flowed with the political, economic and military tides of the moment. But the wanton slaughter of Phillips’ Rangers may have been the worst of them all.
The fate of Phillips’ Rangers didn’t change the course of the war or cause any political tidal waves. What it does is spotlight the fact that the European settlers and the Native Americans mistrusted and hated each other with a passion. The children and grandchildren of the settlers who lived or died in this long, violent struggle later continued the great western migration and took those attitudes with them. It's fair to say that some of the seeds of the Little Bighorn, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee were planted in the valleys of Pennsylvania a century earlier.
Reports of hauntings at the memorial have circulated for years. Local lore has it that spirits and paranormal energy are especially active on July 16 - the day of the battle. Other reports talk about a solitary black shadow that appears to be watching the grave. The ghost of William Phillips perhaps? Several paranormal investigations have been conducted with mixed results. This YouTube video by the Martinsburg Paranormal Research Team is particularly interesting and this YouTube slide show has some good pictures of the memorial site.
Most paranormal investigators come away with the impression that spirits dwell at the memorial. After our own ghostly encounter at Shiloh Battlefield, who are we to argue? If spirits inhabit this earth because their bodies and souls were suddenly and violently ripped apart, this place would certainly qualify.
The GPS coordinates of the monument site are N40.260048, W78.266474. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map/satellite view.
History is everywhere in Pennsylvania and this region is no exception. The Ranger Monument is one of dozens of monuments, markers and museums through the counties of Huntingdon, Blair, Somerset and Bedford. All have their own historical societies and very active geneaology organizations.
I have to admit I'm partial since I'm from this area. All you have to do is drive along the back roads and you'll find interesting stuff and it will definitely be off the beaten path. Here is a page of Pennsylvania maps you may find useful for those road trips.
One web site that is particularly good for this is Mother Bedford. They have the best and most extensive information about the history, culture and current happenings in the region. If I had to pick one website as a guide, this would be it. Be sure to check out their page highlighting monuments and markers on the forts and blockhouses that defended settlers in colonial days. It is most interesting - well at least I think so.
The other great sources of things to see are our Groundspeak twins geocaching.com and waymarking.com along with their cousin letterboxing.org. This region has plenty of all three.
The Broad Topper cache is about 300 feet south of the monument.
The Cove View cache is one mile southwest as the crow flies. This one requires a hike with a fairly steep climb at the end but the views are spectacular.
And if you like covered bridges, you've come to the right place. This four county region has more of them than any other area in the US and many of them are still in use. Just go to waymarking, plug in a zip code and open the "Covered Bridges" category.
While you're at it, don't forget to check out the Jean Bonnet Tavern, the best restaurant in the area. It's been around since 1762, survived the Indian raids and is haunted to boot.
Lastly, as you move freely and safely along these roads and through the countryside, please take a moment to reflect on the time when it wasn't that way and the sacrifices people made to change it.
Semper Fi.......out here......Alpha6