The Destruction of Kittanning

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Marker for Kittanning at Water and Market Streets

The town was preparing for a festival the day Zech and I arrived in Kittanning. Parking for a place near the monument was non-existent. Most of the parking spaces were filled with vendors preparing for the events of the weekend but the traffic and crowds were not going to deter me from my goal. I finally managed to find a place and Zech and I walked the three blocks to the large monument at Market and North Water Streets. The monument, erected on September 8, 1926, remembers the Delaware village once located here and its destruction, which was overseen by Colonel John Armstrong.

Kittanning was once one of the most important Indian towns in Western Pennsylvania and was the home of Delaware Chief Captain Jacobs. At the time of Colonel Armstrong’s attack, between three and four hundred people were living there. The majority of the white settlers taken captive by the raiding parties in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania were brought here – children would be distributed among Indian families and adults either taken prisoner or tortured and killed. Those who had survived the destruction of Fort Granville were marched to Kittanning and it was here John Turner – who surrendered the fort – was tortured and eventually killed. Note: more on the destruction of Fort Granville can be found here: The Fall of Fort Granville.

With the help of John Baker, who had escaped from Kittanning, Colonel Armstrong devised a plan to attack the village. Although Baker claimed more than one hundred people were being held prisoner at Kittanning, Armstrong’s motivation was not to rescue the prisoners, but to seek revenge for the death of his brother when Fort Granville was destroyed. In late July and August of 1756 Colonel Armstrong gathered men at Fort Shirley for the attack. Armstrong’s force left Fort Shirley on August 30 and started a westward march. On September 3, this group was joined by a second group of men to make the party 307 men strong.

They began the lengthy journey towards Kittanning. Surprisingly, they made the march without being discovered, although six miles from Kittanning the attack force almost lost the element of surprise. At approximately ten in the evening on September 7, scouts returned with the report of three or four Indians sleeping along the trail. Armstrong left Lieutenant James Hogg with twelve men to attack that party at dawn and the rest of the group made a wide detour around the sleeping Delaware warriors.

Armstrong and his men arrived at Kittanning early in the morning. As the group approached the village, a loud whistle stopped the men in their tracks. Fearful that they had been discovered, John Baker calmed the party by saying it was an Indian calling to his mate and as silence returned the men moved slowly forward. Then to the horror of Armstrong’s men, fires began to appear around them in the cornfield. Baker again came to the rescue when he informed Colonel Armstrong that the fires would soon be out – their purpose was to drive the gnats away. Slowly the fires died out and the Armstrong’s men settled in to wait for the command to attack.

It was daybreak before Colonel Armstrong was ready to attack, but his men were not prepared. Most of the men were asleep or fighting to stay awake due to marching close to one hundred and fifty miles in four days. Even worse, as the sun began peaking over the mountains many of the soldiers had yet to arrive.

With the threat of daybreak and being discovered, Colonel Armstrong sent a small detachment to the hillside overlooking the town. He gave the group, led by Captain Hugh Mercer, twenty minutes to get into position before his large force began to move through the cornfield. When Armstrong’s men arrived at the edge of the field, the soldiers opened fire upon the village.

Surprised by the attack, Delaware warriors returned fire into the cornfield, hoping they were hitting their unseen attackers. The Delaware women and children fled for the safety of the woods.

The commotion on the eastern bank of the Allegheny River definitely aroused the Delaware living in the village across the river. The small settlement on the western side of the river was the home of Chief Shingas, the noted terror of the Pennsylvania frontier. Shingas had some of his warriors firing across the river while others prepared their canoes to cross the Allegheny to help Captain Jacobs and his men.

With the fighting going on in the cornfields, Captain Jacobs retreated to his house — a log cabin complete with portholes from which those inside could shoot through. The building was well protected and Armstrong noted that those within rarely missed; every shot wounded or killed one of his men.

And then Armstrong’s true motivation was revealed. During the battle, one of those inside Captain Jacobs’ cabin shot at Colonel Armstrong and wounded him. This action seems to be the moment that changed Armstrong’s plans. He immediately gave the order to put fire to the building, with Captain Jacobs, his family, and the other defenders still inside. Those within began to sing, accepting their fate as men as the building began to burn.

As the fire grew hotter, three of the Delaware within tried fleeing the burning building. Two men and a woman jumped out of the burning building and were shot down while trying to flee. The female was the wife of Captain Jacobs and one of the men with her was their son – the other was not positively identified. Flames had engulfed the building before Captain Jacobs tumbled out of a window – he was instantly shot and killed.

Chaos reigned as the battle raged on. Despite the success of the plan, Colonel John Armstrong was wounded. His troops were still in complete confusion due to lack of sleep and exhaustion from the long march. The Indians living here were in complete confusion due to surprise and ensuing lack of sleep. Smoke filled the air from Captain Jacob’s burning cabin.

Not content with victory, Captain Armstrong ordered that all of the homes in Kittanning be burned to the ground. He wanted total destruction of the Indian village as revenge for his brother’s death at Fort Granville.

While the fighting was occurring in the village, Captain Mercer had command of the hillside overlooking the river flats. Wounded early in the battle – he was shot in the arm – Captain Mercer and his men remained on the high ground, firing at those who tried to flee the village for safer ground and supplying General Armstrong information about the enemy’s position. Note: While it is not exactly known where Captain Mercer was located, I would imagine this spot was somewhere close to the present-day courthouse in Kittanning.

From this vantage point, Captain Mercer was able to see the Delaware warriors led by Shingas crossing the river in an attempt to cut off any escape. Word was sent to Colonel Armstrong about the warriors crossing the river, but Armstrong refused to leave until Kittanning was burned to the ground. Armstrong would later estimate thirty homes were set on fire that morning.

And then, to add more chaos to an already chaotic scene, Captain Jacobs’ house exploded.

The gunpowder stored in the house blew the roof off of the building, killing those still inside and wounding those close by. According to some reports, the explosion was so large and loud it was heard at Fort Duquesne, located almost forty miles downriver. From the other buildings there came smaller explosions as the gunpowder exploded and loaded weapons fired due to the fire.

A number of the rescued prisoners would later claim there was enough powder and weapons stored that the Delaware could have waged a ten year war with the colonists. The captives also revealed that two battalions of Frenchmen were to join Captain Jacobs the next morning in order to attack Fort Shirley.

By the time the village was engulfed in flames, Colonel Armstrong made his way to Captain Mercer’s spot to have his wound tended. Once it was treated, he gave the order and the troops began a long, chaotic retreat to safer lands. Note: Colonel Armstrong reported in his letter to Governor Denny that the group remained organized as they returned to Fort Lyttleton. Knowing they were fleeing for their lives, I imagine it was every man for himself.

In Colonel Armstrong’s letter to Governor Denny, Armstrong admits he had no idea of how many of the enemy had fallen during the attack, though he believed between thirty and forty Indians were killed. Conflicting reports record that the Indians only lost a handful of warriors that day. When they left Kittanning, Colonel Armstrong also claimed they had a dozen scalps, though some of the scalps had been lost along the way.

The raid and destruction of Kittanning resulted in the rescue of twenty-five colonists. The more than one hundred that Baker proclaimed had been in Kittanning were not there, but had already been moved deeper into the lands maintained by their French allies.

The attack on Kittanning did not stop Indian raids on the frontier, but it did have an effect on the Indians living in Western Pennsylvania. Though Kittanning would be used occasionally by Indians in the future, the town was abandoned. Those who survived the attack moved west of Fort Duquesne, preferring to keep the French fort between them and the English.

“So Kittanning was completely destroyed?” Zech asked bringing me back to the present day.

“Most of it. Colonel Armstrong had burned the buildings, but the threat of Shingas’ men caused him to retreat before he set the cornfields on fire. The mission was deemed a success by Colonel Armstrong and also by the Provincial Government.”

“So what happened with the men he left to attack the sleeping warriors?”

“Good question,” I answered as we got back in the vehicle. “We need to go eastward to get that answer.”

To be concluded Wednesday.

Note: Colonel Armstrong would one day have a Pennsylvania county named in his honor with Kittanning being its county seat. Two of Armstrong’s captains with him that day, Hugh Mercer and James Potter, would eventually have counties named after them for their service in the Revolutionary War.

Colonel Armstrong would also be rewarded with a special medal struck in his honor for his actions at Kittanning.

Note: After the events of 1756, Shingas seems to have had a change of attitude and way of life. Christian Frederick Post, a Moravian missionary who went to the Pennsylvania frontier to attempt peace, recorded that Shingas was a great warrior and was very kind to those he had taken prisoner. He is noted by a number of missionaries during this time period for the peaceful way he treated his prisoners.

Shingas attended a number of peace treaties, including the Lancaster Treaty of 1762. This treaty discussed the return of English prisoners and the claim of lost Delaware lands. The Delawares would renew their peace with the English settlers.

Shingas was last recorded in July 1763 when he and Turtle Heart participated in the Siege of Fort Pitt. On July 26, 1763 the two of them had approached Fort Pitt under a flag of truce and talked to Captain Ecuyer and requested he withdraw the troops from the fort. Soon after the events of that day, Shingas disappears into history.

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