The Massacre of Captain Phillips’ Rangers

Memorial to Captain Phillips’ Rangers, Saxton

I left the memorial for the mythical massacre of Captain Green and his men and turned my vehicle to the southwest. I followed Route 26 southward to a massacre site which occurred during the summer of 1780. Unlike the story Henry Shoemaker tells in his story “Green Gap,” this one actually happened and comparing the historical massacre with Shoemaker’s massacre of Captain Green and his men, I believe this tragic event was the basis of his fictional version of history. Note: Henry Shoemaker’s story can be found here: The Mythical Captain Green Massacre

As I drove southward on Route 26 toward the community of Saxton, the dark afternoon sky told me rain was on the way and I hoped I would have time to visit before the storm hit. I had just crossed the Huntingdon/Bedford County Line, when my GPS warned that the monument was just ahead on the right. The moment I turned onto the drive I could see the monument ahead.

Parking near it, I noted the familiar blue Pennsylvania Historical Marker nearby. An older sign, it provided very little information – only announcing the graves of the slain rangers were nearby. I walked over to the impressive monument and read the plaque on it. Thought I had known about this monument, it was not until I read the plaque, I realized that this was not just a memorial, this was the final resting place of Captain Phillips’ Rangers. In the silence of the afternoon, I read the list of men killed that day: Phillip Skelly, Hugh Skelly, Philip Sanders, Thomas Sanders, Richard Shirley, M. Davis, Thomas Gaitrell, Daniel Kelly, G. Morris, and A. Shelly.

The early months of 1780 still had bands of Seneca warriors roaming the Pennsylvania frontier. As a means of protecting the settlements, county militias were formed and that summer William Phillips was commissioned a Captain in the Bedford Militia. He was instructed to form a group of rangers to search the Morrisons Cove Valley for raiding Indians and Tories. By July 14, 1780, Captain Phillips had ten men plus his son, Elijah, as members of his Rangers.

Note: The question of how many rangers were in Captain Phillips’ group has plagued researchers. The initial letter written by Colonel John Piper describing the events recorded there were only twelve men in this group. However, there is evidence the group may have included an additional twenty-four men. According to these sources, the morning of the massacre, these other men were sent out on a scouting mission. The question I find myself asking is why were the survivors never mentioned? It may be possible that Colonel John Piper’s letter was only focused on those killed so his report failed to mention there were men who survived.

On Saturday, 15 July 1780, a group of Seneca and Tories arrived in the region. Settlers fled to Shoup’s Fort, which was located near present-day Saxton.  Hearing the group consisted of fifty to sixty men, it was decided those who had sought shelter in the fort to head eastward to safer grounds.

Captain Phillips found no sign of the raiders as they crossed Tussey Mountain and entered Woodcock Valley. Neither did they find many settlers as most had already fled for safety. When the rangers arrived at the recently abandoned Heater homestead, it was decided they would spend the night there, seeing Frederick’s house had loopholes through which guns could be fired. With the walls to protect them, the rangers settled in for the night.

The group slept soundly through the rainy night and the next morning awoke and began preparing breakfast. In the process, one of the Skellys opened the door to see a group of Seneca, along with a number of Tories, surrounding the house.

Within the safety of Heater’s house Captain Phillips decided to wait and see what action the raiders would take. Exactly which side fired first is not known, but soon bullets, arrows and smoke filled the air. The conflict continued into the afternoon – none of the rangers had been hit, but they managed to kill at least two of the attackers and wounded two others.

Note: Here is the one problem I have in regards to the version Captain Phillips split his men into two parties that fateful morning. If the raiding party allowed a group of rangers to leave that morning, then why didn’t this other group return to the Heater House upon hearing the gunfire? This point makes me think the original version that Captain Phillips only had himself, his son and ten other men is correct.

At some point in the afternoon, the raiding party changed tactics. They began shooting flaming arrows at the house. Despite the rain the night before, the roof was soon on fire. The rangers managed to put out the fire, but to no avail – the roof was soon ablaze again. A number of rangers took position in the attic and kicked out portions of the burning roof. Unfortunately, the shingles slid down the roof and landed next to the walls of the house, causing the fire to spread faster. Soon the whole building was ablaze.

Knowing the rangers could not escape the burning building, Captain Phillips called out for a ceasefire. He surrendered his men under the agreement they would be taken prisoner and not harmed. The men turned over their weapons and had their arms tied behind their backs.

Captain Phillips and his son were separated from the group. William and Elijah were separated and both were taken to Canada by different routes. William remained a prisoner for two years before escaping and making his way back to the Woodcock Valley. Elijah would also return to the valley, but exactly when is not clear. William would leave the region around 1787 and move westward to Kentucky. Note: In Sipe’s The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania he notes that William was buried on the homestead a short distance from the monument. I have had the chance to talk to some descendants of Captain Phillips who state he is buried in Kentucky.

The rest of the rangers were marched to a spot roughly half-mile away and tied to trees, with their arms still tied behind their backs. Completely helpless, the rangers were tortured by having arrows fired into them before being killed and scalped.

The rangers were discovered by another group led by Colonel Piper. Captain Phillips’ men were still tied to the trees. The rangers were cut down and buried in a common grave. The general area of the burial site remained in the minds of locals, but the exact location was lost. On July 16, 1926, on the one hundred and forty-sixth anniversary of the massacre, the monument for the Rangers was dedicated in the general location where the massacre was thought to have happened.

On January 25, 1933 the mass grave was located by accident. A Work Projects Administration crew arrived at the monument to prepare it for memorial services later that year. While clearing the area for the construction of a wall, a skull was uncovered a couple feet from the monument. The lost grave had finally been found. The remains were carefully removed and replaced at the monument during the memorial services that year.

Note: There were only seven bodies recovered from the mass grave and reburied at the monument. Some believe the other three may have been killed during the burning of the Heater house, so they would not have brought to the execution site. Colonel Piper’s report mentions they did not find any bodies at the Heater homestead, only finding a number of tomahawks that had been lost during the battle. He continues with discovering ten of Captain Phillips’ men murdered. If correct, Piper’s report means the other three men still rest undiscovered near the monument.

The cold rain began to fall as I finished paying my respects to the men who rest in the shadow of the memorial. I left them to their eternal slumber as even nature seemed to mourn the cruel deaths of Captain Phillips’ men.

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