The Battle Of Frankstown

Memorial for the Battle of Frankstown, Altoona

It was raining. The forecast had called for a cool, beautiful, sunny day but my trip to Altoona was cold, rainy and dreary. I was driving along Route 764, headed towards Duncansville, when the stone monument caught my attention. With traffic, I did not have time to stop, so I found a place to turn around and return to the monument.

Stepping out into the rain, I walked over to read the plaque on the stone marker. The monument remembers a group of Bedford Scouts who were ambushed about forty-five rods – roughly a tenth of a mile – east of the memorial. The plaque states that on June 3, 1781, a company of Bedford Scouts under the command of Captain Moore and Lieutenant Smith were ambushed nearby and seventeen men were killed in the battle.

The skirmish that took place here happened in the early morning hours of Sunday June 3, 1781 has become a forgotten piece of the American Revolution. While the major battles are often remembered and taught in our schools, the war on the frontier is often overlooked and forgotten.

Note: The skirmish is recorded in History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley (Jones), Otzinachson (Meginness), and Captured by Indians (Wenning, ed). The first two books contain histories of the battle, and the third contains the narrative of Horatio Jones who was captured during the skirmish.

In late May or early June of 1781, word had been received that a Seneca raiding party had been spotted in the region and had killed at least two men and taken a woman captive. Those stationed at Holliday’s Fort, Fort Fetter, and Fort Frankstown were aware that a raiding party was in the vicinity, but had no idea where the Seneca party was located. On June 2, two men arrived at Holliday’s Fort reporting they had discovered a recently abandoned Indian camp near Hart’s Log, near present-day Alexandria. The men said there were fires still burning when they arrived at the camp and estimated that the raiding party numbered between twenty-five and thirty. What they did not realize at the moment this number was on the low side – the Seneca force was between eighty and ninety men strong.

On June 3, a group of men gathered at Fort Fetter including Captain John Boyd, Lieutenant Harry Woods and eight other men who formed a group of Bedford Scouts. Also at the fort that morning was Captain Moore of nearby Scotch Valley and twenty-five men under his command. In addition to the two groups, there were a handful of volunteers who were known for their tracking and fighting abilities. Note: Exactly how many men marched that morning is not clear. The History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley (Jones), gives the provided above information and neither of the other sources give an exact number. Most sources state that the Bedford Scouts were between forty and fifty strong, but some modern retellings of the story state the group was closer to one hundred strong – I’m not sure where they got this number.

None of the men who had gathered at that morning realized the danger lurking in the woods. What they found that foggy morning was more than a raiding party – a force of Senecas, between eighty and one hundred strong, were waiting for the men.

The Bedford Scouts planned on making a loop through the mountains, leaving through the Kittanning Gap toward Pittsburgh, before swinging southward toward Bedford and then back to Fetter’s Fort, which was located roughly a mile west of Hollidaysburg. They took with them provisions for five days.

The group left the fort, heading northeast and arrived at the mouth of Sugar Run as the sun began to rise. As they marched across the flat at Sugar Run, the Seneca war party let out a war whoop and opened fire upon the unsuspecting group of Bedford Scouts.

Due to the overwhelming surprise, most of the Scouts turned and fled the engagement. Some claim Captain Boyd attempted to make a stand against the attackers, but due to the larger force, he encouraged his men to seek safety. Only Horatio Jones’s version of the skirmish records the Bedford Scouts returning fire.

Note: Supposedly only one shot was taken by the Scouts, which may or may not be true. Harry Woods shot at a Seneca warrior who was approaching James Summerville, who had to stop and tie his moccasin. Woods’ shot missed the Seneca warrior who hid behind a tree. It was discovered that Woods and the Indian knew each other and Woods, Summerville, and another man named Wallock were allowed to escape.

Horatio Jones adds an important detail in his narrative that is not found in the other early records of the skirmish. He mentions that those captured were investigated by both the Indians and the British in the aftermath of the engagement. Note: Horatio Jones’s narrative is the only place that mentions the British. It is not clear if the British were actually British soldiers who wanted to create a second front during the Revolutionary War or if they were a handful of loyal British citizens who joined the Indians in making a random attack against the American rebels.

The result of the skirmish – according to the plaque on the monument states that seventeen men were killed during the battle. Note: I’m not sure how it was determined that seventeen men died in the skirmish. Putting together names I’ve been able to determine were killed during the battle, the number of dead is fourteen. It is possible this number also includes those who were killed after being taken prisoner.

What the plaque does not record is how many men were taken captive, but reading through the histories, at least ten men were taken prisoner. Captain Dunlap was severely wounded and was killed a few miles from the battlefield. Dunlap was bleeding profusely and in his weakened state, he stumbled due to his wound and the load he had been forced to carry. Without warning one of the Seneca stepped behind him and sunk his tomahawk into his neck, killing him.

By the third day after the skirmish, the party was camped somewhere along the Sinnemahoning Creek. While here, a man named Ross – it is not clear if this was his first or last name – was cruelly tortured and killed by the Seneca. According to legend, Ross was tied to a stake, had pitch pine splinters driven into his skin and those pieces of wood were set afire – when the torture was done, he was burned alive at the stake.

At some point, Captain McDonald was killed. Some sources place this happening immediately after the skirmish, but others state this happened while the party was camped along the Sinnemahoning.

Also, while the group was along the Sinnemahoning, Lieutenant Cook’s legs were burned until he could barely walk. Cook survived the torture and was eventually taken to Niagara where he was placed in prison until he was exchanged,

Captain Boyd was claimed by an elderly female Seneca to replace the son she had lost. She dressed his wounds and stayed with him during the journey to Canada. Boyd would eventually recover and return home.

The only other known captive was Horatio Jones. Jones was only fourteen when he marched with the group of Bedford Scouts that fateful morning. Jones was forced to run the gauntlet and after proving himself, was adopted and lived with his adoptive Seneca family until a treaty between the United States and the Six Nations in 1784 stated he had to be returned. In 1784, Jones married another Seneca captive, Sarah Whitmoyer – also referred to as Whitmore – and settled in western New York. He would serve as an interpreter for the Six Nations and would be present at the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794) and the Treaty of Big Tree (1797).

As I stood there remembering the events of that fateful morning, I had a question that I do not have a good answer for. The plaque mentions Captain Moore on it rather than Captain Boyd, despite all the histories claiming Captain Boyd being in charge of the expedition – the reason behind this error is not clear.

It began to rain harder and I left the marker for the warmth of the vehicle, leaving this forgotten and overlooked battle of the American Revolution hidden along the busy road in Blair County.

2 thoughts on “The Battle Of Frankstown

  1. Thanks! Interesting history for certain. You are so right on forgotten skirmishes of the Revolutionary War. I remember reading of a skirmish here in Washington County of a large skirmish towards the end of the RW, but I cannot find further information on it. Thanks again.

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  2. Your article lit my curiosity again. So I searched the archives of the local paper. Thought you might find it interesting of another lesser known battle of the American Revolution.
    Check out this link: observer-reporter.com/tncms/asset/editorial/01158b72-b248-11ea-88b2-9ba419a2e1ed

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