Joseph Buell, Marietta pioneer, future General of the Militia, businessman, and legislator, had a rough start at Fort Harmar: He was court-martialed. He sold liquor “without permission” when he traded a pint of liquor to buy some catfish. Fortuntately, he was acquitted. Joseph Buell was born in Killingsley CT in 1763. He arrived as a sergeant in the First American Regiment at Fort Harmar in May, 1786. His journal gives us a view of life at the fort. Quotes are from his journal unless noted otherwise.
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Thursday, January 18, 2024
Fort Harmar’s creation was a team effort: Congress authorized it, General Butler picked the location, Colonel Josiah Harmar (the fort was named for him) ordered its construction, Major John Doughty designed it, and soldiers built it. The Fort was built in 1785 on the west bank of the Muskingum River at the Ohio River. It had a pentagonal shape and occupied about 3/4 acre. Congress planned to sell land in eastern Ohio to new settlers and was having the land surveyed. The soldiers’ mission was to protect surveyors and settlers from Indian attacks and remove squatters living on land they didn’t own.
Initial plan for Fort Harmar, CA 1785, from University of Michigan, James McHenry Collection
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Life at Fort Harmar was not easy. Soldiers endured primitive conditions, harsh discipline, boredom, illness, food shortages, and the constant threat of Indian attacks. Yet Joseph Buell seemed to enjoy his duty. He made friends and tolerated the hardships better than most. Likewise, Ebenezer Denny observed wistfully when he stopped at a mostly deserted Fort Harmar on April 14, 1790, “(It was) a place where I had spent….. the last two years with much satisfaction.”
Drunkenness was a constant problem. Soldiers received a daily ration of a gill (“Jill” - about 4 ounces) of liquor. Imagine that today. On a sunny May Day 1786 soldiers were given extra liquor and allowed to get “damned drunk.” On July 4th there was cannon fire and “we had liberty to drink and get drunk..” During a gloomy January stretch, they kept their spirits up by pouring spirits down, “we made ourselves pretty merry….” Buell’s St. Patrick’s Day entry is amusing: “The sons of St. Patrick kept….(the) usual custom - by getting drunk & fighting & breeding a riot etc.” Two weeks later Gregg “died in a fit of drunkenness…Soldiers have got the Devil in them - a drinking.” After that soldiers were forbidden to buy liquor from others. Joseph Buell enjoyed his spirits but exercised restraint not typical of the average soldier. When his fellow sergeants became drunk and disorderly on New Year’s Day 1787, Buell reported, “I did not think it proper to join this club (and stayed) at my own quarters.”
Painting of Fort Harmar based on early sketch by Joseph Gilman CA 1790.
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There were six desertions during that first summer at Fort Harmar; more later on. Buell delayed reporting Corporal Weed’s desertion because he was “a very good fellow” - a friend of Buell’s - who could have been shot if caught. Alford, Dustin, Fox were allowed to go fishing one sunny day. They didn’t return. A week later they sheepishly dragged themselves back and were given 100 lashes.
Discipline was strict. Even petty offenses warranted confinement, whippings, or worse. “French received 25 lashes for insulting a Corporal.” “Houghmier was given 25 lashes for picking up an apron in the street.” “Brady was whipped 100 lashes for taking a coat out his serg’ts room.” Deserters could be shot on the spot without a trial. Major John Wyllys did just that, killing three deserters at Fort McIntosh. He was arrested at Fort Harmar for those killings but was exonerated and returned to the Fort. Shockley deserted and when apprehended was ordered to “run the gauntlet” 11 times. Running the gauntlet required the perpetrator to run or walk through two rows of soldiers who struck the person with sticks, whips, or other weapons. It was a severe penalty, but at least he was still alive.
Disease took a toll. Engeham died in May; “the first due to sickness.” A month later Bamerd died. When a death occurred all soldiers in the Fort marched with the coffin to the burial place led by an honor guard with fife and drums. Music was somber marching to the burial site, but returning they played a “jolly tune.” Question for further research: where was the burial ground for Fort Harmar?
Period drawing of Fort Harmar by Joseph Gilman CA 1790, courtesy Marietta College.
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Accompanying surveyors was rough and dangerous duty. One company from the Fort returned from a surveying trip in November; “they had a tedious cold time of it. Some were without shoes and their feet badly frozen.”
In June of 1789, seven soldiers accompanied John Mathews and James Backus on a surveying trip. Weather was hot; swarms of gnats and mosquitoes pestered them. Backus’s journal of the trip reported “bad hills,” storms, heavy rain, a balky compass - “plagued my soul out.” By July, Mathews’ group noticed signs of Indians. They saw moccasin tracks. Horses disappeared. Sentries were posted all through the nights. One morning well past sunrise, the group relaxed around a camp fire thinking the Indian threat had passed. They were not fully dressed. Suddenly shots rang out. Two of the soldiers and Mathews’ trusted assistant Patchen died instantly.
A corporal, luckily sheltered from the gunfire by a tree, ran. He hid behind a log and watched while Indians explored the camp. He was surprised as their aggressive behavior changed to amusement when they discovered a compass. They laughed and gestured as the compass point moved. John Mathews escaped by outrunning the Indians. He was only partially dressed and wore no shoes. Soon his his feet and legs were painfully bloodied. Eventually the survivors reached the Ohio River and were rescued.
Troops were also charged with removing squatters living on land they didn’t own west and north of the Ohio River. Most left peacefully. In a few cases, soldiers allowed families to harvest their crops before evicting them. Levi Munsell reported a confrontation with squatters near present day Steubenville, Ohio, in 1787. About 30 hunters were ordered to abandon their cabins. They refused. About 100 soldiers were sent to burn them out. The hunters lined up on the river bank with rifles, appearing to resist leaving. Soldiers confronted them and told them to retrieve valuables - quickly. They complied, and soon their cabins and crops were burned.
There were periods of recreation. Buell liked working in the gardens near the fort. He went to Marietta and viewed the “curiosities of the mountains,” probably referring to the earthworks (Indian mounds). In April of 1787, the weather was “warm and pleasant;” he was grateful to be out and active. A short time later, he and “all the sergeants” visited Isaac Williams who had recently moved his family to present-day Williamstown. The group enjoyed their company and “passed the day very happy.” May Day 1788 was celebrated “in the usual custom.” He added “We live pretty peaceable and happy” other than not receiving their pay on time.
Indians were a constant preoccupation - ranging from friendly curiosity to a deadly threat. Congress had sought peace with Indians, hoping to stem violence between Indians and whites in the Ohio Valley. A treaty was negotiated and signed at Fort Harmar in January, 1789. Despite elaborate efforts and good intentions, it accomplished little.
Some Indians stayed near the Fort, trading with soldiers and entertaining with their ceremonial dancing. Joseph Buell and Fitch were amused themselves one evening watching the Indians “carry on.” Once the Indians gave a demonstration war dance inside the Fort stockade.
One sultry August day, Captain Heart observed Indians across the Ohio River on the Virginia side. The crack of a musket echoed in the valley. He saw an Indian shoot a soldier hunting there and saw him fall down. A armed party from the Fort rushed over. They found one man target shooting and another napping on the ground. There were no Indians.
One Indian episode was troubling for Joseph Buell. He sent one of his cooks to Kerr’s Island to get some milk. The man did not return. Buell fretted. A search party found only the man’s hat and some Indian clothing. They heard later that he had been killed and scalped.
A friendly Indian named Captain Lunice warned in September, 1786, that Indians planned to attack the Fort Harmar. They immediately prepared for an attack by clearing brush and crops outside the fort to eliminate a potential hiding area. Soldiers were placed on full alert daily from daybreak to an hour past sunrise. There was no attack, but soldiers were on edge for months, contributing to low morale. Buell wrote: “We are out of provisions and expect the Indians every day to attack the Fort.”
There were women at Fort Harmar. Apparently some were wives; others were employed as maids, cooks, or nurses. Buell refers to them on two occasions as “our virtuous women.” Some may not have been so virtuous. Twice Buell reports that wives had affairs with other soldiers. One of those wives…”got the Devil in her….(and) began to abuse her husband and break all her furniture” in a rage. She also “gave some insolence to Sarg’t Preatt who confined her in the guard house” and ordered her to leave the Fort on the next boat.
On another occasion, two soldiers came in and began to abuse “our virtuous women.” Buell removed them by force. In May 1788, a social gathering took place at Hamilton Kerr’s place on today’s Buckley’s Island. Buell and Munsell “stayed at home” because “(it) did not seem fit to keep company with so many of our Virtuous camp women who (were there).” Why? Buell did not say.
On April 7, 1788, Buell reports: “Gen’l Putnam arrived here at this place with 50 men, who came to settle on the other side Muskingum (River) the most of them were artificiers (skilled craftsmen). They began with great spirit & there is great prospect of its being a flourishing place in a short time.” Joseph Buell himself joined that “flourishing place” (Marietta) in 1790 to operate a tavern with his friend and fellow soldier Levi Munsell.
Soldiers at Fort Harmar helped stabilize conditions on the Ohio Valley frontier, paving the way for a settlement of Marietta and Ohio