Davidson’s Fort Frequently Asked Questions
Janet Pyatt, Jan. 2014
Why do we give it that date? 1776 is the earliest year for which we presently have mention of Davidson’s Fort in written documents. Those documents are land deeds and the pension applications of Revolutionary War militia soldiers. It is not impossible that Davidson’s Fort could have been built earlier; 1776 is simply the earliest date for which we have definite documentation.
I was just downtown in Old Fort and saw the big arrowhead. I thought it said that the old fort was built in 1757 by Hugh Waddell for the protection of the Catawba Indians. What about that? The information on the arrowhead is incorrect. Any student of North Carolina history knows that the fort built by Hugh Waddell in 1757 was Fort Dobbs, near present-day Statesville. Besides, it wouldn’t make sense to build a fort for the Catawba here; the Catawba lived where the present Catawba reservation is, in South Carolina. The misinformation on the plaque comes from something written in the preface to vol. 10 of the Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. That preface was written by William Saunders, the Secretary of State for North Carolina from 1879 – 1891. Who knows where Saunders got that misinformation – it did not come from any document from the 1700’s – but when the arrowhead in Old Fort was erected in 1920, some people believed it. The Old Fort town historian at the time, whose name was Mary Greenlee, was among those who did not believe it but was a bit outraged by it. She set about to prove that the the information on the plaque was false, and she did so in an article titled “Time of Building Old Fort Questioned” (printed in North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Record , Vol. II, April, 1933, published by Clarence Griffin in Forest City, NC). This article is hard to find because it was published in a small, obscure journal; however, you can see a copy of it at the Carson House.
Why was Davidson’s Fort built? To defend the frontier settlements against the Cherokee.
Who built it? Davidson’s Fort was built by NC militia soldiers. In Colonial North Carolina, every male between the ages of 16 and 60 was expected to serve an annual 3-month tour of duty in the local militia. At the time, there was no other protective force for most communities. Present-day McDowell County was then part of the Rowan District for militia purposes, with Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford as the top-ranking commander. It is most likely that a company of militia soldiers, possibly under the command of Capt. Samuel Davidson, began building the fort in the winter or spring of 1776. Several militia pension applications relate that Davidson’s Fort was attacked by Cherokee in July of 1776, so we know the fort existed by that time.
Could Davidson’s Fort have been built by Gen. Griffith Rutherford? When Rutherford left from Davidson’s Fort to begin his military campaign against the Cherokee in September of 1776, he left some 300 militia soldiers distributed among several of the frontier forts. The ones left at Davidson’s Fort no doubt continued building and improving it, but indications are that the fort already existed.
Who owned the land on which Davidson’s Fort was built? One of the Davidsons owned it, but we can’t say for sure which one. We know from land records that George Davidson owned the property by 1777, but we don’t know whether he or someone else owned it before then.
How did Davidson’s Fort get its name? The frontier forts at that time were usually named for the owner of the land on which it was built or for the commanding officer. The land was definitely owned by a member of the Davidson family, though we are not sure which one. Davidson’s Fort is often referred to as Samuel Davidson’s Fort, and Samuel Davidson was its first Captain, so it seems most likely that the fort was named for him as commanding officer.
Were there other forts in North Carolina similar to Davidson’s Fort? Yes. Davidson’s Fort was not unique in western North Carolina but was one of dozens of forts built along the frontiers of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Some of these forts were built by settlers themselves when Indian attacks threatened; some consisted of fortifications built around a home; others, like Davidson’s Fort, were built by companies of militia. All served as refuge for settlers, while many also served as militia outposts.
Where are all these forts now? These forts were made of logs, and untreated lumber doesn’t last forever. Many were built quickly, out of expediency, and were not meant to last forever. When they were no longer needed the forts were simply abandoned, or they were torn down and the materials used in other buildings. In addition, events surrounding the forts often went unrecorded, either because of the circumstances of survival on the frontier or because many of the early settlers could not read and write. As a result, the structures themselves have disappeared, few records of them are known to exist, and their history has received little study.
Was Davidson’s Fort the home of Samuel Davidson? We don’t think so, for several reasons. (1) We have not seen any documents from the 18th century that refers to Davidson’s Fort as anyone’s home. Pension applications consistently refer to it as a garrison, which means a place where soldiers are stationed. (2) It appears from a land record that Samuel Davidson lived further up Mill Creek, past the mill which he or another member of the Davidson family ran, on land that actually belonged to George Davidson.
Was the original Davidson’s Fort located on this site? No, it was not on this site where we are building our replica. Local tradition says that it was originally located where the Mountain Gateway Museum is now. We also have a land record that describes a plot of land on the Mill Creek owned by George Davidson “on which the fort now stands.” The boundaries described for that plot of land indicate the area where the Mountain Gateway Museum is. There has been some archaeological work done on the Gateway Museum site, but the results were inconclusive.
What did the original fort look like? Unfortunately, no descriptions or sketches of the original fort are known to exist. Our reconstruction of the fort is based on what is known of similar forts in the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Georgia. A frontier fort of the time consisted of some defensive fortification surrounding at least one building, whether earthworks, structures, or a combination of the two. Log palisades were not uncommon, nor were square buildings built into a corner of the palisade called a blockhouse. Inside the fort would be other buildings, such a officers’ quarters, barracks, and a magazine for storing powder and weapons.
What caused the conflict with the Cherokees? The primary cause was land: the Cherokee claimed it and the settlers wanted it. A further cause was that settlers kept breaking treaties. For example, in 1763 the British made a treaty with the Cherokees that there would be no white settlement as far west as the Blue Ridge. Settlers quickly broke that treaty and moved into that territory anyway, including the Davidson family. In addition, the Cherokees sided with the British in the Revolutionary War. After all, it looked to them like the British were the ones trying to keep treaties and the Americans were the ones breaking them. Because of that, the patriots considered that fighting the Cherokee was the same as fighting the British.
What happened in 1776? That summer there was a big increase in attacks by the Cherokees. The settlers believed that the British were inciting the Indians to attack white settlers. Some today will argue whether that was true or not, but at the time the settlers firmly believed it. Many of the attacks were by Cherokees, but some may also have been by other Indian tribes and by whites disguised as Indians (Tories attacking Whig families, and vice versa). Regardless, there were some very brutal attacks on white farms and settlements, resulting in homes being burned and men, women and children being killed, scalped, or taken prisoner.
Rutherford’s Trace. Probably the most important event connected with Davidson’s Fort was a military campaign led by General Griffith Rutherford against the Cherokees in 1776. The Indian violence along the Catawba River during the summer of 1776 inspired Rutherford to seek permission from the NC Council of Safety to launch an attack on the Cherokee villages of the Lower and Middle Towns. At the same time, the states of South Carolina and Virginia sponsored similar campaigns, so the three states together represented a 3-pronged effort to destroy the Cherokee nation. Some 2700 militia soldiers mustered at Quaker Meadows, the home of Captain Charles McDowell, and then moved further up the Catawba River to Davidson’s Fort. After several days, the force set out from Davidson’s Fort on September 1, 1776.
Rutherford’s forces engaged in only a few battles with the Cherokees, because the Indians abandoned their villages and moved further in to the Upper Towns of Tennessee. The militia burned the Indian towns, along with their crops and stored corn, and killed or confiscated their livestock. Rutherford’s forces returned to Davidson’s Fort on October 12, 1776, having destroyed some 36 Indian towns including Watauga (near present Franklin, NC), Nikwasi, Cowee and Quanasee.
What role did Davidson’s Fort play in the Battle of Kings Mountain? (Oct. 7, 1780) Davidson’s Fort played no direct role in the Battle of Kings Mountain. Neither the Loyalist nor the Patriot fighters camped at the fort, though members of both passed nearby. Men who had served militia duty at Davidson’s Fort at one time or another were also present at the Battle of Kings Mountain, as they were in all of the Carolinas’ battles of the revolution’s southern campaign. The pension application of James Jackson states that some of the men at Davidson’s Fort “was taken to go to King’s Mountain;” thus, it appears that several militia soldiers did go directly from Davidson’s Fort to the Battle of Kings Mountain.
How long did Davidson’s Fort continue to be used as a militia outpost? Davidson’s Fort continued in use at least through the 1780s. In fact, it continued to be the starting point for campaigns against the Cherokees throughout that decade. We are not sure beyond that how long the fort was used or how long it may have been needed. The most important primary sources available for Davidson’s Fort are the pension applications of Revolutionary War militia soldiers. The information contained in them, however, stops with 1783, the end of the Revolutionary War. Hopefully, more sources will come to light as research continues.
Who owns this Davidson’s Fort site today? Today’s reconstructed Davidson’s Fort is owned and operated by a nonprofit (501c3) organization, Davidson’s Fort Historic Park, Inc. Its oversight lies with the Board of Directors, the members of which also serve as volunteer staff and have been responsible for a great deal of the work done to build the site. Davidson’s Fort is supported by grants and donations and receives no state or federal funds.