Architecture of Frontier Forts in Southwest Virginia

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Statesville, Iredell, North Carolina, United States
Virginia, United States
North Carolina, United States

The following is from Thwaites, 1902:36-40, and is specific to Fort Dobbs, now Statesville, NC, but applies well enough to the stockaded forts of Southwest Virginia.


These “forts “of the American border would have proved slight defenses in the presence of an enemy armed with even the lightest artillery, but were generally sufficient to withstand a foe possessing only muskets and rifles. Fort Dobbs was an oblong space forty-three by fifty-three feet, girt by walls about twelve feet high, consisting of double rows of logs standing on end; earth dug from the ditch which surrounded the fort was piled against the feet of these palisades, inside and out, to steady them; they were fastened to one another by wooden pins, and their tops were sharpened so as to impede those who might seek to climb over. At the angles of the stockade were blockhouses three stories high, each story projecting about eighteen inches beyond the one beneath; there were openings in the floors of the two upper stories to enable the defenders to fire down upon an enemy which sought to enter below. Along the inside of one, or perhaps two, of the four walls of the stockade was a range of cabins or rather, one long cabin with log partitions with the slope of the roof turned inward to the square; this furnished a platform for the garrison, who, protected by the rampart of pointed logs, could fire into the attacking party. Other platforms were bracketed against the walls not backed by cabins. There was a large double gate made of thick slabs and so situated as to be guarded by the blockhouses on either corner; this was the main entrance, but another and smaller gate furnished a rear exit to and entrance from the spring hard by. Blockhouses, cabins, and walls were all amply provided with port-holes; Fort Dobbs had capacity for a hundred menat-arms to fire at one volley. Destructive fusillades could be maintained from within, and everywhere the walls were bullet-proof; but good marksmen in the attacking force could work great havoc by firing through the port-holes, and thus quietly picking off those who chanced to be in range. Fortunately for the whites few Indians became so expert as this.

Upon the arrival of breathless messengers bringing news of the approach of hostile Indians, the men, women, and children of a wide district would flock into such a fort as this. “I well remember” says Dr. Doddridge in his Notes on Virginia, “that when a little boy the family were sometimes waked up in the dead of night by an express with a report that the Indians were at hand. The express came softly to the door or back window, and by gentle tapping waked the family; this was easily done, as an habitual fear made us ever watchful and sensible to the slightest alarm. The whole family were instantly in motion: my father seized his gun and other implements of war; my stepmother waked up and dressed the children as well as she could; and being myself the oldest of the children, I had to take my share of the burthens to be carried to the fort. There was no possibility of getting a horse in the night to aid us in removing to the fort; besides the little children, we caught up what articles of clothing and provisions we could get hold of in the dark, for we durst not light a candle or even stir the fire. All this was done with the utmost despatch and the silence of death; the greatest care was taken not to awaken the youngest child; to the rest it was enough to say Indian, and not a whimper was heard afterwards. Thus it often happened that the whole number of families belonging to a fort, who were in the evening at their homes, were all in their little fortress before the dawn of the next morning. In the course of the succeeding day their household furniture was brought in by parties of the men under arms.’‘

The large public frontier forts, such as we have described, did not house all of the backwoodsmen. There were some who, either because of great distance or other reasons, erected their own private defenses; or, in many cases, several isolated families united in such a structure. Often these were but single blockhouses, with a few outlying cabins. It was difficult to induce some of the more venturesome folk to enter the forts unless Indians were actually in the settlement; they took great risks in order to care for their crops and stock until the last moment; and, soon tiring of the monotony of life within the fort cabins, would often leave the refuge before the danger was really over. “Such families,’‘reports Doddridge, “gave no small amount of trouble by creating frequent necessities of sending runners to warn them of their danger, and sometimes parties of our men to protect them during their removal.’‘