Following Their Footsteps: Tracking Ancestors Through the American Revolution

After verifying an ancestor through court and church records, I started to review his Revolutionary War pension records in more detail.  The first thing I wanted to know was when he had served and for how long.  Then I wanted to know where he served.

The Role of the Pennsylvania Militiaman in the War for Independence

When it comes to Pennsylvania militia, the hard truth is that most did not see any action.  Unless they were part of the 1776 Flying Camp or they served in the Philadelphia Associators–perhaps if they were called up in the very first two Classes in 1777–they were likely on inactive rosters.  They may have been called up, but perhaps only marched to Chester (like with the Lancaster militia during 1777–they saw zero fighting) or were turned around en-route to camp (only about 1/4 of the militia from Pennsylvania could be armed) where they were made to do remedial work on constructing redoubts or defenses in camp while the regular Continental army went out to fight.

Washington just did not like militia.  And occasionally he was right not to trust them.  They were rambunctious, misbehaved (Colonel Muhlenberg wrote in his memoirs that the Pennsylvania militia had taken over an abandoned church near Trappe, PA where they were stationed during part of 1777, were laughing and drinking and acting merry and their officers did very little about it); they were at times unreliable.  Washington had seen the militia fail to perform, they were worse equipped than the regular army and most were conscripted or were there on someone’s behalf and some had no real interest in the cause of the revolution.

But this wasn’t always the case.  Militia did do a fantastic job guarding supply lines and augmenting Washington’s army at Germantown and Brandywine; there were also militia that took part in a skirmish at White Marsh (under General Irvin; my ancestor–Phillip Fenstermacher–most likely fought in this skirmish as his Battalion returns match with the date of the conflict, though he did not collect a pension–more on this in a later post).

For most of the war, however, the standard Pennsylvania militiaman, with a large family at home, a hundred acres or more to tend in order to grow crops, and a lingering fear of a savage attack by Indians, kept many from entering a full conflict.  Even with Pennsylvania’s strict (perhaps radical) Militia laws enacted at the beginning of 1777, all one had to do to escape service was locate a substitute or pay a fine so that the county Sub-Lieutenants could locate a substitute.  Returns from Chester, Trappe, and White Marsh suggest that many men did indeed locate substitutes.  As the war dragged on, too, finding recruits to fill in holes in the roster had become common practice for the county.  Some roster reports are nothing but substitutes and a handful of called men from the original class who turned out:

Page 165

For clarity: ‘tower’=tour and ‘supsetuts’=substitutes.  Note that this return is from 1781.  By this time, the war had ended for the militiaman; the victory at Yorktown sealed that fate for them.  Many of the militia here had likely been called up previously.

Nevertheless, as the war proceeded into the late 1770’s and into the 1780’s, the fighting on the frontier would kick into high gear and Pennsylvania–already wary and recovering from the Philadelphia campaign that drained the region of troops and supplies–would have yet another daunting few years with which to deal.

The War on the Frontier

In the early Spring months of 1778, British forces were being outmaneuvered.  Washington, alert from his time at Valley Forge, and his army, fresh and fit from their training under Baron von Steuben, demonstrated their new-found strength at Monmouth in June, which in the long term proved to be boost to morale and the cause.  While American regular troops were making progress to the east, in New Jersey, on the western frontier–then most of Pennsylvania, parts of New York, and Ohio were under constant threat.

In an attempt to start a new front in the war and cut off support, Britain sent its agents–in the form of British Ranger companies–to the various Native American settlements North and West of Pennsylvania.  The natives–annoyed by their past experience with the settlers of Pennsylvania–were more than happy to ally with the British.  In what would launch some of the most ferocious fighting on the frontier, the Seneca and the Mohawk–supported by local Loyalist troops from northern Pennsylvania, descended upon settlements along the Allegheny River in April.

In June, the Seneca under Colonel John Butler decided to move inland further into Pennsylvania and attack Wyoming Valley.    At the Battle of Wyoming, Butler and his native allies massacred hundreds of Continental soldiers and militia; only 60 escaped.  The fort at Wyoming, Forty Fort, was sacked and refugees from the region headed south into the Lehigh Valley–to the old French and Indian War forts: Fort Penn, Fort Allen, and Fort Hamilton.

Alonzo Chappel’s painting depicting the massacre at Wyoming.

Between 1778-1783 it was an all out guerrilla-style war between Pennsylvania militia and the Iroquois Confederacy (to which the Seneca belonged).  Enter my ancestor, George Nolf.

Some Background on George Nolf

Where exactly George Nolf lived is hard to say.  Modern county lines and local municipalities are all different than they were in the 18th Century.  What is clear is that he lived in Bethlehem, but his family seems to have hailed from Forks Township–the region directly adjacent to the North (still called Forks Township) and West (now Palmer Township) of the town (now the city) of Easton.

The town of Bethlehem about 1757.

The town of Bethlehem about 1757.

Bethlehem city (at that time a just a moderately-sized Moravian settlement–much of the original settlement still remains in town), which was a part of Bethlehem Township (adjacent to the east of the city until you reach modern-day Palmer), played a prominent role in the early history of Pennsylvania–though George probably lived in quite close to Forks Township, as he married Susanna Edelman in 1774, whose family owned a lot of land and a series of woods in modern-day Palmer.

From what I have researched, his father came over to the United States from Germany in the 1730’s.  What might be more clear is that a certain John Nolf–who I believe to be the brother of George Nolf (at the very least, a cousin)–was murdered by a local aggressive tribe of Native Americans in the 1750’s.

As the provincial county records tell us, John Nolf was part of either a guard or a teamster who accompanied some wagons of supplies which were sent to Plainfield Township after some brutal attacks by natives which resulted in the murder of some settlers and the destruction of some property (full accounts and an exact death toll, to my knowledge, are unknown).  They would have to go from house to house (miles apart usually).  When they arrived at the property of Conrad Bittenbender, they were ambushed.   When the small band went into the woods on the property to acquire the Bittenbender’s horses, they were attacked by more than a dozen “French Indians” (as it was reported)–as they spoke french to one another–and beset themselves on their savage business.  John Nolf and two others (including Conrad Bittenbender) were killed outright.  Two other men, one who had been shot twice but survived, were taken prisoner.  They eventually escaped to tell the local Easton council what happened.

I often think that this event played a large role in George Nolf’s life.  I have no evidence of this directly, but as I believe John to have been George’s older brother, I have speculated that this made George a rather tough individual.  When he was on the frontier, I imagine him as one who does not shirk his duties nor did he take them lightly–knowing full well what would be at stake.

Exploring the Pension Records for Clues

Although the war officially began at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, and while Northampton County had already sent several companies of men to fight in the actual Continental army, George Nolf does not seem to participate in the early years of the war.  He married almost a year prior to the Bunker Hill and his daughter, Susana, would be born in 1777.  Like most Pennsylvania men, they agreed with the cause but were not ready to yet take up arms.

While the British may have been a threat to liberty in Philadelphia, the frontier counties were more concerned about the natives.  And rightly so, given that thousands of people had become refugees since the 1750’s from the raids by local tribes which often resulted in burned homes and lands.   So George probably did not immediately see any threat (though he did take the oath of Allegiance) .   In any event, he first appears on rosters (per his pension files) in 1778 as a sergeant in the Northampton County militia.

According to records, it does not indicate where he served, but it suggests he served for a period of two months from the middle of May to the middle of July as a sergeant in 1778.  But on his next tour in that same year he was promoted (often through voting by the company) to the rank of Lieutenant and served an additional two months and seven days.

The following year, in 1779, George maintained his rank as Lieutenant for one tour (again for two months), and then on the following tour that same year received his commission as a Captain.

georgenolgcommission copy

Captain commission for George Nolf; interesting that he is listed here as an ‘Esquire

He continued to serve for the duration of the war as a Captain.  Here is where things started to get a little tricky for me (just a little though, as I soon sorted it all out).  I ran across this in his pension file:

Page 85 v1

From page 85 of his pension file; The underlined, ‘Knaden Hutt’, is the important bit.

What confused me about this was that I had no idea what ‘Knaden Hutt’ was, nor what it signified; if it even still existed.  It repeats in the same manner in other files from other witnesses to George Nolf’s service.  Spelled the same way, in the same manner.  It was not until I was reviewing some old maps of the region going back to the 1700’s (for a research project…this time) that I saw it:


Click to embiggen. See the little red circle? Yep..that is what I saw, too!

It all clicked into place.  And actually it really brought to life just how much George Nolf and his company had to do in order to complete their tasks.

You see, George Nolf’s companies were ranging companies.  It doesn’t say so specifically on his roster sheets, but in his pension files it is clear that ranging (ergo, ‘Ranger’) was a part of his job.  His task was to liaison between forts in the Blue Mountains and to secure and hold supply routes to those forts–as well as establish guards and pickets in the woods north of New Gnaddenheuten. He was also there when refugees were pouring in from Wyoming Valley.

These were treacherous woods.  First and foremost, the towns north of that region were full of Loyalists who were working with the British regulars throughout New York and Pennsylvania.  Additionally, a few years earlier, Gnaddenheuten had actually been leveled during a massacre by French Indians, which had left 11 Moravian missionaries and converted Lenape Christians dead and scalped.  A new Moravian mission was built just a little adjacent from the original settlement.   During one of George’s tours in the region, a company of militiamen were massacred just a little west of where he was stationed.  And north of him, about twenty miles or so, was where the Sugarloaf Massacre took place.

I am certain that George Nolf had skirmished during his campaign, though where and at which point, I do not know.  But I have decided to at least put to paper (and to map) where he was stationed and at what point.  Below is the culmination of my research.

Tracking George Nolf in the American Revolution


Rough outline I made of his years of service, where and when.

In 1778, I’m uncertain of where he was deployed, as I’ve said.  But in 1779 he did a tour at Gnadenhueten and then was deployed the following years at Fort Hamilton and Fort Penn:


Click to embiggen. The light blue line signifies the route he might have taken from Bethlehem to Gnadenheuten; the dark blue line is the route he might have taken to get to Forts Penn and Hamilton (the dotted line is another possible route from Easton).

Fort Penn and Fort Hamilton were once dominant features in the town of Stroudsburg, but have long ago been destroyed.


Old image of Stroudsburg; where Fort Hamilton would have stood

Thanks to the Monroe County Historical Association, older maps do exist of the area–probably dating to the early 1800’s–indicating the relative location of the two Forts in the town of Stroudsburg:

Fort Hamilton.

Fort Penn.

Using Google Maps, I pulled up Stroudsburg and looked for identifiable staples of between the two.  Generally I start with churches and cemeteries as these two items are generally parts of towns that remain in place regardless of industrialization (though not always).  Thankfully, this proved fruitful and I was able to locate the areas easily:

Fort Hamilton

Click to embiggen. Fort Hamilton is highlighted in red, while the landmarks are highlighted in yellow. Notice that the Stroud Mansion and the church are all still standing.

Fort Hamilton played a key role in the French and Indian war as an outpost and although a post where the fort once stood suggests it was abandoned after the war, the pension records under Nolg suggest that it was recommissioned for use by the Pennsylvania militia.  It also held a special place for Nolf–this was the fort that the survivors of the deadly massacre that ended his brother’s life came to in order to find safety.

Fort Penn

Click to embiggen. Fort Penn is highlighted in red, while the landmarks are highlighted in yellow. This time I focused on the cemetery, though the jail house looks to still exist.

The saddest part of using Google Maps is the discovery of how much time has eroded the past.  Even by the turn of the nineteenth century, the old Fort walls seem to have been replaced by roads and buildings after a flood had wiped away the last remnants of Fort Penn in the mid-1880’s.

During George Nolf’s time in Gnadenheuten the following year in 1781 (likely also in 1779), he ranged with his company to ’18 miles or so north of Stroudsburg’.  I can only assume the pension records are speaking of Minisinks (though I have found out very little about it); that or the Pocono mountains.

He also seemed to have done some tours at Fort Allen (or at least garrisoned there on his way to guard the region to the north).


Layout of Fort Penn from above.

This would have been located directly across the river from the Morvian settlement.  The area was actually quite strategic–though definitely unsafe:


The red circle indicates the approximate location of the New Gnadenheuten settlement would have been located and the brown circle is the location of where Fort Allen used to stand.

This is better seen when the terrain is examined:


Notice that the fort is right along the river which is situated in a very deep valley.

The Fort is far enough away from the opposite side of the valley that it can protect itself from an ambush–but those who wander out into Gnadenheuten are in quite a perilous situation.  Native raids would have the cover of the mountain to the north to shield their movements while an escape route is really more of a bottleneck (lower left of the map).

Some concluding remarks

From 1778-1783, George Nolf ranged these mountains and defended the region from the aggression of the native tribes and the Tories.  He must have been under constant duress, being away from his family for over seven months at one point, knowing that his life and the life of his men could be cut short by a raiding party or an ambush.  I’d like to think I have developed a greater appreciation for his service while doing this exercise, but in truth I am probably understating it.

That is actually one of the benefits of undertaking this sort of venture; it is instructive.  It reminds me of exactly what my ancestor had to do in order to keep the land he called home safe.  He lost family, probably lost property, had to bury soldiers, had to watch after refugees, was forced to wade through swamp land and dense forests in order to scout the region and all the while wondering if he would end up like his brother John.  That takes a lot of guts.  Most of us would probably shrink a little if asked to perform the same tasks.  In the end, he didn’t fight in the Continental line, he was not in any major conflict with the British, he did not cross the Delaware with Washington, but he did a lot for a country that was not yet born; that is truly admirable.


One response to “Following Their Footsteps: Tracking Ancestors Through the American Revolution

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Nescopeck Creek (The Sugarloaf Massacre) – September 11, 1780 |·

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