The Pennsylvania Militiaman Fighting for Virginia? How Land Disputes Confuse Everyone

In a forthcoming article for the Journal of the American Revolution, I lay out the complexities of the Pennsylvania Militia system in 1777. In order to prevent the reader from banging his head against a desk repeatedly while trying to comprehend it, don’t worry, I provided several very useful graphics, charts, and diagrams in order to pictorially explain it. But what I didn’t really have the space to discuss, and what deserves some serious attention, is Pennsylvania’s wild western frontier; not only was it a wild place to live, but it was also disputed territory. So one can guess what that means for militia service. Oh, you can’t? Well, then you’ve come to the right article.

Besides the territory under dispute in Northern Pennsylvania with Connecticut, which I’ve written about here, western Pennsylvania was also disputed with Virginia (there was also a dispute with Maryland, but that was resolved with the Mason-Dixon Line). You see, Virginia wanted to claim all of the land into Westmoreland County—encompassing also (what is now) Washington and Fayette Counties—which was everything west of the Allegheny Mountain range (sometimes a little to the East of them depending on how greedy the surveyor happened to be).


Click to embiggen. Photo Courtesy of WikiCommons.

The region’s boundaries proved a problem going back as far as the first settlers. Without proper boundaries defined, Virginia had built a Fort, on land that is now Pittsburgh, in 1754 and called it Fort Prince George. When the French and Indians took over the area, they destroyed the Fort, and built Fort Duquesne in its place. So in 1755, George Washington led Virginia militia through this western wilderness, under the direction of General Braddock, to what would become known as Braddock’s Defeat; but no Pennsylvania militia was present during this campaign. In fact it was Virginia blood that stained the land next to the hundreds of fallen British soldiers they accompanied.

Map circa 1751 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson.

Map circa 1751 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson.

By the 1760’s, reading through the Pennsylvania Archives, it looks like the Provincial Assembly and the governor of Pennsylvania accepted the territory in question as under Pennsylvania jurisdiction—as did General Gage, who was at that time responsible for providing the frontier counties of Pennsylvania with troops for a defense against additional Indian attacks (see my other article on this here).  Most maps of the region into the 1760’s also have left the area undefined, or they have the boundary of Pennsylvania falling east of Pittsburgh.

Map circa 1768 by Peter Bell.  Notice here that Virginia borders extend up to Lake Erie, effective cutting off half of Pennsylvania.

Map circa 1768 by Peter Bell. Notice here that Virginia borders extend up to Lake Erie, effective cutting off half of Pennsylvania.

When we get into the 1770’s, it seems that nearly universally the land in that region is under Pennsylvania control and settled by a good portion of people who consider themselves Pennsylvanians. Yet, again, the region was not entirely defined. And here is where it gets hairy for those looking to document their ancestor’s military service in those western Counties.

Now, Pennsylvania and Virginia both instituted militia drafts in 1777. Virginia issued their draft in May while Pennsylvania resolved theirs in March. The Virginia militia called up anyone between the ages of 16 and 50, and Pennsylvania called up only those between 18 and 53. However, substitutes under the age of 18 and over the age of 53 could serve (supposing they could bear arms) under Pennsylvania ordinance. And that isn’t even the most confusing part of this boundary dispute.

Map of Pennsylvania and surrounding states, 1776; London Printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett.  Notice that the borders at the western end of the state of Pennsylvania and Virginia are left undefined.

Map of Pennsylvania and surrounding states, 1776; London Printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett. Notice that the borders at the western end of the state of Pennsylvania and Virginia are left undefined.

Because the region of the Allegheny, the surrounding environs, and exterior Counties were so far away from the Pennsylvania government, located in Philadelphia of course, there were some ordinances which gave broad executive powers to the Continental troops garrisoned at Fort Pitt. In fact the County Lieutenant of Westmoreland was given orders to work in conjunction with the Continental officer stationed there. Thus the officers and County Lieutenants could call up troops to serve, at any age, at any length of time.

Case in point, enter one James Chambers. James was about 17 years old when the Continental officer at Fort Pitt called him to serve three consecutive tours in 1777 of two months each. The first two tours of service were at Fort Pitt, then under the command of General Hand, a third tour of another two months was served on the frontiers of Westmoreland. These are standard tours stated under the ordinance of Pennsylvania’s militia laws; militiamen were only to serve two-month tours, regulated by Class rolls, and were not obligated to serve again—unless as a substitute—until their Class was called up. So serving three tours consecutively was strange enough.

But then, James claims he served a tour of service from October of 1777 to March of 1778, and depending on the days he entered and left service, we’re talking about a six month tour of duty. This was absolutely unheard of in the middle- to eastern-Counties of Pennsylvania. If you were in the 3rd Class, you would serve when your class was called, and then wait until all subsequent Classes were called (Classes 4-8, then Classes 1-2) on their rotations before serving again. So unless there was an emergency wherein more than one Class was called up at a time (which happened occasionally during the war), you would likely not serve more than once in a given year—no more than twice usually (unless you were an officer)—so long as you did not substitute for anyone in the interim months (if this is confusing, wait—I’ll link to my article in JAR when it becomes available).

Part of the pension file for James Chambers.  Click to embiggen.

Part of the pension file for James Chambers. Click to embiggen.

Serving six-month tours in 1777-1778 was a little strange to read, but it could happen if the officers at Fort Pitt, along with the County Lieutenant, felt urgency or need for more troops to be called. And having soldiers serving six months each meant that they were already geared up and ready to fight were something to happen (like an invasion). They wouldn’t need to waste time sending out draft notices to people, or spend valuable resources on locating substitutes. There were men already in Active service rolls.

Virginia also had six month draftees during this period, on the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia (what would become West Virginia and Kentucky later on); and these men—along with their Pennsylvania counterparts—freely roamed across their state lines into each other’s states as it was deemed necessary for their own defense and scouting purposes. Several pensioners from Pennsylvania note their traveling into what is now West Virginia, to Fort Wheeling along the Ohio, and setting up fortifications there while exchanging musket fire with raiding Indian scouts.

There is also a note from the Westmoreland County Lieutenant that states he was having difficulty fulfilling his quota of militiamen because of the land disputes between Virginia and Pennsylvania. Incidentally, to avoid being drafted in Pennsylvania, the settlers were claiming that they were citizens of Virginia. I imagine this was the case for both Virginia and Pennsylvania militia drafts (though I do not have access to Virginia’s archives on the matter).

From PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 68, indicating the confusion of land disputes and the mustering of militia.

From the PA Archives, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, Page 68, indicating the confusion of land disputes and the mustering of militia.

So did James Chambers serve under Pennsylvania or Virginia during his six month tour? Well, he was under the direction of a Continental again, Captain Morehead, at Fort Pitt. So it isn’t clear whether this fell under Pennsylvania or Virginia jurisdiction or if this was a hazier area under Continental service.

Fort Pitt in 1776.

Fort Pitt in 1776.

To make matters more interesting, he served again in 1780 under Captain Nehemiah Stokely in the service of the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment. So was he a Continental? He doesn’t state that he was. Nevertheless, he was captured by Indians during that tour in 1780, along with men also under Stokely.

Service records from militia on the frontier are always interesting and tell a lot of the dangers and struggles faced by the settlers of those Counties all the time. There are instances where, in 1833, a pensioner will file under Pennsylvania service and, later, under Virginia. Did they serve under both states? Did they serve under one state, but claim the other because they could? Or, perhaps, were they just as confused about their own service as we are today? Were they technically under a form of drafted Continental service or were they militia?

Another pensioner, James Waits, born in Virginia (Berkeley County, which is now part of West Virginia), served in the Westmoreland County militia in May of 1777, and served a handful of tours (one for what appears to be nine months) longer than the two month tour limit imposed by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania.  Waits also served under Stokely.  So does that mean he moved to Pennsylvania prior to his service, or was he drafted from Virginia by the command at Fort Pitt?  I don’t know.  He doesn’t say.   When he filed his pension request, he was living in Ohio.

Part of james Waits pension file indicating service.

Part of james Waits pension file indicating service.

Also, when pensions were filed in 1833 and (for land grants) in 1855, the exterior Counties of Pennsylvania had broken apart into smaller, more defined groups. Westmoreland saw its borders shrink when Fayette County (in 1783) and Washington County (in 1781) broke away. Those Counties divided even further into a plethora of additional ones. Also, with the founding of Kentucky, the hardening of the borders of Virginia and Pennsylvania, it made defining their service to the Justices and magistrates of their current county where they resided even more difficult. They would claim service, for example, in Washington County in 1777—but Washington County didn’t exist in 1777. Similarly, they would say they served in Pennsylvania, but the area they define was originally part of Virginia’s charter.

You're not alone...

You’re not alone…

Getting any sort of clear record is disastrous enough, but then Westmoreland County suffered a terrible loss of records dating to the Revolution when a fire tore through the building where they were stored. What little bits of records were found were from private collections, printed articles from old newspapers, and fine lists. This left primarily pension files to examine along with a few dispositions at the Pennsylvania Archives in Harrisburg as the few existing primary documents. Incidentally, James Chambers did not acquire a pension from the state of Pennsylvania—whether because he couldn’t or because he never tried, I do not know.

In summary, the western third of Pennsylvania represents a challenge to the student of the Revolution. As far as ordinances and state laws governing militia, they seemed to have had a lot more leeway with what they could do; but even the County Lieutenants didn’t have a firm grasp over everything that was happening. And what seems interesting is that the Continental officers appear to have more power than the County Lieutenants in some instances, calling up troop s when they needed them and having them serve out longer terms of service as they felt suited the situation.  In the end, we’re left with more questions than answers.


2 responses to “The Pennsylvania Militiaman Fighting for Virginia? How Land Disputes Confuse Everyone

  1. Pingback: Explaining Pennsylvania’s Militia | Journal of the American Revolution·

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

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