The Massacre Of Phillips' Rangers

  An incident occurred in the Woodcock Valley during the summer previous to that of the Engagement of Frankstown. The number of participants in this Indian/Ranger conflict was not as large as at Frankstown, but as at Frankstown there is direct evidence that the British would have had involvement in it.

  On 06 August, 1780 Col. John Piper sent a report to Joseph Reed (then-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania) of a recent incident in which a company of the Bedford County Militia had been involved. In that letter he stated that:

"Sir: Your favor of the 3d of June with the Blank Commissions have Been duly Recevd. Since which we Have been anxiously employed in raising our quota of Pennsylvania Volunteers and at the Same time defending our frontiers, but in our Present shattered Situation a full Company Cannot be Expected from this County when a member of our Militia Companys are Intirely Broke up and whole Townships Layd waste. So that the Communication betwixt our uper and Lower districts is Entirely broke, and our apprehentions of Emediate Danger are not lessond But Greatly Agravated by a most Alarming Stroke. Capt Phillips, an Experienced good woods man Had Engaged a Company of Rangers for the space of two Month for the Defence of Our fronteers, was Surprised at His post on Sunday, the 16 July, when the Capt., with Eleven of His Company, were all taken and Killd. When I Recevd the Intelligence, which was the day following, I marched with only ten Men directly to the Place, where we found the House Burnt to Ashes, with sundry Indian Tomahawks that had been lost in the Action, But found no Person Killd at that Place. But upon taking the Indian tracks, within about one Half mile we found ten of Capt. Phillip's Company with their Hands tyd and Murdered in the most Cruel Manner. "This Bold Enterprise so Alarmed the Inhabitants that our whole fronteers were upon the point of Giveing way, but upon Aplication to the Lieut. of Cumberland County, He Hath sent to our Assistance one Company of the Penna volanteers which, with the volanteers Raisd in our own County, Hath so Encouraged the Inhabitants that they seem Determined to Stand it a Little Longer. We hope our Conduct will Receve your Approbation, and you'l pleas to aprove it By Sending your Special Order to our County Commissioner to furnish these Men with Provisions and other necessarys untill Such times as other Provisions Can be made for our Defence. As Colonel Smith will Deliver this, I Beg Leave to Recommend you to Him, as he is verrey Capable to Give full Satisfaction to you in Every Particular of our Present Circumstances." John Piper.

  U.J. Jones in his History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley included a narrative about this incident. The Bedford County Heritage Commission also included a brief narrative in their book, The Kernel of Greatness. Jones prefaced his narrative, in an identical way that he prefaced the narrative of the Engagement of Frankstown, by stating that the report filed by Colonel Piper to President Reed was "filled with gross inaccuracies". It is interesting that any single man, living at a time some seventy-five years removed from the actual event, could know the actual circumstances and truth of a matter and be so self-assured that those individuals who witnessed or participated in the event itself should be so incorrect. Jones noted the statement made by Piper that the "Capt., with Eleven of his Company, were all taken and killd" reveals one of the many inaccuracies of the account. The fact of the matter may be that when Colonel John Piper wrote the account, he believed that Captain Phillips was also dead. Few white men taken captive by the Indians were kept alive beyond the point of providing amusement to the Indians in their games of torture. The problem we, at this time, have is the lack of many other accounts with which to compare Jones'. Therefore, in spite of Mr. Jones' attitude of knowing more than the actual participants, we must, of needs, use his account as a primary source of our own knowledge of the event. It should be noted that Jones claimed that he obtained his information from the memoirs of Edward Bell. His narrative does not match Bell's in many respects, so one would assume that Jones (who was a writer of fiction prior to writing his History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley which included the Phillips' Rangers Massacre narrative) simply embellished his narrative to entertain his readers.

  It is assumed that the white participants in this incident were residents of Bedford County, and more particularly of the Morrisons Cove of Woodberry Township. William Phillips (variously spelled: Philips) had been a resident of this region since roughly 1774. In that year's tax assessment he appeared in Barree Township as a resident. It should be kept in mind that the assessment records for the year dated (in this case, 1774) were quite often prepared during the previous year in order that the tax collector's job could be simplified a bit when the actual tax collection time came around. Therefore, we might assume that William Phillips was actually in the area, and might have built his homestead during the year 1773. In 1775 his name appeared on the Frankstown Township tax assessment, meaning simply that the new township had been formed in that year and his property now fell within the new township's boundaries.

  Warrant information confirms the tax assessment return. Mr. Phillips obtained a warrant for a tract of land encompassing two hundred acres on 28 March 1774. Jon Baughman made the statement that “It is believed he came to the region from Maryland as early as 1773. The year is in question and could be earlier.” Perhaps Mr. Baughman was correctly assuming that if he warranted the tract of land in March 1774, William Phillips might have arrived during the previous year to locate a tract upon which he wanted to homestead. A safe ‘rule of thumb’ is that the homesteader was in the region at least one year prior to when he either warranted / patented land or showed up on the tax assessments. The tract that William warranted in March 1774 was described as ‘On Clover Cr No Side of Tusseys Mt’. The tract was surveyed and that survey was returned on 3 June 1774. The tract, surveyed to consist of two hundred and sixty-seven acres, was named ‘Fairfield’ and was eventually patented by William Phillips on 26 September 1791.

  In 1779 William was recorded on the tax assessment return as a farmer. His farmstead is believed to have been located along Clover Creek a couple of miles south of where the town of Williamsburg now stands. The Phillips house was fortified and served the purpose of providing shelter to those settlers in the Morrisons Cove, which was rather heavily inhabited at the time of the Revolutionary War. To 'fortify' one's house usually meant that a wall was constructed as a stockade around the house to provide a measure of shelter from attack.

  William Phillips was commissioned as a Captain in the Bedford County Militia at some time in the summer of 1780. His name does not appear in any of the existing records of the Bedford County Militia prior to this particular episode. The records pertaining to the Bedford County Militia that have come down through time, and have been preserved are certainly not complete. Therefore it is possible that Phillips did participate in the defense of this region prior to his being appointed a Captain.

  The only document which actually references William Phillips’ service as a Captain comes from an Account Ledger. Under the heading “For Services performed by the Bedford County Militia in 1777, 78, 79, 80, 81 & 1782 &c.&c.&c.”, William Phillips is recorded as a Captain: “from May 1780 till November 1782”.70 The next entry in the Ledger states: “Dittos Company ~ May 1st to the 10th June 1780.” These entries help to identify the date on which William Phillips began his military career as a Captain as being 1 May 1780: the date his company was established.

  Shortly after or at the time of receiving his captains commission, William Phillips was given the authorization to raise a company of militia as rangers to serve for a tour of duty lasting two months in order to range through the forests of the Morrisons Cove valley in search of Indians and tories. There had been incursions into the region by Indians that spring and summer, as evidenced by the traces they had left. The white settlers did not know how many there were or from what particular tribe they belonged to, but they were convinced that there were many Indians in the woods that surrounded their farmsteads. Many of the valley's settlers were leaving, heading eastward into Cumberland County, or southward toward Maryland, where they would reside until the threat had passed.

  The new Captain is said to have had some trouble recruiting men for his company. According to Jones, by Friday, the 14 of July, 1780 Phillips had succeeded in obtaining only ten men besides himself and his fourteen year old son, Elijah. [Recently discovered first-person information reveals that in addition to the men that Jones attributed to Captain Phillips' company, there were twenty-four additional troops in the company.] The members of Captain Phillips' company identified by U.J. Jones consisted of: Philip Skelly, Hugh Skelly, Philip Sanders, Thomas Sanders, Richard Shirley, M--- Davis, Thomas Gaitrell, Daniel Kelly, and two others, whose names have been lost in the forgetfulness of time. Of these individuals, only a couple can be found in the records of this region prior to their singular appearance and participation in this incident. Neither of the Skellys were recorded as residents of Frankstown Township prior to 1780, nor were any of the others for that matter; only William Phillips appeared on any tax assessment or other public record. It is possible that some of the other individuals were actually from another county, such as Cumberland, which had sent militia to the garrison the fort at Fetter's near Frankstown. Perhaps their tours of duty has lapsed, and they simply had stuck around in the area. The name of only one of the recruits, Daniel Kelly appeared in Depreciation Account books maintained in the office of the Auditor General of Pennsylvania, but those records did not specify company or even what branch of service Daniel would have belonged to. Only Hugh Skelly and Richard Shirley are known to have been members of another militia unit for certain. Their names appear in the roll of Captain Thomas Paxton's Ranging Company which was raised in September of 1776 and discharged from service on 13 November of that same year.

  On Saturday, 15 July, 1780 a group of settlers who had taken shelter at Shoup's Fort were getting more worried that they might be attacked and not be able to hold out against the Indian invaders. Certain of their group had decided to head east into Cumberland County. Those that remained at the Fort in Woodcock Valley decided on their next course of action. Their decision was to have one of their number travel northward into Morrisons Cove to request a company of the Bedford County rangers to come aid them in their defense. Joshua Davis was the one chosen to make the trip for help. It is interesting that the settlers chose Joshua Davis, who had been arrested for trying to encourage his neighbors to support King George III. He had been a Captain of a company of Bedford County Militia himself before his Tory activities. Nevertheless, Joshua Davis set out that morning and found Captain Phillips who agreed to take his small company to the Shoup's Fort settlers' aid. Davis started out ahead of Phillips' company and while crossing Tussey Mountain was ambushed by a party of Indians estimated at roughly sixty. Davis somehow managed to escape and hurried to the fort to warn the others. They immediately discussed the situation and agreed to leave the relative safety of the fort and head eastward. Some of them would not actually return to Bedford County until 1785.

  As the rest prepared to leave, one of the settlers, Frederick Sheckler, headed north through the valley to warn the family of Frederick Heater of the impending danger to their safety. The Heater's homestead dwelling was located on Fisher's Summit about two miles north of the Shoup's Fort. Enroute to the house, Sheckler found the Heater's son, John, lying on the ground, dead and scalped. He roused the rest of the family and they headed out of the valley to join their fleeing neighbors.

  As Captain Phillips and his small company made their way southward through Morrisons Cove they found that most, if not all, of the houses were abandoned by the settlers. No Indians were encountered, though. The troop crossed over Tussey Mountain near the southernmost end of the valley and arrived at the house of Frederick Heater, which, unbeknownst to them, had just been abandoned by the family. U.J. Jones commented that Mr. Heater had pierced the walls of his log homestead with loopholes in order to defend it if necessary. Whether he had done that prior to this most recent Indian threat or whether he had taken that precaution a year or two earlier is not known. Captain Phillips' men at least would be able to take advantage of Heater's defensive measures.

  The Bedford rangers decided to spend the night in the Heater house. It rained that night. They made and ate their supper and then stretched out for a sound and hopefully uneventful night's sleep. While their breakfast was being prepared on Sunday morning, July 16 one of the Skellys opened up the door and discovered that the house was surrounded by Indians. The estimate given for their number was approximately sixty. According to Jones' narrative, two of them were not Indians at all; they were 'white' men dressed and painted the same as the Indians. Jones guessed that it was possible that the two 'white' men traveling with the Indian party were Tory neighbors of the Morrisons Cove and Woodcock Valley residents. The actual truth was that the 'white' men, of which there could have been up to ten, were British soldiers. Lieutenant John Dochstedder was leading the party of British Rangers and Seneca Indians. It is also possible that the British had been using information about Phillips and his company supplied by local Tories.

  When they returned to Fort Niagara, Lieutenant John Dochstedder stated in the report he filed with Sir Guy Johnson that they had watched a Bedford County Militia Lieutenant leave the cabin with twenty-three Privates about two hours before the attack actually began. Apparently they knew that Captain Phillips was still in the cabin and waited for him to reveal himself because they wanted to take him captive.

  The eminent confrontation was slow to get started. Captain Phillips surveyed the situation and waited to see what action the Indians might take now that they weree aware that the rangers were aware of their presence. It is believed that one of the Indians fired his gun as if in an attempt to draw the men from the house. Soon some of the others began to advance closer to the house. The rangers thrust their rifles and muskets through the loopholes and began to fire. Thomas Gaitrell is credited with scoring the first hit for the Bedford County Militia when a ball fired from the muzzle of his rifle hit one of the Indians in the left shoulder. As the intensity of the siege increased, the Indians let out war-whoops and ran from tree to tree in order to gain better vantage points and also to draw the rangers' fire and thusly exhaust their ammunition. At one point, as if according to a prearranged signal, the Indians fired a volley toward the door and window. This tactic proved effective in doing damage to the building, but none of the rangers inside were hit. The fighting continued well into the middle of that Sunday's afternoon, during which Philip Skelly shot the chief in the left cheek at a distance of nearly a hundred yards. Throughout the course of the battle, two of the Indians were killed and two were wounded, but the Bedford County Militia rangers were not touched.

  Finding it impossible to defeat the rangers by the way they were going about it, the Indians decided to try another tactic. They fastened some leaves and other combustible materials to their arrows, set them afire and fired them at the roof of the house. They might have had some trouble getting the roof to catch fire because, as the narrative relates, it had rained during the previous evening and the roof would have been damp at the least. Eventually, though, the roof was ablaze in two or three spots. The rangers carried what water was available in the house up to the loft area just beneath the roof. They succeeded in quenching the flames from the inside, but in the process used up all the water. The Indians simply set the roof on fire a second time. Captain Phillips instructed some of the men to knock the log cabin's roof butting poles out. The butting poles were poles that were at the bottom of the roof eaves and were not fastened permanently. If needed, due to a roof on fire, the butting poles could be knocked out of place and the shingles would simply slide off, taking the fire with them. In this case, though, those flaming shingles fell back against the cabin walls and continued to threaten the lives of the men inside.

  Phillips' men kept up their vigil against the attackers despite the fact that the roof was burning and threatening to be the cause of their deaths if the Indians didn't succeed. Finally Captain Phillips called out for a ceasefire and told the Indians that the rangers would surrender under the condition that they be treated as prisoners and not injured. The Indians agreed to this, and the rangers left the building in time to escape the fire which consumed the entire structure.

  One of the white men with the Indian party acted as their spokesman and demanded that the rangers' firearms be surrendered. The rangers, seeing the futility of further resistance, readily assented to this and gave up their rifles and knives. The next demand was that the rangers agree to have their arms pinioned and tied behind their backs. They believed that the Indians were going to take them to Kittanning and they would have to endure the pain and humiliation of being shackled during the whole trip. Although they objected to this second demand, the rangers finally had to give in. The Indians tied their arms securely and they started on their way in two groups. Five or six of the Indians escorted Captain Phillips and his son, Elijah ahead of the others. Again, the assumption they probably had was that they would eventually arrive at Fort Detroit where they would be sold to the British and imprisoned there. The second party started out a bit behind the first and after going barely a half mile from the Heater homestead, they came to a halt. The ten rangers, with their arms still tied behind their backs, were lashed to some trees. Two or three volleys of arrows were fired into their bodies and then they were probably scalped, although Colonel John Piper's account did not state so.

  On Monday, 17 July, 1780, someone carried the news of Frederick Heater's house being reduced to ashes to Colonel Piper. As he noted in his letter to the president of the Supreme Executive Council, he "marched with only ten Men directly to the Place, where (they) found the House Burnt to Ashes, with sundry Indian Tomahawks that had been lost in the Action". By following the tracks made by the party of Indians and their captives, Colonel Piper and his company found Phillips' men still tied to the trees with numerous arrows protruding from each of their bodies. Jones stated that some of the men, including Daniel Kelly, apparently were not killed outright; that they must have struggled in their dying as evidenced by the way the thongs which held them had dug deeply into the flesh. Jones also noted that all of the men were scalped. Despite the fact that Colonel Piper did not mention that fact, and in view of the fact that no living person witnessed the massacre, we cannot assume that Jones' narrative is entirely factual. But then we cannot assume that it is not entirely factual either. What we can assume is that the barbarity with which the Indians treated most of their white captives was legendary, and Jones' narrative would, by no means, be an exaggeration of the truth.

  Colonel Piper had the men cut down from the trees, but they then left them where they fell. On the next day, Colonel Abraham Smith of the Cumberland County Militia came upon the site and buried the bodies. The bodies were interred roughly eighteen inches below the ground in a common grave; they were discovered on 25 January, 1933 when some excavation work was being performed at the site. Only the bones of seven bodies were discovered. Floyd G. Hoenstine, in a footnote to U.J. Jones' narrative, stated that the Memoirs of Edward Bell might explain the discrepancy. According to Hoenstine's footnote, it is stated that Edward Bell had received his information on the occurrence directly from William Phillips who had returned to this region following his release at the close of the war. Bell noted in his account of the event, that two or three of Phillips' men were killed as they opened the door of Frederick Heater's house on Sunday morning, and that their bodies were probably consumed by the ensuing fire. The question arises: "why didn't Jones include this important piece of information in his narrative when he composed it?" Jones stated in the Preface to his book that from the manuscript memoir of Edward Bell, he was able "to glean some useful information". If the three men, whose remains were not unearthed in 1933, were in fact killed at the house, what harm would it have caused for Jones to include the fact in his narrative? It should be noted that although the men's death at Heater's house is a possibilty, it is a rather slight one in view of the fact that the temperature attained by a log house burning would not have been sufficient to reduce the human bodies to complete ashes. Colonel Piper's account would surely have noted the presence of any human bones, however charred and consumed as they might have been, in the ashes of the house. It is most likely that the remains of the others are still lying where Colonel Smith's company buried them over two hundred years ago. The Saxton American Legion Post, who unearthed the bones of the seven Rangers, re-interred them at the spot in a more decent manner and erected a monument to their honor.

  The Memoirs of Edward Bell, who claimed to have gotten his information directly from Captain William Phillips, stated that the Captain and his son were taken across the Cove (i.e. Tussey) Mountain at a "gut partly opposite the Fort" while the others "went across the Elk Gap". The "Fort" mentioned would have to be Shoup's Fort, which was south of the site where the massacre took place. There is no problem with that statement, but the auxiliary one that the other men were taken across the Elk Gap would imply that the Indians traveled with their captives westward across the Tussey Mountain through the Elk Gap in that range, and then turned back and headed back eastward toward the Woodcock Valley, because of the fact that the site of the massacre was on the east side of the Tussey Mountain. That would indeed have been a possibility, but one must wonder why the Indians felt one place (i.e. the east side of the mountain) would have been better suited to perform the massacre over the other (i.e. the west side of the mountain).

  Edward Bell's memoir went on to tell about Captain Phillips' experiences following the separation of he and his son from the others. Phillips apparently stated that when they were about two or three miles from the "scene of action", he heard several shots in the direction his men went. Philip's statement that he heard gun shots conflicts with the information related by Jones that the captives were killed by numerous arrows shot into their bodies, such arrows most assuredly inflicting death but not instantaneously. The fact of the matter, as stated by the only true eye-witness, Colonel John Piper in his letter to President Reed on the 6th of August, was that ten of Captain Phillips' company were found "with their Hands tyd and Murdered in the most Cruel Manner". Whether Jones embellished his narrative for the sake of theatrical suspense, or whether William Phillips' memories were a bit faded and confused by the passage of time is open to conjecture. A possible solution to the question of what might have actually happened would be a combination of the two. It is possible that the Indians shot their captives with arrows at first, so that they would suffer more cruelly, and then finished off the lives of a few who lingered between life and death with rifle shots. It must be remembered that the Indians, even if they did not have rifles or muskets when they started the confrontation, they obtained the Bedford County rangers' own firearms at the surrender.

  Lieutenant John Dochstedder reported to Sir Guy Johnson at Fort Niagara that he could not control the Indians, and so he left them to handle the prisoners as they wished.

  The two live captives were parted soon after they heard the shots. It is not known for certain where Elijah was taken. William Phillips was taken northward via the West Branch of the Susquehanna, then Pine Creek, then the Genessee River to Fort Niagara. He remained a prisoner of the British at Montreal for two years. He eventually was able to escape along with another prisoner and he returned to his home on Clover Creek. William Phillips' name does not appear on the tax assessment records of this region until the year 1785, when he was recorded in Woodberry Township with 300 acres of land, three horses and two cows. In 1786 and 1787 William again appeared in Woodberry Township's tax assessment, but 1787 was the last year's return in which he would appear. According to some authorities, the Phillips family moved circa that time to Boone County, Kentucky. Whether his first wife, Sophia, died in Kentucky or in Pennsylvania prior to the move is the subject of conjecture. William's name was included on the 1830 U.S. Census as a resident of Green County, Kentucky. He was listed as being of 90 to 100 years of age. He had, in Kentucky, married a widow, Mrs. Sarah Bailey Walker. Between them was born a daughter, Sylva. William died at some time after 1830.

  According to Jones, the local residents treated William and his son, Elijah, upon their return, with disdain, assuming that William was a traitor and that he and his son had been spared from being killed by some deal he made with his captives. The son, Elijah Phillips, was apparently taken to Chickalacomoose Old Town on the Susquehanna River, and from there to some point in Canada. He also returned to the Morrisons Cove upon his release, which was shortly after that of his father.