Fort Cumberland: The Missing Years

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Fort Cumberland: The Missing Years

Cumberland, Maryland was long known as Fort Cumberland, as a result of being located at the site of that colonial fort. The town is located along the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland, near several important mountain passes. Long before the town began, these simple geographical influences made the area an important gateway to the west for traffic related to trade, warfare, and settlement. As a trading post, a military post, a transportation hub, and as a nascent commercial center, the Fort Cumberland region played a major role in North America’s early history.

The history of the town itself is extensively covered in Lowdermilk’s 1878 book “History of Cumberland”, as is the French and Indian War period. What Lowdermilk did not cover is the period between the capture of Fort Duquesne and the founding of the town. The 556-page book “Fort Cumberland: The Missing Years” was primarily written to cover this gap.

The book begins by covering the geographical influences that made the region important from a transportation standpoint. Next, the book expands well-beyond Lowdermilk’s Cumberland-centric narrative of the French and Indian War to examine a long-forgotten chain of events that began deep in the Ohio River basin, and ultimately led to open warfare in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The book then documents the settlement of the Cumberland area at the outset of the French and Indian War, and uses documentary evidence to show that the region was suddenly depopulated when the local settlers were exterminated, captured, and driven away by French-allied Native Americans.

The remainder of the book provides a multi-faceted year-by-year account of renewed activity in the Cumberland area following the capture of Fort Duquesne. The fort and surrounding community faced difficulty and danger during Pontiac’s War, as a new store was built, and an initial attempt to form a town failed. Once again, the local population was exposed to sudden attack. A small band of Rangers sortied from Fort Cumberland in 1763 to join Bouquet’s attempt to relieve a besieged Fort Pitt, and Ranger Captain Barrett suggested the winning strategy at the battle of Bushy Run. This crucial victory caused the enemy to retreat west, and was a critical stepping stone to Bouquet’s bloodless victory the following year at Muskingum.

By 1765, western emigration was well underway, friendly relations with the Indian nations were reestablished, Fort Cumberland was abandoned as a military post, and resistance to the stamp act had its birth at the county courthouse. By 1769 Cumberland was a place of supply for western settlers, and by 1771, the local agricultural community was large enough to support a grist mill.

As resistance to the British crown grew, the influence of the proprietary government came to an end. Non-importation committees were formed in 1774, and military companies were formed to “act in any emergency”. The Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, and a local regiment of backwoods riflemen was marching eastward to engage the British by August 1. A British scheme to garrison Fort Cumberland failed, and by 1776 Fort Cumberland was a supply center for the Western Department of the Continental Army.

Settlers in nearby Pennsylvania retreated to Fort Cumberland for safety in 1777, as Native Americans allied themselves with the British. Two civilian massacres occurred in 1778, to the outrage of the fledgling nation. In response, a new road was cut From Fort Cumberland to Fort Pitt in the spring of 1779, and it was used to rush supplies to a desperately undersupplied Fort Pitt, enabling Colonel Brodhead’s successful campaign. The end result of the resupply effort was a new degree of safety for settlers in western Pennsylvania. The British had a plan to attack Fort Cumberland in 1780, but it came to nothing. By 1781, the Revolutionary War was won, and by 1783 the local agricultural community, which was necessary to the successful formation of a town, had increased substantially. The town of Fort Cumberland was laid out in 1784, and was authorized by a 1786 legislative act.

All proceeds from sales of the book are donated to the Cumberland Heritage Foundation, an organization dedicated to the discovery and interpretation of historic resources in the mountains of western Maryland. The book is available from Amazon.

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