Fall 1999

 
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Retracing the Route of the

Sullivan Expedition

through Pennsylvania

by

Thomas D. Cornell

Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI

Essay II

Fort Augusta

Even though Terry and I met in Memphis, and even though she moved to Atlanta when I began my graduate studies at Georgia Tech, I knew all along that she was a "place person"—with Knoxville, Tennessee, being her place. She was born there, she grew up there, and she still has there an extensive network of family and friends.

Because Knoxville lies at the junction of two major interstates (I-40 and I-75), I had passed through the city several times before meeting Terry. I had also long associated Knoxville with the Great Smoky Mountains—which lie about an hour's drive southeast. But I was slow to appreciate Knoxville's character as a river city. Not only are the main offices of the Tennessee Valley Authority located downtown, but the Tennessee itself officially begins just upstream, at the confluence of the Holston and the French Broad.

One day it finally hit me that Knoxville lies downstream from Asheville, North Carolina—a seeming impossibility, based on a drive I once took between the two cities via Newfound Gap in the Smokies. But a little work with my road atlas revealed that despite the dramatic height of the Smokies, the Appalachians culminate not with Clingman's Dome but with Mount Mitchell—which lies east and a little north of Asheville, thereby giving the French Broad its opportunity for a downhill run to Knoxville.

Later I learned that the French Broad is one of several Appalachian rivers that slice almost completely across the mountain chain. Notable among these is the Susquehanna—so that whenever I drive from Rochester to Baltimore or Washington, via US-15, it's the Asheville-Knoxville puzzle all over again, on an even grander scale. Believe it or not, after reaching Wayland, New York (within an hour after starting), it's downhill the rest of the way: from the Conhocton and the Chemung to the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake Bay.

Of course—to identify again the origin of the puzzle—the road doesn't follow the streambed exactly. It rises and falls in ways often quite different from the river. If anything, however, the illusion of the river doing the impossible is even stronger with the Susquehanna than with the French Broad, because—unlike the French Broad—its watershed was reshaped during the Ice Age. Not only did the ice itself (and the rubble it left behind) give new definition to the upper reaches of the watershed, but torrents of meltwater broadened the lower valley far more dramatically than today's river could possibly have done. Especially impressive in this regard are the "water gaps," where long ridges have been severed, leaving in the riverbed only the barest hints of resistant strata.

It was the terrain of the Susquehanna that Terry and I sought to explore on our trip to retrace the route of the Sullivan Expedition. We left Rochester on 15 August 1993, following I-390 and NY-17—the same stretch of highway I had taken so many times to visit Grandma Cornell. We even took our first break (and our first pictures) at the Campbell Rest Stop. Soon after that, we reached Painted Post. From there we followed US-15: up the Tioga, over the mountains that had blocked the southward flow of the continental ice, and finally to Williamsport, on the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

At Williamsport we made our first research stop—at the Lycoming County Historical Museum. Rather than studying the exhibits, however, I spent most of my time surveying the publications for sale in the museum shop—to see if any of them could help us locate the historical sites I wanted to visit. Here I was unexpectedly lucky, adding to our car library George R. Beyer's Guide to the State Historical Markers of Pennsylvania8—which included the marker for Fort Freeland, our next intended research stop.

Rather than returning to US-15, we left Williamsport via I-180 (east of the river) and made our way to Warrior Run. Although the historical marker turned out to be located near the old Warrior Run Church, the woman who gave us a tour of the church was able to direct us to the fort's actual site, about a mile away. There we found a small stone marker that read simply:

FORT FREELAND
DESTROYED JULY 29, 1779
--------
ERECTED 1914 BY
WARRIOR RUN CHAPTER
D. A. R.

By midsummer 1779 the British realized that Sullivan was assembling an army. But they still weren't sure of his intentions. As a gambit to force him to divide his troops, they launched a series of raids. Fort Freeland, which had been built to protect settlers along the West Branch, was destroyed by one raiding party. Another party—led by Joseph Brant—attacked Minisink, a settlement on the upper Delaware River. But Sullivan was wary. Despite political pressure to protect the frontier, he refused to interrupt his plans for a full-scale invasion of the Iroquois homeland.

On the long drive from Rochester I had not been able to shake a feeling of restlessness. True, our efforts were meeting with success. Yet the afternoon was slipping away, and there remained other sites to try finding—so we returned to the highway (which soon became PA 147) and continued south.

At Northumberland we crossed the Susquehanna proper and quickly reached the site of Fort Augusta, in Sunbury. But the museum wasn't open on Sundays, and even though the river couldn't have been more than a hundred feet away, a concrete flood wall kept us from seeing it.

Back in the car, we retraced our route to Northumberland, crossed the West Branch, and headed to Shikellamy State Park. There—on a trail along the edge of the high ground—we found an exellent view of the confluence:

More than the publications we had purchased, more than the historical markers we had located, more even than the fort sites we had visited, it was the view up the Susquehanna that offered me the sense of place I was seeking. Despite the glary haze of a hot summer's afternoon, I could see the river disappear around the foot of a distant ridge. On and on I knew it went, reaching into New York's Southern Tier and thereby providing a watery highway through the mountains.

Continuing along the trail, Terry and I found another overlook—from which we could see the site of Fort Augusta. Although it had not been chosen as the main staging area for the expedition, the fort remained the last secure point on the frontier. As such, it provided Sullivan's troops with essential logistical support. Under the leadership of General Edward Hand, a fleet of bateaux was assembled there to carry barrels of flour, salted meat, gunpowder, and other military supplies upriver to the Wyoming Valley—which was the actual rendezvous site. So important were these supplies that their arrival was noted in the journals kept by several members of the expedition. For example, Rev. William Rogers—the chaplain for Hand's Brigade—wrote in his entry for 24 July 1779:

General Hand arrived with one hundred and twelve loaded boats. On the river they appeared beautiful as they approached the village in proper divisions. Those with field pieces on board discharged several rounds for joy, which in the surrounding woods produced a pleasing echo.9

In an earlier entry, for 9 July 1779, Rev. Rogers had also noted the arrival of a smaller flotilla:

Upwards of fifty boats arrived from Sunbury, loaded with stores and guarded by the Eleventh Pennsylvania regiment, commanded by Colonel Hubley. The small boats, being unloaded, set off again…to proceed down the Susquehannah for further necessaries.10

From the historical marker at Fort Augusta I learned that Hubley's regiment had been stationed there. But in coming to the Wyoming Valley via Sunbury, the Eleventh Pennsylvania had been the exception rather than the rule. Most of Sullivan's troops had reached the rendezvous site by marching overland from Easton, on the Delaware River. Thus instead of following the Susquehanna, from Sunbury to Wilkes-Barre, Terry and I headed cross-country toward the Delaware.

1999, Thomas D. Cornell
Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI

Notes to Essay II

8 5th Ed. (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991).

9 Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan, p. 253.

10 Ibid., p. 252.

 
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