- Saving the Birthplace of the American RevolutionWith Introductory Remarks by Patrick Spero and Nathan Kozuskanich
- The William Smith House: Organizing the Frontier in the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Centuries
On March 6, 1765, a pack train of at least eighty horses carrying £30,000 of goods approached Sideling Hill, a small Appalachian ridge in southwestern Pennsylvania.1 The train was on its way to Fort Pitt, where George Croghan, a leading diplomatic figure in this corner of the British empire, planned to use some of [End Page 49] these goods to negotiate a peace treaty with the Shawnee Indians and thus formally end Pontiac’s War. Croghan may have had other intentions for the trade goods, too. Since the beginning of hostilities in 1763, imperial regulations banned trade between Great Britain and warring Indians. Strong if not explicit evidence suggests that Croghan hoped to use a portion of these goods to flood the reopened market as soon the treaty closed, making a huge profit for himself and his investors.
The entourage did not travel comfortably. Heading west on Forbes Road and other, smaller country roads, the horses and men certainly felt the winter’s wear under their feet. But bad roads were not the real problem. As soon as the convoy crossed the Susquehanna River, they began to encounter hostility from colonists. Word traveled ahead of the slow-moving caravan, and opposition to it grew the further the traders proceeded. Near Fort Littleton, William Duffield, a prominent preacher, pleaded with the merchants to halt, warning that they faced a grave threat if they pursued their westward path. Duffield’s prediction came true at Sideling Hill, as a band of men led by James Smith attacked and burned the cargo.
British officials viewed this audacious act as an attack upon the king himself and demanded that the parties involved be brought to justice. Local settlers, on the other hand, considered the act just. They believed that the cargo contained weapons that the Indians planned to use to begin “a third Indian war.” They also opposed reopening trade because the Shawnees had not yet returned their friends and family taken as prisoners of war. Far from undermining the king’s authority, they asserted that their actions protected the empire and its members. In time, roving bands composed of like-minded settlers patrolled the roads, inspected all goods traveling west for “warlike stores,” and issued passports to traders whose merchandise cleared their searches. Self-appointed inspectors included the local justice of the peace, William Smith. Smith also used his official capacity to defend the ad hoc inspection regime as a legal way to enforce imperial regulations and to protect the empire. When British officials like General Thomas Gage heard of these acts, they grew even more enraged at what they considered a usurpation of imperial authority.2
Events began to spin out of control as imperial officials and local residents continued to clash. Lieutenant Charles Grant, the commander of Fort Loudon, sent a group of soldiers into nearby settlements to find and arrest the destroyers of the goods, who now called themselves the Brave Fellows or the Black Boys. The local community rejected the army’s attempt to enforce law, arguing that any arrests had to come from civil rather than military [End Page 50] authority—in other words, had to come from Justice of the Peace William Smith. Grant continued to pursue the guilty. Soon both sides exchanged fire. At one point, James Smith and others captured Grant, tied him to a tree, and threatened his life. The Black Boys besieged Fort Loudon twice and demanded that the army stop harassing their efforts and return guns seized from local residents during the hunt for the Black Boys. Throughout the conflict, the Black Boys used the house of William Smith as their headquarters, calling it “Fort Smith.”3
The fighting eventually ended in November 1765. The inspection regime had lost steam over the summer after the crown officially reopened trade with Indians. The British army still retained the guns seized in the spring and that fact riled the local community. In early November the Black Boys laid...