Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

The Times-News

December 21, 1968

Ben Franklin Commanded Fort Allen

Was the first link in frontier defense chain

The destruction that the Indian groups wrought among the settlers in this area had been brought to the attention of the Governor of the state [of Penna.], and, in December of 1755 he appointed the soon-be-be-legendary personage of Ben. Franklin to man the post of frontier defense commissioner.

The ever-efficient Franklin journeyed to Bethlehem and arrived there on December 18, 1755 with Commissioners Hamilton and Fox to take charge of the situation. In addition he also brought Capt. Trump and his company of 50 militiamen from Buck County to journey into the frontier with him.

Franklin spent much of his time between Easton and Bethlehem mustering troops, gathering supplies, and in general, readying his expedition for its venture into the hostile regions of the upper Leahy (Lehigh) River. He organized his contingent of troops in Bethlehem during the week from January 7 to the 15th in 1756, and in his autobiography writes: “I had no difficulty in raising men, having some five hundred and sixty under my command.”

These 560 men were composed of the following:

Capt. William Parson and Capt. McLaughlin with 24 and 20 men respectively, both companies being from Easton; Capt. Trump and 50 men; Capt. Aston and 50 men; Capt. Wayne and 45 men and Capt. Orndt and 50 men, all from Bucks County; Capt. Volck and 46 men from Allenangel (Lynn Township, Lehigh County); Capt. Trexler and 48 men from North Ampton and Capt. Wetterholt and 44 men, from the same region; plus companies of Capts. Craig, Martin, and Hays from what was known as the Irish Settlement, along with Capt. Van Ettan’s company from Upper Smithfield and 60 men from New Jersey under Col. John Anderson.

The militia that made up the small army were, in many cases, not paid for their services, and in fact had to supply their own firearms and equipment for the expedition.

On January 15 the companies under Franklin left Bethlehem and began their march to the ill-fated settlement of Gnadenhutten, which had been selected by Franklin to be the first in a chain of forts that he wished to construct along the border of the frontier to protect settlers who ventured into the area.

Franklin gives a rather concise but graphic account of the journey in a letter that he wrote to the governor on his progress after he had gotten to the settlement.

He related how his company had journeyed through rain, fog, and very inclement weather, taking several days to make the 30-mile trip, stopping off frequently at outposts along the way to dry themselves and to find shelter from the elements. They were often forced to backtrack so as not to be made ill from the forced march.

They finally arrived on Sunday at 2:00 in the afternoon and made the fort “musket proof” with boards from Dunker’s mill. (Dunker’s mill belonged to William Kern, and was located in Slatington on Trout Creek; it has also been called Trucker’s mill or Kern’s mill.)

The week that followed as the men began to build the fort was one of constant trial and tribulations as weather problems hampered their progress.

Monday: foggy and dark, not much work could be done under the foul conditions.

Tuesday: laid out the land for the fort; by 3:00 most of the logs were set up.

Wednesday: rained constantly; little work completed.

Thursday: project nearing completion as far as the perimeter was concerned.

Friday: the walls were completed; dismissed Volck’s and Wetterholt’s companies and sent Hays’ company back to Bethlehem for provisions.

There were meager ceremonies as they raised the flag that Friday, discharging their muskets, for the balls and powder had lain in them unused for some time and it was best to clear them, and they named the fort after Judge William Allen, the father of James Allen, who had laid out the city of Allentown, calling the structure Fort Allen.

The particulars of the structure were as follows: 125 feet long, 50 feet wide, the stockade posts being 1 foot thick, 3 feet into the ground, 12 feet out of the ground, and pointed at the top.

Volck’s company left to build another fort in the chain, this one to be between the Gnadenhutten site and the site of Schuylkill Fort. Capt. Trexler and his men were to join them later.

It is reported that the manpower at the site had some 70 axes to work with and that each pine tree that they cut down made 3 palisade posts, 18 feet long. This, however, does not jive with the earlier report that the posts were 3 feet into the ground and 12 feet out, which would make them 15 feet for each pole. The only explanation that seems feasible is that the points were not counted in the overall height and that the point measured some 3 feet on each pole, thereby making the 18 feet reported in the logger’s tallies.

They had converted 10 buggies into log carriers for the job, each drawn by two horses, and, after the wall was completed, they made a platform within the enclosure, around the wall, 6 feet from the ground, for the men to stand upon in order to shoot out the peep-holes.

They had mounted one swivel-gun on one of the angles and upon its proper mounting they discharged it to let any Indians in the area be aware that they had it for the defense of the fort.

The work-week that it took to construct the fort gave Franklin opportunity to observe the human character at work. His observations uncovered the following comment, which he published in his autobiography, and which further backed up the Puritan precepts that he molded into his famous saying, such as “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” etc.

“This gave me occasion to observe that when the men were employed they are best contented, for on the days they worked they were good-natured and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day’s work, they spent the evening jollily, but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with the pork, the bread, etc. and were in continually bad humor.”

At the conclusion of his entries on the building of the fort, Franklin commented that it was now invulnerable from Indian attack unless they had gotten hold of a cannon for their attack.

The soldiers at the fort did find some signs of Indian activity during the building of the fort, as the scouting parties found sites in the morning where the savages had slept the night before, the impressions of their bodies still in the hard earth. They found that the Indians kept a fire going during the night to keep their feet warm, which, according to Franklin’s troops, was their most vulnerable feature. The fires did not give them away, however, as they were placed in a pit that they dug, and consisted of charcoal that they scraped from burned trees. The Indians then slept with their feet in the pit to keep them warm during the winter night.