Fort Seybert was one of innumerable small fortifications that dotted the frontier in the days of colonial America. It was located in what was then Virginia, (now Pendleton County, West Virginia). Both the Penns, as proprietors of the Pennsylvania colony, and the Royal Governors of Virginia, claimed much of the area “west of the mountains” as their own, thus the story of Fort Seybert is just as much a Pennsylvania tale as if it had been located on the banks of the Delaware, or the Susquehanna, or the Allegheny.
The “fort”, named for the Seybert family, was actually a bit larger than many others of the time. Most were nothing more than a cabin with a stockade wall built around, into which the settlers from nearby outlying farms would gather when the threat of Indian attack loomed. Fort Seybert contained many cabins, but it was peopled by farmers who were trying to glean a living from the land. Another fort was not too far away – this one, Fort Upper Tract, was a military outpost. A detachment of Virginia Rangers, under the command of a Captain James Dunlap, was stationed here. Their job was to rush to any area where Indian attack was reported. Usually they were too late to do much but help bury the dead and comfort the survivors, but the frontiersmen wanted protection, and so the Royal Governor of Virginia had sent the soldiers.
When there were no Indians to fight, life at Fort Upper Tract became routine and boring. On April 27, 1758, boredom came to a halt. A raiding party of Shawnee warriors quietly crept up on the fort and in a rush were suddenly inside the open gates. It was no contest – in a matter of minutes twenty-five fresh scalps hung on the warriors belts. No more would soldiers from Fort Upper Tract provide any rescue.
The following day, April 28, 1758, two settlers from Fort Seybert, John Dyer and his sister Alice, were out looking for a cow that had wandered away. As the cow was soon to freshen, give birth to an always welcome calf, John and Alice wanted very much to find it. What they found, while resting in the woods, was a war party of Indians that appeared to be heading toward the fort. Grabbing Alice by the hand, John began a hurried circling of the woods. He wanted to reach a point where he could warn those in the fort. John and Alice broke out of the woods at a place several hundred yards from the fort. Just as they started to scream out, six Indian warriors sprang also from the woods and rushed them. As he shouted, “Indians, Indians!” as loud as he could, a blow from an Indian club sent him to the ground unconscious. John and Alice were taken back into the forest by the warriors, but their warning had been heard. All those outside Fort Seybert hurried back inside and the big gates were slammed shut.
John Dyer awoke slowly – he had no idea how long he had been knocked out, but he knew that his head hurt mightily. His hands were bound. Next to him, also tied securely was his sister. When the watching Indian saw John was awake, he was roughly dragged to his feet and taken to see the leader of the group – a war chief named Grey Fox. Grey Fox led John to the edge of the woods where he tied him to a tree. Then Grey Fox shouted and pointed to Alice. Waving white flags, two of his warriors led Alice out into the clearing as heads appeared over the walls of the fort watching. Then one of the Indians cut the leather thongs binding her arms and pushed her toward the fort. Alice ran, as if the devil himself was after her, expecting at any moment to be struck in the back or the head by a musket ball or tomahawk. She ran on, and as she got near the fort, the great gate swung open and two men rushed out to grab her and help her inside. Sobbing with her fright, and out of breath from her run, she was able to gasp, “Fort Upper Tract has been destroyed!”
Then at a shout from Grey Fox, the rest of the party took cover behind the trees at the edge of the woods and opened a strong musket fire towards the fort. Having captured the weapons and supplies from Fort Upper Tract, the Indians were in position to make a prolonged siege, and there was no one else to know of the situation and come to Fort Seybert’s relief.
Shortly the attack paused. John Dyer was taken back to Grey Fox. The chief could speak some English, but it would be beneath him to talk directly to this captive, so he spoke to Dyer using one of his warriors as an interpreter. “You are still alive only because I have use for you.” Grey Fox told him. “What would you have me do?” Dyer inquired? “I want you to tell those in the fort to surrender!”
“I can’t do that.” Dyer spoke to the interpreter. “Then you and all in that fort will die, just as did the soldiers!” was Grey Fox’s reply. “Look,” he directed, and other warriors brought rifles and knapsacks, and clothing and even the Regimental flag of the Virginians – plus the many bloody scalps – proof positive that Fort Upper Tract’s garrison was no more.
“We can destroy this puny fort ourselves, just as we did the other, but I don’t want to lose the warriors that would take.” John Dyer paused a moment in thought. “Why would they surrender, just to be slaughtered as you did the soldiers?”
“I give you my word,” said Grey Fox. “If they surrender without a fight, no one will be tortured, and no one will see another die at our hands.” “Do you mean we will be able to simply leave?” Dyer asked. “My warriors will help you leave,” answered Grey Fox.
John Dyer agreed to try to convince those inside the stockade to surrender, so that they too could be spared the further death and despair that a prolonged siege would cause. It was not an easy sell, as those within the relative safety of the fort’s palisades could hardly be blamed for not wanting to trust the promise of a hostile Indian. After much deliberation, perhaps swayed by the Indians having freed Alice Dyer, and sending John as a negotiator, the settlers agreed to surrender the fort and leave for safety elsewhere.
Soon the fort’s big gate opened, and those within, carrying their few possessions, marched out. Grey Fox demanded their weapons and much of their food, selecting eleven of the young men and women to carry these items and that looted from the remains of the other fort. As the young people were made to pick up their bundles and led off into the woods, John Dyer and others asked what was going on, and Grey Fox assured them that he had made a promise and would keep his word.
The rest of the settlers were then taken to another part of the surrounding woods. Two long logs were moved next to each other, and the settlers made to sit upon the logs with their backs to each other, so that no one could look at anyone else. At a signal from Grey Fox the warriors silently walked down between the logs. One warrior stood behind each captive. At another grunt, each took his tomahawk from his belt, raised it high, and all together the tomahawks came down, each severing the head of a captive. They all died instantly. No one was tortured – no one saw any of his friends tortured or killed. The Indians had helped their white captives, including John and Alice Dyer, to leave – to leave this world for the next.
Grey Fox had indeed kept his promise.
[ Reference the West Virginia Archives and History website: www.wvculture.org/history . The eleven young people captured were likely adopted by the tribes, as was common. Some may have returned either by escape or after the 1764 treaties following the victories of Colonel Henry Bouquet. The common grave of those massacred can be seen today near the site of the old fort.]