Hannastown, PA Attacked, Burned by Indians and Their British Allies

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Hannastown, PA Attacked, Burned by Indians and Their British Allies

Reconstructed Hannastown, PA as it appears today
Photograph courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 13, 1782

Today's detour into military history takes place in the “wild west” of Pennsylvania in the closing days of the American War of Independence aka the Revolutionary War.


Counties of Pennsylvania in 1780, including Westmoreland County (lower left); Image courtesy of http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com
Counties of Pennsylvania in 1780, including Westmoreland County (lower left)
Image courtesy of http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

In 1773 Pennsylvania Governor Richard Penn signed legislation creating Westmoreland County (see above map). The new county included land that was claimed by Virginia, and the two colonies fought in the courts to prove their respective claims. Prominent landowner Robert Hanna, previously a judge in neighboring Bedford County, acquired land in the central portion of the new jurisdiction and began laying out plots of land. He hoped to develop a new town just off the old Forbes Road that would eventually evolve into Westmoreland's county seat. He called the new settlement Hanna's Town, usually shortened to Hannastown.

The settlement became the county seat of Westmoreland County, A two-story courthouse was built, and about 30 log cabins were built by enterprising settlers. The town also boasted a fort with stockade and blockhouse, a jail, and two taverns. Due to its location near the old Forbes Road – which eventually led into the Ohio country to the west – Hannastown became a rest stop for settlers attempting to settle the western Pennsylvania frontier.

Hannastown prior to its destruction; painting by Homer F. Blair; Image courtesy of http://www.whitsett-wall.com
Hannastown prior to its destruction; painting by Homer F. Blair
Image courtesy of http://www.whitsett-wall.com

The inhabitants of Hannastown also took an early stand in the growing tensions between the British crown and its colonies. The Hanna's Town Resolves were adopted on May 16, 1775. This document is one of the most direct challenges to British authority preceding the Declaration of Independence. Before most other colonial communities took a stand, Westmoreland County residents proclaimed their willingness to take up arms to defend their rights against British oppression. Hannastown was an important center for the recruitment of militia for the western campaigns against the British in Detroit and their Indian allies.

Prelude to the Attack

As the American War of Independence was winding down (Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington at Yorktown, VA in October of 1781), Hannastown's inhabitants were vigilant to possible attacks by Native Americans and their Canadian/British allies. Early in 1782, tensions were ramped up by several events.

First, in March of 1782, a force of Pennsylvania militiamen marched into what is today eastern Ohio to the town of Gnadenhutten, populated by Moravian Christian Delaware Indians. The militiamen accused them of taking part in raids on settlements in Pennsylvania. Although the Delawares denied the accusation, the militiamen voted to execute them anyway. The Christian Indians were tied up, each stunned by the blow of a hammer, and were scalped. A total of 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children died, although two boys survived and told other nearby Indians of the incident.

At some time early that year, the soldiers of the Hannastown garrison deserted their posts, mainly from the lack of pay and supplies (several chronicles state that many of the soldiers left in rags). Because of this, the settlers became more vigilant. When it was time to harvest the fields, neighbors would form large groups to guard against an ambush – several men would cut and thresh the grain, while the remainder would keep watch for Indian raiders.

Indian-British Raiders

This force of raiders consisted of about 100 Muncie Indians (a subgroup of the Delaware tribe) with 60 Canadian rangers. They had formed near Fort Niagara, near modern-day Buffalo, NY. The men had been part of a larger force of British and Indians planning to attack old Fort Pitt (today's Pittsburgh, PA).

The fort, build between 1759 and 1761, had guarded the Fords of the Ohio, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers met to form the Ohio River. It had played a prominent role during Pontiac's War of 1763. Afterwards, it had fallen into disrepair, and in 1773 it was taken over by representatives of Virginia (which still claimed the land in southwestern Pennsylvania). However, spies reported that the fortification had been repaired, re-provisioned, and would be a much tougher nut to crack. Therefore, the British soldiers returned home and abandoned the attempt.

Seneca leader Guyasuta (c. 1725-1794), Late 18th century painting, artist unknown
Seneca leader Guyasuta (c. 1725-1794),
Late 18th century painting, artist unknown

The Indians, however, were spoiling for action – and to acquire some scalps. Several war parties journeyed into New York and Pennsylvania, seeking prey. One group paddled down the Allegheny River, accompanied by some Canadian rangers who followed them on horseback. When they arrived in the vicinity of modern-day Kittanning, PA (an Indian village destroyed by Pennsylvania militia in 1756), the canoes put to shore and the raiding party traveled the rest of 38 miles to Hannastown. Several chroniclers stated that Guyasuta, an important leader among the Seneca Indians, led the attack. [Guyasuta had guided George Washington during his 1753 trip to various French forts in western Pennsylvania. However, he sided with the British during the American Revolution. Guyasuta was nearly 60 years old at the Hannastown attack.]


About 60 people – men, women, and children – were present in Hannastown that day. The town's stockade was sufficiently large to accommodate them all, but they were lacking in firearms to defend themselves. The soldiers who deserted their posts earlier that year had left behind a number of rifle-muskets, most in good repair. All told, about 20 men were responsible for the defense of the settlement; it would prove insufficient.

Sack of Hannastown

The attack occurred on Saturday, July 13, when a party of men was at work cutting the wheat on land owned by Michael Huffnagle, about a mile and a half north of Hannastown. Huffnagle was the county clerk and lived in Hannastown. One of the workers, going to the edge of the field, discovered, creeping through the woods, a band of Indians, stripped and painted for war. He quietly informed his companions, and the harvesters, taking up their guns, fled unseen to the village.

The alarm was spread in the little settlement and everybody was warned to take refuge within the stockade. The settlers fled into the stockade without pausing to save any of their goods. Huffnagle and a few other men rescued the bulk of the county records and carried them safely into the fort. Sheriff Matthew Jack mounted his horse and rode away to warn the neighboring settlers, while four young men went out scouting, to observe the movements of the enemy. They came upon the savages advancing cautiously through the thick woods across the valley of a nearby creek, and narrowly escaped capture. They fled back to the fort with the whole pack of raiders close at their heels. The Indians evidently expected to take the place by surprise, for they did not shoot or yell until they rushed in among the log houses. All the Pennsylvanians escaped except one man. He had lingered to gather up his personal property, and was slightly wounded before he reached the stockade gate.

The attackers drove all the horses found in the pasture lots and stables into the woods, killed a hundred cattle, many hogs and domestic fowls and plundered the deserted dwellings. Some of the white raiders threw off their jackets and donned better coats found in the houses. After the assailants had retired, several jackets were found bearing buttons of the King's Eighth Regiment of Foot. [At the time of the Hannastown attack, elements of the 8th Regiment were stationed in Forts Detroit, Niagara, and Michilimackinaw.]

Indians attacking a frontier blockhouse, artist unknown; Image courtesy of wtywentb.html
Indians attacking a frontier blockhouse, artist unknown
Image courtesy of wtywentb.html

From the shelter of the cabins, the attackers opened a hot rifle fire on the stockade. The fort contained 20 men, who had 17 guns. It was found, however, that only nine of these were fit for use, and with this small number of weapons the men took turns at the loopholes. Their main objective was to prevent the Indians from assaulting and battering the gates, and in this they were successful.

The firing on the fort continued until nightfall. Then the assailants set fire to the town, and danced and whooped in the glare of the flames. Only two houses escaped destruction, the courthouse and one cabin. Fire was set to them but went out, and as they stood near the stockade a renewal of the attempt to burn them was frustrated by the rifles of the frontiersmen. Fortunately a strong north wind was blowing, and carried the flames and blazing embers away from the little fort. After the buildings were well consumed, the savages and their white allies retired to the valley of nearby Crabtree Creek, where they feasted and reveled until a late hour. The defenders of the fort got little sleep, and those who stood guard along the stockade heard the voices of white men mingling with those of the Indians in the enemy's camp.

A renewal of the attack was expected in the morning, but it did not come. Parties of horsemen from other settlements began to arrive early at the little fort, and when a reconnaissance of the creek valley was made, it was found that the enemy had slipped away. Guyasuta's raiders had departed with many stolen horses, laden with household goods, and they left a plain trail, but it was not until Monday that the Hannastown residents had the nerve to follow them, and then 6o men pursued the trail only to the crossing of the Kiskiminetas River.

With the enemy gone, it was soon learned that great devastation had been inflicted in the surrounding country. A strong detachment of the savages had fallen upon Miller's Station, a settlement two miles south of Hannastown, where they had killed eleven white persons and carried four into captivity. A wedding took place at the settlement on July 12, and the following day many persons were gathered there for the celebration. A messenger from Hannastown gave warning of the attack, but minutes later the revelry was interrupted as the Indians swooped down.


The Hannastown defenders were good marksmen, and kept the besiegers at a distance. It was certain that two of the Indians were killed, and the defenders believed that they killed or wounded several others.

Only one resident of Hannastown was killed during the attack: a 16-year old girl was shot saving a child from wandering out of the stockade. She lingered in pain for two weeks and died. At Miller's Station several men were killed, and 15 men, women, and children were captured. On the march back to Canada, several of them – including a former militia captain and some of his family – were killed without mercy. The rest were handed over to British authorities in Canada. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 – which ended the American War of Independence – the captive were repatriated and returned to Westmoreland County.

Footnote #1: Although the residents of Hannastown were urged to rebuild their homes, few did. Five years later, the Westmoreland county seat was moved to nearby New Town (modern-day Greensburg, PA). The area of the settlement became agricultural land, preserving the remains of the town under the surface.

Footnote #2: The site of Hannastown was excavated beginning in 1969, and yielded more than a million artifacts of the daily life of the early inhabitants. Today the Historic Hanna's Town site is located just off U.S. Route #119, midway between Greensburg and New Alexandria, PA. The site includes the reconstructed Hanna Tavern/Courthouse, three vintage late 18th century log houses, a reconstruction of the Revolutionary-era fort and blockhouse, and a wagon shed housing an authentic late 18th century Conestoga wagon.

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