Lord Dunmore’s Attempt to Hold Virginia for the CrownAnd Connolly’s Plot for an Indian Uprising
Pursuit Through Chaos revolves around events in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that occurred in the aftermath of Lexington/Concord and the subsequent investment of Boston by a colonial militia army. It was an turbulent period as the insurrection spread and the colonies expelled or sidelined royal governors and transitioned to self-government. In Virginia, Governor Lord Dunmore was forced to flee Williamsburg for the security of a warship. He then raised a Loyalist force in the tidewater and attempted to reestablish control of the colony. Most histories dealing with the first year of the war focus on events in New England and Canada and the workings of the Second Continental Congress. The conflict between Dunmore’s forces and the Virginia Patriots is often ignored or at best treated as a sideshow. But the fact is, had Dunmore and his subordinate, Colonel John Connolly, prevailed in reestablishing royal control over Virginia, thus dividing the colonies, it is unlikely that the Patriot cause could have succeeded, at least in the form with which we are familiar.
Lord Dunmore’s Fight to Reconquer Virginia.The governorassembled a diverse collection of military units. In addition to Loyalist militia, he formed the Queens Own Loyal Virginia Regiment, made of volunteers mainly from the tidewater area. Dunmore also had a detachment of marines from the Royal Navy squadron assigned to support his efforts. Major General Gage, commander of British forces in the colonies, sent several companies of the 14th Foot to provide a backing of regulars for the provincial forces. However, despite significant Loyalist support in tidewater Virginia, Dunmore had trouble recruiting colonials in the numbers required. This was the primary factor that led to his proclamation of November 7, 1775, which declared martial law and offered freedom to slaves who agreed to fight for the king. This was a drastic measure, which Dunmore had to know would alienate many members of the landed gentry who otherwise would have supported him. But it is a clear indicator of his desperation for soldiers. The proclamation led to slave uprisings on several plantations in the tidewater area and blacks simply fleeing from others. Eventually between five hundred and eight hundred African recruits joined Dunmore’s force. These men were formed into the Ethiopian Regiment. Elements of the unit fought in numerous skirmishes and the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775.
The plan to foment an insurrection by the Ohio Country tribes was hatched by Dunmore and Connolly aboard a British warship anchored off Norfolk and was a critical element of the strategy to retake Virginia. Connolly (1742-1811) was a protege of the governor. Although trained as a doctor, in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s he became a land speculator in Pittsburgh and the Ohio Country. Soon after assuming the governorship of Virginia, Dunmore visited Pittsburgh and first met Connolly. The two men determined to reassert Virginia’s claim to the Forks of the Ohio. In 1774, with Dunmore’s blessing, Connolly organized a militia unit of men loyal to Virginia and seized control of Pittsburgh from Pennsylvania. Dunmore immediately recognized the takeover and designated the town and the area around it as the West Augusta District of Virginia, with Connolly as the administrator.
In the spring of 1774, the conflict known as “Dunmore’s War”, between Virginia and the Shawnee, Mingo, and Delawares of the Ohio Country broke out following several violent incidents between settlers and Indians. The most notable was the massacre of a group of Mingoes at a tavern on the Ohio which resulted in the death of many of the Mingo John Logan’s family. This led to widespread of reprisals by war parties, and in response Dunmore raised a militia force which marched into the Ohio Country and imposed a peace settlement on the tribes.
However, in the new year, the spirit of rebellion grew throughout the colonies, culminating with the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord in the spring. As a representative of Dunmore with known Loyalist sympathies, Connolly was forced to leave Pittsburgh and join the governor in the tidewater. By the early summer, the two had formulated an ambitious plan to reconquer Virginia. Its main elements were as follows: While Dunmore subjugated the tidewater and southern Virginia with his loyalist troops, Connolly would return to the Ohio Country and recruit a mixed force of Loyalists and tribal warriors. Before leaving Pittsburgh, he had compiled a list of Tories who were ready to fight for the crown, and had cultivated favor with tribal chiefs. This force would carry out raids on the border settlements of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Once the border country had been devastated, Connolly would march eastward down Braddock Road and capture Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. After making that town his major logistics base for operations in the northern part of Virginia, Connolly’s column would then advance to the Potomac and a victorious Dunmore would lead his units by water and land up to Alexandria, where the two would unite, having essentially regained control of the colony.
Once the plan was finalized, Dunmore sent Connolly to Boston by ship to obtain Gage’s approval. The general was immediately enthusiastic about the concept. He had at least two reasons to endorse and expand on the scheme: (1) If fully successful, it would take the largest colony out of the war, and (2) Even if that objective was not attained, it would force the rebelling colonists to divert substantial forces to protect the frontier settlements. So the plan was a win-win for the British high command, assuming it actually got off the ground. Accordingly, Gage took steps to provide substantial support. He decided to augment Connolly’s force with regulars from the garrisons of forts along the Great Lakes, which would provide a stiffening factor to both the Loyalist units and Indian war parties. Connolly would proceed by ship to Canada, then overland to Fort Detroit, where the garrison commander would assemble the military detachment while Connolly worked to recruit support from the northern tribes of the Ohio Country. Then, in the spring of 1776, under Connolly, the united Indian-military force would march southeastward, gathering additional recruits from among the tribal villages, and begin attacks on the border country. However, before Connolly could leave Boston, the Patriot invasion of Canada began, and it was decided that Connolly would have to take ship to Virginia and travel overland to the Ohio Country.
After returning to Virginia, Connolly and two compatriots began the trip to the Ohio Country in late October. Dr. John Smyth had contacts in the border country, and would act as the surgeon for the military force. Lieutenant Allen Cameron, a professional soldier who also had worked as an Indian agent for the British, would help to organize militia and ranger companies from Loyalist volunteers. The three were also accompanied by several subordinates and servants. The party traveled by boat from the Norfolk area to Port Tobacco on the Maryland side of the Potomac. From there they took horse and headed north to Frederick and Hagerstown and planned to ride to Wills Creek (Cumberland) and then follow Braddock’s Road westward.
However, when Connolly had been in Boston conferring with Gage, his servant, a man named Crowley, having found out the extent of devastation the plot entailed for the people of the back country, defected to the Patriot forces and was taken to General Washington, where he described the plan in detail. Washington immediately perceived the gravity of the threat, and alerted the Continental Congress, which passed on the information to the Council of Safety in Annapolis, Maryland, requesting they attempt to intercept Connolly. They in turn warned local militia commanders to be on the watch for the conspirators.
Connolly and his companions were traveling under assumed names. But a member of the Pittsburgh militia who had been in Connolly’s battalion during Dunmore’s War was riding eastward and recognized his former commanding officer in an encampment beside the road just west of Hagerstown. He then alerted officials in the town and local militia overhauled the party of Loyalists and took them back to Hagerstown and then to Frederick, where they were due to be further transferred to Philadelphia and turned over to Congress.
However, there was some delay in Frederick, and Connolly took the time to write dispatches to his fellow conspirators at Pittsburgh and in the Ohio Country, informing them of his capture and the details of the plan. Dr. Smyth was able to escape and, with the dispatches in hand, head for the Ohio Country along Braddock’s Road. He was pursued by militia and finally caught just shy of Pittsburgh.
Connolly in history.JohnConnolly was well known to prominent Virginians. Patrick Henry had been in meetings in Williamsburg with Dunmore and Connolly to discuss land grants in the Ohio and Kentucky regions. At that meeting, Connolly was granted 4000 acres at a place on the Ohio River deep in Kentucky called the Falls of the Ohio. Connolly believed that as trade developed along the river, the need to portage boats and cargo around the falls would lead to the development of a town, and the man who owned the land would become wealthy. This grant was clearly a salient factor in Connolly’s decision to remain Loyal to the crown. George Washington was well acquainted with Connolly, initially meeting him on a trip to Pittsburgh in 1770, where the two dined with a group of other men at Semple’s Tavern. Connolly was actually still corresponding with Washington as late as spring 1775. James Wood, the Frederick County and Winchester representative to the Burgesses, worked with Connolly during negotiations with the Ohio tribal chiefs in spring 1775. Connolly’s seizure of Pittsburgh for Virginia in January 1774 and leadership of a battalion in Dunmore’s War made him a hero to the Virginia colonists until his Loyalist sympathies became known 1775. His obsession with the Falls of the Ohio was well justified from an economic point of view. As he predicted, an important town eventually developed there, and the man who owned the land would have been in a position to make a fortune. That town subsequently became the city of Louisville, Kentucky.
After his capture, the Continental Congress deemed Connolly too dangerous to be exchanged. He was held in limbo under varying levels of detention throughout the war. Afterward, the Loyalist traveled to England but later returned to America and ended up living in Canada. All along, he continued his battle to get title to the land around the Falls of the Ohio, often citing obscure and highly doubtful legal arguments. In the end the obsession cost him his wife, Susanna and led to his being in bankruptcy at the time of his death. Connolly’s saga is succinctly described in The Other Loyalists: Ordinary People, Royalism, and the Revolution in the Middle Colonies, 1763–1787 (State University of New York Press, 2009), edited by Joseph S. Tiedermann, Eugene R. Fingerhut, and Robert W. Venables.
Dunmore’s Defeat and the Aftermath. The governor’s headquarters and main base was the port town of Norfolk, which had strong Loyalist sympathies. After the defeat of a key detachment of Dunmore’s forces in late 1775 at the Battle of Great Bridge to the south of Norfolk, he decided to evacuate and burn militarily important parts of the town to prevent its usefulness to the rebels. He retreated to Gwin Island, located just off the Virginia coast of the Chesapeake Bay and separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. There he hoped to reorganize and restart his campaign. However, he was soon taken under siege by Patriot forces. Meanwhile, smallpox hit his force, particularly devastating the Black soldiers of the Ethiopian Regiment; several hundred of the men and their dependents died. Dunmore finally conceded defeat in June 1776, sailing from Virginia. He took the the members of the Queen’s Loyal Virginians with him and they were eventually merged into the well-known Queen’s Rangers. The surviving Ethiopians were transported with Dunmore and were used in supporting roles with the British forces.
While Connolly’s plot was nipped in the bud, the British didn’t give up on the idea. Two years later, encouraged by the work of British agents, tribes of the Iroquois Federation launched a war against the northern colonies, sweeping eastward in widespread attacks on settlements in New York and Vermont. The impact forced Washington to detach a strong force of troops from the Continental Army, commanded by General Sullivan, to quell the uprising and stop the raids. Glenn H. Williams’s award-winning book, Year of the Hangman (Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2005), is a detailed account of that tribal war and Sullivan’s punitive expedition. In fiction, Walter D. Edmond’s 1936 novel, Drums Along the Mohawk,and the 1939 John Ford movie based on it were inspired by this event.