“I have now made a path to Virginia...”

“...and think of it every day, and when I get there I shall enquire for the Enemy, there I will be likewise.”

— Outacite Ostenaco to Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie, July 23, 1756, in Great Britain’s Public Record Office: Colonial Office 5:17 Transactions 595, p. 749.

When Outacite (Man Killer) Ostenaco directed these words to Virginia’s colonial governor, he was alluding to the symbolic pathway that had been opened between the two nations by the first Cherokee-British allied military campaign against the French and their allied American Indians during the French & Indian War. This 1756 campaign became known as the Sandy Creek Expedition, for its course followed a war road along “Sandy Creek,” the 18th century English name for the Dry Fork/Tug Fork/Big Sandy River valley that flows from Virginia to West Virginia and along Kentucky’s eastern border with West Virginia today.

The Cherokees planned the expedition in the winter of 1756 as part of an overall strategy of defensive fort-building by the Virginians in Cherokee country and offensive action by the Cherokees in enemy Indian country. Instead, Governor Dinwiddie decided to send a large force of Virginia soldiers along with the Cherokee warriors against the Shawnee towns on Ohio River and Scioto River (near present-day Portsmouth, Ohio) before he asked Virginia’s burgesses to fund the fort construction.

The Cherokees were accustomed to the extreme requirements of Indian-style warfare, but most of the Virginians were not prepared for the hardships of the winter campaign in the rugged mountain valleys of the Sandy Creek country. The two armies gathered at newly built Fort Frederick on New River (the site is now under the waters of Claytor Lake, Virginia). The Virginian army fared well until it reached the headwaters of Dry Fork, where Capt. William Preston recorded:

“Saturday 28th We marched 10 oClock & passed several branches of Clinch and at length got to the head of Sandy Creek where we met with great trouble & fatigue occasioned by a very heavy rain and the driving of our baggage horses down sd Creek which we crossed 20 times that evening.”

The first point of interest along this historical driving tour of the Sandy Creek Expedition is Dry Fork near the community of Valls Creek. McDowell County Route 9 (CR-9) follows along Dry Fork and the route of the expedition from the boundary line between West Virginia and Virginia to the village of Berwind.

1 Dry Fork

When the Sandy Creek Expedition took place, several men of the families that first settled the “western waters” of the Trans-Allegheny region served side-by-side with their brothers-in-arms, the Cherokees. Heinrich Adam Harman (originally Herrman in his native German language) was one of the earliest settlers on New River. The village of Valls Creek took its name from the Dry Fork tributary of the same name located here. The Creek was probably named for Valentine Harman, a son of Heinrich (Henry) Harman, whose brother was also named Valentine. Henry served on the Sandy Creek Expedition in the Augusta County militia under Capt. William Preston.

After the French & Indian War, Harman and his several sons hunted often in the headwaters of Dry Fork. Each had his favorite hunting area wherein he established camps in order to prepare the skins for transport by packhorses back to his plantation. These camps were called by the hunters’ names, and often the streams upon which the camps were located took on the hunters’ names as well. Jacob’s Fork was named in this manner (after Jacob Harman), as was George’s Camp Branch. Valentine’s nickname was Val, or Voll as it would have been pronounced by his German father. These brothers and their descendents became prominent characters in the unfolding drama of 18th century European expansion westward across the Allegheny and Cumberland Mountains.

Dry Fork was called “Sandy Creek” by the Virginians familiar with it, receiving its current name later in the 18th century. However, on the expedition, Dry Fork was anything but dry. As Lt. Thomas Morton recorded in his journal of the expedition during the first days of March:

“Wednesday, 3rd we cross’d the Creek 19 times in about 8 miles. thursday, 4th, we march’d 4 miles, and cross’d the Creek 14 times. Friday, 5th, we march’d 12 miles, and cross’d the Creek 24 times. The Creek is now in General about 45 or 50 yards.”

2 Canebrake

Capt. Preston recorded on February 29: “We followed down the several courses of that Crooked Creek passing branches which came in on both sides untill we came to a Cane Swamp where we encamped.”

The cane swamp once located at the mouth of Kewee Creek gave its name to the community of Canebrake, West Virginia, the second point-of-interest on this driving tour. The cane is now gone from the community after a century of farming and then a century of coal mining, but Arundinaria gigantea still grows in small stands along the route of the expedition. Look for it along the banks of Tug Fork below Iaeger.

Kewee Creek may have been named in deference to Round O, one of the three Cherokee war leaders on the campaign who received military commissions from Governor Dinwiddie. Round O hailed from near Keowee, the head town of the Lower Cherokee settlements in western South Carolina. Lower Cherokees were often referred to as Keowee Indians. It is likely that the camp at the mouth of this stream was named after Round O’s head town. Ostenaco and Yellow Bird (Chesquoterone), also received commissions from the Virginia Governor.

3 Berwind Gap

At Berwind, turn left onto CR-9/1 and climb into the gap in the mountain westward of Dry Fork. Capt. Preston recorded of the army’s passing through the gap:

“Monday 1st of March (1756). This morning I see Lightning at nine oClock. We marched & in four miles we left the Creek to the eastward passed a gap in a high Ridge & came upon a Branch which we encamped upon in a Large Bent & in a very Inconvenient place.”

Berwind Gap is part of a 24-mile long geological rift that follows a northwestern course from Bishop, Virginia to the headwaters of Panther Creek. At five locations along its course, the rift has formed low gaps in otherwise very high, knife-edged ridges. These low gaps provided convenient crossover points for Indians and large game animals, like Bison, that once were abundant in this region. This particular gap allowed the enemy Shawnee warriors to avoid a very rough portion of the Dry Fork valley, thus saving their stolen horses from overexertion and possibly death

4 War Creek

Where CR-9/1 meets CR-12/4 (Berwind Lake Road), you have reached War Creek. On War Creek approximately 1.5 miles downstream from present-day Berwind Lake in the Wildlife Management Area of the same name, the Cherokees found an enemy war camp, recently abandoned. William Preston recorded the excitement that accompanied this discovery:

 “Tuesday [2nd of March] a number of the Indians went out early to make what discoveries they could of ye Enemy. At about 10 oClock some of them returned & bespoke that they had seen a large camping place of ye Enemy where they had been about 3 days ago with many signs of horses which had been stolen by them.” 

This camp was located at the confluence of a right-hand tributary of War Creek upstream of the present day village of Warriormine. It is in the geological rift which continues northwestward through a gap in a knifeedged mountain and along the Little Slate Creek valley. This spot was a crossroads of trails established in prehistoric times. The very abundant cultural artifacts that have been found here over the last two centuries bear witness to this fact.

5 Wet Camps

March 3, 4, & 5 brought misery to the men in several ways. Provisions were scant, the path was almost impassable due to downed trees, and the stream bottom locations alternated from one side of the narrow valley to the other. Capt. Preston’s journal is replete with details of the difficult travel conditions: 

“We proceeded down ye Ck which by several branches coming in on both sides was very much increased & rendered it difficult for our poor men to wade which they were oblidged to do 16 times.”

 Each of these nights, the men were soaking wet from wading and from being out in the freak winter thundershowers. Evening fires sputtering from raindrops provided little comfort as the men crawled under their wet blankets—shivering until exhaustion brought fitful sleep.

 Continuing from the Warriors’ camp down War Creek on CR-12/4, you will join WV Rt. 16 (WV-16) in the city of War. Named for the creek that was named for the warriors’ camp, War is West Virginia’s southernmost incorporated city. Continuing north, left on WV-16 and then left at Yukon onto WV-83, you will pass three campsites of the combined Cherokee-Virginia army near the present-day communities of War, Bartley, and Bradshaw. At Bradshaw, turn right onto WV-80 and continue northward, eventually passing by another army campsite near the village of Apple Grove. 

Between Bradshaw and Apple Grove, CR-5/5 meets WV-80 at the mouth of Beartown Branch. This is a good spot to pull off of the road and view Dry Fork to ponder the difficulties the armies faced. Beartown Branch reminds us of the numerous rocky outcrops, where bears were fond of hibernating. However, the rocky terrain made walking painful. Streams named Hurricane Branch (at CR-2) and Grapevine Branch (at CR-5/4) hearken to the windthrows and vine tangles the axemen had to cut through in order for the pack train to proceed.

6 Sandy Creek Forks

At the community of Iaeger is where the army crossed over the rain-swollen “East Fork” of Sandy Creek, called “Tug Fork” today (turn left onto U.S. Rt. 52 north) . This was the last major stream crossing the army made, for below this confluence, rain-swollen Sandy Creek could not be safely crossed. Capt. Preston recorded the army spent the day crossing to the north side of this fork of Sandy Creek. The large elm trees that grew in the vicinity of the forks were stripped of their bark by the Cherokees to speed up the journey downstream. As Capt. Preston recorded on March 6:

“The Cherrokees proposed to make bark canoes to cary themselves down the river which was imediatly put in practice. Major Lewis set men to work to make a large canoe to cary down the ammunition & the small remains of our flour which was thin [then] almost exhausted.”

7 Johnnycake Branch

Lt. Morton wrote that they made camp below the forks “and turned our horses out among the Reads” (native cane). The first bottom below the forks is the only bottom downstream of the forks on the north side for miles that could have harbored 340 men. The downstream end of this bottom was at the mouth of a small stream, called Johnnycake Branch today. The branch’s mouth is just south of the junction of CR-1 and US-52/WV-80. Downstream from here, particularly on the north bank, you can see remnant patches of cane growing between the railroad and the river. At this place, the men were on their sixth day of rationing their flour at a half pound per man per day. Journey cakes were made by mixing the flour or cornmeal with a little water, and then frying the batter in small pans or on hot rocks. This meager fare was so welcomed by the hungry men that they began calling the bottom and the tributary stream by their fry-bread’s name. Eventually, Journey cake evolved into Johnnycake and the name stuck. Starvation and mutiny were dogging the Virginians like a brace of hounds on wounded quarry. The Cherokees, who were accustomed to the difficulties of the warrior’s way, were in better spirits. Lt. Morton recorded:

“The conduct and concord that was kept up among the Indians might shame us, for they were in general quite unanimous and brotherly.”

8 War Branch

“Sunday 7th That morning rained yet the men continued to work at the canoes. It was agreed upon by the officers that Capt. Smith Capt. Brackenridge Lt. Morton Capt. Dunlap & myself with our Comp. & part of Mountgomeries vollonteers 130 in number should proceed down the creek 15 miles & no further in search of hunting ground. We marched at nine oClock & the horsemen (for we took down almost all ye horses) was oblidged to leave the creek some distance for a passage through the mountains which we found very difficult…”

In several journal entries, Capt. Preston described the extreme difficulty with which the horse pack train proceeded downstream. The first place the train had to leave Sandy Creek due to a pinch in the valley was at present-day War Branch. To view this stream’s mouth, follow CR-1 from its junction with US-52, crossing the bridge over Tug Fork on the left. In a short distance, you will see a large coal-processing and trainloading facility on the opposite bank at the mouth of War Branch. Just downstream of the mouth of War Branch, you can see where the steep mountainside meets the river at a rapid in the outside bend. The journey up War Branch was the first of the pack train’s two difficult deviations from Sandy Creek’s narrow valley necessitated by a steep mountainside and high water. Although the N&W railroad track was laid early in the 20th century on the north side of Tug River here, the steepness of the riverbank that prevented the army pack train from moving directly downriver at this point also prevented the construction much later of an automobile roadway on the north bank. There is also no public roadway that follows the entire route taken by the pack train between camps on March 6 and March 7.

9 Panther

Continue along Tug Fork on CR-1 to a bridge on the right. Cross the bridge on CR-1 to the village of Panther. In the vicinity of Panther (probably at the mouth of Shortpole Creek, just upstream of Panther along CR-1/10) the pack train encamped on March 7.

An interesting side trip to Panther State Forest can be taken along CR-3, CR-3/1, and CR-3/2. Many of the trails in this forest traverse magnificent groves of cove hardwoods towering over rock overhangs, and rapidly flowing brooks, reminiscent of the days when panthers preyed upon deer and elk in the region by leaping from steep laurel-coverts onto their preys’ backs.

10 Starvation Camp

On March 8, after turning away from the river again and crossing two mountains, the pack train reached what was to become its furthest camp on the expedition. Lt. Morton recorded the pitiable condition of the pack train men:

“Our case grew more and more lamentable as the way was now much worse than ever, and the Creek now impassable by Horses, and the mountains higher and worse than ever on all accounts and lying in larger Clifts on the river”

Capt. Preston recorded:

“We encamped at the river to which place one elk was brought & divided to the no small joy of every man in Company for by that time hunger appeared in all our faces & most of us were got weak & feeble & had we not got that releif I doubt not but several of the men would have died with hunger. Their cries and complaints were pitiful & shocking & more so as the officers could not give them any help, for they were in equal want with the men.”

Hunting parties were sent out from this camp located at present-day Wharncliffe in Mingo County, WV. To reach Wharncliffe, turn right in Wyoming City on McDowell CR-1/1 and follow up Fourpole Creek through the village of Isaban to the road’s junction with Mingo CR-13. Remain right, following the combined routes to the head of Fourpole, then down Gilbert Creek on Mingo CR-13 to its junction with CR-10 (Right Fork of Bens Creek Road). Turn left and follow CR-10 over Bens Creek Mountain and down Bens Creek towards Wharncliffe. At the junction of CR-10 and CR-10/3, Spring Fork enters Bens Creek from your left. This tributary is likely where the pack train first came onto Bens Fork after having crossed the mountain divide between Fourpole and Turkey Creek, and the divide between the latter stream and Bens Fork. Watch for wider bottoms than you passed through on Fourpole Creek, for Lt. Morton recorded that this small creek:

“…made more low grounds than usual…”

A few elks and buffaloes were killed, but shared among 130 men over a period of five days, this merely kept the soldiers’ gaunt faces from becoming permanently frozen in death grimaces. Both Preston’s and Morton’s journals have a tellingly large proportion of their words dedicated to the lack of food or the pursuit thereof. The Cherokees were under the same hardships, but such difficulties were part and parcel to the Indian manner of war in eastern North America, so the warriors were able to withstand them better than were the Virginians.

Mutiny reared its ugly head in the horse camp, so Capt. Preston and the other officers had great difficulty keeping the men together while awaiting the arrival of Major Lewis in the canoes. On March 12, Major Lewis walked into camp after his canoe capsized and he nearly drowned. Much of the food, tents, and ammunition in the overturned canoes were lost.

A few scouts had gone further down Sandy Creek (Tug Fork) on March 8 and returned a few days later to tell conflicting stories of the terrain and the game populations. Andrew Lynam and William Hall apparently went the furthest, probably to the vicinity of present-day Thacker. These two men reported the terrain eased and the game became abundant at the point they turned back. They also had found an Indian hunting camp, a sure sign that game was more abundant further downstream. Capt. Preston hoped this good report would encourage the men, but it had the opposite effect. On the 13th, Major Lewis stepped off a few yards and asked those who were willing to continue on the expedition to join him. All the officers and only 20 or 30 privates did so. The remaining privates in four companies left for home. Ostenaco was willing to continue, but he was disappointed that so many men had deserted. Thus the Sandy Creek Expedition ended in failure—but let us not be so quick to judge before we have examined other outcomes of the campaign.

The Future of War

Every dark cloud has its silver lining, and the failure of the Sandy Creek Expedition to achieve its most visible goal, neutralization of the enemy towns, also had a bright side for the colony. Strong bonds were forged between many Virginia soldiers and Cherokee warriors; bonds that would ensure effective cooperation in several irregular military actions in the ensuing years of the war. The special friendship that forms between self-sacrificing leaders of men in times of desperation formed between Man Killer Ostenaco and the Virginia officers Mjr. Andrew Lewis and Capt. John McNeil.

The bonds between brothers-in-arms strengthened the commitment of certain Cherokee officers (like Man Killer Ostenaco, Yellow Bird, and the Round O Warrior) to recruit warriors (Cherokee, Catawba, and Mohawk) to assist the colonies of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina until the French threat was neutralized. Hundreds of warriors responded to the call to aid their British allies. In the remainder of 1756 and in 1757 they carried on offensive strikes against the French and their allies along Ohio River, even within sight of Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh, PA). Without these raids into enemy-held territory, the colonial war strategy in the southern colonies would have been entirely defensive during this two-year period. In the spring of 1758, approximately 900 Cherokee warriors took the field on behalf of the colonies. They raided as far north as Fort Presque Isle on Lake Erie, capturing enemy officers and their orders.

Cherokees taught the Virginia soldiers the art of the Indian manner of warfare. This was one of the major reasons Col. George Washington so fervently courted Cherokee assistance throughout the war. On the eve of the Sandy Creek Expedition, Col. Washington wrote to Governor Dinwiddie:

“I have given all necessary orders for training the men to a proper use of their Arms, and the method of Ind’n fighting, and hope in a little time to make them expert.”

The American Indian method of war shared a few similarities with the irregular style of fighting used by British troops against Scottish Highlanders, but it was vastly different from the regular British tactics used by General Edward Braddock at his unexpected defeat in 1755 near Fort Duquesne. Col. Washington, Mjr. Lewis, and Gov. Dinwiddie recognized the potentially high effectiveness of the American native style of war against the enemy who also was adept at this style. Virginia soldiers like Colby Chew, Thomas Bullitt, and John Draper (the brother of Mary Ingles) began their special training with the Cherokees on the Sandy Creek Expedition. Both Chew and Bullitt continued to serve with Cherokee war parties through the Forbes Campaign in 1758. Johnny Draper served honorably as a scout in Lewis’ army during Dunmore’s War 18 years later. Mjr. Lewis melded regular European war tactics with Indian tactics to serve well at the Battle of Point Pleasant during Dunmore’s War and at several junctures during the War of Revolution.

One other important beneficial outcome of the Sandy Creek Expedition is often overlooked today—the significant role the campaign played in providing engineering training to the Virginia officers and common soldiers who cleared a road down Sandy Creek for the pack train to follow. Andrew Lewis became such an expert in road construction in wild lands that he and his axemen were called upon by Col. Washington in 1757 to build numerous forts and roads between the forts in Virginia’s back settlements. Lewis and his men were also significant contributors to the construction of Forbes’ Road in 1758. General John Forbes’ army marched along that road to the recently abandoned Fort Duquesne in November of 1758. The British occupation of Fort Duquesne ended the French threat in the southern theatre of the war. This significant British victory had its roots in the Cherokee-British military alliance that started with the Sandy Creek Expedition in 1756. As you return home from the tour, ponder the hardships suffered by the men, both Virginian and Cherokee, as they protected Great Britain’s toehold in the Trans-Allegheny region. Their efforts eventually bore the desired fruit. After all, French is not the primary language of the region today.