Many of us are familiar with the many struggles faced by the short-lived garrison at Fort Laurens. Rather than focus on that, I thought I would look at the life, and death, of one soldier in particular. He was a Virginian and his name was Private George Osborne.
This branch of the Osborne family has been in America since the arrival of Englishman Stephen Osborne (1633-1698) in New York in the 1650s. The surname appears in the historical record by many spellings, including Osborne, Osbourne, Osborn, Ozburn, and Ozborn. Succeeding generations moved from New York, down through New Jersey, and ultimately into western parts of the colony of Virginia by the time of the French and Indian War. George Osborne (1725-1783) purchased land from Lord Fairfax in Hampshire County, Virginia (modern West Virginia) along the South Branch of the Potomac River in the summer of 1749. He subsequently expanded his holdings when he purchased another tract of land nearby in the fall of 1762.
Just before acquiring the first parcel of land, George married Hannah Westfall (1729-1792) and the two moved onto their new land shortly afterwards. The land parcel that George acquired in 1749 was 396 acres located on the South Branch of the Potomac River in the area near Piss Pot Island (yes, that’s the name), and the later 93 acre parcel was also nearby. The Osborne family grew to include at least six children by 1775, including five sons and one daughter. The second oldest of their sons was named after his father, George Osborne (1756-1779). It is impossible to know what the younger George’s childhood was like, but it likely mirrored that of other frontier lives.
When the Osborne children were growing up in Hampshire County, the region sat on the frontier of European settlement. The French and Indian War (1754-1763) demonstrated that there were dangers in settling in the region. It was not uncommon for Native American raiding parties to make forays into the county during the war and Fort Pearsall, a log blockhouse fort, was constructed nearby to help protect the area’s inhabitants. It was not until after that war that the county was formally organized. Nevertheless, tensions between the Native American tribes in the region and Europeans continued in the years after the war concluded. It is likely that all of the Osborne children were schooled in the use of firearms as a means of defending their farms.
Conflict between Native Americans and European settlers continued as more and more Europeans began settling in the regions south of the Ohio River. This conflict ultimately led to Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 and, among the men who went to fight that short-lived conflict, was the younger George Osborne. George served, along with a cousin, on the campaign with a Virginia militia unit and was present at General Andrew Lewis’ victory over Chief Cornstalk at the Battle of Point Pleasant in October 1774. Dunmore’s War ended shortly after the battle and George Osborne returned home to Hampshire County.
After war broke out between the American Colonies and Great Britain in 1775 George once again took up arms, this time enlisting in the 13th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line in August 1777. This unit was recruited from the western regions of Pennsylvania and Virginia and George was assigned to Captain Benjamin Harrison’s Company. The regiment marched to join the Continental Army in the east and soon saw battle in the fall of 1777 on the fields of Pennsylvania, taking part in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. After the 1777 campaign ceased, the regiment found itself suffering through the winter at Valley Forge before receiving new orders in the spring of 1778.
The 13th was assigned to the Western Department in May of 1778 and shortly after began its march from the eastern part of Pennsylvania to Fort Pitt. American General Lachlan McIntosh, planning for future campaigns against the British in the west, established fortifications on the Ohio frontier to use as staging areas for that campaign and among them was Fort Laurens. George Osborne found himself one of the one hundred and fifty men left behind to garrison the new fort in the winter of 1778-1779 in an increasingly hostile region. Having only just survived the winter at Valley Forge a year earlier, Osborne and the rest of the men were exposed to the even worse conditions at Fort Laurens.
Once the British learned of the dire conditions at Fort Laurens in January 1779, they decided to attack the fort with a mixed force of Native American and British troops. The combined enemy siege of Fort Laurens began on February 22, 1779. Despite that fact the Americans continued to send out parties to chop and haul firewood and care for the garrison’s horses outside the fort as best they could. One of those parties, of which George Osborne was part, left the safety and confines of the fort on February 24, 1779. Once outside the fort the party was ambushed by the besiegers. Fifteen of the men, including George Osborne, were killed and ceremoniously scalped while in clear view of the fort’s defenders.
Private George Osborne had fought in a number of battles and suffered the harsh conditions of marches and camp life while serving as a soldier in two wars. Oftentimes the histories of what happened at Fort Laurens mention the massacre of February 24, 1779 in passing, noting that fifteen men died. All fifteen of those men had names, and lives, before their tragic deaths at Fort Laurens. This was the story of just one of those brave and patriotic men who gave his life on a distant frontier far from home.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2023.