The Battle of Fort Freeland is perhaps the greatest tragedy to ever take place in central Pennsylvania and continues to have an impact more than 235 years later. Twenty one Americans died in this Revolutionary War event and much has been written about it over the years, and therefore only a cursory reprisal of what happened is considered here.
By 1779 Northumberland County was on the edge of the American frontier and Native Americans who sided with the British during the war had brought the conflict to local settlers. George Washington had ordered Major General John Sullivan to invade the Iroquoian homeland in order to relieve the pressure on the frontier, but before he could complete his campaign, attacks were made in New York and Pennsylvania in hopes that Sullivan would divide his force and make his army a less formidable foe to the Iroquois.
The story of Fort Freeland began in 1772 when Garrett Vreeland moved from Essex County, New Jersey and began to develop his farm and to build a sawmill and a gristmill. By 1776 he owned 511 acres of land and in addition to the mills was taxed for a bound servant and a “negroe”, as well as four horses and five cows. The land, at the time part of Turbot Township, was one of the best developed properties in upper Northumberland County. It was probably for this reason and because of its central location that local settlers endeavored to fortify the site following the Great Runaway of 1778, and at least 12 families spent the winter of 1778-79 inside this fortification. On Feb. 10, 1779 Mary Vincent, whose brother, Isaac, would die only five months later, was one of three children to be born inside the fort. She was to live a long life and on her death, Mary Vincent Derickson was buried in the Warrior Run Church Cemetery. Isaac himself had a son who was born in May and he was destined to grow up never knowing his father.
By spring the fields had been planted under the eyes of watchful guards and colonists seemed to accept a life of constant danger. In April seven members of the militia were killed or captured at the fort, and a few miles north, near Muncy, twelve settlers were killed or captured by Indians when they went searching for stray horses. On July 20 five boys and young men were sent from the fort to hoe a nearby cornfield when they were attacked by a band of Indians. Isaac Vincent, Elias Vreeland, and Jacob Vreeland, Jr. were killed and Michael Vreeland, aged 17, and Benjamin Vincent, aged 12, were captured and spent more than a year as prisoners of the British.
It was a week later on July 28 that a large force descended on the fort and its 121 inhabitants. Frederick Godcharles, a well-respected Pennsylvania historian, quoted Mary Jamison as saying that the force consisted of 300 Senecas led by her husband Hiokatoo, and perhaps as many as 100 British regulars led by Captain John McDonald. The outnumbered Americans fought until their ammunition was depleted when they were forced to surrender. Sometime later a relief force of Americans led by Captain Hawkins Boone (who some historians claim is a cousin of Daniel Boon) arrived with a contingent of militia. Boone and his men attacked the much larger force and immediately suffered severe casualties and were quickly repulsed. In all 108 Americans are believed to have been killed or captured in the three events. The women and children were set free to make their way to Fort Augusta. One of those set free was William Kirk, a 16 year old boy, who was dressed as a girl and thus escaped with the women and children. Much later in life he built the brick farmhouse which still stands across Interstate 180 from the Warrior Run Church on what is today known as “Kirkland Estates”. A few weeks after the battle, Benjamin Franklin reported the event in the Pennsylvania Gazette where he talked about the “brave defenders of the Warrior Run” – the “Defenders” later became the mascot of the Warrior Run High School which today stands on the former Vreeland farm.
After the battle, a contingent of soldiers was sent from Lancaster County under the command of Lt. Rice to secure and stabilize the area. They built a fort a few miles from the site of Fort Freeland on land owned by the Montgomery family. These Pennsylvania German soldiers from Lancaster County saw the beautiful limestone soils of the area and after the war they and others began to move into the area where land was even then much cheaper than in the more heavily settled counties to the south and east. Thus the original Scots-Irish settlers were soon outnumbered by the Pennsylvania Germans and the area became predominantly German in culture as the Lutheran and Reformed adherents began to outnumber their Presbyterian neighbors.
The Michael Vreeland House as it appeared in 1979. Later the home of John Hower.
Interior of the Vreeland-Hower House today. As furnished according to John Hower’s 1826 inventory.
Michael eventually returned to the farm and rebuilt a house and the mills which he later sold to John Hower. In 1792 Michael moved to New York and then to Michigan where he founded the town of Flat Rock. Michael had a grandson named Michael who joined the 4th Michigan during the Civil War and he was to fight in another important Pennsylvania battle, Gettysburg, and eventually received the rank of Brevet Brig. General. When John Hower died in 1826 the farm was divided into two parts and his daughter Susanna was given the southern half of the farm where she and her husband, James Slote, built the brick house which still stands on the property. Mother Hower continued to live in the house which she and her husband had bought from Michael Vreeland.