Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Portage Blockhouse

General Green Clay
Commandant of the Portage Blockhouse

Not a Place of Much Importance: The Portage Blockhouse in the War of 1812

One can hardly imagine a more prosaic setting: a bend in the North Branch of the Portage River, a muddy creek which meanders through the center of Wood County, Ohio. An examination of the place today would give no clue that it was one the location of a small military post during the War of 1812. During the war, the Portage, or Carrying, River lay at the heart of the Black Swamp, and the difficulties associated with frontier warfare brought about the posts establishment. Never large, this depot or blockhouse never had a formal name, and left very little record of what occurred there. But enough hints remain to tell fragments of the story of the rise and demise of a frontier storage depot.

The Portage depot had its origins in General William Hull’s Detroit campaign in the summer of 1812. Hull marched an army northward from Dayton on June 1, 1812, a few days short of the declaration of war. He arrived at Urbana on June 8 where, in council with local Indian leaders, he received permission to open a road to the Foot of the Rapids of the Maumee River, and to build blockhouses along the way. Hull hoped to erect blockhouses about every twenty miles along his new road. To accomplish this, he sent detachments of Ohio militia ahead of the main body of troops. Proceeding due north, Duncan McArthur’s regiment built Fort McArthur on the Scioto River in modern Hardin County. Next it was James Findlay’s turn, taking his regiment to the Blanchard River and building Fort Findlay, where the city of Findlay stands. The army reached Fort Findlay on June 25. On the 26th, Hull wrote to Secretary of War William Eustis, stating, “It is my intention to build another Blockhouse on the carrying river, about half the distance between this and the Foot of the Rapids.”

Hull dispatched Lewis Cass and his men to complete the road to the Rapids and to construct defenses, possibly a blockhouse, on the North Branch of the Portage. Because it was possible to ship goods by water from Fort Findlay to the Maumee rapids, the Portage depot would not have to be as elaborate as the posts further south. Robert Lucas, who arrived at the Portage on June 28, noted that he “…marched on to Carran River where we threw up a Breastwork of timber and used great precaution during the night to prevent an alarm…” The army’s caution indicated a lack of strong defenses at the site. Exactly what, if anything, was constructed at the Portage is unclear. The blockhouses at Forts Findlay and McArthur were log structures about twenty feet square and eight feet high with a second story somewhat larger in perimeter than the first. A visitor to the Portage after the war described it as a stockade, , and it may have been all of these: a muddy clearing with (or without) a small log building surrounded by fencing or breastworks.

Hull’s intention was to leave Ohio militiamen at each of his posts, as well as the sick and wounded. When Hull surrendered Detroit, the Michigan Territory, and his whole army on August 16, he did not give his blockhouse theory a chance to prove itself. However, a company marching to his aid led by Henry Brush made good use of them. Receiving word of Hull’s surrender wile at the River Raisin, he was able to lead his men south on Hull’s road, despite pursuit by Tecumseh and three hundred Indians.

Another illustration of the role of the Portage encampment can be gleaned from the expedition of Edward Tupper in November of 1812. In response to reports of British and Indian occupation of the north side of the Maumee in order to harvest corn, Tupper led a force north on Hull’s road to safeguard this valuable commodity. Nathen Newsom, a private from Gallia County, kept a journal of this expedition. He noted the army’s arrival at the Blanchard on November 11, “…where Findley’s Block house had formerly been, but the Indian’s burned it down….” The next day they arrived at “. . . Carron river, 16 miles from the Rapids of the Maumee.” Since Fort Findlay, to the south, could not be counted on, Tupper used the Portage camp as the launching point for an abortive attack on the Rapids. By November 15, his army had been there and back to Portage. Private Newsom wrote that snow had fallen while they were away, and that many soldiers “. . . were sick and could scarcely get along. Hunger and fatigue gave the army a ghostly appearance.” Tupper quickly abandoned the Portage as untenable. As he wrote to the new commander in chief of western armies, William Henry Harrison, Tupper could have held on with more supplies, but with Portage and Findlay blockhouses gone, retreat was the only option.

None of this was lost on General Harrison, who was given the task of retaking to Detroit and proceeding with the invasion of Canada. He planned a three-pronged attack to begin in January of 1813, while the Black Swamp was still frozen. While the flank of the army went down the Auglaize River to Fort Defiance and then to the Maumee Rapids, and the east flank followed the Scioto to the Sandusky, the middle column headed north on Hull’s road. Nathen Newsom noted the reestablishment of Fort Findlay in the second week of January, 1813. Harrison, writing to the new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, reported that the “small blockhouses” on Hull’s road would have a subaltern’s command of Ohio militia each. But while both Newsom and Harrison understood the importance of keeping their supply lines open, neither tells us what exactly was at the Portage that winter.

Complicating matters was an unusual early thaw of the Black Swamp. Harrison’s hope that he could supply his army using nimble sleds rather than half-drowned packhorses was ruined. Captain Daniel Cushing recorded in his diary:

Tuesday, 4th . . . From the time I first entered the swamp until sundown I did
not leave the water, but was from knee deep to waist deep all day wading in
mud, water, and ice, prying out sleds and wagons, but got to Portage camp
about dark with all our sleds and all our wagons but three. No time to pitch
tents; slept out doors this night

Cushing does not describe “Portage camp,” but the inference was clear – cold, wet, and miserable.

With the completion of Fort Meigs at the Foot of the Rapids, and the threat of British attack in the spring of 1813, the posts along Hull’s trail faced a more precarious situation. Robert McAfee recounted the arrival of a battalion of soldiers at Fort Meigs “. . . by way of Forts McArthur and Portage. . . “ just before the British lay siege to Fort Meigs on May 1, 1813. Just before the siege, General Harrison sent a messenger, William Oliver to meet the Kentucky militia under General Green Clay, who were coming down the Maumee from Fort Defiance. Oliver and three companions were pursued south on Hull’s road the moment they left Fort Meigs. After eluding most of the Indians, the men were chased by a smaller band as far as the Portage camp. The men took refuge within the “stockade” there, and later safely made tracks to Fort Findlay.

The raising of the siege on May 9 did not diminish concern for the Hull’s road depots. When Harrison left General Clay in charge of Fort Meigs on May 11, 1813, the order read, in part:

Brigadier Genl Clay. . . is appointed to the command of troops in this Camp[Fort Meigs] & to the posts of McArthur, Findley, Portage & Upper & Lower Sandusky – the commandants of those posts are to report to him. . .

Reports of a new attack on Fort Meigs in mid-June prompted another order:

The Commandants at upper and lower Sandusky Fort Finley McArthur and at Block House(Carrying river) will without one moments loss of time cause their respective Commands to be placed in the best possible situation to repel any attack…

The oddly chosen wording in this order may suggest a blockhouse, but this is by no means certain.

The “best possible situation” of which Clay spoke would have been difficult to muster at the Portage Blockhouse. The commandant, Lieutenant Thomas Mountjoy of Kentucky, had only eighteen men: a sergeant, a corporal, and sixteen privates, twelve whom were sick in the middle of July. The only surviving paperwork from the Portage facility most likely did not provide General Clay with much confidence. But until then, the summer seemed tedious enough, with only the occasional change of routine at Portage, such as the escort of a deserter back to Fort Meigs, to relieve the tedium.

Then all hell broke loose. On Monday, July19, Captain Cushing noted from Fort Meigs that “Capt. Shaw and his company left this camp for the Portage Block-House.” As Captain Shaw (Patrick Shaw of the Ohio militia) left, a second British siege of Fort Meigs was about to commence. Two days later, the day the shelling began, Cushing wrote:

Lieut. Mountjoy came into camp this day from Portage Blockhouse with 18
men. They made their escape very strangely through the Indians; they were
followed for two miles and fired upon by them several times but did no
harm. . .

An unnamed officer at Fort Meigs speculated that the Indians had probably been in the area to cut off communication and reinforcements for the Fort Meigs theater. That they failed to stop Mountjoy and his Kentuckians was indicative of the enemy’s overall failure.

But at the Portage itself, they had succeeded, for the officer continuesd:

P.S. The Post at Carrying River was deserted a few days before by an Ohio
company, and before we could send reinforcements to supply the vacancy –
the Indians consumed it with fire. It was not a place of much importance, and
the greatest loss we suffered was the Arms, &c . . .

But “Arms &c” were valuable and could not simply be written off. General Green Clay was unsure as to the fate of Portage Blockhouse, so in an order dated August 2, 1813,

Capts Hatfield and Simonton of the Ohio line will immediately march their
respective companies to Portage Block house – Should that post be entirely
destroyed by the enemy Capt Hatfield will return to this Garrison – and Capt
Simonton proceed to Fort Finley and take command of that post – Should
portage block house not be destroyed Capt Hatfield will maintain that post
until further Orders . . .

The rumor proved to be true. Captain Nathaniel Hatfield and his men were back at Fort Meigs by August 9. Confirmation can be found in a journal entry by Robert McAfee, whose mounted Kentuckians visited the site on October 19. They arrived at

Portage river and Mud Blockhouse and the south side of the same which was
deserted by a company of Ohio Malitia & burned by the Indians during the last
siege of Fort Meigs . . . we eat breakfast at this place. . . .

If proof was needed, McAfee had found it.

As the western phase of the War of 1812, the need for a fortified supply line eased. When Oliver Hazard Perry captured the British fleet on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, the route to Detroit was clear. Harrison’s army retook Detroit, marched into Canada, and on October 5th, defeated a combined British/Indian force at the Battle of the Thames. This was the last major military confrontation in the West. The need for small supply depots like that at Portage had passed.

For a time, the Portage encampment served as a landmark. Ennis Duncan, a Kentucky soldier, noted that he passed “old mud fort & the sand shills” on his way north on Hull’s road in October 1814. Hull’s road was for many years the only north/south road through the Black Swamp, and travelers on it could not help but see the “old mud fort.” Dresden Howard, an early settler, remembered seeing it and camping near it in the 1830s; Indian friends of his connected it with Hull’s campaign.
By 1890, it was gone. The outline of the blockhouse could still be traced in that year, and artifacts were occasionally found at the site. A historical marker was placed on US 25 in the early 1930s, but it has since disappeared.

So what was the Portage Blockhouse? It appears to have had two phases of existence. The Hull phase (June to November 1812) left no descriptions. The Clay/Harrison phase (January to July 1813) we are more certain of. We have the name of its commanding officer, orders mentioning it, and finally a couple of mentions of a “mud” structure. If the Blockhouse was built on a muddy uprising in the Black Swamp, that would explain what was seen after its destruction – charred timbers. There were a few moments of drama too, as can be attested by Oliver, Mountjoy, and Hatfield.

But where was it? The 1930s marker gave its location as 1000 feet feet west of US 25 at a point where the river bends sharply to the east. When I was in college, I got the property owner’s permission to hike back to the site. About 1000 feet from the road there was a very slightly elevated area that might have been higher before the land was plowed regularly. But the Portage River has been dredged, and there were no definite signs of a military camp.

There is in all of us (I think) a desire to find some attachment to historic events. Not just local history, important as it is, but something tied to the destinies of the famous or of the shaping of nations. When I submitted this article for publication back in 1984 (I think), it was rejected as not being analytical enough. I understand that critique now, but I also understand my own youthful enthusiasm for connecting myself to history. I grew up only a couple of miles from the Portage Blockhouse, and my search for it taught me not what it looked like or was used for, but about how to research and how not to research. It burned into my mind those events of 1812-1813, and gave my youthful self a lot of pleasure. Was there an important fact I overlooked? Probably. Could I have put the Blockhouse in a broader context? Likely. But it was the best fun of my youth, and for that reason I will always have a soft spot for that wretched spot in the Black Swamp called (sometimes) the Portage Blockhouse.

Alex Gilpin, The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest (East Lansing, 1958), pp. 37-38.
The National Intelligencer, 4 July 1812.
Thomas B. Van Horne to John S. Gano, no date, “Selections from the Gano Papers, I,” Quarterly Publications of the Historical and Philosophical Society Of Ohio, 15 (1920), pp. 49-50.
William Hull to William Eustis, June 26, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, 1812, Relating to the War of 1812 in the Northwest, Vol. VI Part 2, pg. 60.
Gilpin, The War of 1812, p. 51.
John C. Parish, ed., “The Robert Lucas Journal,” The Iowa Journal of History and Politics 4 (1906): 364.
Herbert T. O. Blue, Centennial History of Hardin County, Ohio, 1833-1933 (Canton, 1933), p. 162; Jacob A. Spayeth, History of Hancock County, Ohio (Toledo, 1903), p. 42.
“Fort Portage,” Wood County Sentinel, August 30, 1891.
Hull to Eustis, June 26, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, p. 60.
C.S. Van Tassel, Story of Fort Meigs, Harrison Celebration of 1840 and Hulls [sic] Relief Expedition of 1812 (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1933 (?)), pp. 39, 44.
Edward Tupper to William Henry Harrison, November 10, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, Vol. VI Part 4, p. 98.
Nathen Newsom, Journal of Nathan Newsom, transcribed by James Ohde (Columbus, 1957), pp. 8-9.
Ibid., pp. 9-10.
Edward Tupper to William Henry Harrison, November 16, 1812, in The National Intelligencer, December 1, 1812.
Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada, Volume One 1812-1813 (Boston, 1980), pp. 275-76.
Newsom, Journal, pp. 14-15.
William Henry Harrison to John Armstrong, February 11, 1813, Letters to the Secretary of War, Vol. VII Part 1, p. 97.
Daniel Cushing, “Personal Diary of Captain Cushing October, 1812 – July, 1813,” in Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, ed. Harlow Lindley (Columbus, 1975), p. 98.
Robert McAfee, History of the Late war in the Western Country (1816, rpt. Ed., Bowling Green, 1919)p. 279.
Ibid., p. 285.
M. A. Leeson, Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (1897, rpt. ed., Evansville, Indiana, p. 43; William Oliver to Return J. Meigs, Jr., April 29, 1813, in H. S. Knapp, History of the Maumee Valley (Toledo, 1877), pp. 159-60.
“Orderly Book of Cushing’s Company, 2nd U.S. Artillery April 1813 – February 1814,” in Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, ed., Harlow Lindley (Columbus, 1975), p. 27.
Ibid., p. 33.
Thomas Mountjoy to Green Clay, July 17, 1813, Green Clay Papers,, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Michigan.
Robert McClelland to Green Clay, July 2, 1813, Clay Papers.
Cushing, “Personal Diary,” p. 133.
Roster of Ohio Soldiers of the War of 1812 (1916; rpt. Baltimore, 1968), p. 40.

Cushing, “Personal Diary,” p. 134.
“An Interesting Journal of the Second Siege of Fort Meigs, by an Officer of Respectability at that place,” The National Intelligencer, September 14, 1813, p. 3.
“Orderly Book of Cushing’s Company,” p. 56.
Morning Report of the Troops under the Command of Brigadier General Green Clay, August 9, 1813, Clay Papers.
Robert McAfee, “The McAfee Papers – Book and Journal of Robt. B. McAfee’s Mounted Company, in Col. Richard M. Johnson’s Regiment, Part 3,” Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society 26 (May 1928): 133.
Gilpin, The War of 1812, pp. 211, 222.
Ennis Duncan, Jr., The Journal of Ennis Duncan, Jr., Sergeant, 16th Regiment Kentucky Militia Detached, transcribed by Richard C. Knopf (Columbus, 1957), p. 12. The “sand hills” morth of the Portage are recollected by Sand Ridge Road, just south of Bowling Green.
“Fort Portage,” Wood County Sentinel, April 30, 1891.
Charles S. Van Tassel, Historical Landmarks: Story of their Location and Significance (Bowling Green, 1931 (?)), pp. 26-28.