Season 1, Episode 10
A Piece of Understudied World History: Fort Dobbs
Check out Fort Dobb’s website for more information on the historic site: www.fortdobbs.org.
Announcer: James Landolf
Transcript for A Piece of Understudied World History: Fort Dobbs
Announcer: This is Moravian Mornings. A podcast discussing the history surrounding the Moravians who settled in Wachovia.
Casey: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the tenth episode of Moravian Mornings. I can’t believe we’re almost done with the first season which is really exciting to think about. Today we are going to be focusing on Fort Dobbs. You may be thinking why we chose to focus an episode on Fort Dobbs when we only briefly mentioned it in our previous episode. This is because this fort was the only fortification created by the colony of North Carolina in the area, and if the Moravians had had to retreat from Bethabara and Bethania during the time of the French and Indian War and Anglo-Cherokee War, they probably would have fled to Fort Dobbs, so it only makes sense to discuss this fort a little more, and what better way to do that than bringing on two of their staff members to speak with us.
Casey: Before we get started, could you both discuss your positions at the site and your backgrounds in public history if you have one?
Scott: Sure. My name is Scott Douglas, and I’m the historic site manager of Fort Dobbs State Historic Site. I’ve worked at Fort Dobbs for 13 years now. The last six of those I’ve been manager there. I’ve always been involved in public history, especially in the museum and especially living history museum end of things. Prior to Fort Dobbs, I’ve worked at Old Salem. I’ve worked at – well when I was in college at UNCG like you guys, I was at Guilford Courthouse. I’ve worked at Petersburg, Pamplin Historical Park up there. Kind of been all around. Done all types of museum work, part time, full time, but Fort Dobbs is by far the site I’ve been at the longest.
Casey: What position did you hold at Old Salem?
Scott: Lots of different stuff. Mainly doing interpretation, but I did everything from greeting people at the front door and giving them the spiel about the building to doing cooking demonstrations to dabbling in 18th-Century shoe work, raising tobacco, all sorts of different stuff.
Casey: You did it all.
Scott: Yeah, and all of it comes in handy at Fort Dobbs, because we have such a small staff there. There’s just three of us on staff full time. A lot of that work, all of us bring fortunately a lot of different skills into it, so it serves me well there, all that experience from those past sites.
Jason: Hello, my name is Jason Melius. I am the historic interpreter at Fort Dobbs, and I’ve been involved in living history and volunteering at historic sites since 1993, and I’ve been volunteering at Fort Dobbs since 2006, but full time, been there for a little over a year. My background is actually in archives.
Casey: Didn’t you mention earlier that you also went to UNCG?
Jason: I did.
Casey: We’re all just the UNCG squad. That’s really cool.
Jason, Casey: Go Spartans!
Casey: We’ve had a lot of people on from UNCG, which I think is really cool too.
Maizie: Alright so, our previous episode focused on Wachovia during the French and Indian War. We briefly discussed Fort Dobbs in the episode and mentioned that Fort Dobbs was the only fortification in the area constructed by the colony of North Carolina. Could you discuss the significance of Fort Dobbs and its role during the French and Indian War?
Scott: Yeah, Fort Dobbs was constructed, well starting in 1755 by the orders of Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs. The purpose of it was to enable a garrison of full-time provincial soldiers to have a sort of base of operations in the middle of the western frontier of the province of North Carolina. When war broke out between England and France in 1754, there were threats to the scattered settlers recently arrived on the North Carolina frontier, part of the wave of immigration, people from Ireland, from German states like the Moravians at Bethabara who had just recently come from Pennsylvania down to the area along the Yadkin and Catawba Rivers. There was a real possibility that French-allied Native American tribes, most notably the Shawnee but other groups like the Ottawa and the Ojibway, could be launching attacks into the North Carolina piedmont. They were actively in 1754 and 55 killing a lot of people in Virginia, just a couple of days walk north basically.
The colony needed some level of defense. There weren’t enough men living in the backcountry close enough together to be able to run a militia and so full-time soldiers were sent out, and by 1756, they had built Fort Dobbs itself. It ended up being the only fort on the western frontier built and maintained by the colony with full-time soldiers. There were certainly civilian forts like that one that was built at Bethabara by the Moravians themselves, but it was the only actual military post, and for seven years, it served that purpose really.
Casey: Would you be able to describe the connection between Fort Dobbs and Bethabara during the war?
Jason: It’s kind of been a tricky question to pin down because there’s a big gap in the Moravian records because Adelaide Fries kind of selectively translated a lot of it. The first, however, interaction was between soldiers who were stationed out on the frontier but before the fort was built. There’s a neat passage on June 1, 1755 that says “three strangers came by whom we suspected of being deserters as they wore military clothing and equipment, but we took no notice of them but gave them food for which they asked. From there, the interactions are very sparse until the 1760s during the Cherokee War, Anglo-Cherokee War, excuse me. By 1760, the fort was supplying Bethabara with ammunition, and, of course, the fort was attacked, and news very quickly reached Bethabara which set about some panic there. About April of 1760, there were a bunch of frequent communications between the fort and Bethabara. Unfortunately, those letters don’t survive.
There was a lot of back and forth, and then, of course, North Carolina provincial soldiers were constantly through Bethabara and Bethania. Even some were offered to stay and help defend the towns, but Moravians being Moravians, of course, they declined. They didn’t want any more strangers than they already had. The last significant interaction between Fort Dobbs and Bethabara came in 1763 when a thousand pounds of lead was sent to Bethabara in exchange for pottery.
Maizie: Do you care to talk a little bit about the significance of Fort Dobbs within a larger historical context of the area?
Scott: The war itself, the French and Indian War and the Anglo-Cherokee War that comes out of it are significant worldwide. The French and Indian War becoming the Seven Years’ War in Europe really sets the stage for the British and the French to determine their empires in the second half of the 18th Century. The results that come out of those conflicts set the stage for the American Revolution that starts a little over a decade after the French and Indian War ends. More locally, the Anglo-Cherokee War proves to be incredibly destructive for the Cherokee people. Cherokee at the time of the conflict are predominantly living in the mountains of what is now North Carolina but also touching down into Georgia, South Carolina, and certainly Tennessee. In the military campaigns that the British and colonial troops end up launching against them end up destroying a total of 23 of their villages.
A huge amount of Cherokee territory in western North Carolina is ceded to the British at the end of the conflict, really effectively moving the frontier 70,80 miles to the west of Fort Dobbs overnight when the war begins, so it opens up a huge amount of western North Carolina to future settlement, for this influx of immigrants to continue coming to North Carolina to push their boundaries. They and their children eventually going over the mountains themselves. You know, for their part at Bethabara are affected. In large part, the construction of Salem as the principal town is delayed because of the French and Indian War, because of the Cherokee attacks going on along the Yadkin River. When that war comes to an end, for the Moravians they are able to pursue Zinzendorf’s plans to expand their territory in Wachovia.
Casey: We understand that Fort Dobbs has been reconstructed within the last few years. What practices are you using to tell the story of the fort?
Scott: The fort itself for a long time we just had an archaeological site preserved. Starting back in early 1900s, archaeology didn’t take place until the 1960s around the time Bethabara was being excavated. Actually, Stan South was the lead archaeologist who started the digs at Fort Dobbs as he was influential at Bethabara. The effort to rebuild the fort was a partnership between the state of North Carolina, which owns the property today, and a non-profit group, the Friends of Fort Dobbs, and after a long long time of fundraising and planning and designs, we were finally able to open the reconstruction in 2019. All together including the cellar, it’s almost an 8,000 square foot, three-story high timber building. It’s on the same location, the same footprint as the original fort. The site was totally cleared archaeologically first. We have it set up today as a full living history exhibit, so there’s no artifacts inside. There are very few ropes or anything like that. A visitor coming there can hopefully experience walking through the fort with a guided interpreter, like Jason does every day and does such a great job, being able to feel how the building, the temperature at any given time of the year. We don’t have heating or air conditioning. In non-Coronavirus times, they can pick up clothes, sit on the beds, really get a sense of what it was like to live inside of Fort Dobbs.
Jason: Along those lines, when we give tours of the fort rather than talk about it like an old house, we use the fort more as a prop to talk about the humans. It’s more about the human interaction and the individuals that were there rather than the stuff that’s necessarily in the fort. It’s a little bit different than a normal old house museum tour. Things like Scott said are interactive. When were in the storeroom for instance, rather than talk about the barrels of food as just barrels of food, we talk about the daily nutrition of soldiers, and the types of food that they ate, and what their diets are like. Trying to make it more tangible and real.
Casey: What is your favorite part about working at the fort?
Scott: Hm. For me it’s always been talking to visitors about the history. Like I said, I’ve been at the fort for a long time, and for a large portion of my time there, we had a hole in the ground. A former archaeological site to tell people about. Jason was involved during all those years as well. Like Jason just mentioned, talking about the stories of the people who were there was kind of our only way for a long time to connect with visitors. Try to make a hole in the ground interesting and try to make it relevant to people, and having the fort is a really good background and a great tool for us to have, but it’s talking to people. We have visitors on a daily basic who some people don’t know anything about the French and Indian War and you get to let them know about this incredibly important but understudied piece of world history that we have parts of here in the piedmont of North Carolina. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you get people – well Jason you had a tour of those little kids today. They’re like six, and they knew everything about the French and Indian War.
Jason: To me, there’s so many facets of what’s the best part. My favorite part of giving a tour is talking about the Anglo-Cherokee War, and I try to get tears, because it is a horribly tragic story. To get people to realize that the impacts are not something that’s super old and just ancient and disconnected. These things happened to people that are still here. You know, there’s these communities that still exist and in ways feel the impacts of that stuff that happened back then. Destruction, absolute destruction of the Cherokee Nation because of the Anglo-Cherokee War. They suffered, and I don’t know, making people realize that is pretty important.
Scott: It’s powerful. Yeah, when you can drive that home to people, and it’s a good point. The fort is cool. The guns are cool, but it’s a very tragic, dramatic human story that it was part of. The same history that happened at Bethabara. You know, being able to share all of that, the good and the bad, I think is really rewarding.
Casey: I’m not too familiar with the history of the fort other than what we’ve seen in the records, which as you’ve stated Jason isn’t a lot. What happened to the fort?
Jason: In February of 1764, the colony decided to abandon the fort because of western expansion. It was basically deemed useless cause it was no longer on the frontier. It was left to rot. By the time of the American Revolution, it’s actually described as rotting and collapsing, and by the early 1800s, 18-teens, it was pretty much gone. Locals came in and kind of salvaged all the useable materials. It’s estimated by the archaeologists that over 7,000 nails were used in just the roof of the original fort. In 50 years of archaeology, we’ve found 241.
Scott: They did a really good job stripping the place. The site itself is ultimately cleared for farm land, but in a way, I mean as much as the building was destroyed, we’re fortunate at least that those later farmers, we think they filled in, either purposely or by the action of the plow, they filled in a lot of the earthen features. There was a ditch that surrounded the wooden building. There was a cellar under the fort. There was a shaft of a well that was inside, and all those earthen features by being filled to the ground level to allow for plowing, they accidently preserved those shapes, those contours in the clay. Otherwise archaeologists would have had nothing but 241 nails to go off basically. Those are the only extent, actual parts of the fortification that could definitely point to yes the building stood right here and give us clues as to the layout of it. In the preservation story, the Daughters of the American Revolution were responsible for starting to preserve the site. It was just a cotton field in 1909. Some local women decided that it should be preserved and protected as part of their colonial past. If they hadn’t, I mean, our site today is surrounded by housing developments on both sides, so it’s good foresight that they had to protect that hilltop.
Jason: The other kind of fortunate thing of their purchasing that land in 1909 is that fact that plows at that time hadn’t been designed to cut deeper than about six inches.
Scott: Right, right.
Jason: So, that in and of itself, the early purchase of the grounds did a lot to preserve the archaeological context of all the materials.
Casey: That was around 250ish years ago, so it’s fascinating to see how so many years have passed, yet we’re still able to find the general location in which the fort stood and recreate.
Maizie: I love the whole reuse part of it because it’s like, part of me is oh, we wish it were still here, but another part of me is like that’s history right there. The fact that it was reused.
Maizie: We would like to thank Scott Douglas and Jason Melius from Fort Dobbs for joining us and giving us more insight into the history of Fort Dobbs. Let us know what you think of this week’s episode, and if you have any questions about this week’s episode, please email us or message us on our Instagram.
Announcer: This has been an episode of Moravian Mornings, a Historic Bethabara Park podcast. If you have any questions or would like our hosts to discuss certain topics, please email us at Moravianmornings@gmail.com or message us on our Instagram page, also titled Moravian Mornings. Thanks for listening. Auf Wiedersehen.
Records of the Moravians, Vol I (https://archive.org/details/recordsofthemora01frie/)
Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina (https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/)
On my Way to Work by Lobo Loco (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)