History Links

Bloody Spring attack -- Pennsylvania Militia killed by Indians

Sunbury wasn't here 250 years ago. Instead, the remains of a small Indian settlement named Shamokin stood in the area of the North Fourth Street recreation complex.

A contingent of militia had built a fort closer to the river, and on Aug. 29, 1756, a soldier named James Pattin, who was guarding some cattle grazing nearby, went to a spring at the foot of the hill to get a drink. He was attacked and killed by Indian warriors and fell into the spring, his blood mingling with the water. The spring was ever after known as "the Bloody Spring."

On Sunday afternoon, John Moore, a Northumberland historian, and R.B. Swift, of Grantham, described events that led to that attack, the construction of Fort Augusta at Sunbury as well as the wider story of the war on this side of the ocean that reflected a larger war in Europe.

In 1756, this was the very edge of civilization, and a war between English settlers, Indians and the French had raged for more than a year. The only English presence in the area was a small Moravian mission, probably near the present day Knight-Celotex plant on North Front Street.

As the winter of 1755-56 came to an end, Mr. Moore related, rumors abounded that the French and their Iroquois allies were planning to come down the west branch of the Susquehanna River and build a fort where the two branches of the river met.

To counter this threat, Gov. Morris ordered the Pennsylvania militia to build a fort on the east side of the river.

About 400 militiamen, along with 30 cattle and a dozen women, left Harris' Ferry, now Harrisburg, and made their way north along the Susquehanna.

"There were no roads," Mr. Moore told about 25 people clustered in a picnic pavilion near Fort Discovery as persistent rain came down. "The river was the road."

Mr. Moore described how the soldiers built boats to haul supplies north and how they made their way through the wilderness, knowing all along that Indians were probably watching them from the hills along the river.

About halfway to their destination, they stopped and constructed Fort Halifax as a supply depot.

They finally arrived at Shamokin at the end of May, 1756, and began construction of a stockade of logs 204 by 204 feet. The cattle they had brought along were set to graze in the area of Fort Discovery playground.

It took two months to build the fort, Mr. Moore said, and it was a tedious project, involving digging ditches, cutting trees and similar hard work.

"It was very hot that summer, and by August, they were running out of supplies," he said. "Not only food, but also powder for the cannons and guns."

On that fateful August 29, two soldiers decided to pick some plums from a tree barely within sight of the fort. They walked from the fort toward the tree, and Indians watching them from the hillside where Chief Shikellamy Elementary School now sits decided to cut the men off from the fort and capture or kill them.

As the Indians made their move, however, James Pattin wandered over to the spring for a drink, interrupting the attack. He was attacked and killed, and the noise of the attack alerted the two soldiers, who managed to elude the Indians and get back to the fort safely.

According to Mr. Moore, the area around Fort Discovery probably looked a lot different.

"There were small hills and clumps of trees," he said.

The spring still exists today, just off Memorial Drive near the tennis courts. The property from which it flows is owned by the Shikellamy School District, and the water runs beneath Memorial Drive. A state historic site marker is nearby.

Mr. Swift, Harrisburg reporter for Ottaway News Service, which owns the Daily Item, added to Mr. Moore's detailed account of the encounter at the Bloody Spring by providing the larger picture. He has written a book about forts built during the French and Indian War and has visited many of the locations.

The British had been badly defeated in 1755 when Gen. Edward Braddock and many of his troops were ambushed near present-day Pittsburgh and annihilated. Following that defeat, a number of Indian attacks on the frontier occurred, including one at Penns Creek, and the few white settlers fled for their lives.

"Not only the settlers left," Mr. Swift said. "The Indians moved away from the frontier areas, too, since they were afraid the settlers would attack their villages."

That's why Shamokin was abandoned when the Pennsylvania militiamen arrived in 1756. The Indians burned their homes before they left, a sure sign they didn't plan to return, he said.

Mr. Swift said there were rumors that the French were coming down the West Branch of the Susquehanna to attack Fort Augusta, but it never happened.

"There were lots of raids and skirmishes, but none in this area," he said.

On July 30, 1756, Fort Granville near Lewistown was attacked and burned by Indians and French, the closest any hostile action came to this region.

However, it wasn't until 1758 that British and American forces were able to defeat the French and drive them out of Pennsylvania for good.

Located about one-half mile from Fort Augusta is another spot of historic interest which still remains today, called "The Bloody Spring." The incident that gave this name to the spring shows what constant danger the forts were in, for they all were in like danger. Over this spring grew a plum tree and one day while the plums were ripe Colonel Miles and one of the lieutenants from the fort took a walk to this tree to gather some plums. While they were there a party of Indians lay concealed in a thicket nearby and managed to get themselves almost between the two soldiers and the fort. Just then another soldier came to the spring for a drink. The Indians were in danger of being discovered, so fired at and killed the third soldier. Colonel Miles and the lieutenant took the chance and got back to the fort in much less time than it took them to walk out to the spring. The rescuing party from the fort found the soldier scalped and his blood trickling into the spring, thus giving it its name.

The Bloody Spring