There are many stories to be told of the earliest days of what is now West Virginia, and most have been told elsewhere already. But one story, which ties the origins of this region to the origins of the nation, deserves to be told more often. It involves a document which, while little known except to scholars, is nonetheless a key document in the early history of our nation, and its drafting and signing were witnessed by hundreds of men whose descendents still live in West Virginia today.
At the close of Lord Dunmore’s War, after the surrender of Cornstalk to Dunmore’s northern force of one thousand Virginia frontiersment, including a hundred militiamen from Pricketts Fort, and following the famous speech of defiance by Chief Logan, Dunmore’s battalions had gathered at Fort Gower on the Ohio to shore up the defenses of their location, and organize themselves prior to dismissal and the return journey home.
In the midst of these activities, word came from Philadelphia of a momentous event, the convening of the First Continental Congress in response to passage of the so-called “Intolerable Acts” by the British Parliament, and and the actions taken by the Congress in open defiance of the British Crown.
Still under the command of Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, who was widely known for his unswerving loyalty to the King, the news from Philadelphia put these independently-minded backwoods Virginians in rather a ticklish situation. Under oath and in the King’s pay, they were technically soldiers of the British Army.
Uncertain how events in Philadelphia might play out, it occured to them that they could find themselves under orders to quell an uprising of their own countrymen. Yet any objection they might raise could easily constitute treason. Most soldiers in their position would have kept their heads down and held their tongues.
But these were backwoods Virginians, many of whom had settled amid great danger west of the Alleghenies in open defiance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Among their number were many who were already famous as intrepid frontiersmen and others who were soon to gain fame as officers in the Revolution: Simon Kenton, the notorious Simon Girty, Michael Cresap, William Crawford, George Rogers Clark, Adam Stephen and Daniel Morgan. Such men were not easily intimidated.
They had no quarrel with Dunmore. In their view he had led them well, and had achieved his objectives admirably, in short order and with little fuss. And as matters stood, they still had no quarrel with the Crown. But should Revolution break out, they wished to state their loyalties at the outset, in plain terms.
And so it was that the officers of Dunmore’s force, including Captain Morgan of Pricketts Fort, convened, deliberated and passed the following resolution:
“GENTLEMEN:-Having now concluded the campaign, by the assistance of Providence, with honor and advantage to the colony and ourselves, it only remains that we should give our country the strongest assurance that we are ready, at all times, to the utmost of our power, to maintain and defend her just rights and privileges. We have lived about three months in the woods without any intelligence from Boston, or from the delegates at Philadelphia. It is possible, from the groundless reports of designing men, that our countrymen may be jealous of the use such a body would make of arms in their hands at this critical juncture. That we are a respectable body is certain, when it is considered that we can live weeks without bread or salt; that we can sleep in the open air without any covering but that of the canopy of heaven; and that our men can march and shoot with any in the known world. Blessed with these talents, let us solemnly engage to one another, and our country in particular, that we will use them to no purpose but for the honor and advantage of America in general, and of Virginia in particular. It behooves us then, for the satisfaction of our country, that we should give them our real sentiments, by way of resolves, at this very alarming crisis.
“Whereupon the meeting made choice of a committee to draw up and prepare resolves for their consideration, who immediately withdrew, and after some time spent therein, reported that they had agreed to and prepared the following resolves, which were read, maturely considered and, agreed to, nemine contradicente, by the meeting, and ordered to be published in the Virginia Gazette:
“Resolved, That we will bear the most faithful allegiance to His Majesty, King George the Third, whilst His Majesty delights to reign over a brave and free people; that we will, at the expense of life, and everything dear and valuable, exert ourselves in support of his crown, and the dignity of the British Empire. But as the love of liberty, and attachment to the real interests and just rights of America outweigh every other consideration, we resolve that we will exert every power within us for the defense of American liberty, and for the support of her just rights and privileges; not in any precipitate, riotous or tumultuous manner, but when regularly called forth by the unanimous voice of our countrymen.
“Resolved, That we entertain the greatest respect for His Excellency, the Right Honorable Lord Dunmore, who commanded the expedition against the Shawnese; and who, we are confident, underwent the great fatigue of this singular campaign from no other motive than the true interest of this country.
“Signed by order and in behalf of the whole corps, “BENJAMIN ASHBY, Clerk.”
This document has been described by one historian as the “first declaration of independence”, and it was made public six months before the first shot was fired at Concord and a year and a half before Jefferson’s Declaration. In fact, it is quite probable that Jefferson knew of this earlier declaration, as he had followed the events surrounding Logan and Dunmore’s War with close attention, and corresponded with at least one of the participants, George Rogers Clark. One cannot help but wonder whether — as he sat down to compose his own great Declaration which would found the nation, and was considering precedents and antecedents upon which to base his principals and his rhetoric – whether he thought back to his fellow Virginians in their frontier outpost on the Ohio a year and a half earlier, responding to the first distant rumblings of dissent by penning their brave and now all-but-forgotten resolution.