In Green Bank, at the home of Bob Sheets, there is a shoebox. Inside that shoebox is a collection of unassuming objects – buckles, buttons, bullets, ceramic fragments and more.
The newest object in the collection is a small oval piece of glass – smaller than a dime – which may seem insignificant to some, but for Sheets it expands the story of life at Fort Warwick, the colonial fort on his property.
Sheets, along with archeologists Drs. Steven and Kim McBride, has spent the past 12 years excavating the site of Fort Warwick in search of answers and artifacts.
During the Memorial Day weekend dig this past spring, Kim found the small oval glass fob which has a profile carved into it. This fob carries with it great significance, as the profile is that of King George III.
“It’s pretty neat because this particular piece has great historical significance,” Sheets said. “It has been examined by one of the curators at the new American Revolution Museum which is opening in April of 2017 in Philadelphia. It was supposedly an ornament on a gentleman’s watch fob that he would have had attached to his pocket watch. That makes a kind of interesting story because a watch was obviously a sign of some amount of wealth or significance and he had the jewel attached with it.”
Taking what they know about Fort Warwick – a fort built by the Virginia Militia where soldiers prepared to fight in revolutionary battles, as well as expand the colony of Virginia’s borders west – and adding what the stone implicates, the picture of Fort Warwick becomes a little clearer.
“You begin to paint a picture now of a frontier fort, but also a fort which was supporting and housing people that obviously had some wherewithall,” Sheets said. “They were established in their communities. They were politically aware. They were special people.”
The glass fob with an intaglio carving of King George III would have been made in Great Britain and brought to Fort Warwick by a man of wealth or stature. Because the fort was used by the militia for training, it could be argued the fob was owned by the Captain, George Matthews.
Matthews led the militia in battles against Native Americans, and so it is clear that at one time the fort was in service of the British monarchy.
“The colonial militia that built this fort was under the command of Earl of Dunmore John Murray, who was the governor of the colony of Virginia, serving at the auspices of the crown, so they were indeed in service of the British monarchy,” Sheets said. “They were about acquisition of property because Virginia at that point, in 1774, the western boundary was the top of the Alleghenies – Buffalo Mountain – that was it.”
Under order of Murray and the command of Matthews, the militia fought for expansion of the colony.
“They left here, they went down to Lewisburg, they joined up with Andrew Lewis, went over to Point Pleasant, fought the Shawnee at Point Pleasant and turned around and came back,” Sheets said. “Some people would say that that battle – there is an argument for saying that was really the first legitimate American military action because in the French and Indian War, which precedes that by ten years, all of the commands were led by British officers.”
While Fort Warwick was in service of the British monarchy, it was also in service of the colony of Virginia. It is possible there were individuals at the fort who no longer supported the crown.
“I’m sure there were issues because the people that came to the Appalachians were historically those people who wanted to get as far away from the British as they could,” Sheets said. “They were Irish. They were Scots, and they had had enough of monarchy. Coming here and having property that they could work, and where they could experience freedom outside of the control of some Earl or Duke -that was a pretty exciting time.”
The oval fob tells a story which connects the fort to Britain. When looking at other objects in Sheets’ shoebox, the story not only grows, it connects even more countries to the colonists who lived there.
“This came from Canton, China,” Sheets said, holding a fragment of a teacup. “Somebody had to import that. Somebody had to purchase it, and somebody had to get it here. It was quite a trip in the 1700s. Somebody wanted their tea in a proper cup. We found elements of teapots.
“They were bringing their culture with them,” he continued. “That, again, speaks to the humanity. I think the whole purpose of archeology is not to dig up little bits of pieces, it’s to try to take little bits and pieces that you’ve got and try to develop a narrative from them.”
Once that narrative is constructed, it is possible to follow individuals on their path during their time at Fort Warwick, and when they left to further their careers elsewhere.
One such individual was Captain George Matthews. Along with serving as captain at the fort, Matthews was a businessman and owner of Matthews Trading Post which was located in either Greenbrier or Pocahontas County.
“He led a very important flanking attack at Point Pleasant,” Sheets said. “Some would say that Matthews and his group of men in their action at Point Pleasant were responsible for Cornstalk’s either defeat or stalemate, depending on how you look at it. It scared the Indians enough that they retreated.”
Matthews went on to become an officer in the American Revolution, during which he was captured and spent time on a prison ship in Baltimore. After his release, he went to Georgia where he was elected governor. Later he was elected to the U.S. Senate and voted to ratify the Constitution.
Matthews returned to Georgia and was re-elected governor, but shortly thereafter, his political career took a nose dive due to his involvement in a controversial historical event.
“He was involved in the Trail of Tears, which was a land grab,” Sheets said. “Here he was, [Fort Warwick] was land grab number one because we’re going to push the Shawnee to Ohio. George Matthews is in Georgia, and they move the Cherokees which resulted in untold misery and death for those folks on the trail. In some circles, some would say, ‘well, I don’t think the Trail of Tears did it,’ but it became apparent that he was using his political position for private gain.”
Despite the controversy, Matthews was recruited by President Andrew Jackson to go to Florida and incite insurrection against the Spanish, which he did.
“He had it going and then people in Washington got cold feet,” Sheets explained. “They sent word to him that ‘you need to stop,’ and he wrote in his diary, ‘I am going to Washington to confront that man,’ talking about the President of the United States. He got to Richmond and died before he got to Washington.
“Very colorful, intriguing character who started here and then played a significant role in numerous American historical events,” Sheets concluded.
Over the past 12 years – beginning with metal detectors in 2004 before moving to excavations in 2005 – Fort Warwick has been the site of 51 features, or excavations. Each time, objects have been discovered.
The excavations will continue and thanks to grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council, Pocahontas County Historical Landmarks Commission and a donation from the Durbin Lions Club, the fort will once again be explored in spring 2017.
“[The Humanities Council] grant is the biggest grant we’ve ever gotten and that, combined with a $5,000 matching grant from Historical Landmarks and money from the Lions Club for student transportation or whatever we need for the students, will help with the next excavation,” Sheets said. “It will be at least a three segment excavation where we might do four days and then take a break, come back and do a weekend thing and then do another three days at some point.”
Sheets added there is a possibility the Fort Warwick excavation will be a part of the Cal Price Enrichment program through the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau again.
As long as they are able to receive grants, Sheets and the McBrides will continue to excavate and look for more parts of the fort’s story.
“The only reason this goes on is not for monetary gain,” Sheets said. “Kim and Steve both have a real passion and interest because they are both Greenbrier East graduates. They both grew up in White Sulphur and Lewisburg, so they’re interested in the local history of the upper Greenbrier, especially from the colonial period.”
The McBrides aren’t the only archeologists who are drawn back to the site again and again. A few years ago, a gentleman from Maine and one from Alaska made the trek to be a part of the excavation.
They were both former students of Kim McBride at the University of Kentucky, and were on their way to other events when they made pit stops at the fort.
One evening, as they sat around a campfire and shared stories, Sheets said he asked the men why they came back.
“One of them said, ‘because we always find stuff,’” Sheets said. “He said, ‘it’s pretty simple, Bob.’ He said, ‘you can be in archeology and you can dig around a lot – you won’t find too much.’ Whether it be this stuff [from Colonial times] or Native American stuff, we’re just polluted with it. We just have all sorts of things.”
Come next spring, it’s anyone’s guess what will be found and join the many artifacts in the shoebox.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org