Fort Harrison 
Daniel Harrison House, circa 1749

Living in the Backcountry

      When the Harrison family arrived in old Augusta County around  1738 they were one of the first groups of settlers to take ownership of land in the area.Their journey through Thornton's Gap (on present day Skyline Drive) brought them into the Page Valley (Luray) and on to the Shenandoah Valley. They were entering the Virginia backcountry - usually described as the land west of the Blue Ridge and running as far west as settlers progressed in the 1700's.       
        The Harrisons. like many other English, German, and Scots-Irish families, were anxious to claim land in the promising fertile fields of the great valley. 
       Colonial governments encouraged settlements to provide lands for newcomers, but also so these communities could act as a barrier between the more populated eastern region of the colony and the Indians and French to the west of the Alleghany mountains.
        The Shawnee Indians had left the region by the 1750's and crossed the Alleghanies, leaving the lands open for settlement, at least in the minds of the newcomers.

     Today we might look forward to milder weather during the winter season. These warmer temperatures are a welcome break from the cold, darker days of winter. 
     If you were living in the Virginia backcountry of the mid to late 1700's - you would have a much different outlook on the season called Indian Summer.
     Joseph Doddridge, living on the frontier when he was about 13 years old, later wrote this first person account of what Indian Summer meant in his time...

​     "As connected with the history of the Indian wars of the western country, it may not be amiss to give an explanation of the term "Indian Summer"
       A backwoodsman seldom hears this expression without feeling a chill of horror, because it brings to his mind the painful recollections of its original application.
       '...during the long continued Indian wars sustained by the first settlers of the west, they enjoyed no peace excepting in the winter season, when, owing to the severity of the weather, the Indians were unable to make their excursions into the settlements. The onset of winter was  therefore hailed as a jubilee by the early inhabitants of the country, who,throughout the spring and early part of the fall, has been cooped up in their little uncomfortable forts, and subjected to all the distress of the Indian wars.
       "At the approach of winter, therefore, all the farmers, excepting the owner of the fort, removed to their cabins on their farms...All was bustle and hilarity in preparing for winter, by gathering in the corn, digging potatoes,fattening hogs, and repairing the cabins. To our forefathers the gloomy months of winter were more pleasant than the zephyrs and the flowers of May."
       " It , however, sometimes happened, after the apparent onset of winter, the weather became warm, the smoky time commenced, and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian Summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare. ...the melting of the snow...and the warmth of the sun chilled every heart with horror. The apprehension of another visit from the Indians, and of being driven back to the detested fort, was painful in the highest degree..."

         What is Indian Summer?
(answered by Joseph Doddridge in his book "Notes on the Settlement..." published 1912.)
    In the backcountry, contact with the outside world depended on traveling an important and single thoroughfare - the Indian Path - later called the Great Wagon Road. This route - often no more than a cleared path wide enough for a man to pass - ran north and south through the valley all the way to the Carolinas. 
What was life like in the backcountry?
    A farmer on the frontier chose land for its future fertility He was generally not concerned about living near other people. In fact, he might have preferred to be on his own with his family. But this isolation took its toll - life in the beautiful wilderness of the Valley could be lonely as well as dangerous.

      Raiding by the Indians forced settlers in remote areas to band together for protection. In some areas, forts such as Fort Loudoun in Winchester, were built to  protect the larger population. In more distant regions, the most substantial houses - usually built of native limestone - served as a place of shelter in the event of attack. Fort Harrison in present day Dayton, near Harrisonburg, was such a house. 
      When people gathered to seek shelter it was called "forting up". If the raids were frequent people could be "forted" for weeks - sometimes longer. This could mean neglect of their crops and often the loss of livestock and supplies.If the Indian threat lessened, the families might return home, but during the months from April through to October, there was always the chance of attack. 

        Joseph Doddridge gives this account of what it was like to flee to a fort or fort house for refuge.

      "I well remember that, when a little boy, the family were sometimes waked up in the dead of night by an express with a report that the Indians were at hand.The express came softly to the door, or back window, and by a gentle tapping waked the family. This was easily done, as an habitual fear made us ever watchful and sensible to the slightest alarm. The whole family was instantly in motion. My father seized his gun and other implements of war. My stepmother waked up and dressed the children as well as she could, and being myself the oldest of the children I had to take my share of the burdens to be carried to the fort. Besides the little children we caught up what articles of clothing and provision we could get hold of in the dark, for we durst not light a candle or stir the fire. All this was done with the utmost dispatch and the silence of death. The greatest care was taken not to awaken the youngest child. To the rest it was enough to say Indian and not a whimper was heard afterwards. Thus it often happened that the whole number of families belonging to a fort who were in the evening at their homes were all in their little fortress before the dawn of the next morning. In the course of the succeeding day their household furniture was brought in by parties of the men under arms."