Sunday, October 27, 2013

FORT AMANDA: PICNICKING BY THE GRAVEYARD


Artist's conception of Ft. Amanda 1812-1815 (Courtesy Ohio Historical Society)
When I was growing up in rural Ohio, in the 1950s and ‘60s, we, like a lot of other Midwestern families back then, liked going on picnics. Our major family reunions on both sides back then were almost always picnics, some held in places a couple of hours away or more by car.
On these occasions, my mother, grandmothers and aunts would spend the night before and the early morning preparing some of their tastiest dishes to take along and share and no one skimped on what they brought, so that such outings turned out to be veritable gastronomic events of Viking feast-like proportions: Picnic baskets, covered dishes, grocery sacks and dessert carriers arrived heavy-laden with finger-lickin’ pan-fried chicken, succulent baked ham, cheesy scalloped potatoes, sweet-and-sour cole slaw, deviled and pickled eggs, macaroni and relish salad, potato salad, three-bean salad, garden-fresh sliced tomatoes, baked beans with franks, potato and corn chips, syrupy fruit salad, marshmallowy heavenly hash, devil’s food brownies, white cake with creamy white or fudgy chocolate frosting, rhubarb pie, lemon merengue pie, chocolate merengue pie, Dutch apple pie, cherry pie, peach pie...just about any delicious thing you could think of, accompanied by gallon Thermos jugs of strong hot coffee, iced tea, lemonade and several flavors of Kool-Aid.
The farthest we went, and on several occasions, was with my mother’s family to the Indiana State Park, an exciting place that featured sprawling woodlands, a small herd of bison, a tall, scary smoke-watch tower that you could climb if you had the nerve, and lots of trails to hike near the picnic grounds. But we also went to places like the campgrounds at Lake Loramie or Sidney’s hilly, wooded city park (both in Shelby County where my mother had lived as a little girl), to Farout Park in the industrial city of Lima 15 miles north of our town, where my father had grown up, to nearby Grand Lake Saint Marys, or to any of a number of locations that my Grandfather Newland decided were halfway points between wherever my father’s youngest brother—a Methodist minister—was posted and Wapakoneta, where the rest of us lived.
But the location where most of our family picnics took place, the one we went to on the spur of the moment, when somebody said, “Hey, let’s meet for a picnic this Sunday,” or “It’s such nice fall weather...How about a weenie roast?” was always Fort Amanda.
Now, what might seem odd about this to anyone not from our area is that Fort Amanda is best known for being a designated National Cemetery, dating back to the War of 1812. At some point, somebody decided to declare the site a State Park and, later on, somebody else thought, as Ohioans are wont to do, that the grounds adjacent to the cemetery would make a good place to have a few picnic tables and grills, and then a shelter house and hand-pump—to bring up water so sulfurous that the rotten egg smell was enough to knock you down—were added, and an outhouse for women and another one for men, and suddenly, next to the graveyard, was Fort Amanda Memorial Park.
Ft. Amanda National Cemetery
Oddly enough, despite being sort of the backyard to a cemetery, Fort Amanda isn’t a depressing place at all. Or at least it never seemed so to us. Located nine miles northwest of my home town, you get there along lovely State Route 198, a two-lane road that wends its way through some slightly rolling, rural, West Central Ohio countryside. Some of what were once green and fertile farms when I was a boy have been sold off piece by piece to the wealthier members of what has become, essentially, a bedroom community—since the super highway, a more urban society and corporate farming carried away jobs, local trade and our small-town culture to other places—to build their sprawling country-squire dream homes. But much of the landscape still looks a great deal as it did when I was young and I take great pleasure in driving that road whenever I’m back for a visit.
Picnic area Ft. Amanda Memorial Park
The park and cemetery have been carved out of the once vast Ohio woodlands, from the times before our Scots-Irish and German ancestors immigrated and leveled the forest to make way for farming. So going to Fort Amanda is a little like cupping your hands, blinder-style, around your eyes, gazing in through the window of an intricate dollhouse or toy train station and trying to imagine what it would be like to actually go in there and walk around. Except that in this case, what you’re looking at through the wrong end of your impromptu telescope, is a tiny piece of Ohio that probably looks quite a bit like it did two hundred years ago, when the land was just first partially cleared to build the fort. Gently rolling woodland peopled with hickory, oak, maple and sycamore, among other forest species, a deep gorge cut by the tawny waters of the Auglaize River, on which the fort was built—and which also runs through the center of our town—and its accompanying bluffs that afford picnickers timeless, bucolic views from the picnic grounds.
Natural woodlands along the Auglaize
To us, this wooded paradise in the midst of Ohio farm country was so familiar that, despite our playtime fantasies, it was hard to believe that Fort Amanda had ever been as important as it was in American history, but it indeed had a key purpose in the Early American struggle to maintain US independence. The defeat of American General William Hull at Fort Detroit had already blasted a major hole in US defenses against the British and Native American onslaught in the War of 1812, and now most of the Michigan Territory had fallen into enemy hands. The neighboring Ohio Territory was thus left vulnerable to continuing British expansion.
Black Swamp Map http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en
American commander, General William Henry Harrison, realized that the only hope of containing the British advantage and, hopefully, winning the war would be to ensure that their edge didn’t extend beyond the Michigan border. Having no federal troop strength in the area, he called up the Ohio and Kentucky militias to defend the Ohio Territory. But Nature presented him with a formidable enemy of its own: the Great Black Swamp, a 25-mile-wide, 100-mile-long strip of glacial marshland in Northwestern Ohio that lay in the former bed of an ancient precursor to Great Lake Erie. Trying to move men, animals, weaponry and supplies through that difficult terrain, Harrison knew, would be logistical and strategic suicide. So he decided instead to make use of barges on a Western Ohio supply route formed by two rivers: the Saint Marys and the Auglaize, both of which flow generally north, about a hundred miles toward Lake Erie.
In November of 1812, General Harrison mapped out a spot in West-Central Ohio for the establishment of a supply depot on the high western bank of the Auglaize—where an Ottawa village had once stood—and sent orders to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Pogue of the Kentucky Mounted Militia, and a veteran of the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, to build a frontier fortress at that site. Pogue and his men complied immediately, swiftly erecting the fortress in timber-stockade style. They built four two-storey blockhouses at the corners of a square area measuring about 160 feet by 160 feet and connected them with 11-foot-tall timber palisades all around the perimeter. Colonel Pogue decided to christen the finished fort “Amanda”, after his 12-year-old daughter, Hannah Amanda Pogue.
In February of 1813, a company of Ohio militiamen arrived to re-garrison the new fort, under the command of Captain Thompson Ward. Ward and his men would almost immediately expand the installations to handle an ever-increasing flow of men and goods that included not only victuals, munitions and whiskey, but also livestock and other bulk rations to help make the fort a sustainable source of food for combat troops.  Fort Amanda thus was to become a key debarkation destination for men and supplies being sent north in the American thrust to recapture Fort Detroit in Michigan.
Painting by Edward Percy Moran depicting Perry's crossing
to the USS Niagara after the Lawrence was shot out from under him.
In early September of that year, a fleet of nine vessels of the fledgling United States Navy, under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, engaged six ships of the British Royal Navy at Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie off the coast of the Ohio Territory. The superior firepower of the British ships placed Perry at a disadvantage at the onset of the battle and his flagship, the USS Lawrence, was hammered to pieces by the British guns. But as it was adrift and sinking, he and the handful of still able men aboard set off a final salvo of cannon fire before abandoning ship. What was left of his crew rowed Perry in a small boat through heavy cannon fire to the USS Niagara, from where he directed the rest of the naval battle. Far from retreating or surrendering as the British commander expected, Perry ordered his subordinate officers to move American schooners closer to the battle and then, he himself sailed the Niagara into the breach, pounding the British vessels with gunfire at close range until they were disabled and forced to surrender, with Perry ultimately capturing them for the US Navy. He then sent his now famous message to General Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”  
This decisive battle cut main supply lines to the British troops and their coalition of Native American allies under Chief Tecumseh at Detroit. With the US in control of Lake Erie until the end of the war, and with Americans being supplied from the south through outposts like Fort Amanda, General Harrison was eventually able to rout the British and their Native allies, recovering Detroit and then pursuing the fleeing enemy to a final showdown known as The Battle of Thames, where Tecumseh was killed and his Native coalition dismembered.
Ft. Amanda Monument
Fort Amanda remained active until the end of the war in 1814 (the final battle was actually fought in New Orleans—with victory going to General Andrew Jackson—in January of 1815). Troops abandoned the frontier fort in 1815, but it immediately became an outpost favored by settlers who moved into the area following the war.     
When my sister, brother, cousins and I were kids, the place seemed huge and mysterious to us. Now when I see it, I realize how tiny it is—a scant few acres of what remains of primitive Ohio. But back then, for us, it was replete with the echoes of history, and although our parents didn’t know a great deal of its background, the little that they told us filled our heads with fantasies about the Native Americans who had originally lived there, the French hunters and trappers who had frequented the region and gave our river its name (loosely translated as muddy waters), and the first US settlers to push west into the Ohio Territory from the frontiers of the original thirteen American states.
We imagined the soldiers there manning the fort, dominating the high ground and fighting off the British troops and Indians who tried to attack them from the opposite bank of the river below, pretending we were them as we gathered around the Fort Amanda monument as if it were the fort itself, a monolith in the midst of open country that was a magical place in which we were invulnerable to enemy fire. While our mothers were back in the picnic area, busy setting the tables for lunch, my cousin Greg, who was my same age and my closest friend—and who could climb just about anything from the tallest trees to light and telephone poles—would grapple his way up the base of the monument and then shinny up its tall obelisk, pretending he was the sentry, and telling us when the enemy was drawing near, so that we could open fire on them. Munitions were always short in our fantasies and we had to make every shot count. “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes,” was the standing order for an entire generation of Golden-Age-Hollywood movie-goers.
But since both Greg and I had Native American blood flowing in our veins as well (both on our mothers’ sides) we also, in some renegade corner of our minds, understood the rage of the Indians as their territories were wrested from them by the white man, so we would also sometimes pretend to be Shawnee or Ottawa braves. We sheltered in the trunks of two huge hollow trees near the river (Greg was sure Indians really had lived in those trees, “since that’s what they did when they didn’t have a teepee,” and it was exciting to believe he was right and that we were where some aboriginal ancestor of ours had huddled before us, despite the fact that our mothers warned us that the only things huddling there were maybe black widow spiders).
On those days I envied Greg his dark skin, straight black hair, brown eyes and slight build as we tried to “be quiet as Indians” hiking through the woods and sneaking up the steep slopes to make a surprise appearance in the picnic areas, where our mothers were calling us for lunch. I, with my German frame and light skin, eyes and hair, as well as my natural lack of physical grace, was no match for him when it came to claiming our Native heritage.
After lunch there was also always a walk with the adults through the cemetery, to peruse the inscriptions on the nineteenth-century eroded gravestones, before crossing a wooden bridge—its timbers smelling in summer of the acrid tar with which they were preserved— over a ravine, leading to the Fort Amanda monument on the site of the old fort. But not without a stop at the grave, just over the bridge, of Captain Edward Dawson, which lay within a wrought iron fence, separate from the cemetery proper. Legend had it that the captain had been off on a sort of nature hike outside the stockade, picking grapes from some of the wild vines that still formed part of the forest thicket when we were children, when he was killed by Native archers who spotted him from the other side of the river. It chilled us to read the inscription on his headstone: Captain Edward Dawson—Murded by Indians.

Up by the monument itself, we were ever-fascinated by a heavy, round, concrete cover, which, our fathers conjectured, was probably the entrance to an old munitions magazine where black powder and other military supplies had been kept. I have little doubt that if it hadn’t been as large and impenetrably heavy as it was, we boys would have found a way to move it aside and find out what secrets it was hiding. As it was, we could only speculate that, if there were only some way to get down there, we would surely find old muskets, uniforms or cavalry sabers. Or at the very least, some telling sign of the soldiers who had passed this way a century and a half before us.
On a recent trip back to Ohio, I walked the grounds at Fort Amanda again. It was a weekday and I was alone. It was a pleasant, personal and nostalgic experience. Now, I was accompanied not only by the ghosts of the soldiers who had manned the fort in 1812 and ‘13, or of the ones who here ended their days and are buried, but also by the remembrance of loved ones who have long-since died and with whom I had first come here so long ago on pleasant summer and autumn outings.

I can see it now for what it is. A small, quiet place for a pleasant picnic, an almost forgotten National Cemetery to commemorate the final stage of the struggle for American independence that had begun three and a half decades before, a short hike through the hilly, wooded terrain of primitive Ohio, a tiny spot on the map, maintained by the efforts of the Ohio Historical Society that few tourists are ever likely to see.
But for me it will always be a venue that nurtured my childhood fantasies and a place where my family—both immediate and extended—shared some precious, happy days.                           

10 comments:

John Sprague said...

This brings back many memories, Dan. As I was reading it, I remembered there being a tree with a large hollow space in the trunk. Well, at least it seemed large then. My sister and I used to hide in it, as we were certain Indians had many years before.

Dan Newland said...

It was such an adventure-filled place for kids, John.Thanks for sharing your memory of it.

Haydee said...

Beatiful stroll down memory lane...

Dan Newland said...

Reader (and writer) Judie Gale writes: Dan I loved the piece on Ft. Amanda, I felt as though I was attending your family's picnic. It is so ironic how all of the food was exactly as ours. Is that a Wapakoneta thing? I used to take my son there to do homework, it was our outdoor classroom as I would try anything to keep him interested. Unfortunately didn't pack a picnic lunch but stopped at McD's to get him a Happy Meal and me a salad. Many times we were alone out there bundled up doing homework. When my family would go in the 60's my older siblings were allowed to explore, slide down the many ravines and gullies and would always comeback with arrow heads. In later years there were none to be found and the banks of the Auglaize seem to be washing away and a lot of the woods is eroded. I often wonder how much will be there in the next fifty years. I agree, there are many spirits there, you can feel them but I too love that place.

Bob Adams said...

What wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dan Newland said...

Hey Bob, thanks for reading me!

Nancy Brown Supler said...

Dan, i was there this Fall about 2 weeks after you were. As I was growing up in Wapakoneta Fort Amanda was the only history around Auglaize County of which I knew. Now I live in Virginia the midst of The Civil War, War of 1812, The Revolution, and Colonial History.
But inspired by that little bit of real history we toured the War of 1812 sites in Maryland and the District of Columbia and the the line of 1812 forts up the Ohio/ Indiana border last year. This year we have toured the site of the Potomac River blockade, revisited Fort Amanda, Fort Meigs, and took the ferry out to Put-in-Bay. Then we found an obscure ferry from Sandusky to Canada via Pelee Island and visited Canadian sites from the War of 1812. Delighted to find some other people who love and value Fort Amanda. Love your writing...let us read more.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks so much for your kind comments, Nancy. Imagine how extraordinary if our paths had crossed at Ft. Amanda! I'm working on a blog right now about Grand Lake St. Marys and the Miami-Erie Canal that I think you'll enjoy. Hope to publish it between today, Nov. 17, and tomorrow. Best wishes.

mikebakeoh said...

The heavy cover you mentioned covers the old original well that was within the fort.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Mike!