Chapter V
Gibson's Powder Exploit


When the Indian outbreak began, in the spring of 1777, the borderers found themselves in a desperate situation, because of the lack of powder. In those days, the few gunpowder factories in the colonies were all near the seaboard, and the supply for the settlers in Western Pennsylvania was carried by pack horses, in small quantities, over the mountains. It commanded a high price at Ft. Pitt, and was usually paid for with furs. Indian hostilities closed the fur trade, and made it impossible for the traders to buy powder, save on credit. This, however, was not the chief reason for the shortage. The Revolution caused a demand in the East for more powder than the factories could produce, and none could be spared for the country beyond the mountains.

To be sure, each settler kept a small stock for his own use in hunting, but in all the region around Fort Pitt there was no supply to meet the emergency of an Indian war.

The savages began to break in at many places, striking the isolated cabins, burning, murdering and pillaging. The best method of defending the scattered settlements was to organize companies of rangers, to patrol the course of the Allegheny and Ohio, and to pursue the bands of Indian marauders. Several such companies were formed, but without gunpowder they could render little service.

For a few weeks the frontier was almost helpless, but at the very verge of the crisis it was relieved by a daring exploit accomplished by a band of hardy pioneers, led by Captain George Gibson and Lieutenant William Linn. These bold adventurers descended the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, bought powder from the Spanish government, and successfully returned with it to Fort Pitt. This achievement has received little attention from the historians of the frontier days.

George Gibson was the son of a Lancaster tavern keeper. He had been engaged in the fur trade with his brother John at Pittsburg. In his youth he had made several voyages at sea, and he had traveled much in the Indian country. William Linn was a Marylander, who had served with Braddock as a scout and afterward settled on the Monongahela river, on the site of Fayette City. He was a farmer and a skillful hunter. He served in the Dunmore war under Major Angus McDonald and was wounded in the shoulder in a fight with the Shawnees at Wapatomika. These men were of sterling stock. A son of George Gibson became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and a grandson of William Linn became United States senator from Missouri.(1)

At the very beginning of the Revolution Gibson and Linn raised a company of young men about Pittsburg and along the Monongahela valley and entered the service of Virginia. The company marched to the Virginia seaboard, and its members so distinguished themselves for fierce valor in two conflicts with the British and tones under Dunmore that they were called "Gibson's Lambs."

They were soon sent back to the Monongahela valley, for frontier defense, and the alert and vigorous government of Virginia commissioned Gibson and Linn to undertake the hazardous journey to New Orleans.

Fifteen of Gibson's Lambs-the hardiest and the bravest-were selected to accompany the two officers. Flatboats were built at Pittsburg and the voyagers set forth on Friday, July 19, 1776. They had barely time, before their departure, to learn of the Declaration of Independence.

At that time a voyage down the Ohio was extremely dangerous. The lower river was closely watched by savages. Shawnees, Miamies and Wabash Indians were already at war with the Kentucky settlements. If information of the enterprise should reach the British officers at the western posts, special endeavors would be made to intercept and destroy or capture the adventurers. The Lambs left behind them all evidences that they were soldiers. They retained their rifles, tomahawks and knives, but they were clad coarsely as boatmen or traders. Even at Pittsburg the nature of their errand was kept secret, for that frontier post was beset by tory spies. It was given out that the party was going down the river on a trading venture.

Gibson's band was both vigilant and fortunate. It passed several parties of refugees, fleeing to Fort Pitt from the Indian ravages in Kentucky. Bands of savages were all along the river, yet Gibson's barges passed unscathed. At Limestone (now Maysville, Ky.), Lieutenant Linn and Sergeant Lawrence Harrison took to the shore, and made an overland journey through Kentucky to the falls of the Ohio (now Louisville), where the barges waited for them. Both were desirous of spying out good land, and Linn afterward became a Kentucky settler. In the Kentucky woods they met John Smith, a friend, who had been hunting land, but was then on his homeward journey toward Peter's creek, on the Monongahela. Him they persuaded to accompany the expedition. The entire river voyage was made in safety, the British post at Natchez was passed in the night, and the powder hunters arrived at New Orleans in about five weeks.

Louisiana was then a Spanish province, under the governorship of Don Louis de Unzaga. Captain Gibson bore letters of commendation and credit to Oliver Pollock and other American merchants living in New Orleans. Pollock, a Philadelphian of wealth, had great influence with the Spanish authorities, and through him the negotiations for the gunpowder were conducted. Spain was at peace with Great Britain, but was ready to give secret aid to the Americans for the mere sake of weakening her traditional British enemy.

English agents in New Orleans discovered the arrival of Gibson's party, and, suspecting that their errand was to obtain munitions of war, complained to the Spanish officers that rebels against the British government were in the city. Captain Gibson was therefore arrested and lodged in a Spanish prison, where he was treated with the greatest consideration. While he was locked up Oliver Pollock secured the powder and secreted it in his warehouse. The purchase amounted to 12,000 pounds, at a cost of $i,800.

The powder was divided into two portions. Three thousand pounds of it was packed in boxes, marked falsely as merchandise of various kinds, and quietly conveyed to a sailing vessel bound by way of the gulf and ocean to PhiIadelphia. On the night when this ship sailed Captain Gibson "escaped" from his prison, got on board the vessel and accompanied the precious powder safely to its destination.

The greater portion of the gunpowder, 9,000 pounds, being intended for the western frontier, was turned over to the care of Lieutenant Linn. It was in half casks, each containing about sixty pounds. These casks were smuggled by night to the barges, tied up in a secluded place in the river above the city.

Lieutenant Linn hired more than a score of extra boatmen, most of them Americans, and on September 22, 1776, the little flotilla got away without discovery, and began its journey up the Mississippi. The ascent of the rivers was slow and toilsome, occupying more than seven months. At the falls of the Ohio it was necessary to unload the cargoes and to carry the heavy casks to the head of the rapids. The barges were dragged up with heavy ropes and reladen. Several times ice forced the expedition to tie up, and many hardships were endured before the return of the spring weather. On May 2, 1777, Lieutenant Linn arrived at the little settlement of Wheeling, where Fort Henry had been erected.

There he turned over his precious cargo to David Shepherd, county lieutenant of the newly erected Ohio county, Virginia.(2)

On the arrival of Gibson at Philadelphia, he communicated to the Virginia authorities the information that Linn was returning with his cargo by river. Orders were at once sent to Fort Pitt for the raising of a body of ioo militia to descend the Ohio and meet the expedition. The Ohio was considered the most dangerous part of the journey, and it owes feared that Linn might be set upon and overwhelmed by savages. The officers directed to raise the relief force were so tardy in their work, that they were hardly yet ready to start when Linn's arrival at Wheeling was announced. Long as the journey was, it had been made by Linn more quickly than had been reckoned on by the frontier officers.

Lieutenant Linn's responsibility ended at Wheeling. County Lieutenant Shepherd there took charge of the powder and conveyed it, under heavy guard, to Fort Pitt, where it was given into the care of Colonel William Crawford, of the Thirteenth Virginia, and was stored in the brick-vaulted magazine of the fort. Its safe arrival was the subject of general rejoicing, and nothing was too good for Lieutenant Linn and his fearless Lambs.

The action of Virginia in this affair was liberal and patriotic. The powder had been paid for by her government and procured by her soldiers, but it was not held for her exclusive use. The receipt for it, given by Colonel Crawford, states that it was "for the use of the continent." Portions of it were distributed to the frontier rangers in the neighborhood of Fort Pitt and to the two regiments being mustered in Southwestern Pennsylvania for the continental service. It was from this stock that Colonel George Rogers Clark drew his supply, in the spring of 1778, for his famous and successful expedition to the Illinois country.

George Gibson was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Virginia service and William Linn was made a captain, in command of the gallant Lambs. To each officer the Virginia Legislature made a grant of money in addition to the regular pay.

Both of these men did other gallant service during the Revolution, and both were killed by Indians. Linn made a settlement about ten miles- from Louisville. On March 5, 1781, while riding alone on his way to attend court at Louisville, he was surprised by a small party of Indians in the forest. Next day his mutilated body was found near the road, with his horse standing guard over it Lieutenant Colonel Gibson was mortally wounded at St. flair's defeat, in Northwestern Ohio, November 4, 1791, and died a few days afterward, during the retreat to the Ohio river.(3)

1 George Bannister Gibson, son of George Gibson, was a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1818 to 1853 and chief justice for 24 years of that time. Lewis Fields Linn, grandson of Wm. Linn, was United States senator for Missouri, 1833 to 1843.

2 The District of West Augusta, Virginia, was divided, on November 8, 1778, into Ohio, Yohoganla and Monongalia counties. Yohoganla .county was wholly within the present limits of Pennsylvania, Including Pittsburg and the lower valleys of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers. The northern part of Monongalla and the eastern part of Ohio were In Pennsylvania.

3 Notes and Queries, vol. ii., p. 274; Third Series, vol. lll (whole No. v.), p. 421; Memoirs of John Bannister Gibson, T. P. Roberta, Pittsburg, 1890, pp. 20-21, 225.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 31-36: Old Westmoreland, A History of Western Pennsylvania During the Revolution by Edgar W. Hassler, J.R. Weldon & Co, Pittsburgh, 1900

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