Deconstruction and Discovery: A West Virginia Community Digs into the McCoy Fort's Colonial Past
The current state of the McCoy Fort. A significant chimney foundation is visible on the west side (bottom), while a lesser defined chimney foundation can be seen on the opposite end. The structure, at 28' x 26', was two stories of nine logs each.
Historians were in for a pleasant surprise in 2003 when a local history teacher directed archeologists Kim and Stephen McBride to a barn in West Virginia’s Greenbrier County. McCoy family tradition always suggested that the family’s original homestead was located in the county’s Sinking Valley, but an official discovery had yet to be made -- and no one thought it would involve so many sheep.
Constructed by the William McCoy Family around 1770, the log frontier fort known as the McCoy Fort was but one installment in a network of strongholds developed by settlers in the 18th century to provide defense from the imminent threat of Indian raids. The forts stretched from Pocahontas County through Greenbrier and into Monroe County, and provided crucial security for West Virginians during the era of Lord Dunmore’s war and the American Revolution.
Sometime in the mid-19th century, the homestead received a major renovation. Three of the first floor walls were removed so farm animals could access it, and an immense over-structure was built to encompass the remaining log fort.
For nearly a century and a half it was shielded from natural wear. In fact, without the barn’s protective covering, it’s likely the homestead would have suffered the same fate as the other forts that once spanned Greenbrier County. Corrosive elements such as acid rain have left only markers to indicate the plots where the McCoy Fort's neighbors once stood.
In 2012, however, the over-structure threatened to collapse after Greenbrier County was hit by a severe derecho, sporting winds of hurricane strength. Worse, an earlier tornado in 2006 had already compromised the barn's structural integrity.
When the Williamsburg District Historic Foundation (WDHF) acquired the McCoy Fort in 2012, it was in dire disrepair. Their plan: remove the barn, dismantle the fort, and store its elements to be reconstructed after completing an archaeological dig.
"Most of the historical interest in Greenbrier County seems focused on Lewisburg, Civil War events, and the mineral springs," explains Skip Deegans, who serves on the Lewisburg Historic Landmarks Commission and assisted in the procurement of Fort McCoy’s status as an Endangered Historic Property. "The frontier settlements in the Williamsburg area, the efforts these settlers made to defend themselves by building a series of forts, and the final efforts of Native Americans to thwart the westward expansion present an important and interesting yet neglected part of our county's history."
"Being at the Fort, you feel very connected to the history it represents," says Sue Miles, a fifth-great-granddaughter of William and Agnes "Nancy" McCoy, the original occupants of the historic homestead. Though her heritage gives her vested interest in the site, her sentiment is something that resonates with many locals. Volunteers such as Ralph McClung, a local contractor, helped with the initial deconstruction, and local farmers and organizations have made generous donations, including supplies used for the archeology project.
The deconstruction was completed just shortly before the National Scout Jamboree was scheduled to participate in the first phase of the Fort’s excavation. Kim McBride, now the lead archeologist on the project, introduced 180 Boy Scouts from across the country to archeology. In July, the Scouts excavated the exterior of the log building’s foundation, revealing 70 pounds of artifacts and two chimney foundations.
The second phase, in October, moved the effort indoors. Nearly 300 8th grade students from Eastern and Western Greenbrier Middle Schools took a field trip to the site to complete the interior study of the foundation, an effort which provided insight to the building’s architecture. The archeology project gave the students the rare opportunity to witness history unravel before their eyes and discover the true past of the McCoy Fort.
This photo was taken during the second phase of the McCoy Fort's excavation. Artifacts discovered over the course of the entire dig included gunflints, musket balls, and arrowheads lodged in the outer walls -- evidence of the Fort’s harrowing past.
The existence of the two fireplaces and two food storage cavities revealed that the fort had in fact been a place the McCoys called home. Further evidence included personal items such as brass buttons, a copper spoon, straight pins for sewing, and clay marbles.
Carolyn Stephens, who was appointed the project’s chair by WDHF, says, "The school system is a great avenue for raising awareness." By introducing students to the Fort and including them in the effort to uncover its history, she hopes to spread awareness of Greenbrier’s past to a vast audience and stir up excitement about history.
It will likely take two to three years to complete the Fort’s reconstruction, and its final function is still to be determined. But one thing is for sure: The history that the McCoy Fort represents will survive to not only educate future generations, but provide the locals of Greenbrier County a rare connection to their past, thanks to the perseverance of all those involved.
Ed. Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the McCoy Fort as Fort McCoy. Since evidence has shown that the structure was built as a homestead and not a stronghold, the family name now appears before "fort." Also, the Fort’s deconstruction was funded by a grant from the Daniel K. Thorne Fund through the National Trust.