WHITEHALL, Pa. (AP) — Just south of the Sheetz gas station off MacArthur Road, buried beneath about 4 feet of soil and rocky fill, likely lie the remnants of Fort Deshler, a more than 250-year-old encampment that protected Lehigh County settlers living in the harsh frontier.
The fort was a refuge for colonists in the Whitehall area and a rallying point for local militia during violent clashes with Native Americans. Understanding and recognizing this piece of local lore has become a passion project for Lee Rackus, the planning, zoning and development bureau chief for Whitehall Township.
When she had the opportunity to invite PennDOT to conduct an archaeological dig on the site as part of the 75th anniversary of MacArthur Road, Rackus didn’t hesitate.
Now, a little more than a year after the PennDOT Highway Archaeological Survey Team published its report on the Fort Deshler investigation, Whitehall is commemorating the spot near the dig in the hopes of reminding and re-educating residents about an often forgotten piece of township history.
“We have a lot of history here in Whitehall and some of it is unrevealed history,” Mayor Michael Harakal Jr. said Friday morning during the dedication of a sign commemorating the dig.
The squat sign sits along the Ironton Rail Trail and will tell visitors not just about the private fort that stood about 400 feet to the north, but about the most recent efforts to unearth more of its history.
Adam Deshler, a Swiss immigrant who settled in Lehigh County, completed Fort Deshler on his 203-acre property in 1760. Deshler was part of a wave of immigrants that flooded the southern Lehigh Valley following the Walking Purchase of 1737 — a transaction that would be part of the power struggle between England and France that would lead to the French and Indian War.
The fort was part of a wider effort proposed by Benjamin Franklin to create a series of fortifications along the Appalachian Mountains as a way for British colonists to confront the uprisings and challenges from Native Americans aligned with the French. These structures became known as the Franklin Forts and they ranged in complexity. Fort Deshler was more of a fortified home than a feat of military might. The home was taller than neighboring ones and easy to spot from a distance. It had an adjoining building that could house 20 soldiers and supplies. The structure was sandwiched between busy MacArthur Road and Chestnut Street, on the northern bank of the Coplay Creek.
A significant portion of the history of the fort and others like it was preserved in the 1916 writings of Thomas Lynch Montgomery in a piece commissioned to locate frontier forts in Pennsylvania.
In October 1763, during what came to be called the Indian Outbreak of 1763, the fort proved to be an invaluable safe haven for settlers living near the Deshlers. The violence started Oct. 8 at the tavern of John Stenton in the Howertown area of what is now Allen Township. Months earlier, Stenton’s wife urged guests at the inn to rob some of the natives who arrived there after trading pelts for manufactured goods in Bethlehem. The Native Americans returned in October with others who’d recently been robbed or wronged by colonists and were bent on revenge.
Several were killed or wounded when the Native Americans ambushed the tavern, including Capt. Nicholas Wetterholt and other members of the military. The attacks continued throughout the township and south about 5 miles to Whitehall Township.
The Native Americans first arrived at the home of John Jacob Mickley and found his children there gathering chestnuts. There, records say, the Native Americans shot and killed several people, including women and children. The estimated number of dead from that day between Allen and Whitehall townships was around 23, according to an account in the Pennsylvania Gazette describing the violence.
The Deshlers owned the building until it was sold in 1899 to the Coplay Cement Co. as a place to house immigrant families working in the cement factory. Much of the fort was demolished by 1958. Whatever was left was gone by 1970.
A location steeped in so much history would have been safer in today’s world, where historic structures receive greater protection, Rackus said.
“It’s a shame we’ve lost so much that way,” she said. “But that’s not going to happen again now that this is on (PennDOT’s) radar. We took this step also as a way to protect the legacy of the site for the future.”
Much of the fort stood in the PennDOT right of way, but a significant portion turned out be on private property belonging to Mike Hobel. Rackus said Hobel’s cooperation made the dig possible.
“He was very conscious of the importance of this,” Rackus said. “Without him, none of this could have happened.”
The archaeological dig didn’t produce much in the way of artifacts, according to the survey team’s report, because of the rocky fill and debris that were laid over the building.
A metal detector scan of the area unearthed a machine-cut nail, wire nail, metal scrap and what appeared to be a piece of a saw blade that experts believed could have dated back to the 18th century fort. One object found near the site dated back much farther — a Perkiomen spear point that likely belonged to a hunter some 4,000 years ago.
The only way to uncover more significant Colonial history on the site would be a true excavation, according to the PennDOT report. While such an effort would have to include buy-in from the township and private property owners, PennDOT’s survey team said it was worth considering. The more formal military forts from the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania are well-studied, but much less is known about the private farmsteads transformed into fortifications such as Fort Deshler.
Rackus said there are no plans to further explore the site. But she’s happy to have led the charge, creating a foundation for future efforts.
“This is history underfoot,” Rackus said Friday during the ceremony to commemorate the signage for the dig. “It’s devastating that so many Lehigh Valley residents — and even Whitehall residents — have no idea it’s here.”
Rackus hopes the dig and the signage can, in some small way, begin to change all that for Fort Deshler.