John Harness

        frontier militia rifleman


Prior to and during  the Revolutionary War most of the defense of the South Branch was not carried out by the regular Colonial Army, but rather by local Militias, groups of armed settlers who were put together and called up for several days or weeks of service, and then were disbanded.  It is believed that one of Michael Ernst Harness, Sr.’s sons, John Harness, put together Militia companies for such small durations on several occasions prior to and during the Revolution.

Reports in several historical journals indicate that John Harness was involved as a frontier rifleman in some of the early skirmishes with Indians in the Ohio River Valley on through Dunmore’s War and perhaps in the Revolutionary War itself.  In all cases he was apparently a member of or leader of  these Militia companies, rather than a member of the regular army.

(The photo at the left is a reproduction of “The Frontier Rifleman” by David Wright)

The earliest reported involvement of John Harness can be found in an account attributed to Dr. Charles A. Turley in “A History of the Valley of Virginia” by Sam Kercheval, originally published in 1909.  Turley describes what has become known as “The Battle of the Trough” which occurred in the Spring of 1756 on the South Branch.

       NOTE: Near chaos reportedly prevailed on the South Branch during this period.  Many if not most of the settlers had fled the area in fear of more Indian attacks.  Those families that remained often sought refuge in makeshift forts which George Washington (then 23 years of age and commander of the Virginia Militia) had been ordered to put up by Virginia's Royal Governor Dinwiddie in order to offer some minimum degree of safety for the embattled frontier settlers who remained on the South Branch.


According to Dr. Turley eighteen frontiersmen, most of them from Town Fort and a few from Fort Buttermilk, pursued some Indians who had kidnapped two women from the home of one of the women (a Mrs. John Brake)  on the South fork of the South Branch of the Potomoc, not far from Moorefield. The Indians killed one of the women (a Mrs. Neff) when she could not keep up with them as they fled the scene.  The attack on the women was led by Shawnee Chief Killbuck, described in various historical accounts as particularly ferocious, cunning and vengeful.  Chief Killbuck led many of the raids on settlers along the South Branch during the years 1753 to 1761.  He could understand and speak English and was well acquainted with many of the frontiersmen and their families as he had lived among them before the Indian wars broke out.

Dr. Turley said that the  eighteen frontiersmen (John Harness among them), who left the forts in pursuit of the Indians "were men notorious for their valor and had been well tried on many such occasions." The men and  their families who had sought refuge in the forts from the ongoing Indian raids in the area,  found a "plain trace" left by the Indians, apparently a little too obvious a trace for John Harness.
Turley said "Mr. John Harness, who was well acquainted with the manners and modes of warfare of the Indians" warned of a possible Indian ambush.

When the frontiersmen arrived at "the trough" they found the Indians encamped and started to quietly sneak up on them.  Unfortunately, a stray dog that had followed the frontiersmen, spotted a rabbit about that time and went yelping after it, thus alerting the Indians to the presence of the frontiersmen.  The men were trapped in the trough between the mountain and the rain-swollen river.  More than half of the frontiersmen were killed in the ensuing battle.  The others, including Harness, swam across the swollen river to safety.

George Yokum, in an interview in the Draper papers (circa 1843) said that John Harness was wounded in the battle.  He also said that even though the battle scene was only a mile from Van Meter's fort, and some of the men in the fort wanted to go to the aid of the eighteen frontiersmen during the battle, British Captain Thomas Waggener who was in command of the garrison at the fort at the time, not only refused to let them go, but ordered the fort gates closed and locked.  As a result, the frontiersmen fleeing for their lives from the Indians had to run two miles or so to  two other nearby forts to get to safety.  Some time later, according to Yokum's account, Captain Waggener  ordered some of the men involved in "The Battle of the Trough" whipped for having called Waggener a coward for not opening the gates of the fort and letting the men in to safety on the day of the battle.

From 1766 until the start of Dunmore's war in 1774, relative peace apparently prevailed on the frontier as far as Indian skirmishes were concerned.  Professor Jacobs described it this way in the Kercheval book: "At the start of the year 1774, there existed between the settlers and the Indians a kind of doubtful, precarious and suspicious peace." 


By 1774 John Harness appears to have  become a member of Captain Michael Cresap’s informal company of frontiersman who engaged  in a number of battles against Indians who, encouraged by the French,  were hostile to the British settlement of the Ohio River Valley.  Captain  Cresap at the time had retired with his family to Maryland.  But he became distressed about the inhabitants on the western frontier and their perilous situation.  So he left his home and family, raised a company of volunteers, including John Harness, and marched to their assistance.  Cresap's company was made up informally of  backwoods Virginia frontiersmen, primarily from the South Branch area who, increasingly alarmed at the increasing number of Indian raids against frontier settlers in the Valley, and  the safety of their families, armed themselves in self defense and went looking for hostile Indians and engaged them in sometimes very bloody  battle.

In one anecdote found in “A History of the Valley of Virginia” by Samuel Kercheval, a Reverend Mr. Jacobs  tells about John Harness’ reported involvement in one of  those skirmishes with a party of Indians and his apparent ability as a musket rifle sharpshooter.

According to the story, when Captain Cresap’s company of frontiersman arrived on the near bank of the Muskingum river (in Ohio country) and lay in wait....”an Indian on the opposite shore got behind a log or old tree, and lifted up his head occasionally to look at the white man’s encampment on the other side. One of Captain Cresap’s men, of the name of John Harness, seeing this, loaded his rifle with two balls and placing himself on the bank of the river, watched the opportunity when the Indian raised his head and, firing at the same instant, put both balls through the Indian’s neck, and laid him dead."

The Reverend Dr. Joseph Doddridge in the Kercheval history, recounts the same event, and notes that the Indians dragged off the body of the dead Indian "and buried it with the honors of war.  It was found the next morning and scalped by Harness.”

John Harness remained an active frontier rifleman in Captain Michael Cresap's company when the aggressive Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, called out the colony's militia to crush the Ohio Indian tribes once and for all in 1774. Family legend has it that John Harness was among those present at the peace ceremony with Shawnee Chief Cornstalk near Chillicothe, Ohio on October 26, 1774 that brought an  end to Dunmore’s War.

There are numerous modern day descendants who, in listing their ancestors on the internet who served in Dunmore's war,  specifically mention that that ancestor served under Captain John Harness' company, (or in some cases, they call it Captain Harness' Rangers).

There are also numerous historical references by various sources to the Romney Pay Roll which lists a group of militia companies whose members were paid at Romney, West Virginia "for services performed in the 1774 excursion against the Indians," (Dunmore's War.) One, dated October 17, 1775, is said to be the list from Captain John Harness.

The American Revolution started shortly after the end of Dunmore's War but there is no verified  evidence that John Harness ever actively served in the Continental Army itself. He would probably have been about 40 years of age at that time.  There are several reports that indicate  Harness, with a rank of Captain, led a Militia company on  more than one occasion during the Revolutionary War period, in defense of the settlers on the  western frontier.


All available information indicates that he returned to his home on the South Branch after the conclusion of Dunmore's War.  He is listed as a Revolutionary War non-military patriot, providing beef from his farm for the Continental Army. His brother’s George and Jacob are also on that list as is slain brother Michael Harness, Jr.’s son, Adam.