Discovering Interesting Ancestors

I owe it to my wife and mom that I have developed an interest in ancestry. I’ve always wanted to trace my family tree, but thought I didn’t know enough about my family to learn anything of substance, but the women in my life convinced me otherwise, and I’ve recently been discovering interesting ancestors. It’s been doubly enjoyable because I’m a history nerd, and the stories behind several of my ancestors have alerted me to chapters of history that I previously knew nothing about. One such example is the story of the Ruddell family.

John S. Ruddell (the family name was sometimes spelled Ruddle) was born in the 1690s in either Bishops Canning, Wiltshire, England, or in Londonderry, Northern Ireland (accounts conflict). He was my Great Great Great Great Great Great (6 times) Grandfather. Sometime in his youth or young adulthood, he emigrated to America and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

John married Mary Cook and they had 9 children, several of whom would become American patriots. John’s son, Archibald Ruddell, was born in 1727 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and he married Elizabeth Beggs. Archibald liked to be known by his nickname, Archible, and he was a veteran of the French Indian Wars, serving during the 1750s.

The name French and Indian War, used mainly in the United States, refers to the two main enemies of the British colonists: the royal French forces and the various indigenous forces allied with them.

Fighting took place primarily along the frontiers between New France and the British colonies, from Virginia in the south to Newfoundland in the north. It began with a dispute over control of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, called the Forks of the Ohio, and the site of the French Fort Duquesne (within present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). The dispute erupted into violence in the Battle of Jumonville Glen in May 1754, during which Virginia militiamen under the command of 22-year-old George Washington ambushed a French patrol.

laurel hill

Laurel Hill, home constructed by Archibald Ruddell

After his service in the French Indian War, Archible settled his family in Laurel Hill in the Shenandoah Valley. My family line on my mother’s side descends directly from Archible and Elizabeth (Beggs) Ruddell.

I was thrilled to discover that I have ancestors who arrived prior to the American Revolution, and that would have been enough for me, but I soon discovered Archible had a younger brother, Isaac, (would that make him my five-times Great Uncle? This is new to me, so someone please clarify for me if you can) who is even more well-known to some.

Isaac Ruddell (Senior) was born in Culpepper County, Virginia (some sources list his birthplace as Nottingham, PA, and his birthdate as 1729, others 1737)  and he became a frontiersman, one of the earliest settlers of Bourbon County Kentucky. He was a Captain in the Washington County Militia. He married Elizabeth Bowman and became a brother-in-law to Kentucky pioneers Isaac, Joseph and John Jacob Bowman.

In the Spring of 1779, Captain Isaac Ruddell founded Ruddell’s Station (sometimes referred to as Fort Liberty or Ruddell’s Fort) on the site of a previously abandoned fort known as Hinkson’s Station. Hundreds of Pennsylvania German settlers followed, reassured by the military presence at a time when the Revolutionary War was raging and clashes with Native Americans were common. Many of Captain Ruddell’s relatives were with him, including his wife and children, and several nieces and nephews, children of Archible.

In the 1873 book Historical Collections of the Great West, Henry Howe describes forts like Ruddell’s Station as follows:

The forts were built usually in the form of a parallelogram, their site determined by the location of a good spring. Trees were chopped down and the logs neatly picketed and set close together in a trench which had been dug the shape and size desired. When these logs were rammed together, they made a solid wall from nine to twelve feet high, impervious to rifle fire and arrows used by the Indians, but not to cannon. The block houses or bastions, built at each of the four corners, extended over the lower story about eighteen inches so that no enemy could make lodgement under the walls without risk of enfilading fire.

The log cabins were built along the walls of the fort and had clapboard roofs, slab doors hung with deer thongs and windows covered with oiled paper. All of the cabins opened into the enclosure. Not a nail nor a scrap of iron was used in their construction.

The beds in the primitive cabins were constructed by forcing forked sticks into the floor, running poles through the forks into the log walls and stretching buffalo skins tightly over the frame work. Bedding consisted of homespun sheets and blankets and beautifully-pieced quilts and “kivers” or coverlets. In very cold weather bear skins or elk skins were added for warmth. The floor coverings were also of skins of wild animals Cooking was done at the open fireplaces with spits, pothooks and kettles. The tables were made of slabs of wood into which pegs were driven for legs. Noggins, piggies and bowls were neatly turned, and pewter plates and horn spoons were reserved for grand occasions.

In June of 1780, nearly 500 settlers were at Ruddell’s Station (and nearby Martin’s Station) when a force of nearly 1,000 (comprised of British soldiers, Shawnee, and Tories), under the command of British Captain Henry Byrd, staged a surprise attack on the forts. Captain Ruddell’s forces were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, as the British had brought at least one, if not two, cannons for the siege. This is believed to be the first time cannons were used in warfare on the frontier. Two shots from the cannon(s) found their mark and partially collapsed one wall of Ruddell’s Station. The settlers fought valiantly, but were eventually forced to surrender and open the gates. The British allied forces swarmed the fort and in the horror and chaos that followed, Captain Ruddell’s wife Elizabeth had her three-year-old child murdered when a raider snatched it from her arms and threw it into a fire. Approximately 20 of the settlers were killed in the siege, and over 470 were taken captive.

Captain Ruddell, along with his wife and children, were marched on foot over 600 miles to Fort Detroit. At Ruddell’s Station he had negotiated his surrender under the condition that he would not be separated from his wife and children, but the promise was broken on the march to Detroit, and Elizabeth and the children were kept from him.

The trip was one of terrible hardship. The British Officer Captain Byrd described the conditions briefly in a letter to Major DePeyster:

I marched the poor women & children 20 miles in one day over very high mountains, frightening them with frequent alarms to push them forward, in short, Sir, by water & land we came with all our cannon, 40 miles in 4 days rowing fifty miles the last day — we have no meat and must subsist on flour if there is nothing for us at Lorimers.

At Detroit, Captain Ruddell protested his separation from his family and succeeded in securing a reunion with his wife and daughters. His sons, Stephen (12) and Abraham (6), however, were adopted into Shawnee families, and Stephen would become the adoptive brother to Tecumseh. It would be years before Captain Ruddell would see his sons again.

Captain Ruddell and his family were allowed to farm corn on an island near Detroit as a means of providing food for their fellow prisoners, and he used the position as a means of helping other American prisoners escape captivity until he and his family were allowed to return to Virginia in 1782. When his sons were repatriated from the Shawnee, Stephen reintegrated fully into white culture, but Abraham, who had been much younger when he was taken, resisted his new life, married a Native American woman, and continued to wear earrings and a long hairstyle. Captain Ruddell and his family returned to Bourbon County, Kentucky in 1784 and built a mill. Although there is nothing left of the original Ruddell’s Station fort, the mill he founded upon his return to Kentucky became the town known as Ruddell’s Mills.

Those familiar with Kentucky history know the Ruddell and Bowman names, and the story of the attacks on Ruddell’s and Martin’s Stations, but it was a part of our history that I had never heard. I am thrilled that I was able to discover it through an examination of my family tree. If you’re interested in family history and you know even a little about your parents and grandparents, I would encourage you to consider an Ancestry.com membership. You might be surprised at what you find out, and there is an almost undefinable feeling of pride when you discover an ancestor who was somebody. Thanks for reading.

Troy Larson is a father, author, and photographer from Fargo, North Dakota.

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4 Comments

  1. Karen Brown

    I loved your story as my husband is from the Pittsburgh area and we have been to many of the places you mentioned. I am curious as to how to locate ancestral information in places where there may not be a lot of documentation. My dad was born in Cogswell, ND and we believe there is Native American ancestry. How do we proceed to pursue that? Thanks for your help!

  2. Troy Larson

    A DNA test would reveal whether there is Native American DNA in your line, and if there is, you would want to search for marriage, birth, death, and census records for the person in question. Those records will reveal spouses, children, etc…

  3. Bob Nimorwicz

    Very much enjoyed the history of your family. I found it to be interesting. I must say that I also enjoy your photographs of ND. My son is a professional photographer who enjoys landscapes and wildlife. Keep up the great work recording the history of our great country.

  4. Troy Larson

    Thank you, Bob!

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