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Exploring Youghiogheny River Valley history

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

During the autumn of 1770, George Washington and several companions traversed the Allegheny Mountains into the Youghiogheny River Valley.

While staying at Major William Crawford's farm nearby to Stewart's Crossing (Connellsville), Washington pleasantly was surprised when an old friend, Major Adam Stephen, on Oct. 15, appeared on the scene.

Like his notable contemporary, Stephen owned a good deal of real estate within the region. Although a famous figure in his own time, most modern western Pennsylvanians possess scant knowledge about him.

Adam Stephen was born on April 12, 1721, in Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of a prosperous farmer. Attending several parish schools, he enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in 1736.

He subsequently gained a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. Following a brief stint as a Royal Navy surgeon, Stephen emigrated to North America in 1748. By 1750, he was practicing medicine in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Through a series of shrewd purchases, he also became a leading landowner in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Residing at Bower Plantation, he cultivated an annual wheat crop, as well as raised cattle.

In 1754, Stephen was a captain within the First Virginia Regiment under the command of Col. George Washington. Consequently, in July 1754, he was among Fort Necessity's luckless defenders at Great Meadows.

Exactly a year later, he participated in Major General Edward Braddock's disastrous campaign to capture Fort Duquesne, the French bastion at the Ohio River's headwater.

During Washington's periodic absences, Major Stephen was the First Virginia Regiment's de-facto commander. Amid the precipitous retreat, moreover, Stephen was among the physicians who attended the dying Braddock.

Another British army, commanded by Brigadier General John Forbes, in 1758, made a fresh attempt to conquer Fort Duquesne.

Unlike Washington, though, Stephen apparently accepted Forbes's decision not to utilize the existing Braddock's Road which led northward from Virginia.

Instead, Forbes decided to march westward through the Allegheny Mountains from Fort Bedford. Stephen commanded a Virginia militia contingent which helped construct a new military roadway, popularly known as the Forbes Road.

On Nov. 24, Stephen was among the troop vanguard that approached Fort Duquesne's smouldering ruins which the French had set afire before evacuating.

For the remainder of the French & Indian War, Stephen performed various other military assignments for Virginia colonial authorities.

Throughout the post-war years Stephen was active in public affairs, including a stint as county lieutenant of militia for Frederick County.

Futhermore, he sat for several terms within the Virginia House of Burgesses. And Stephen continued to maintain a medical practice around Fredericksburg.

Meanwhile, he regularly engaged in land speculation beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Stephen apparently purchased much of acreage once owned by Christopher Gist.

He also emulated Washington's example by hiring William Crawford as his land agent around the Youghiogheny River. By all accounts, Stephen undertook several business trips into the region prior to 1775.

With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, in April 1775, the Virginia legislature appointed him colonel of the Fourth Virginia Regiment.

His first assignment was supervising the construction of extensive coastal fortifications around Portsmouth, Virginia.

On Sept. 4, 1776, Stephen was granted the rank of brigadier general by the Continental Congress. During these years he enjoyed the consistent support of the Virginia congressional delegation, including Thomas Jefferson and Richard Henry Lee. Later in the year General Stephen led his regiment to northern New Jersey and joined Washington's command.

Initially, Stephen performed admirable duty under his old friend. At the Battle of Trenton, on Dec. 26, 1776, he prevented the escape of several companies of Hessian troops from the town.

Two months later, he was promoted to major general, as well as became a division commander.

Amid the summer of 1777 Stephen led a number of successful light infantry forays against British military positions. Unfortunately, though, his friendship with Washington was souring rapidly. Gossips were claiming that heavy drinking often had induced him into undertaking increasingly reckless attacks.

Stephen always believed that his rival, Major General Nathaniel Greene, was behind such rumors.

Washington also began hearing reports that Stephen had become openly critical of his basic military strategy. Always resentful of personal criticism, Washington came to regard Stephen as a personal enemy.

At the Battle of Germantown, on Oct. 4, 1777, Stephen's reputation sustained great damage. During some fierce street combat his soldiers had exchanged deadly “friendly fire” with Major General Anthony Wayne's command. An irate Wayne subsequently claimed that Stephen was drunk at the time.

In any case, several of Washington's allies were behind the convening of a court of inquiry into Stephen's alleged misconduct, especially chronic drunkenness and frequent consorting with female “strumpets.”

At a formal court-martial he was found guilty of “unofficerlike behavior.” After Stephen's dismissal from the service his division command was assumed by the Marquis de Lafayette.

Various friends were convinced that Washington had orchestrated Stephen's downfall to promote Lafayette's career.

Retiring permanently to Bower Plantation, Stephen concentrated upon business affairs. He evidently encountered little hostility in western Virginia regarding his controversial military record. And he helped to promote the founding of the town of Martinsburg (West Virginia) which was built upon acreage that he had owned.

By 1785, General Stephen had sold off most of his Pennsylvania real estate property. Much of his Fayette County lands were purchased by both Albert Gallatin and Isaac Meason.

In June 1788, he was elected a delegate to the Virginia State Convention which convened in Richmond to ratify the Federal Constitution.

He reportedly played a key role in securing Virginia's ratification. But prior to his passing at Bower Plantation, on July 16, 1791, General Stephen apparently made no effort to achieve a personal reconciliation with George Washington.

Exploring History appears periodically in the Independent-Observer. The author holds a doctorate from the University of South Carolina.

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