In speaking to other historical fiction authors, I’ve discovered many of them experience the same frustration I do when conducting research. You might think that our biggest problem is finding enough information, but that’s not true. The problem is we find so many fascinating stories, and we can’t fit them all in to our work.
I’m currently researching a new book set in the mountainous Columbia County of Pennsylvania in the 1860’s. But I’m also learning about events of the 1770’s, when this county was under threat from British forces and their Indian allies. These events will be only peripherally related to my planned book – history and legend for my 19th century characters. And yet, there are so many tantalizing little tidbits I wish I could use …
Take Moses VanCampen. He was nineteen years old in 1776 when he offered to sign onto a regiment joining Washington’s army near Boston. But some older local men, former soldiers from the French and Indian War, talked Moses into staying at home as part of the local militia. Young Moses was known as a crack shot, a level-headed responsible young man – somebody they could count on to defend the local civilians. He agreed.
A Committee of Safety decided to build a series of forts between the West and North Branches of the Susquehanna River to defend the area. Moses was ordered to find an appropriate location near Fishing Creek and build a fort to provide shelter for the locals in case of an attack. Moses chose the home of Isaiah Wheeler as the central point for his fort and directed the construction of a stockade fence around it, large enough to accommodate all the inhabitants of the area. His choice of this property was probably influenced by personal reasons: he was courting Wheeler’s daughter, Ann.
So, Moses built a fort around the home of his sweetheart, and even before it was completed, it was put to the test. Indian raiders attacked and burned neighboring homes, but the settlers themselves fled to the safety of the half-completed Fort Wheeler, which withstood the attack. For the next year, Moses VanCampen made Fort Wheeler his headquarters as he ably defended the region with his company of sharp-shooters. In fact, Fort Wheeler was one of only two local forts to survive the war.
However, Ann Wheeler married VanCampen’s best friend, Joseph Salmon.
There’s a story here, folks. A very human story amidst all the history. But Moses and Ann and Joseph have no real place in the book I’m actually planning to write – they lived 100 years earlier and on the other side of the county. Maybe I’ll find a use for them – maybe I’ll write about them some other time – or maybe they’ll be just a tantalizing tidbit of history that will always leave me wondering.
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