General Daniel Roberdeau: Immigrant, Merchant, Patriot

Founder of Ft. Roberdeau was a politician and a soldier

 

August 8, 2019

Gary M. Baranec

Ft. Roberdeau, in Sinking Valley, is named after General Daniel Roberdeau, a Pennsylvania elected official in the mid- to late 1700s. He built the fort to protect a source of lead needed to make bullets for the Continental Army. Shown are re-enactors at the fort.

Many of the readers of the Herald have visited Fort Roberdeau in Tyrone Township, Blair County. There they have learned about the purpose of the fort, and about aspects of the Revolutionary War in what was then the frontier of Pennsylvania. But the background of the fort's namesake, General Daniel Roberdeau, is perhaps less well-known to visitors. Roberdeau's personal story is an American story that tells us much about the times in which he lived, and what it meant to be a sacrificial patriot in the perilous Revolutionary period.

Daniel Roberdeau was born in 1727 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, then a colony of Britain, and now part of the independent nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. His father was French, and his mother was Scottish. As a youth he was sent to England for education, but on the untimely death of his father, he and his mother moved to Philadelphia where he continued his education. As a young man he drew on his Caribbean connections to establish a successful career as a merchant.


At an early point, Roberdeau showed a distinct talent for politics. He was elected a warden of Philadelphia in 1756, and soon thereafter was elected to five terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He married Mary Bostwick of Philadelphia in 1761, and adopted her Presbyterian faith, becoming an elder of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Daniel and Mary had nine children.

As the Revolution approached, Roberdeau became an ardent advocate of resistance to what many Pennsylvanians regarded as British encroachment on American liberties. He was identified with the radical wing of Pennsylvania's political spectrum, and was apparently a hero of the working class of Philadelphia.

He was chosen to be chair of a mass outdoor meeting of citizens in May 1776. Soon thereafter he joined the Pennsylvania Associators, a military unit, and later in 1776 was elected a Brigadier General by the troops. He was with the Continental Army during its retreat across New Jersey in 1776, but fell ill and was not present for the subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton.

Meanwhile, he paid to outfit two ships (who were given privateer status by the Continental Congress) that preyed on British ocean trade.

The lead problem

Roberdeau was appointed to the Continental Congress by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1777, serving for two years. There he became acquainted with the Continental Army's desperate need for supplies, including lead. The situation was so dire that the Continental Congress authorized the removal of all lead downspouts from houses in Philadelphia so that they could be melted down to make musket balls.


As the Continental Congress struggled to supply the army, Roberdeau learned that a source of lead ore had been discovered in what is now Blair County, and in 1778 with his own resources, organized an expedition to go to the site, mine the ore and smelt it into lead. The Continental Congress gave him a leave of absence from his official duties, and authorized a unit of soldiers to accompany him.

Details of the expedition and its results are not entirely clear. It was necessary to erect a fort to protect the mine and the smelter, because it was in an area of the frontier that had regular incursions from the Indians favorable to the British side.

The fort was garrisoned by soldiers until sometime in 1780, and became a refuge for many of the settlers whose lives were upended by the war. However, the lead works was short-lived. Roberdeau claimed that a substantial quantity of lead was produced, and asked Congress for reimbursement for his efforts, even though no lead was delivered to the army. He never recovered his financial outlays, and his investment was a total loss.

After the Revolutionary War, Roberdeau traveled to Britain and the Caribbean to re-establish his business connections, and settled in Alexandria, Virginia, then the port city of the Potomac River. In 1794, he removed to Winchester, Virginia, where he died a year later. (Interestingly, Roberdeau's son, Isaac Roberdeau, was a civil engineer who participated in surveying the new national Capitol, Washington, in 1791-92. Later, as a major in the U.S Army, he was made head of the Topographic Bureau of the Corps of Engineers.)


The fort

Fort Roberdeau, and its namesake, Daniel Roberdeau, are thus intertwined with much of American history of the period. Daniel Roberdeau, an immigrant, was committed to the cause of the Revolution, and sacrificed much of his wealth for it.

As his story shows, it was not an idle statement when the revolutionaries who signed the Declaration of Independence (and others committed to the Revolution) pledged "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Of those 56 signers, 9 percent were immigrants, about the same average proportion of immigrants in the United States population since 1840 when such statistics have been kept.

Editor's Note: Dr. Darwin H. Stapleton, Ph.D., is a certified archivist, executive director emeritus of the Rockefeller Archive Center, and vice president of the Herman J. Albrecht Library of Historical Architecture. He is also the brother of Herald Correspondent Margaret Steinfurth and the uncle of Herald Publisher Allan J. Bassler.

 

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