Published July 18, 2014
The trench at Fort Laurens revealed dark places in the dirt marking the placement of wooden posts that formed the northern wall of the stockade, and as I studied those darker sections of earth I wondered if my ancestor helped cut the wood, dig the trench and place those posts. Later I looked at a hand-forged nail and wondered if he hammered that nail into the wood that would soon protect Pennsylvania militiamen from besieging British soldiers, Loyalists and Indian allies.
That ancestor is David McKinley, and I am related to Pres. William McKinley through him. David McKinley is my fifth great-grandfather through my maternal grandmother. My fourth great- grandmother Rachel McKinley, daughter of David, was a sister to the president’s grandfather James Stevenson McKinley; Rachel’s granddaughter Rachel Badger, my great-great-grandmother, was second cousin to the president; and Pres. McKinley and I are thus second cousins four times removed.
I enjoy telling people I’m related to the president, but I’m even more fascinated by my Revolutionary War predecessor and a nail that he may have nailed into a post while building the stockade along the Tuscarawas River in 1778. According to information gathered by my uncle Ray, who has extensively researched my mother’s family tree, David McKinley was born May 16, 1755, in Chanceford Township, York County, Pa., the son of John McKinley and Rachel Stewart. He served seven months during the Revolutionary War in Capt. W. McCaskey’s company, Col. Richard McAllister’s regiment of York County, Pa., militia. He also served in companies commanded by captains Ross, Laird, Reed, Holderbaum, Sloymaker, Robe and Harnahan. Further sources say the McKinleys came from Ulster in the north of Ireland and before that from Scotland and that the McKinleys are descended from MacDuff of “MacBeth” fame.
I knew that much from Uncle Ray’s research. But it was only last year that I learned of my connection to Fort Laurens. In the fall/winter 2013 issue of “Tree of Liberty,” the newsletter of the Friends of Fort Laurens, Doug Angeloni wrote that David McKinley helped to build Fort Laurens. McKinley in his pension application made at Lisbon in 1832 said he enlisted or was drafted at least seven times, serving a total of about 21 months. While in Pittsburgh in early 1778 he was drafted again, to serve for two months under Capt. Harnahan. He served as a guard to a company of packhorses and helped to build Fort McIntosh in Pennsylvania and Fort Laurens, Ohio’s only Revolutionary War fort, leaving when his two-month term expired.
After leaving military service McKinley in 1780 settled in Westmoreland County, Pa., and married Sarah Gray, his second or third wife. They moved to Mercer County in 1795 and to Columbiana County in 1814. David died in Crawford County on Aug. 8, 1840, at the age of 85.
I have visited Fort Laurens many times over the years, hiking and biking the Ohio and Erie Canal towpath trail, participating with the Sons of the American Revolution in the annual ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Patriot, attending Revolutionary War encampments hosted by the Brigade of the American Revolution, and presenting my program on colonial music at those encampments. All those years I had no idea my ancestor had trod the same ground and built the fort commemorated by the BAR’s annual encampment. Knowing that now, I was excited to see that trench, the nail, lead rifle balls, and several arrowheads.
I have long believed in the fluidity of time, that the past is no remote place far removed and untouchable. I believe that in our thoughts and spirit we can contact the past and encounter it as a living presence. I experienced that connection Tuesday at Fort Laurens, when I stood in the footsteps of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather David McKinley.
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