Valley Forge


a drawn map showing an aerial view of Valley Forge
This map of Valley Forge, drawn in 1890, depicts the small town nestled in rolling hills on the banks of the Schuylkill River. (Library of Congress)

In 1777 the Continental Army, unable to prevent the British forces from taking Philadelphia, retreated to Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-78. Selected for its strategic location between Philadelphia and York, along the Schuylkill River, Valley Forge had natural defensive positions, access to water, enough land to support the army, and was far enough from Philadelphia to prevent a surprise attack by the British. While preserved for its eighteenth-century significance as the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Valley Forge has a more extensive past and continues to play an integral role in the region’s history and environment.

American Indian tribes inhabited the area that became known as Valley Forge as early as the Archaic Period, 8000 BCE to 1000 BCE. William Penn’s land grant in 1681 led to plantations, which displaced the Indians. In 1699, the Pennsylvania Land Company of London bought the land that later became the north side of Valley Forge National Historical Park; the majority of it was subsequently purchased by two families, the Pawlings and the Morgans. By the early 1700s they had established substantial plantations called Pawlings and Mill Grove.

At the start of the American Revolution Valley Forge was one of several farming towns that supplied Philadelphia. Along with large farms, the town also included several mills, a forge, and a predominantly Quaker population. The revolution came to Valley Forge in December 1777, after British troops moved south from New York and captured Philadelphia, and the Continental Army retreated. At Valley Forge, generals and their staffs rented homes of local farmers, most of who stayed to care for their livestock and safeguard their property. Soldiers initially lived in tents, but for this long-term encampment they also constructed log cabins, sixteen by fourteen feet in size, each housing sixteen men. The soldiers suffered from lack of basic supplies due to mismanagement and weather conditions. Contrary to popular belief, Valley Forge was not the coldest encampment of the War for Independence (Morristown, New Jersey, was). Mild weather with heavy rain resulted in muddy roads and swollen rivers that prevented supplies from reaching the camp.

During this encampment the newly appointed Prussian-born Inspector General Baron von Steuben (1730-1794) began drilling the Continental Army. The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse (1778), while not a victory for the Americans, proved that the new skills learned under the general were essential to the army’s survival.

Remnants of Military Occupation

photograph of the interior of an 18th century hospital hut
During the winter of 1777-78, the soldiers camped at Valley Forge needed to provide their own shelter. This is a reconstruction of the “Hospital Hut,” where soldiers tended their sick and wounded. (Library of Congress)

During the Revolutionary War the farms at Valley Forge were ransacked by the British troops and used by the Americans. Archaeologists have uncovered saw-cut animal bones from cattle and pigs, uniform buttons, musket balls, and redware shards from the Revolutionary period to verify these events. Following the war the land continued to be farmed, and the community embraced scientific farming. The first permanent bridge over the Schuylkill was built in 1810, and the canals came into place during the 1820s.

Initial preservation efforts at Valley Forge did not start until the mid-nineteenth century, when poets began romanticizing the site and it became a place of interest for the colonial revival movement. By the 1880s, trains brought tourists from Philadelphia to Valley Forge.

The Centennial and Memorial Association, modeled after the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, set about opening Washington’s Headquarters as a historic house museum for the encampment’s centennial. The fundraising efforts were spearheaded by Anna Morris Holstein (1825-1900) and initially were very successful. The first “march out” commemoration of the end of the encampment was held on June 19, 1878. With the aid of the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America (POSA) and a grant from the state, the restored house was eventually purchased from private owners (the house had been privately owned and lived in since 1778) and opened to the public.

From Encampment to State Park

In 1893 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took a further interest in Valley Forge and established it as a state park. The state park commission began acquiring land that encompassed remnants of the inner and outer line defenses from the encampment and eventually accrued several historic structures, including Washington’s Headquarters, as well as a thin strip of property north of the Schuylkill River.

The area remained popular into the 1920s with city dwellers seeking to escape the oppressive heat of the city and return to nature. The south side of the park remained a historic tourist destination, but the popularity of the north side declined. With the strong connection to the American Revolution, Valley Forge became a symbolic site for reflection, commemoration, and occasionally protest. During the Vietnam era, Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized Operation RAW (Rapid American Withdrawal), a march from Morristown to Valley Forge culminating with a rally in Valley Forge on Labor Day 1970.

In 1976 the National Park Service acquired stewardship of Valley Forge when President Gerald Ford (1913-2006) signed legislation creating Valley Forge National Historical Park. Today, Valley Forge National Historical Park is more than five square miles of green landscape in Philadelphia’s suburban sprawl. Bisected by the Schuylkill River, the park is divided into the well-known south side, where there is an abundance of historic structures and interpretation of the Revolutionary War, and the north side, which has an extensive trail system.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick has worked with several history organizations in New Jersey and at Valley Forge National Historical Park. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University.


Valley Forge, 1890

Library of Congress

This map of Valley Forge, drawn in 1890, depicts the small town nestled in rolling hills on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The village is located in Chester County and occupies the swath of land where Valley Creek and the river intersect. The southern portion of the park begins at the town and continues west into Montgomery County. When Washington and his troops encamped there during the winter of 1777-78, he counted on the small farms and homes nearby to supply food and other necessities. Almost two-thirds of the area was dedicated to farming and the section along the Schuylkill was populated with industrial buildings—sawmills, blacksmiths, and charcoal houses. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, many of the factories were converted to textile mills.

Hospital Hut

Library of Congress

During the winter of 1777-78, the soldiers camped at Valley Forge needed to provide their own shelter. When camped near larger towns or cities the troops were sometimes able to find shelter in the homes of local residents. However, Valley Forge was a relatively sparsely populated farm town at the time and the troops were left to construct their own buildings. This a reconstruction of the “Hospital Hut,” where the soldiers tended their sick and wounded. The bunk beds, made of logs, are similar to the beds found in the men’s regular barracks. The raised wooden slab in the center of the hospital room functioned as an operating table.

Washington's Headquarters

Library of Congress

Valley Forge Historical Park preserves the houses that served as headquarters for General George Washington (1732-99) and his officers. Washington’s Headquarters, seen here, have been restored to give visitors to the park a better understanding of Revolutionary War encampments. Quarters for General James Mitchel Varnum (1748-89) and the parade ground where Baron Von Steuben (1730-94) drilled the Continental Army, along with other important historic structures and landscapes, are available to park visitors year-round.

Washington Memorial Chapel

Library of Congress

It was well into the nineteenth century before the people of Valley Forge began to romanticize the Continental Army’s takeover of their countryside. Though the farmers of the day were disrupted and disadvantaged by the army, which destroyed much of the farmland and cost the farmers a planting season, by the time of the war’s centennial many residents had laid those grievances to rest. The area’s historic significance and quaint, country location, mad Valley Forge became a tourist destination for Philadelphians. Before the end of the nineteenth century, the former encampment was declared a Pennsylvania state park.

In 1903, 125 years after the army departed Valley Forge, the cornerstone of the Washington Memorial Chapel, pictured here, was laid in the park. Dr. W. Herbert Bunk, an Episcopal priest, had been swept up in the religious and patriotic culture of the time and proposed a chapel be built to honor George Washington and his time in Valley Forge. Over fourteen years, small donations were able to fund the main chapel's construction, and doors opened to congregants in 1917. The chapel is a national memorial to Washington as well as an active church.

Running in Valley Forge

Visit Philadelphia

Valley Forge National Historic Park offers recreation as well as Revolutionary era architecture and artifacts. Expansive trails that pass the park's many historic features, including Varnum's Quarters (pictured here), attract runners and cyclists. Scientists and nature lovers are drawn by more than 315 species of wildlife and diverse habitats.

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Related Reading

Bodle, Wayne. The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Brier, Mark A. “Tolerably Comfortable: A Field Trial of a Recreated Soldier Cabin at Valley Forge,” Valley Forge National Historical Park, 2004.

Dodd, John Bruce, and Cherry Dodd. Historic Structure Report: The Philander Knox Estate. Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 1981.

— — —. Historic Structure Report: Varnum’s Quarters. Valley Forge National Historical Park Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 1981.

— — —. Historic Structure Report: Washington’s Headquarters. Valley Forge National Historical Park Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 1981.

Fleming, Thomas. Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Kurtz, James. Archeological Inventory and Assessment: North of the Schuylkill River. Valley Forge National Historical Park Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. 1988. Revised 2001.

Lockhart, Paul. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Treese, Lorett. Valley Forge; Making and Remaking a National Symbol. University  Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

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