John McDowell (born 1714), youngest son of American McDowell patriarch Ephraim and surveyor of Borden’s Grant in Virginia, married Magdalen Woods in 1734 while the family was still in Pennsylvania. Like so many of the McDowells, she had made the crossing to America from Ireland with her parents and siblings. John and “Magdalena” had three children together before John’s untimely death at age 28 on 14 December 1742.
John received his Captain’s commission in the Virginia militia after numerous Augusta County landholders made a direct plea (in desperate need of spellcheck):
"To the Honorable, William Gooch Esqr His Majestys’ Lieut: Governor &c &c—
We your pittionours humbly sheweth that we your Honours Loly and Dutifull Subganckes hath ventred our Lives & all that we have In settling ye back parts of Virginia which was a veri Great Hassirt & Dengrous, for it is the Hathins [heathens] Road to ware, which has proved hortfull to severil of ous that were ye first settlers of these back woods & wee your Honibill pittionors some time a goo pittioned your Honnour for to have Commissioned men amungst ous which we your Honnours most Duttifull subjects thought properist men & men that had Hart and Curidg to hed us yn mind of — & to defend your Contray and your poor Sobgacks Intrist from ye voilince of ye Haithen—But yet agine we Humbly perfume to poot your Honnour yn mind of our Great want of them in hopes that your Honner will Grant a Captins’ Commission to John McDowell, with follring ofishers, and your Honnours’ Complyence in this will be Great settisfiction to your most Duttifull and Humbil pittioners—and we as in Duty bond shall Ever pray—
Andrew Moore, David Moore, James Eikins, Geroge Marfit, John Goof, James Sutherland, James Milo, James McDowell, John Anderson, Joabe Anderson, James Anderson, Mathew Lyel, John Gray and many others."*
Captain McDowell assembled a Company of thirty-three men, including his father Ephraim and brother James. In early December 1742, a similar number of Delaware Indians entered the McDowell settlement in Borden’s Grant, “saying that they were on their way to assail the Catawba tribe with which they were at war.” John McDowell met with the Indians, who professed their friendship for the whites. He, in turn, entertained them for a day and “treated them with whiskey.” The Delawares then traveled down the south branch of the North River and camped for about a week. Besides hunting, they proceeded to terrorize local settlers and shoot loose horses at random. In response to grievous complaints, Captain McDowell’s Company was ordered by Colonel James Patton of the Virginia militia to conduct the Delaware Indians beyond the white settlements. On 14 December 1742 they caught up with the suspect Indians at the junction of the James and North rivers. The Company proceeded to gather the group together and initiate the escort. About half of the Indians were on horseback, the rest on foot. One was said to have been lame, not keeping pace with the company, and had walked off into the woods. A soldier at the back of the line fired into the trees at him, and the Indians immediately began a full-fledged attack upon McDowell’s entire Company.** John and eight of his men were killed. At least seventeen Indians also died. In the battle’s aftermath, to avoid all-out war with the multiple nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Lieutenant Governor George Thomas of Pennsylvania negotiated the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744. Agreement was reached that Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor William Gooch would pay the Iroquois a reparation of 100 pounds sterling.
After what came to be called the “Massacre at Balcony Downs,” many referred to the Captain as John “Indian Wars” McDowell. By this time there were numerous McDowells up and down the Great Wagon Road, so it became a way to distinguish him from others in the retelling.
*Petition to Lt. Governor William Gooch of Virginia, dated 30 July 1742, Calendar of Virginia State Papers, i, p. 235
**Joseph Addison Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, from 1726 to 1871, 1902, C.R. Caldwell, Augusta County, Virginia. Specifics of the account are from an 1808 letter sent from Judge Samuel McDowell, son of Captain John McDowell, to Colonel Arthur Campbell.