Meadville Tribune

Opinion

February 5, 2012

Pioneers wondered what awaited them across the Alleghenies

MEADVILLE — Every year millions of Americans are on the move, maybe to a larger apartment or a job in another state. As they pack, they wonder how they will be received by their new neighbors or fellow employees. Their children worry about making friends with a bunch of strange classmates in a strange school. These are natural concerns.

Westward-bound pioneers faced a similar situation, but a far greater challenge. The distant Alleghenies represented either a door to a promising future or a rising curtain to a scene of unaccustomed horror. Just the thought of having to brave swollen rivers, impassable mountain passages, wild animals, hostile Native Americans, bandits and intolerable weather made the trip sound more like a nightmare than a pleasant journey through the land of one’s fantasy. Little wonder why so many turned around and went back. For those who persisted in continuing, there remained the nagging question of what awaited them.

The following stories are by individuals who journeyed into western Pennsylvania when the region was still viewed as the West. Yet it was also the time when the region was transforming itself into being the gateway to the new West. Settlers pushed their way down the Ohio or along the Great Lakes. Early business ledgers of William Wilson at Fort Franklin, south of Meadville, help tell the story: most of his transactions in the 1790s were with one-time customers, strongly suggesting they were transients and not permanent settlers. Stronger evidence reveals low land prices in Crawford County because new lands were continually being opened farther west.

For some travelers the encounter with their first westerners proved to be unpleasant, if not horrific. In 1800 Sarah Hastings, with her sister, brother-in-law and two small children miraculously crossed a hill in the Laurel Ridge on foot in a snowstorm. No one wished to venture by wagon because the hill was so steep, rocky and slippery. Upon reaching the other side the party entered an inn and found it “full of men of a Savage appearance.” For the women sheer terror was at a glance. The men were boisterous hunters who grumbled because the inn had no liquor. They swore they would extirpate the innkeeper’s signpost. The women had no choice but to resign themselves to the “Protection of that Spirit who presides over the Fate of Travellers.” Fortunately no harm came to them.

Sarah had a serious problem with the landlady, who refused to feed Sarah’s hungry party. Instead, she gave them the necessities for a meal and told them to prepare the meal themselves; it was beyond her power to prepare supper for “flitters.” She then refused them wood for a fire. Fortunately, her husband entered and compensated for his wife’s poor behavior. Because the storm continued, Sarah’s party had little choice but to remain at the inn for several days. Sarah couldn’t wait to continue her journey.

Another pioneer who found fear to be a companion of adventure was John Reynolds, who became a lawyer, land agent and prominent banker in Meadville. In 1798 he helped his father build a cabin just south of Meadville. While alone one day hoeing a field, 16-year-old John was approached by one of “two ugly Indians” who spoke in broken English and demanded bacon. John refused him and then waited for the worst in retribution. He followed his angry visitor to the cabin where he found a mixed gathering of 14 natives with a squaw cooking around a fire. Again John was asked for bacon and, again, he refused.

To his relief, the visitors left. John later learned that his demanding visitor and his friend were Captain Snip-bone and his son-in-law, Jim Thick-legs, recently charged with the murder of a settler. John believed the two might return, take his blankets and provisions, and “burn me and my cabin together.” Needless to add, he spent a sleepless night, worrying about angry tribesmen who wanted his bacon and maybe his scalp. In addition, there was a panther screaming nearby.

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