Meadville Tribune

February 5, 2012

Pioneers wondered what awaited them across the Alleghenies

Bob Ilisevich
Special to The Meadville Tribune

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.

No need for doctors

The scary recollections of Sarah and John were in contrast to the observations of Johann David Schoepf, a surgeon. He wrote how life on the other side of the mountains illustrated real poverty. Inhabitants lived in small cabins miles apart. Some had an animal or two and a small garden. They had to hunt and fish for survival and could provide little to the stranger. They exchanged skins for whiskey and clothes. Inns and taverns were no better. At one he found only whiskey and cheese. “People keep tavern if they have anything over and above what they need.” Schoepf commented how the traveler “must look about himself.”

He cited strong attitudes of the frontiersman. Some complained how their area was becoming too populated. This spoiled the hunting, caused quarrels, and attracted both government and tax collectors! Simply put, the typical settler he talked to shunned institutional obedience and compliance. Natural freedom is all he wanted. His dress and lifestyle matched that of the native rather than the easterner. As a physician Schoepf thought the country was surprisingly healthy and the communities he visited supported no doctor “because the people are not often sick; and they are sick less because they have no doctor.” You can figure that one out. Common maladies like the ague, he wrote, are just not known in the hills of western Pennsylvania.

New England Congregationalists, the Rev. David McClure and the Rev. Levi Frisbie, observed how poorly religion was practiced. Although Presbyterianism had become pre-eminent in western Pennsylvania, the two ministers found neither a “settled minister (nor) church organized in all the country westward of the Appalachian Mountains.” The Sabbath, they wrote, was typically a day of “recreation, drinking and profanity.” Some settlers had not heard a sermon for 14 years. The most depressing experience for the men was seeing the bones of former soldiers strewed over the site of Gen. Braddock’s 1755 massacre. After so many years, the poor heroes still did not have the solemn rite of sepulture.

Different as they are, these recollections typified those of other pioneers and travelers. While those of Sarah and the young Reynolds are somewhat frightening, those of Dr. Schoepf and the two ministers are professional assessments of frontier life with which they had no prior experience. Together the writings give us a general look at a region struggling to make the transition from being semi-primitive to what the easterner might hesitatingly call semi-civilized.

A Meadville resident, Ilisevich was a professor of history at the former Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, worked for years as librarian for Crawford County Historical Society and has authored several books on local history. He can be contacted at