Erie County, Pennsylvania

History of Erie County, Pennsylvania 1884

by Samuel P. Bates, 

Submitted by Gaylene Kerr Banister

Chapter IX - The American Occupation

The first step in the actual settlement of Erie County by white people was taken in 1785, when David Watts and William Miles were sent under the auspices of the State to survey the Tenth Donation District, embracing portions of Waterford, Wayne and Amity Townships. On the completion of their labors, they returned to the East, and gave such a flattering account of the country that much interest in it was excited among the adventurous people of that region. March 24, 1789, it was resolved by the General Assembly that not exceeding 3,000 acres should be surveyed at Presque Isle, LeBoeuf, and two other places for the use of the commonwealth. In 1790, Gov. Mifflin, by authority of the Legislature, appointed Timothy Matlack, Samuel McClay and John Adlum to examine the western streams of the State for the purpose of ascertaining whether "any nearer and more feasible communication could be had between the Allegheny River and Lake Erie." They examined French and LeBoeuf Creeks up to Waterford, traversed the portage to Presque Isle, and on going back made a report which resulted in 100 being appropriated for the improvement of the streams named. This was followed by the settlement law of the 3d of April, 1792, which provided for the survey of all the lands north and west of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers and Conewango Creek, and their sale upon terms that will be stated in another chapter.

The Pennsylvania Population Company, formed at Philadelphia March 8, 1792, purchased a large trace of land in the Triangle with the object of selling it at a profit, and inducing settlement. On the 8th of April, of the same year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Mifflin approved a bill for laying out a town at Presque Isle, which was a part of the general plan for the occupation of the Northwest. This act was as follows:

SECTION1. Be it enacted, etc., That the Governor be and is hereby empowered to cause to be surveyed the tract reserved at or near Presque Isle by the act entitled, "An act for the sale of the vacant lands within this commonwealth," passed the 3d day of April, 1792; and at the most eligible place within the said tract he shall cause to be laid out and surveyed sixteen hundred acres of land in town lots of not more than one-third of an acre each; and also three thousand four hundred acres adjoining the same, in outlots, not less than five acres nor more than ten acres each. Provided always, That the Governor shall reserve out of the lots of the said town so much land as he shall deem necessary for public uses; also, so much land within or out of the said town as may, in his opinion, be wanted by the United States for the purpose of erecting forts, magazines, arsenals and dock yards.

SEC. 2. That the first two hundred persons that shall actually inhabit and reside, on or before the 1st day of January next, within the said town, shall each and every of them be entitled to one unappropriated town lot, to be ascertained by lottery, for which they shall respectively receive a deed, clear of all charges; Provided, That such persons respectively, or their respective representatives, or assignees, shall inhabit and reside in the said town for the term of three years, and also, within the said town build or cause to be built, a house at least sixteen feet square, and containing at least one brick or stone chimney, on the town lots to be granted in pursuance of this act.

SEC. 3. That the Governor is hereby authorized to sell two hundred of the town lots exclusively of those granted by the next preceding section, and the whole of the other outlots, in such manner as he shall think most to the advantage of the State, and make conveyance of the same; excepting, always, such as shall be made upon this condition; that the respective purchasers shall and do, within the term of three years, erect and build one house, at least sixteen feet square, and containing at least one brick or stone chimney, on each and every town lot by them purchased; and no deed of conveyance shall be granted by the Governor to any purchaser, nor, after the expiration of the said term of three years, shall the said sale be deemed or construed to vest any title, claim or demand in any purchaser, unless, satisfactory proof be first given that a house has been erected or built on the town lots sold as aforesaid; that the streets, lanes and alleys of the said town shall be common highways forever; and that previous to the sale or sales of the said town lots and outlots, notice shall be given of the same in at least three of the newspapers of the State at least ten weeks previous to such sale or sales.

Protecting the Frontier

On the 25th of February, 1794, another act was passed which authorized the Governor "to detach from the several companies of artillery and infantry raised by the State" for the security of the port of Philadelphia and the defense of the Western frontier, "as many men as can be conveniently spared from the specific objects of protection and defense for which the companies were particularly destined, and to station the detachment so made at such place or places at or near Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, as shall in his judgment be best calculated to carry into effect the act" just quoted. This measure was called forth by the menaces of the Indians, who had learned of the proposed settlement at Presque Isle, and knowing that it would cause a break in their communications between the East and West, were determined to prevent it if possible. In accordance with its provisions, Gov. Mifflin, on the 1st of March, 1794, issued a circular to the Brigade Inspectors of Washington, Westmoreland and Allegheny Counties, requiring them to raise men to serve eight months, unless sooner discharged, with a stipulation that, if necessary, they should continue in service till the next meeting of the Legislature. Each man who took his own rifle was to be allowed $2 for its use, and to have a reasonable equivalent if it was lost or destroyed in the public service. Four companies were to be organized within the district stated, of whom one Captain, one Lieutenant, two Ensigns, six Corporals and six Sergeants and ninety-five privates were to be detached for the Presque Isle expedition. The command was given to Capt. Ebenezer Denny, of Allegheny County, who is presumed to have seen service in border warfare.

Gen. William Irvine and Andrew Ellicott had been appointed Commissioners some time before to lay out a road from Reading to Presque Isle. On the same day the above-mentioned circular was issued they were notified that Albert Gallatin had been associated in the appointment, and that they three were to lay out the town contemplated by the act of 1793. The Governor's instructions desired them to "promote peace, order and friendship with the peaceable Indians or British garrison, should any intercourse * * be produced by accident or necessity." Capt. Denny was required "to comply with every lawful request of the Commissioners," and was further reminded that the objects of his appointment were "strictly those of protection and defense."

Occupancy of Fort Le Boeuf

Boats and cones left Pittsburgh on the 16th of April, by way of the Allegheny River, the stores and provisions having been sent in advance. By the 25th of April, three officers and seventy-seven men had reached Franklin, at the mouth of French Creek. On the same date, a report reached headquarters at Pittsburgh that the Indians, incited by British agents, were "meditating an opposition to the designs of the Government respecting Presque Isle," and a week later Denny wrote to the Governor his apprehensions that "a council holding at the mouth of Buffalo Creek between the chiefs of the Six Nations and the British may terminate unfavorably to our establishment." On the 1st of May, a Maumee Indian was killed at Franklin in a drunken row by a white man named Robertson. This added greatly to the feeling among the aborigines. The affair was settled by the party at Franklin raising a purse of $100 and paying it to the relatives of the dead man, in satisfaction of their wrong, according to an old custom among the Indians.

The troops took possession of "the forks of French Creek, about two miles below the old post of LeBoeuf," on or near the 11th of May, where they built a small block-house, pending the cutting out of the logs which obstructed the navigation of the stream. From this point, Gen. John Wilkins, of Pittsburgh, who accompanied the expedition, wrote on the day of their arrival that "the British are determined to oppose the progress of the State troops from LeBoeuf to Presque Isle by sending a number of Indians and English to cut them off." In a few days more the detachment reached LeBoeuf, where they immediately erected two small picketed block-houses, which, Wilkins reported, "will make them sufficiently strong until the re-enforcement arrives under Capt. Denny." The latter event did not occur until the 24th of June. A draft of 1,000 militia from the brigades of Westmoreland, Washington, Allegheny and Fayette Counties was ordered by the Governor in the latter part of May, to co-operate with Denny's detachment under command of Gen. Wilkins. On the day the order was issued, the Governor wrote to Wilkins warning him of "the critical state of our Presque Isle settlements," which, he added, "calls for an exercise of judgment, prudence and spirit."

Interference of the General Government

While the events here mentioned were in progress, a letter reached Gen. Knox, Secretary of War under President Washington, from Gen. Israel Chapin, the United States Commissioner to the Six Nations, to the effect that the British "feel very much alarmed at the garrisoning of Presque Isle. * * If the garrison destined for that place," wrote Chapin, "is not very strong, it is doubtful whether it will not be attacked." On the 9th of May, Gen. Knox wrote to Wilkins and Denny, cautioning them to "proceed with the utmost vigilance and precaution." The next day, he addressed a communication to Gen. Mifflin, stating that "affairs are critically circumstanced between the United States and the Six Nations," and giving it as the opinion of the President, "on mature reflection, that it is advisable to suspend for the present the establishment of Presque Isle." On the very day this epistle was received, the Governor notified the Brigade Inspectors of the four western counties that he had been induced to suspend the execution of the act for laying out a town at Presque Isle. He therefore rescinded all orders for drafting men, directed the Commissioners, who had not yet left Pittsburgh, to postpone further proceedings, and commanded Denny's detachment to remain at LeBoeuf, "unless it should be found necessary to retire from the station in order to prevent an actual contest with the friendly Indians." The Commissioners were asked to remain "in such a situation as will enable them on short notice to resume the execution of their mission."

Was the Danger Real?
The correspondence that has been preserved on the subject indicates that the fears of an Indian war were well founded and quite universal among those who had the best means of information. Gen. Wilkins wrote from LeBoeuf: "The Indians contrive to make opposition to the establishment at Presque Isle. The Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and an Indian agent were visiting all the Indian towns westward, exciting the Indians to oppose the Americans and assuring them of support from the King. * * * Advices from the Genesee country state that every industry is being made by the British to put the Indians on us." The chief men of the Six Nations, he concluded, held a council at Buffalo Creek about the middle of May. In a letter of June 5, from David Reweck to Gov. Mifflin, he says of Presque Isle: "I have not doubted but that the British wish seriously to possess it. * * * It is pretty certainly known that for a considerable time past no vessel (British) has gone up or down the lake without instructions to put in at Presque Isle and see whether we were there or no." About the same time, John Polhemus, commanding at Fort Franklin, reported: "From the best information that I have received this day, I have reason to believe the Indians will attempt to make themselves masters of this post." A week later, he forwarded the tidings that three men on their way to Pittsburgh from Franklin were attacked by the savages, two of whom were killed. D. Ransom, a trader wit the Indians, deposed on the 11th of June that he "had been told by the Broken Twig that the British and Indians were to land at Presque Isle and form a junction with Cornplanter on French Creek and were then to clear it by killing all the white people and taking all the posts on it."

It is but fair to the Senecas and their chief to state that in a letter from Capt.Denny, dated at Franklin on the 10th of June, he says: "The Cornplanter has gone to another council at Buffalo. * * * He is extremely concerned at the account given of their going to take up the hatchet; says they are bad men that report it; that it's a lie."

In a communication of the 12th of June from Gen. Chapin to the war Department, he declares: "I am afraid of the consequences of the attempt to settle Presque Isle at present. The Indians do no acknowledge the validity of the Cornplanter's sale to Pennsylvania."

We have gathered the testimony on this point at more length than many seem necessary, because of it relation to other events that will be detailed in a subsequent chapter.

A Lengthy Discussion
The people of the western counties were highly indignant at the suspension of the proceedings for settlement, and without knowing the reason that prompted Gov. Mifflin, hotly condemned what they called him timidity. The Governor, however, soon righted himself by spreading the intelligence abroad that he had acted in pursuance of a special request from President Washington. He was of the belief, in common with most of the citizens of the State, that there was more bluster than sincerity in the threats of the Indians, and that the best way was to go right on, and, if necessary, whip them into acquiescence. Gen. Irvine wrote from Pittsburgh: "People here are astonished at the course of the General Government. I could have taken 500 -- some mounted, some riflemen, of such as would have effectually awed the savages and British." A long correspondence took place between Mifflin and the Federal authorities, in which the Governor argued earnestly in favor of the right of the State to protect its own territory and endeavored to convince the Cabinet of the folly of suspending the operations.

An Important Council
The council referred to by Denny was held at the mouth of Buffalo Creek on the 18th of June. It was attended by Gen. Chapin, as representative of the United States, who found the Indians "much agitated with regard to the movements made by the State of Pennsylvania." He left Buffalo on the 19th, in company with sixteen chiefs and warriors and a British Indian agent, who acted as interpreter, for Presque Isle, which they reached on the 24th. Finding no person there, they proceeded to Le Boeuf that evening, where they met Capt. Denny and Mr. Ellicott, one of the State Commissioners, who had recently come up from Pittsburgh. In the consultation which ensued, the Indians objected to the establishment of garrisons in this quarter in the professed belief that it would involve them in a war with the Western Indians. They also claimed that the lands wee not legally purchased from them by Pennsylvania. Ellicott and Denny replied that the purchase was as openly and fairly made as any that had ever taken place. The Indians returned to Buffalo, where another council was held on the 4thof July, at which it was determined to maintain their rights by force. In a communication of July 17, from the Secretary of War to the Governor, he reported that Chapin had sent word that, had he not proceeded to LeBoeuf and the surveyors not suspended operations, blood would certainly have been shed.

Fort Le Boeuf and Its Garrison

Denny begged of Gen. Gibson on the 27th of June for "a few militia," on the ground that a number of his men at Le Boeuf were ill with the flux and others had to be detached. To the Governor he reported on the 4th of July: -- Have been busy erecting a stockade post. Moved the detachment in yesterday. Am now beyond the power of any body of hostile Indians. None have been around since the party on the 24th. Hear firing almost daily, but whether friends or does is uncertain." Ellicott wrote on the 1st of August: "The Indians consider themselves as our enemies and that we are theirs. From this consideration they never come near the garrison except as spies and then escape as soon as discovered." Denny notified the Governor on the same date that they had four block-houses at LeBoeuf, on two of which a six-pounder was mounted, the others not being calculated for cannon. Over each gate was a swivel. The officers occupied their tents in the absence of more agreeable quarters. The situation he regarded as excellent, except that there was a hollow way parallel with the rear of the works and within gunshot that would "cover any number of Indians." This was examined every morning before the gates were thrown open. A few days previous, two or three Indians were seen "reviewing the plan," who seemed disappointed when a white flag was hoisted. The troops at the post numbered one hundred and ten, inclusive of officers. Ellicott regarded the garrison as being "in excellent order," and that it could, "if supplied with provisions, safely bid defiance to all the Indians between the Genesee and Mississippi Rivers."

On the 10th of September, a man named Dickson was fired at by a party of Indians and wounded in two places, while working in a field within a hundred and fifty yards of the settlement at Cussewago, below LeBoeuf. The news of the atrocious act spread like wildfire, and excited a universal desire among the whites for retaliation.

Denny complained to the Governor, on the 1st of October, that "the men are very naked; few of them have anything but their summer dress, and that in rags, and the most of them are barefooted." Again, o the 1st of November, he sent word: "For want of clothing, particularly shoes, there are numbers of the men who are almost useless. * * The fellows who are barefooted suffer with the snow." A letter from Wilkins, of the 10th of October, dave more favorable accounts from LeBoeuf and Franklin. The British influence over the Six Nations, he stated, had been greatly affected by the defeat which the Western Indians sustained from Gen. Wayne's army in August. A number of Six Nation Indians were in the battle at Maumee, and on getting back to their homes told the most terrifying stories of Wayne's skill and bravery. Mr. Ellicott set out for the older sections of the State on the 23d of October, and was in Philadelphia on the 30th of December. An order was issued by the Governor to Gen. Wilkins on the 26th of October to raise one hundred and thirty men for six months, after the expiration of the services of the detachment at LeBoeuf, for the maintenance of that post and the completion of the Presque Isle enterprise. Each private was to receive 50 shillings a month, besides the customary rations. The old detachment was relieved by the new recruits in the closing part of December.

A Treaty of Peace
By the efforts of Timothy Pickering, representing the United States, a treaty of peace was concluded with the Six Nations at Canandaigua, N. Y., on the 11th of November, in which they unreservedly acknowledged the title of Pennsylvania to the Triangle, and for themselves and their successors released all claims upon the lands within its limits. This happy conclusion was much hastened by the terror of Anthony Wayne's name and victories. As soon as tidings of the treaty reached Washington, word was sent by the President to Gov. Mifflin that the temporary obstacles to the establishment were removed. It being too late in the season when the good news arrived at Le Boeuf to do any effective work at Presque Isle, the detachment remained at the former post until early spring. The force there on the 27th of March, 1795, consisted of nine-nine in all.

While Ellicott was at Le Boeuf, in the summer of 1794, he laid out the town of Waterford, the plan of which was afterward sanctioned by the Legislature. An act for laying out towns at Presque Isle, Le Boeuf, Venango and Conewango (Erie, Waterford, Franklin and Warren) passed that body in April, 1795, being the second in regard to the first-named place. This law also repealed the one of April 8, 1793, quoted in the beginning of this chapter.

Maj. Craig, of the United States Army, stationed at Pittsburgh, reported to the Secretary of War on the 24th of May, 1795, that "the State troops at Le Boeuf are nearly all disbanded. Capt. Buchanan," he says, who commanded at that post (Denny having left), arrived here yesterday with the greater part of the men under his command, who are all discharged." In Buchanan's communication to the Governor, of June 19, he states, however, that Lieut. Mehaffey, with twenty-six men, marched from Pittsburgh with Commissioners Irvine and Ellicott toward Le Boeuf. He, Buchanan, expected to start that day with the balance of the escort. This would imply that a new set of men had been enlisted for the purpose. In Denny's report of his operations, he thus describes the location at Presque Isle: "A mile and a half in some directions from the old French fort the land appears to have been under cultivation, or at least cleared, but is now grown up thick with young chestnut and linn. The fort has been a regular pentagon, but the work was very light. The parapet don't exceed five feet, and the ditch not more. The walls of the magazine, of stone, are standing, and may be repaired. The well may also be easily made fit for use." He mentions that "among the stores sent up by the State" was "a complete set of irons for a saw mill."

Beginning of the Town of Erie
Some two hundred men from Wayne's army landed at Presque Isle early in the spring of 1795, under command of Capt. Russell Bissell. They set to work at once, cutting timber for block-houses, of which two were erected on the bluff overlooking the entrance to the harbor, just east of the mouth of Mill Creek.1 They also cleared a good deal of land to raise corn for the use of the garrison. In June, Ellicott and Irvine, commissioners, arrived, accompanied by a corps of surveyors, and escorted by State troops under command of Capt. John Grubb, to lay out the town of Erie as required by the act of Assembly. How long they remained it is impossible to ascertain. The troops under Bissell built a saw mill the next season at the mouth of Mill Creek, which was the first in Erie County, and gave name to the stream. The command would seem to have been kept up until about 1806, being successively in charge, after Bissell, who continued until 1799, of Capts. Hamtramck, Lyman and McCall, and Gen. Callender Irvine, a son of Commissioner Irvine.

The Last Indian Murder
A bloody incident occurred on the 22d of May, 1795, which was afterward the cause of much discussion and litigation, on account of which we will give the contemporary statements in regard to it found in the Pennsylvania Archives. Denny wrote to the Governor from Pittsburgh on the 29th of May: "Four men were attacked on Saturday last by a party of Indians lying in wait on the road two miles from Presque Isle. One was found scalped; the fate of the other three is not known." A letter from the Secretary of War to Gov. Mifflin, dated the 5th of June, referring to the occurrence, says: "It is not improbable that the attack was in retaliation, because a family of friendly Indians on the Allegheny, returning from their winter hunt, had been fired upon in May be a party of white men, and two of the Indians badly wounded." The man who was killed was named Ralph Rutledge, and one of the other three was his son, who was found scalped but living, and was carried to the fort at Waterford for medical treatment, where he died shortly after. These were the first known deaths in the county. The body of the elder Rutledge was found near the site of the Union depot in Erie, and was buried on the spot where he died.

1The troops merely erected quarters that year; the warehouse and stockades were not completed until the next year, after the new mill was placed in operation. The supplies for the command were brought by vessel from Detroit.

Bibliography: Samuel P. Bates, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, (Warner, Beers & Co.: Chicago, 1884), Part II, Chapter IX, pp. 201-209.



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