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History of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 online

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came to the Forks of the Ohio, and there were semblages of civilization,
and a rude town already well known as Pittsburgh.

That one could ride fast through the woods^ needs no proof to one
who has read of the miraculous escape of John Slover, guide to Colonel
Crawford in the ill-fated expedition against the Indians of the Sandusky
region in 1782. Slover was captured with Crawford, and, tied to a
stake and the fire lighted, was saved by the fury of a sudden thunder-
storm which extinguished the fire. This was a bad omen to the Indians,
and they put off the torture until the next day. Slover managed to work
loose from his bonds in the night, and escaped. On the margin of the
Shawanese village he came to some horses tethered, and, seizing a
strong, active one, rode it straight away for seventy miles until the
poor beast dropped from exhaustion. This feat shows that Slover could
not have met with any serious obstructions. However, he had lived
among the Indians, and may have picked his way. His narrative is that
he kept his steed at all the speed it was capable of .^

More testimony of the state of the wilderness seems necessary, for
the changing of the vast forest wilderness into the abode of civilized
men is the main theme of this history story, the enumeration of the
wonderful changes that have taken place within a century and a half
in the region about Pittsburgh. These changes, with their concomitant
events in the western country, came to those who witnessed them in
startling remembrances wherein the romance of reality about them
swept away the dreams of the forests of old. To quote that noted
pioneer, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Doddridge, such "find it difficult to realize
the features of the wilderness which was the abode of their infant days,"

Dr. Doddridge was a child of the forest. Though born in an older
settled portion of Pennsylvania, in Bedford county, in 1769, he was
removed in 1773 with his parents to the western part of Washington

2"Re!se durch Einegc," etc. ; "A Journey through some of the Middle and South-
em States of North America," John David Schoepf, M. D., 1783; p. 41S

«"Narrativcs of Dr. Knight and John Slo'V'cr," Cincinnati; "Early History of
Western Pennsylvania and the West; I. D. Rupp, Pittsburgh, 1846, p. 210. "Incidents
of Border Life;" pp. 145-147.

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county, Pennsylvania, then under Virginia jurisdiction. Slight wonder
he moralizes and becomes philosphical in his noted work* which was
published in Wellsburg (now West Virginia), in 1824, when he was
sixty-five years old. Though this book is intensely interesting even
to this generation, and is in itself an authentic history and there could
and may be much taken from it to enlighten and corroborate, it is
desirable at this point to quote only his impressions of the forest, the
wilderness, he lived to see "blossom as the rose." No better testimony
can be procured, nor is any more pertinent or instructive. He says :

To a person who has witnessed all the changes which have taken place in the west-
ern country since its first settlement — a person surrounded everjrwhere by the busy
hum of men and the splendor, arts, refinements and comforts of civilized life, his former
state and that of his country have vanished from his memory; or, if sometimes he
bestows a reflection upon its original aspect, the mind seems to be carried back to a
period of time more remote than it really is. The immense changes which have taken
place in the physical and moral state of the country have been gradual, and therefore
scarcely perceived from year to year, but the view from one extreme to the other is like
the prospect of the opposite shore, over a vast expanse of water, whose hills, valleys,
mountains and forests present a confused and romantic scenery which losses itself in ^e
distant horizon.

Dr. Doddridge is looking backwards. Ruminating upon the many
and astounding changes, he esteems himself a hundred years old, instead
of sixty. He could say of events: "Some of which I was, and all of
which I saw," He recalls the forest as he knew it: "A wilderness
of vast extent, presenting the virgin face of nature, unchanged by human
habitation or art, is certainly one of the most sublime terrestrial objects
which the Creator ever presented to the view of man, but those portions
of the earth which bear this character derive their features of sublimity
from very different aspects."

Dr. Doddridge compares the deserts of Africa, the steppes of Russia,
and the Polar solitudes, with the forest wilderness and the Valley of
the Mississippi. After some remarks on the geography and natural
history of the country lying between the Mississippi and the Appalachian
chain, he proceeds with his description of the wilderness:

One prominent feature of a wilderness is its solitude. Those who plunged into the
bosom of the forest left behind them not only the busy hum of men, but domestic life
generally. The departing rays of the setting sun did not receive the requiem of the
feathered songsters of the grove, nor was the blushing aurora ushered in by the shrill
clarion of the domestic fowls. The solitude of the night was interrupted only by the
howl of the wolf, the melancholy moan of the ill-boding owl, or the shriek of the
frightful panther. Even the faithful dog, the only steadfast companion of man among
the brute creation, partook of the silence of the wilderness. This discipline of his mas-
ter forbade him to bark or move but in obedience to command, and his native sagacity
soon taught him the propriety of obedience to his severe master. The day was, if pos-
sible, more solitary than the night. The noise of the wild turkey, the croaking of the

^''Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia
and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 inclusive, together with a Review of the State of
Society and Manners of the First Settlers of the Western Country," by Joseph Dodd-
ridge, Edition 1913, pp. 19-20,

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raven, "the woodpecker tapping the hollow beech tree/' did not much enliven the
dreary scene.

The various tribes of singing birds are not inhabitants of the desert; they are not
carniverous, and therefore must be fed by the labors of man. At any rate, they did
not exist in this country at its first settlement.^

We are to give full credence to the statements of Dr. Doddridge in
the conviction that he is giving us the knowledge of his own senses,
that of a child of the forest clearing who saw the loved songsters come
and the wild beasts go. He has much more to tell of the wilderness as
he knew it. Perhaps it is well to follow him further for a proper under-
standing of the country about Pittsburgh before the white man came,
and to dwell in imagination upon the scenes he describes. Fully com-
prehending these descriptions, the transition of the region to the require-
ments of civilized life that occurred within his lifetime, will seem all
the more wonderful with the story added of the passing of the red men
who devastated and ravaged the settlements — ^a shocking story of cruelty
and savage warfare. Dr. Doddridge plays upon the imagination. He
wants his words to live, to burn deep into the soul of his reader. We
read his words in awe. Imagination responds to his call :

Let the imagination of the reader pursue the track of adventure into this solitary
wilderness. Bending his course toward the setting sun, over undulating hills, under
the shades of the large forest trees, and wading through the rank weeds and grass
which then covered the ground. Now viewing from the top of a hill the winding
course of the creek whose stream he wishes to explore, doubtful of its course and of
his own, he ascertains the cardinal points of north and south by the thickness of the
moss on the north side of the ancient trees. Now descending into a valley and presag-
ing his approach to a river by seeing a large ash, basswood and sugar trees, beautifully
festooned with wild grapevines. Watchful as Argus, his restless eye catches every-
thing around him. In an unknown region, and surrounded with dangers, he is the sen-
tinel of his own safety and relies on himself alone for protection. The toilsome march
of the day ended, he seeks for safety some narrow sequestered hollow, and by the side
of a large log builds a fire, and after eating his coarse and scanty meal, wraps himself
up in his blankets and lays him down on his bed of leaves, with his feet to his little
fire, for repose, hoping for favorable dreams ominous of future good luck, while his
faithful dog and gun repose by his side.6

Dr. Doddridge is telling an experience — that of the explorer and the
pioneer. Though the quoting of his words anticipates the coming
of the white man and the era of permanent settlements in the region,
it is necessary to a proper understanding of its geography and condition
when the fearless explorers, typified in Christopher Gist and Daniel
Boone, first saw the land; so too, the no less intrepid envoy, young
George Washington; the martyred pioneer, surveyor and soldier, Wil-
liam Crawford ; and a long line of daring traders from east of the Sus-
quehanna, the Pennsylvania traders, among whom George Croghan
was king, who boldly plunged through the wilderness and, embarking
at the Forks of the Ohio, penetrated the Indian country, establishing

«"Notes ;" Doddridge, p. 22.
^Jbid,, p. 22.

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their trading stations among all the tribes east of the Mississippi and
north of the Ohio. There were other envoys also — Conrad Weiser and
Christian Frederick Post, whose plain tales of daring and suffering
ending in success, appeal most powerfully to the reader's sympathy;
then the Moravian missionaries: John Heckewelder, Bishop Loskiel,
and their coreligionists, who brought the light of the gospel to the
Indians, and had the successful efforts of years swept away in a day
by the vengeance of the frontiersman — ^a vengeance that ended in
butchery. All these voyagers, like the coureurs de bois of the French,
saw the wilderness as Dr. Doddridge pictures it to us. The story of
each looms up in the mention. But to recur again to Dr. Doddridge's
"Nates ;'* he continues :

But let not the reader suppose that the pilgrim of the wilderness could feast
his imagination with the romantic beauties of nature without any drawback from
conflicting passions. His situation did not afford him much time for contemplation. He
was an exfle from the warm clothing and plentiful mansions of society. His homely
woodman's dress soon became old and ragged, the cravings of hunger compelled him
to sustain from day to day, fatigues of the chase. Often he had to eat his venison,
bear meat, wild turkey, without bread or salt. Nor was this all; at every step the
stnmg passions of hope and fear were in full exercise. His situation was not without
its dangers. He did not know at what tread his foot might be stung by a serpent; at
what moment he might meet with the formidable bear; or, if in the evening, he knew
not on what limb over his head the murderous panther might be perched in a squatting
attitude to drop down upon and tear him to pieces in a moment. When watching a
deer lick from his blind at night, the planther was often his rival in the same business,
and if, by his growl or otherwise the man discovered his rival's presense, the lord of
the world always retired as speedily and secretly as possible, leaving him the undis-
turbed possession of the chance of game.

The solitude of the wilderness gave rise to forebodings. Dr. Dod-
dridge had experienced these, and relates his feelings and the experience
of others as he heard them from the lips of the pioneers. Resuming his
story, one may read :

The wilderness was a region of superstition. The adventurous hunter sought for
ominous presages of his future, good or bad luck in everything about him. Much of
his success depended on the state of the weather; snow and rain were favorable,
because in the former he could track his game, and the latter prevented them from hear-
ing the rustling of the leaves beneath his feet. The appearance of the sky, mommg
and evening, gave him the signs of the times in regard to the weather. So far, he was
a philosopher. Perhaps he was aided in his prognostics on this subject by some old
rheumatic pain which he called his weather clock. Say what you please about this, doctors,
but the first settlers wer« seldom mistaken in this indication of the weather. The
croaking of a raven, the howling of a dog, the screech of an owl, were as prophetic of
future misfortunes among the first adventurers into this country, as they were among
the andent pagans; but above all, their dreams were regarded as ominous of good
or evil.

Dr. Doddridge advises his readers not to be surprised at the super-
stition which existed among the first adventurers of the western wilder-
ness. He opined that it was universally associated with ignorance
in all those who occupy perilous situations of life, and instances the
sailor, and the use of charms, incantations and amulets which constituted

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a part of the superstition of all ages and nations. He cites the perilous
situation of the borderers and the passion of fear excited by danger
on this class of adventurers.

The forests were lasting. More than half a century after Doddridge
wrote, there were vast woodland regions in Western Pennsylvania.
There were others in Dr. Doddridge's years (he died in 1836) who told
of the solitude of the wooded wilderness. Henry Marie Brackenridge
one, exiled from his home in Pittsburgh at the tender age of seven
to St. Genevieve on the Mississippi, in the then Spanish territory of
Louisiana — Brackenridge will be quoted later on in this history, and
his life story from his own writings given. He made the journey from
Pittsburgh in a flatboat in charge of John B. C. Lucas, a native of
France, subsequently a politician, associate judge, member of Congress
from the Pittsburgh district, and later judge of the United States courts
in Missouri territory, but when the boy Brackenridge was with him,
was engaged in fur-trading in Upper Louisiana. The boy had slight
recollections of the outward voyage. Ten days out from Pittsburgh,
they landed at "Hobson's Choice," long since a part of Cincinnati, and,
when Brackenridge was there, the seat of Wayne's encampment. The
year is readily fixed, 1793. Brackenridge said:'' "I have no distinct
recollection of the appearance of the Ohio river in the course of our
descent, except that instead of being enlivened by towns and farms
along its banks, it was a woody wilderness shut in to the water's edge.
At that time, the fair city which now vies with the most ancient seats
of civilization and the arts on this continent, was not. Excepting the
openings and clearings made for the camp, the ground was covered by
lofty trees and entangled vines."

In a few days, Lucas set off again, proceeding silently and as near
as possible to the Kentucky shore, from apprehensions of the Indians.
"How deep a solitude at that day reigned on the beautiful banks of the
Ohio," exclaimed Brackenridge. It was a perilous voyage, but they
went through in safety. Brackenridge did not remember the Falls
of the Ohio at Louisville. It was spring, and the waters were high;
the boat passed over the falls as over any other part of the river. He
was impressed with the solitude, even at his tender age. He said:
"From this place to the mouth of the river, about five hundred miles,
the banks presented an unbroken wilderness, the solitude was not
disturbed by a single human voice out of our boat."

Young Brackenridge remained in. St. Genevieve three years, practi-
cally one of the French family in whose charge he had been placed
by Lucas, who then proceeded on his trading expedition into Upper
Louisiana. When Lucas returned, the boy had acquired a fluency in
the French language, which was his father's object in exiling him the

T^Recollections of Persons and Places in the West,** H. M. Brackenridge, a native
of the Wc8t» traveler, author, jurist; edition of 1868; p. 17.

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thousand miles from his Pittsburgh home. On the return, the party
stopped at the mouth of the Kaskaskia, where the boy was left for
several days with the notorious Thomas Power, a renegade Englishman
and naturalized Spaniard, and a base political intriguer. Then ten years
old, the boy had more pronounced recollections of his voyage.

Brackenridge's brief account of his stay there is most interesting.
His description of the scenery savors of Chateaubriand. Brackenridge
.said: "It was about the middle of summer, the air was delightfully mild
and clear, while nature was clad in her most luxuriant robes. We
gathered the wild pea-vine and made ourselves soft beds under the
shade of the trees which stretched their giant vine-clad arms over the
stream. Flocks of screaming paroquets frequently lighted over our
heads, and the humming birds, attracted by the neighboring honey-
suckles, came whizzing and flitting around us, and then flashed away

A recent writer, John Finley,® quotes from Chateaubriand's vivid
imagery of the forests of America as that author rhapsodizes in his
"Atala." Mr. Finley shows that it is a mistake to suppose the American
forests and plains were trackless before white men came. One who has
read "Atala" must be divested of his author's illusions. Describing a
valley, Chateaubriand said:

Trees of every form, of every color and every perfume, throng and grow together,
up into the air in flights, and weary the eye to follow. Wild vines intertwining each
other at the feet of their trees, escalade their trunks and creep along the extrem-
ity of their branches, stretching from the maple to the tulip tree, from the
tulip tree to the hollyhock, and thus forming grottos, arches and porticos. Often in
their wanderings from tree to tree, these creepers cross the arm of a river over which
they throw a bridge of flowers.

A multitude of animals spread about life and enchantment. From the extremities
may be seen bears, intoxicated with the grape, staggering upon the branches of the elm
trees. Caribous bathe in the lake; black squirrels play among the thick foliage;
mocking birds and Virginia pigeons, not bigger than sparrows, fly down upon the turf
reddened with strawberries; green parrots with yellow heads, purple woodpeckers and
cardinals red, clamber up to the very tops of the cypress trees ; humming birds sparkle
upon the jessamine of the Floridas; and bird-catching serpents hiss while suspended
to the domes of the woods, where they swim about like creepers themselves.

After one has paused to take a deep breath at this point in the
perusal, he can come back to earth and take note that the author of
"Atala" has wandered from the eastern bank of the Mississippi to the
Everglades. We drop gently, therefore, from "the domes of the woods"
to the solid earth, and read on, for we are coming now to something
like the northern woods, and we are to pay particular attention to
the difference in the forests through which Rene and Atala advanced,
etc., and the forests of Dr. Doddridge's years, and those through which
Thomas Ashe rode and tells of. Chateaubriand proceeds: "All here

S'The French in the Heart of America," Scribner's Mag., 1912; in book form I9I5»
pp. 175, et seq. See also "Atala," Harry's translation, pp. 2, 3, 19.

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is sound and motion when a breeze happens to animate these solitudes,
to swing these floating bodies, to confound these masses of white, blue,
green, and pink; to mix the colors and to combine all the murmurs.
There issue such sounds from the depths of the forests, and such things
pass before the eyes, that I should in vain endeavor to describe them to
those who have never visited these primitive fields of nature."

Let us here put our imaginations to work, and observe Atala and
Rene "advancing with difficulty under a vault of smilax, amidst vines,
indigo plants, bean trees, and creeping ivy that entangled their feet
like nets, while serpents hissed in every direction, and wolves, bears,
caribous and young tigers, come to hide themselves in these retreats,
made them resound with their roarings." A fine sort of a trackless howl-
ing wilderness through which M. Chateaubriand leads his readers — ^a
wilderness in which Mr. Finley intimates was there only in the author's
thought ; his body was presumably at home.

H. M. Brackenridge saw a different wilderness of forest when he
again passed up the Ohio around the French town of Gallipolis, where
he remained a year with the celebrated Dr. Saugrain. Henry Howe in
his "Historical Collections of Ohio" has given us a view of this forest-
surrounded hamlet of log huts.®

No such a forest so closely surrounded Pittsburgh in Brackenridge's
boyhood, for the pioneers had then been swinging their axes for forty
years. The elder Brackenridge, riding the trail from Philadelphia in
1781, saw it also, and Major Ebenezer Denny, first mayor of the city
of Pittsburgh, in 1816, often riding the same road when a boy of thirteen
and a bearer of dispatches to the commandant at Fort Pitt in 1774, and
seventeen years later riding the road again from Pittsburgh to Phila-
delphia in six days, with the official report of St. Clair's defeat. All the
soldiers of Great Britain that served the King at Fort Pitt came the
wilderness trail through the forest ; the caravans also of the Pennsylvania
traders, and Craig, O'Hara, the Wilkinses, and a long line of the pioneers
of Pittsburgh. Later came the conestogas of the emigrants, and the
pack-trains of the freighters, and finally the stage coach, the canal, and
the railroad.

A different forest from the elysium at Kaskaskia, H. M. Bracken-
ridge saw on the Ohio on his return to Pittsburgh. He attests that the
banks were uninhabited, and no boats going down; he and his fellow-
voyagers, short of provisions, were in danger of starvation. Their
hunters had often poor success. A huge bear came out from the
forest-lined shore and attacked their boat in mid-stream, threat-
ening them with destruction. Killed after a hard battle, the
bearmeat provided a feast not more providential and the manna in
the wilderness of old. A herd of buffalo next appeared to offer a

dEditioa of 1848; p. 180.

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victim, and not long after, when encamping for the night in a beautiful
grove of sugar trees, the voyagers were made aware of a flock of wild
turkeys roosting above their heads. More feasting followed. Years
later. Judge Brackenridge, writing of these incidents of his boyhood,
described the trees of the forests he had known — the beautiful sugar
maple, the towering pecane of the Mississippi in magnificent groves
also; and the gigantic and remarkable sycamore; the sugar and syca-
more most common about the town of Pittsburgh. With what we may
believe a sigh, Brackenridge penned these lines in 1830: "The wonderful
productions of nature are however fast disappearing before the ax of
the settler, and in time these plantations of groves and trees which
may be ranked among the proudest of her works, will be known to tra-
dition, like the race of the giants."

The tradition is here. Brackenridge saw the groves go, for he lived
to be eighty-six, dying in Pittsburgh in 1872. No history of Pittsburgh
can be written without frequent reference to the Brackenridges, for
both wrote much history of this place, and the younger much of the
townspeople, of some of whom no one else has left mention.

Washington, in his Journals of 1753 and 1770, the latter of his trip
from Pittsburgh to the Kanawha, has much description of the lands
through which he traveled from day to day, but he looked on it with
the eyes of the surveyor and the farmer, for he was both. Anon he
trained a military eye upon certain suggestive situations as most suit-
able for fortification. Thus his well known and oft-quoted observations
^^ 1 753 on his first seeing the confluence of the rivers at what was
subsequently the site of Pittsburgh, and also in the same vein at his
first view of McKee's Rocks. Washington saw much bad land, for he
records, December 7, 1753:

At twelve o'clock wc set out for the fort, and were prevented arriving there
until the iith by excessive rains, snows, and bad travelbg through the many, mires and

Online LibraryAmerican Historical Society George Thornton FlemingHistory of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 → online text (page 2 of 81)