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

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swamps. These we were obliged to pass to avoid crossing the creek, which wa?
impassable either by fording or rafting, the water was so high and rapid.

We passed over much good land since we left Venango, and through several very
extensive and rich meadows, one of which, I believe, was nearly four miles in length
and considerably wide in some places.

Washington was traveling from Venango (now Franklin, in Venango
county), to the French Fort Le Boeuf, at what is now the town of
Waterford, in Erie county, Pennsylvania, in an airline a distance of forty
miles only.

It is to be noted that there were natural clearings in the forest. The
one spoken of by Washington, similar to those in Central Pennsylvania,
from which the name "Clearfield" has been given to the Pennsylvania
county and town, these "clear fields" a noted section on the Kittanning

Conrad Weiser in his journals has little to say of topography, neither

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has George Croghan in his. Christopher Gist, a surveyor, is always
specific in stating his bearings and courses and the number of miles
traveled. Like Washington, Gist had his eye on the land for the possi-
bilities of settlement. Thus, in going from Shannopin's Town (which
was on the Allegheny river at what is now the foot of Thirty-third
street, Pittsburgh), to Logstown, on the Ohio, subsequently the site
of Wayne's encampment, he called Legionville. Gist wrote :

Nov. 24th, 1750. — Set out from Shannopin's Town and swam our horses across the
River Ohio (Allegheny) 74 w. 4, etc., and went down the river. All the land from
Shannopin's Town is good along the River, but the bottoms are broad. At a Dis-
tance from the River good Land for Farming covered with small white and red Oaks
and tolerably level ; fine runs for mills, &

Post came the northern trail to Logstown, starting at Philadelphia
and traveling by way of Shamokin, now Sunbury. He came the long,
hard trail to Venango and thence across the counties of Venango, Mer-
cer, Lawrence and Beaver, to Logstown, which was above Old Economy,
now Ambridge. He returned the same road. At times he describes
the country, especially if it was bad. Thus, September 9, 1758: "We
took a little footpath hardly to be seen. We lost it and went through
thick bushes till we came to a mire which we did not see till we were
in it, and Tom Hickman fell in and almost broke a leg. We had hard
work to get the horse out again. The Lord helped me that I got safe
from my horse. We passed many such places; it rained all day and
we got a double portion of it, because we received all that hung on
the bushes. We were as wet las if we were swimming all the day. At
night we laid ourselves down in a swampy place to sleep, where we
had nothing but the heavens for our covering."

"Tom Hickman" was one of Post's Indian guides. Post's mission to
the Indians on the Ohio will be told in Chapter XXI.

On September 13th, Post again had bad traveling. He wrote in his
journal this day: "We went through a bad swamp where there were
some very thick thorns so that they tore our clothes and flesh, both
hands and face, to a bad degree."

The wilderness woodland of Western Pennsylvania was good and
bad in spots, it is to be observed. Clear fields, burned over wastes,
mire, vast stretches of swampland such as the Pymatuning swamp in
Mercer and Crawford counties, and such arable land as mentioned by
Washington and Gist, though heavily wooded. These pioneer surveyors
were used to the wilderness, its tumults and its solemn stillness. The
solitude of the deep woods did not impress them. They were used to
it from childhood. It did impress many who journeyed to Pittsburgh
in the early days of the town, the stories of these tourists to come later
in this history. As late as 1841, when Dickens was here, the forests were

io"Gist's Journals, etc.," William M. Darlington, Pittsburgh, 1893; P. 34.

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such in extent as to draw from him the description he has given us in
his "American Notes." Many of these tourists went home and wrote
books recording their adventures, experiences, impressions, and the
history, natural and secular, of the regions traversed, and some have
been charged with transgressing the vale of truth. No better records
of the early history of the ''Western Country," as it was for many years
called, have been handed down to us than these records of these touring
journal-writers. What they said of the woods through which they
staged, or rode, or came by horse-drawn vehicle, is pertinent to the story
of the region before the white man came to stay, or had not yet occupied
all of the section about the Forks of the Ohio — or, we may say, the
Upper Ohio Valley, or even "Pittsburgh and Its Environs," or, in the
language of the Census Bureau, "Pittsburgh's Metropolitan District" —
a designation most used in marts of trade.

Some of the tales of these tourists are most interesting, especially
those who in the language of the Modern West can be regarded as

Thomas Ashe, whose story of the woods will come later in this
chapter, was an Irish tourist and a man of curious mind. He was in
Pittsburgh in 1806, and remained there until spring, visiting many
places in the region. He journeyed from Pittsburgh to Erie via the
Franklin road. He saw everything. In the language of his English
publisher in the preface to Ashe's Book :^^ "Mr. Ashe here gives an account
everyway satisfactory. With all the necessary requirements he went
on an exploratory journey with the sole view of examining this inter-
esting country, and his researches, delivered in the familiar style of
letters, in which he carries the reader along with him, cannot fail to
interest and inform the politician, the statesman, the philosopher, and
the antiquarian. He explains the delusions that have been held up
by fanciful or partial writers as to the country by which so many indi-
viduals have been misled, and he furnishes to the naturalist a variety
of interesting information," etc.

This is true. Ashe was especially full in details, and was greatly
interested in the fauna and flora of the country he traversed. He paid
particular notice to the roads, especially to those leading to the Onon-
daga salt region of New York State, and necessarily mentions the paths
made by the native animals in their resorting to the salt licks. He noted
that: "The best roads to the Onondaga from all parts, are the buffalo
tracks, so-called from having been observed to be made by the buffaloes
in their annual visitations to the lakes for their pasture grounds, and
though this is a distance of above two hundred miles, the best surveyor
could not have chosen a more direct course, or a firmer or better ground.

ii^Travels in America Performed in the Year 1806, etc.;" by Thomas Ashe, Esq.,
London printed; Newbuiyport Edition, i8o8» most common.

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I have often followed these tracks with safety and admiration. I per-
ceived them chosen as if by the nicest judgment, and when, at times,
I was perplexed to find them revert on themselves in parallel lines, I
soon found it occasioned by swamps, ponds or precipices, which the
animals knew how to avoid, but, that object being effected, the road
again swept into its due course and bore towards its destination as if
under the direction of a compass."

It is to be noted how closely Ashe's language, written one hundred

years previously, approaches Dr. Hulbert's description of the buffalo

Ashe met and interviewed old settlers who knew the buffalo, and no
other proof is necessary to adduce at this point than that evidenced in
the naming of the city of Buffalo, to show how the American bison once
ranged the country of Western Pennsylvania when the first white man
came to it. So large were the herds encountered by the French in their
first explorations in Northwestern Pennsylvania, that they called French
creek in Crawford and Erie counties, the "Riviere aux Boeufs." Ashe
states :

One old man, one of the first settlers in this country, built his log house on the
immediate borders of a salt spring. He informed me that for the first several seasons
the buffaloes paid him their visits with the utmost regularity; they traveled in single
file, always following each other in equal distances, forming droves on their arrival of
about three hundred each. The first and second years, so unacquainted were these poor
brutes with the use of this man's house or with his nature, that in a few hours they
rubbed the house completely down, taking delight in turning the logs off with their
horns, while he had some difficulty to escape from being trampled under their feet, or
crushed to death in his own room. At that period he supposed there could not have
been less than ten thousand in the neighborhood of the spring. They sought for no
manner of food, but only bathed and drank three or four times a day, and rolled in the
earth, or reposed with their flanks distended in the adjacent shade, and on the fifth and
sixth days separated into distinct droves, bathed, drank, and departed in single file
according to die exact order of their arrival. They all rolled successively in the same
hole, and each thus carried away a coat of mud to preserve the moisture on their skin,
and which, when hardened and baked by the sun, would resist the stings of millions of
insects that otherwise would have persecuted these peaceful travelers to madness or
even death. ^ 8

Ashe may have been told this, or he may have extracted the story
from some work on natural history current in his day. He tells the
habits of the bison truthfully, and accounts for the roads as other
writers have done. He mentions the wallow and the wallowing. Buf-
falo wallows in the region about Pittsburgh will strike the reader as
ancient history in its insertion here, nevertheless we have the name,
buffalo, geographically applied more than once within thirty miles of
the city — Buffalo creek, emptying into the Allegheny river at Freeport,
in Armstrong county, and North and South Buffalo townships in that

i2"Historic Highways," VoL II, Archer Butler Hulbert; Chap I., "Indian Thor-

i8««Xravcls, etc;" Ashe, supra., p. 48.

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locality ; also Buffalo township and Buffalo creek in Washington county.
These applications of the borderer's name for the bison recognize the
fact that the localities so-named were once part of that animal's habitat.
It may be noticed that Ashe's statistics are given only in round numbers.

It was while en route to Pittsburgh, after leaving Bedford, that Ashe
met with the adventures that caused him to describe the woodland
solitudes that encompassed him. Night came on him in crossing the
AUeghenies, he said, on account of having traveled along so attentive to
objects around him and wasted so much time in visionary speculations.
He found himself on the summit of the ridge where the road was nar-
row, and bounded by frightful precipices. If he attempted to advance,
a sudden and rapid death seemed unavoidable to him; if he remained
where he was, wolves, panthers and tiger cats were at hand to devour
him. He chose the latter risk as having less of fatal certainty in it. "I
thought I could effect something by resistance," he said, "or that for-
tune might favor me by giving a more suitable supper and a different
hunting ground to the ferocious animals."

So he remained in the woods, and had abundance of time for reflec-
tion. Strange thoughts filled his excited brain. He recorded them
all in his stilted style. He said :

The progress of night was considerably advanced, and the powerful exhilarations
of the preceding sun for want of wind to disperse, or waft them to other parts, were
returning to their parent wood. They at first hovered in the form of transparent
clouds over small creeks and rivulets in the intervals of the mountains, and then
assumed a wider range, spreading over the entire valley and giving to it the appearance
of a calm, continued sea. This beautiful transfiguration took place several hundred
feet below me, while the summit of the hill had no mist and the dew was not sensible.
Th^ moon shone but capriciously, for though some places were adorned with her
brightest beams and exhibited various fantastic forms and covers, others were unaf-
fected by her light, and awfully mountained an unvaried gloom, a darkness visible con-
veying terror and dismay.**

Ashe was having a night of it. The vividness of his surroundings had
plunged him in deep awe. He tells of his impressions :

Such impressions were fining fast on my imagination, till an object of inex-
pressible sublimity gave a different direction to my thoughts and seized the entire
possession of my mind. The heavenly vault appeared to be all on fire, not exhibiting
the stream of character of the aurora bcMealis, but an immensity vivid and clear,
through which the stars detached from the firmament traversed in eccentric directions,
followed by trains of light of diversified magnitude and brightness. Many meteors
rose majestically out of the horizon, and having gradually attained an elevation of
thirty degrees, suddenly burst and descended to the earth in a shower of brilliant sparks
or glittering gems. This splendid phenomenon was succeeded by a multitude of
shooting stars, and balls and columns of fire, which, after assuming a variety of forms,
vertical, spiral and circular, vanished in slight flashes of lightning and left the sky in
its usual appearance and serenity. "Nature stood checked*' during this exhibition; all
was a "death-like silence and a dread repose." Would it had continued for a timet I
had insensibly dropped on my knees, and felt that I was offering to ttie great Creator
of the works which I witnessed, the purest tribute of admiration and praise. My heart
was full ; I could not repress by gratitude, and tears gushed from my eyes.

i^'^Travels," etc. ; Ashe, p. 16, et seq.

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One familiar with the proceedings of the councils with the Indians,
wishes he had a string of wampum handy with which to "wipe the
tears from his eyes and clear his heart/' etc. We may or may not believe
that Ashe was sincere, for a few weeks later he was a discredited man
in Pittsburgh, with the reputation of an adventurer and so untruthful
in some of his statements and dishonest in his dealings that his words
are taken with some degree of allowance. To continue the story of his
night in the woods, we are told :

These pious, pleasing sensations were soon forced to yield to others rising out of
objects and circumstances around me. The profound silence maintained during the
luminous representations was followed by the din of the demons of the woods. Clouds
of owls rose out of the valleys and flitted screaming about my head. The wdves, too,
held some prey in chase, probably deer; their bowlings were reverberated from moun-
tain to mountain, or carried through the windings of the vales, returned to the ear an
unexpected wonder. Nor was the panther idle; though he is never to be heard till in
the act of springing on his victim, when he utters a horrid cry. The wolf in hunting
howls all the time, certainly with the view of striking terror, for being less fleet than
many of the animals on which he subsists, they would escape him did he not thus check
their speed by confounding their faculties. This is particularly the case with the deer.

Ashe tells next how the wild beasts take their prey, as revealed to
him in the midnight in the forest, especially the methods of the tiger-
cat, the Pennsylvania catamount most probably referred to. Then he
resumes the story of his experiences, stating:

The intervals between the cries and roarings were filled by the noise of millions
of little beings. Every tree, shrub, plant and vegetable harbored some thousands of
inhabitants, endowed with the faculty of expressing their passions, wants and appe-
tites, in different tones and varied modulations. The most remarkable was the voice
of the whip-poor-will, plaintive and sad; "whip-poor-will" was his constant exclama-
tion, nor did he quit his place, but seemed to brave the chastisement which he repeatedly
lamented. The moon by this time had sunk into the horizon, which was the signal for
multitudes of lightning flies to rise amidst the trees and spread a new species of radi-
ance around. In many places, where they fell and rose in numbers, they fell like a
shower of sparks, and in others, where thinly scattered, they emitted an intermittent
pleasing ray.

Ashe is frequently guilty of hyperbole. He terms Mt. Washington,
on the south side of Pittsburgh, a mountain, and with "thousands of
inhabitants on every shrub," etc. Ashe certainly was in a densely
populated region and, we may fairly assume, was not lonesome. He
gives us a graphic and interesting account of the forest wilderness at
night, and his experiences in it were the same as the woodland rangers,
white or red, except that these men, accustomed to the noises of the
woods, curled up, as Dr. Doddridge has related, and slept undisturbed
by the din around them — new, strange and terrifying to a lone traveler.
The noises Ashe mentions were familiar to the first settlers, and con-
tinued until the woodland was cleared, and the wildest and largest of the
carnivora were driven to the recesses of the mountains. With the dawn,
the turmoil of the night ceased, and Ashe was transported from a disturb-
ing commotion to dead silence, and in consequence became pensive

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again. He relates : "At length the day began to dawn ; both the noisy
and the glittering world withdrew and left to nature a silent, solemn
repose of one-half hour. This I employed in reflections on the immensity
and number of her works and the presumption of man in pretending to
count and describe them. Who dares compose a history of nature,
should first pass a night where I did. He would be taught the vanity
of his views and the audacity of his intentions."

Ashe begins a new chapter here, after a half page of reflections,
after the paragraph just quoted. His chapters are all in the form of
letters beginning "Dear Sir," and signed "T. A." at the conclusion of
the first one ; the rest are merely dated, the one now to be noticed, dated
as the preceding: "Pittsburgh October 1806." He describes a beautiful
valley as he saw it at dawn on resuming his journey on horseback, and
his description of this has been greatly admired. He has also some
description of American forests which is corroborative of what has been
stated ante in this chapter. He begins his chapter thus :

As day approached from the east, I recommenced my jottrney. The sun soon after
colored "in gay attire" some of the summits of the mountains, but his lum-
inous body was not visible for considerable time, and when it did appear in all
its majesty, its rays were for several hours too oblique to penetrate the depths of
the valley and disperse the ocean which the preceding day had formed. It was inter-
esting to observe with what reluctance the mists dissipated ; till touched by the magic
beam they were one uniform sheet They then assumed a variety of forms, clouds
representing grotesque and lively figures, crowning some of the highest trees. Some
descended to the bosom of the stream and followed the windings of the waters; others
hovered over fountains and springs ; while the larger portion rose boldly to the moun-
tain tops, in defiance of the sun, to gain the higher atmosphere and again descend to the
earth in dew or showers.

The birds with the first dawn left the recesses of the valley and taking their
elevated seats joined in one universal choir. At least nothing had more the resem-
blance of a general thanksgiving, or oblation of praise to the Author of life and light,
and though it might have been but a burst of exultation for the return to mom, I pre-
ferred thinking it a grateful expression of worship.^s

Ashe had reached a habitation, and stopped for refreshments. We
may believe his account of the bird concert a phantasy, for nothing is
truer than the fact that our song birds came with the first settlers,
as Dr. Doddridge well knew and has recorded. Mr. Cuming, a con-
temporary traveler, noted the absence of song birds : "Thursday, twenty-
first August, I walked out with the first dawn of a fine morning, nothing
being wanting to render it delightful except the carol of the winged
inhabitants of the woods, which throughout this country is very rare."
Cuming was in an old settled country, too, just west of Washington,

Ashe, after breakfasting, borrowed a rifle from his host the settler,
and plunged into the forest. He remarks: "The American forests have

is'TravcIs," etc; Ashe, pp. 20-21.

^•'•Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country, etc.,'' F. Cuming, Pittsburgh,
1810; p. 215.
Pitta.— 2

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generally one interesting quality, that of being entirely free from under^
or brush, wood. This is owing to the extraordinary height and spreading
tops of the trees, which thus prevent the sun from penetrating to the
ground and nourishing inferior articles of vegetation. In consequence
of the above circumstance, one can walk in them with much pleasure
and see an enemy from a considerable distance."

Ashe is only partly right here. After shooting "a very large bear"
which tumbled x>ff the limb of a "very large*' tree conveniently close by,
hjls story of this adventure uncorroborated, he tells of his further wander-
ings in the forest, saying : "I continued on my way until I came to a wood
of younger growth interspersed with spots entirely clear of timber and
marked by traces of former cultivation. I examined the place with care.
It was an Indian camp such as is often seen from the borders of the
Atlantic t© the great western waters, and even to the Pacific Ocean."

Ashe's bear was probably one of the Chateaubriand species, "intoxi-
cated with the wild grape, staggering off the limb." Ashe remained
over night with the settler, and the next merning rode on towards
Pittsburgh. To continue his story, reading further, it states that:

Autumn had already begun to shed a varied tint over the numerous subjects of
her rich domain. I amused myself in endeavoring to co^nt and classify the colors
which she employs to diversify nature and distinguish her reign from that of other
seasons, but I made little progress, for the scene was too grand, extensive and sub-
lime to come under the confined control of human calculation. I was on a vast emi-
nence commanding a view of a valley in which stood millions of trees and from which
many millions more gradually rose in the form of an immense amphitheatre. It
appeared as if every tree, though many were of the same class, had shades, hue and
character peculiar to itself, derived from individual altitude, growth and soil; and
presentation to heavenly bodies and the emanations issuing from them. It was one of
those scenes on which the mind would dwell with infinite rapture, but which can never
be (Jescribed with justice and truth except by one inspired by Him "whose breath per-
fumes them, and whose pencil paints.*'^? But,

"Who can paint

Like Nature? Can imagination boast

Amidst her creation, hues like these?"


After crossing the Laurel Ridge and proceeding through the Ligonier
Valley, Ashe's narrative continues in a few paragraphs until he announces
his arrival in Pittsburgh. He said: "Nothing worthy of mention struck
my notice until I arrived within three miles of Pittsburgh, when I
descended into the beautiful vale which leads into that town. It was"
impossible to behold anything more interesting than this; it extended
three miles on a perfect level, cultivated irl the highest degree, bounded
by rising ground on the left and a transparent river on the right, and
leading to a well inhabited town where I meant to repose after a
journey of 320 miles, 150 of them over stupendous mountains and bar-
ren rocks."

Ashe IS likely wrong in his statements of distance. From one place

""Travels;" p. 23.

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only could he see a river on his right, and this was the Allegheny, for
he was traveling the old Forbes road from Bedford, which took the
high ground coming into Pittsburgh from Turtle Creek, and when

Online LibraryAmerican Historical Society George Thornton FlemingHistory of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 → online text (page 3 of 81)