A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania, 1905

The County of Mercer

MERCER COUNTY is one of the range contiguous to the western boundary of the State.  It was taken from Allegheny County by the act of March 12, 1800.  Length, thirty-two miles; breadth, twenty-six miles; area, seven hundred and sixty-five square miles.  Population in 1800, 3228; in 1810, 8277; in 1820, 11,681; in 1830, 19,729; in 1840 32,873.
     Mercer County was a wilderness until several years after the passage of the celebrated land law of April, 1792 providing for the survey and settlement of all the lands "north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers and Conewango Creek."  Soon after peace was restored to the frontier, in 1795, settlements were made extensively about the southern end of Mercer County, in the forks of Mahoning, Shenango, and Neshannock Creeks.
     The adventures of these worthy pioneers were few, and of little general interest.  The county was for many years retarded in its growth, and the actual settlers were greatly harassed by the various and conflicting titles to land growing out of the acts of 1785 and 1792.
      The pioneer settlers were principally Scotch-Irish, and all Presbyterians.
     "The surface of the county is undulating, but little broken, and peculiarly well watered.  It is covered with springs and small streams running into the larger creeks.  These creeks consist of the Big Shenango on the west, which rises in Crawford County; Neshannock in the centre, with heads all over the northern central portion of the county, and Wolf Creek on the east.  These streams all run in a southerly direction, and eventually are swallowed up in the Big Beaver, that empties itself into the Ohio River at Rochester.  In addition to these there is the Little Shenango, that runs across a portion of the northern end of the county from east to west, rising six or seven miles east of the central line from south to north, and that empties into the Big Shenango at Greenville; and also Sandy Creek, that takes its rise in Crawford County, and, running diagonally through the northeast quarter, empties itself into the Allegheny River about twelve miles below Franklin. Sandy Lake, a sheet of water about a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, situated near the centre of the northeast quarter of the <pg. 580> county, discharges its surplus water into Sandy Creek.  The character of its general surface, its bountiful supply of water, and richness of soil was well calculated to make it the foremost agricultural county in this part of the State; nor has it disappointed the anticipations of its early settlers, for it is now not only a fine agricultural, but a heavy and prosperous mining and iron county, notwithstanding that it lost nearly a fourth of its territory in the erection of Lawrence County.
     The territory comprising Mercer County was filled with Indians and wild animals before the white man's advent, and for several years after.  The Indians were Senecas and popularly called Cornplanters.  They lived by hunting and fishing.
     There were three large Indian towns, one where Mercer is now, containing seventy lodges; one at the big bend, and the other at Pine Swamp, what is now Jackson Township.
     About 1804 a noted hunter, James Jeffers, entered this region.  "There are a number of incidents related concerning his hostility to the Indian race, which had been aroused on account of the cruelty with which some of his relatives had been treated by the savages.  Whether these are true or not cannot now be determined.  They belong, however, to the folk-lore of the county, and as such deserve recital.  It is said that on one occasion, while roaming through the forest, he suddenly met two Indians.  They instinctively knew him to be a foe, and both at once dodged behind the cover of friendly trees.  Jeffers perceived that the contest of one against two would be an unequal one, if carried on squarely, so he resorted to artifice to overcome the odds.  Taking off his cap be placed it over the muzzle of his rifle, and exposed it, apparently incautiously, to the view of his antagonists.  This had the desired effect.  Thinking it was his head which they saw, one of them instantly shot and sent a ball through the empty cap.  Jeffers dropped the cap to the ground, giving a death-like groan as he did so.  The two Indians at once sprang from cover, and were rushing forward to secure the scalp of their supposed victim, when the latter stepped forth, cocked his rifle and prepared to shoot.  He was at first at a loss to know which of the two had the loaded rifle, but perceiving one of them lift his weapon to his shoulder, he surmised that he was the dangerous foe, and accordingly shot him.  The remaining savage sprang forward with a huge knife and engaged in a hand to hand conflict, but the superior cunning of the white man caused victory to perch on his side.  As the savage was about to make a final thrust, Jeffers detected the course of the knife, and it sheathed itself in the breast of the Indian himself, instantly killing him.
     The wild animals in what is now Mercer County were the usual kind that inhabited this region, and the following story will give you an idea of the snake inhabitants.
     About 1800, or 1803, John Johnson lived on a piece of land near the Asa Arnold farm.  This farm is situated on the west of Yankee Ridge.  Johnson's wife went out from her cabin early one morning to get her cows.  She had not gone far until she found herself surrounded with rattlesnakes.  They were in such numbers that she was compelled to climb a dogwood that stood near by.  Her cries for help reached her husband, and he came to her relief.  In excitement, he said, "Polly, I can't relieve you myself, there are too many snakes;" and then running to his neighbor, Asa Arnold, he came back with new courage.  With hickory poles, these two men cut their way through the snakes until Mrs. Johnson was relieved.  Both men sickened in this work and had to rest fur a time, and then go at the destruction again.  The yellow rattlesnakes were counted and piled, two hundred in number, while there were many black and other snakes left on the ground uncounted. Some of the rattles counted as many as twenty-five.  The rattlers of Northwestern Pennsylvania are the banded variety, called timber rattlers.

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   In the fall of the year 1806 several families came in from Westmoreland, Allegheny, and Washington Counties, and made an opening.  The only one remaining over that winter was John Findley, but the others came back in the spring.  John Findley's neighbors at that time were John Pugh, James Braden, John Carvin, William Alexander, Mr. Hawthorn, and Mr. McCullough.

In the fall of the year 1806 several families came in from Westmoreland, Allegheny, and Washington Counties, and made an opening.  The only one remaining over that winter was John Findley, but the others came back in the spring.  John Findley's neighbors at that time were John Pugh, James Braden, John Carvin, William Alexander, Mr. Hawthorn, and Mr. McCullough.
     "Mercer, the county seat, is situated near the Neshannock Creek, on elevated ground, fifty-seven miles northwest from Pittsburg by the turnpike.  It was laid out in 1803 by John Findley, William Mortimore, and William McMillan, trustees, on two hundred acres of land given to the county by John Hoge, of Washington County, who owned large tracts of land in the vicinity.  The hill on which it is situated was formerly a dense hazel thicket.  The first courts were held in an old log court-house.  The court and county officers are now accommodated in elegant public buildings of brick, surrounded by a verdant lawn planted with trees, and enclosed by a neat white <pg. 584> fence.  In 1807 there were only two or three houses in the place.  In 1840 it had a population of seven hundred and eighty-one.  The dwellings are neat and substantial, and display a pleasing variety of architectural embellishment.  Besides the county buildings, there are in the town an academy, Methodist, Union, Seceder, Old and New School Presbyterian churches, a foundry, and the usual stores and taverns.  Daily lines of stages pass through on the Pittsburg and Erie turnpike.
     "West Greenville is situated in the northwestern part of the county, on the Shenango River, and is surrounded by large bodies of fine land.  The Erie Extension Canal passes through the town, affording every facility to commerce.  There are in the immediate vicinity extensive beds of iron ore and mines ot very superior coal, which will form an important article of export to the lake.  The rapid growth of the town, and the taste and beauty exhibited in its embellishments, indicate the advantages of its location.  Seven years since the population was not more than three hundred; it numbered in 1840, six hundred and twenty-six.  The Shenango River affords a very ample water-power, which drives several large mills, and is still not all occupied."—Day's Collections.
     In 1840 there were twelve churches in the county, and special attention was paid to common school education.
     The public road from Pittsburg to Erie through Mercer, Meadville, etc., was authorized and laid out when the territory was under the control of Crawford County.
     In 1817 the Mercer and Meadville Turnpike Company was chartered.  In 1821 the company opened the line for general traffic.  The streams of the county at first had to be forded, but later temporary wooden bridges were erected.


     In 1822-23 the Legislature authorized a survey.  In 1824 the United States Government did the same.  In 1827 the Legislature passed an act for the construction. Ground was broken on the French Creek feeder at Meadville, August 24, 1827, and it was completed to Conneaut Lake in 1834.
     In 1843 ninety-seven miles of the main line had been finished, and four million dollars had been expended on the improvement by the State.  The work was now turned over without cost to the Eric Canal Company, and was finished by the company December 5, 1844, when the first two boats, the "Queen of the West," a passenger packet, and the "R. S. Reed," loaded with Mercer County coal, passed through to Erie.
     William Fruit, of Clarksville, was a pioneer in the coal business, and made this his first shipment of coal to Erie.  The canal-boat held twenty-seven tons of coal.
     At Erie his new fuel was not in demand.  He eventually sold it at two dollars per ton.
<pg. 585>
     Other coal operators were General James Pierce and Rev. George McCleery.


     In 1806 a weekly mail was established from Pittsburg to Erie by the way of Mercer,—a horseback route; a semi-weekly in 1818; a tri-weekly in 1824.
     In 1821 a stage route was opened, and a daily mail line was authorized in 1827.
     Mercer, July 1, 1805, Cunningham S. Semple.  Sharon, August 11, 1819, Elias Jones.  Greenville, January 9, 1828, Alexander P. Waugh.  Jamestown, April 3, 1833, John Williamson, Jr.  Clark, July 14, 1833, John Fruit.  New Vernon, July 20, 1837, John M. Montgomery.  Perrine, February 16, 1833, William H. Perrine.  Salem, March 6, 1832, William Leech.  Sandy Lake, January 30, 1833, Thomas J. Brown.  North Liberty, January 15, 1840, Robert Shaw.  West Middlesex, August 30, 1839, Robert B. Young.  Grove City, July 11, 1844, William Fleming.  Centretown, January 9, 1840, John Tumelson.  Leesburg, December 3, 1836, Arthur Johnston.  London, March 16, 1848, David Gilson.  New Lebanon, December 17, 1849, James A. Leech.


     In 1846 there were ten iron furnaces in Mercer County.
     The pioneer agricultural society was in existence as early as January 5, 1828.  Joseph Justice was president, Nathaniel McElevey, secretary, and Joseph Emery, treasurer.
     The Mercer Whig began June 15, 1844, John B. Butler, editor.  In 1830 the West Greenville Gazette was started by Richard Hill.  In 1848 J. W. Mason started the Weekly Express.  In 1852, the paper was purchased by the Rev. William Orvis, and was published as an antislavery educator.  This antislavery paper was in Greenville.


     Who the pioneer doctor was in Mercer County is not known.  Among the early ones were [ ____ ] Clark, the two Cossitts, Dr. Magoffin, Sr., Dr. Magoffin, Jr., and two Mehards.
     The antislavery agitation began in Mercer County about June 15, 1835, by the Rev. Nathaniel West and others.


     Alexander Dumars was appointed justice of the peace in 1810. Allan Hill prosecuted Joseph Nesbit before Squire Dumars for damages done by Nesbit's cows to Hill's cornfield.
     "The parties to the suit appeared.  Nesbit claimed that it was Hill's <pg. 586> fault; that he would not keep up a fence around his field; that he had himself worked to repair and put up his fence, and had also sent hands for that purpose, but that Hill would do nothing to preserve his own grain.  The Squire said, 'If that is the kind of a man Hill is, he ought to be loaded with powder and blown to hell.'  The wily Irishman, Nesbitt, immediately said, 'If that is the judgment of your honor, please give us an execution, and let us have it carried out at once.'"


     The pioneer industries were saw-mills, grist-mills, and whiskey distilleries, built as early as 1801-02, and flaxseed oil-mills in 1812.
     A fulling-mill was erected in 1803 by Benoni Tuttle.
     "In 1849 the townships of Mahoning, Neshannock, and Slippery Rock, together with a strip of territory of about half a mile in width taken from the southern sides of the townships of Springfield, Wilmington, and Shenango, were detached from Mercer to contribute to the erection of Lawrence County.  In these townships were the villages of Harlansburg, New Wilmington, Pulaski, New Bedford, Hillsville, Edenburg, Eastbrook, and the borough of New Castle, containing altogether quite a third of the population of the county.  And thus stand the bounds of Mercer County, with its subdivisions into townships in the one hundred and twelfth year of independence and the eighty-eighth year of its erection as a separate county by the Legislature of Pennsylvania."
     The pioneer fire company of Mercer Borough was organized June 28, 1824.
     The pioneer missionary society in Mercer County held its first meeting in Mercer on June 11, 1834, Rev. Samuel Tait, president; Rev. J. L. Dinwiddie, secretary.  It was a Presbyterian society.
     The first school-house in the borough of Mercer was a one story brick about twenty feet square, heated by a ten-plate stove.
     I copy the following from Egle's "History of Pennsylvania:"
     "Although declared a county by act of Assembly in 1800, for all practical purposes it constituted a part of Crawford until February, 1804, when the first and second courts were held at the house of Joseph Hunter, situated on Mill Creek, on the mill property near Mercer, now owned by the Hon. William Stewart, in February and May of that year.  The commission of Hon. Jesse Moore, as president judge of the circuit composed of the counties of Beaver, Butler, Mercer, Crawford, and Erie, was read; also the commissions of Alexander Brown and Alexander Wright as judges for Mercer County.  The various commissions of John Findley (who was the eldest son of the historic William Findley that was so prominent in Congress in the support of Thomas Jefferson) as prothonotary, clerk of the courts, etc., was also read; so also that of William Byers as sheriff, James Braden as coroner, <pg. 587> and John W. Hunter as deputy prosecuting attorney.  The sheriff and coroner, as well as a board of county commissioners, consisting of Robert Bole, Andrew Denniston, and Thomas Robb, it is presumed were elected in October, 1803.
     The attorneys admitted to practice at the first court were John W. Hunter, Joseph Shannon, C. S. Sample, S. B. Foster, A. W. Foster, Ralph Marlin, Edward Work, Patrick Farrelly, William Ayres, Henry Baldwin, and Steel Sample.  The two Fosters, Farrelly, Ayres, Baldwin, and Steel Sample, all afterwards turned out to be men of mark and ability.
     At the second term of court, held in May, the commission of William Amberson as an additional judge for Mercer County was read.  This gave three associate judges.  The writer of this, who, as a little boy, occasionally dropped into the court-house, along between 1814 and 1820, was indelibly impressed with the grand dignity of the president judge.  He was a heavy, solemn-looking man, retaining the costume of the old-style gentleman,—small clothes, shoe-buckles, knee-buckles, bald head, but hair long behind and done up in a queue, and head and hair and collar of the black coat covered with a white powder sprinkled thereon.  He has since seen the Supreme Court of the United States in session.  The black gowns of the judges sitting in a row, the low colloquial tone in which causes are argued, and the quietness enforced certainly gave it a very dignified aspect, but still there was lacking the grand old powdered head and queue that gave Judge Moore the advantage in solemn and imposing dignity.
     It was with the funds arising from the sale of town lots that the first court-house, standing in the centre of the public square, was built.  On the 19th of May, 1807, John Chambers, John Leech, and William McMillan, the then county commissioners, contracted with Joseph Smith and John McCurdy for the building thereof, for the sum of seven thousand one hundred and sixteen dollars.  It was a square brick building, two stories high, with wings for the offices.  In 1840, there was an addition put to it to get better office accommodations, at a cost of about two thousand dollars.  The first court-house and jail, however, was a log structure on the ground now occupied by the First National Bank, the lower story for a jail being built of squared logs let down f[____ a]nd dove-tailed at the corners, and the court-room above, which was reached by stairs on the outside of the building.  Until this construction was ready for prisoners, the county prison was a room in the house of James Braden, which the commissioners rented and fitted up for that purpose.
     "The travelled route through northwestern Pennsylvania was that established by the French in 1752,—water communication up the Allegheny River to the mouth of French Creek, then up that stream to Waterford, and from thence by an opened road to Erie.  It was this route that was followed by Colonel Washington in 1753, when sent by Governor Dinwiddie, of Virginia, <pg. 588> to demand from the French an explanation of their designs in establishing military posts on the waters of the Ohio.  This route left Mercer County entirely to the west, and may explain why settlements in Venango, Crawford, and Erie, which it traversed, preceded those formed in Mercer.  There were no settlements made in it until after Wayne's victory over the Indians and the peace with them that followed in 1795.  After this, in the fall of 1795, the surveyors began their labors, followed closely by the first settlers. Benjamin Stokely now occupies the farm on which his father thus commenced the settlement.
     "Among the first settlers along the Shenango were the grandfathers of the present generations of the Quinbys, Budds, Carnes, Beans, McKnights, McGranahans, Campbells, Hoaglands, Mossmans, Leeches, Fells, Hunters, and Christys.  In the Neshannock and Mahoning regions, the Byers, Sankeys, Fishers, Watsons, Chenowiths, and Pearsons made their first settlement.  In the centre, the Stokelys, Zahnisers, Garvins, Alexanders, Findleys, Junkins, Dennistons, McCulloughs, Pews, Rambos, Coulsons, and Hosacks.  In the southeast corner, the Roses, McMillans, Breckenridges, McCoys, and Courtneys.  In the Sandy Lake and French Creek region, the Gordons, McCrackens, DeFrances, Carnahans, Browns, Carmichaels, Carrols, Kilgores, Riggs, Condits, and McCloskeys.  In the way of startling adventure, these men were not history-makers.  Their mission was to open up a wilderness for the use of civilized man, and secure to themselves and posterity comfortable homes.  In striving to do this they underwent many privations.  It took time to open out fields and get them under cultivation, so that bread could be got without transportation on horseback from Pittsburg or the settlements in Washington County, and before they could provide properly for the keeping of their stock over winter.  The first stock was only wintered by the felling of maple- and linwood-trees to enable the cattle to browse on the buds.  The forest then afforded them bear meat, venison, and turkey in abundance, but their appetites tired of this as the only food, and "hog and hominy," diversified with mush and milk, was the first change they could hope to make in their diet.  Wolves, panthers, and bears were by no means scarce, but as other game was plenty, these animals did not indulge in the more dangerous chase of man.  A wolf scalp then brought a premium of eight dollars out of the county treasury, and was a source of profit to quite a number of hunters.
     "In the war of 1812 the people of Mercer County were frequently called upon to give their aid in the defense of Erie, where the fleet of Commodore Perry was being built.  On these alarms, which were about as frequent as a vessel of the enemy hove in sight in the lake offing, the whole county would be aroused by runners in a day, and in a very few hours most of the able-bodied male population, whether belonging to a volunteer company or the militia, would be on their march to Erie.  On one occasion the news came <pg. 589> to Mercer on a Sunday while the Rev. S. Tait was preaching in the court-house.  The sermon was suspended, the startling news announced from the pulpit, the dismissing benediction given, and immediate preparations for the march commenced.  On the next day the military force of the county was well on its way to Erie.  At another time the news of a threatened invasion came in the middle of the grain harvest.  This made no difference; the response was immediate.  It was on this occasion that Mr. John Findley dropped the sickle in his tracks in the wheat-field, hastened to his house, and, seizing his gun, with such provisions as his wife had at hand to put in his haversack, started on his way to the defense of his country.  On his return, six weeks afterwards, the sickle was found by him where it had been dropped.  It was on one of these occasions that but a single man was left in the county town,—Cunningham Sample, an old lawyer, completely unmanned by age and obesity.
     "The history of Mercer County schools is commensurate with the organization of the county in 1800.  Although at that time there were no school-houses in the county, the education of the children was not entirely neglected.  At that time, we find in some localities, schools were organized in families, and teachers secured for seventy-five cents or one dollar per week.  Five or six years passed away in this manner, when, in 1805, two school-houses were built in the western part of the county, one in Salem Township, in what is now known as the Fell settlement, another in the present Hickory Township; and in the same or following year, in the southern part of the county, one was built in the Henderson settlement, in the present Worth Township; also one near that time in Pine Township.  These were round log cabins.  For ceilings, poles were thrown across overhead and brush placed on these poles and covered with earth.  Above this was a clapboard roof held down by weight poles.  Some of the better class of houses had puncheon floors (the floors in many of the dwelling-houses were constructed in the same way); others had nothing but the green sward, as nature left it.  For light, a log was left out of the building, and newspapers greased and pasted in this opening.  Seats were rude benches made of split logs, and desks were constructed by boring into the logs and placing a slit piece of timber on pins driven into these holes.  The fireplace made of stone, mortar, and sticks, included the entire end of the building.  Wood for this huge fireplace was hauled from surrounding forests by neighbors, who would appoint a day, and all turn out with oxen and sleds, and thus the wood was brought to the door, and there cut to suitable lengths by the larger boys in turn.  It was also the rule for the larger boys to build the fires in turn, which required very early rising.  The distance to the school-house from many of their homes was often five or six miles, and even farther.  The time taught was eight hours per day.  Boys were seen winding their way at daybreak along the trackless paths, save the track of a wolf or perchance that of a passing bear.
<pg. 590>

 "In 1800 Mercer County was divided into six townships,—Salem, Pymatuning, Neshannock, Wolf Creek, Cool Spring, and Sandy Creek.  Afterwards, twenty-five subdivisions were made, each independent in their local school affairs, containing a number of houses, ranking from three to twenty-three (boroughs excepted), Wolf Creek the least, and Hickory the greatest number.
     "Before the 'free school system' the amount of subscription was about fifty cents per month for one scholar.  The houses were built in a day.  The site agreed upon, the neighbors would assemble on an appointed day, with axes and ox-teams, and erect a rude structure, considered 'good enough to keep school in.'
     "No test of scholarship was required, further than an article of agreement for parents to sign was written by the proposed teacher, setting forth his terms, what he proposed teaching, and how far.  A teacher who proposed in a winter school to teach as far as the 'double rule of three,' now called compound proportion, was considered quite proficient in mathematics.  He who proposed to lead a class through 'tare and tret' (custom-house business) was thought a master mathematician.  This article of agreement was all the patrons had by which to judge his ability.
     "No black-boards were used; no classes heard, except reading and spelling.  Pupils were required to copy all their examples in a blank-book prepared for the purpose, for future reference.
     "But little moral suasion was used in the schools.  Corporal punishment was almost the sole remedy for all offences.  One of the favorite modes was what is termed 'cut jackets.'  This was resorted to in case two were to be punished.  Each offender selected his rod, and, at a given signal, they began a most furious attack upon each other, and would continue in the most brute-like and wicked manner, until often the blood would trickle down on the floor, and clothes were lacerated by the infuriated contestants, and the boy with the most physical strength and endurance was the envy of the school, a terror to those who had to 'cut jackets,' and the boasted pride of his parents.  Another barbarous mode of punishment was sometimes practiced, taken, doubtless, from the old Indian mode of massacring the whites.  A day was selected to carry the offender, on his back, in a prescribed circle, around the stove, and two or three boys selected to stand in convenient distances of the line, at regular intervals, with rod in hand, whose business it was to strike once at the offender as he was carried past.  After he was carried a few times around the circle (according to the nature of the offence) he was considered sufficiently punished, which was often brutally severe.  This was termed 'running the gauntlet.'"
     The number of schools in the county in 1846 was two hundred and fourteen.  Average number of months taught, five months and five days.  Number of male teachers, one hundred and seventy.  Number of female <pg. 591> teachers, one hundred and forty-five.  Average salary for males, thirteen dollars.  Average salary for females, six dollars and nine cents.  The pioneer school-teacher is not positively known.  It may have been Thomas Rigdon, in 1800.
     The pioneer Masonic Lodge was organized July 4, 1822.  The Lodge grew until 1827, and its warrant was vacated February 6, 1837.  The Lodge was known as Mercer Lodge, No. 182, A. Y. M.


     Sharon, October 6, 1841, M. C. Trout, pioneer burgess.  Greenville, May 29, 1837.  Clarksville, May 5, 1848.

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