Biking into Family History on the Great Allegheny Passage

Larry Pearce

Rails to Trails East of Big Savage Tunnel on
Great Allegheny Passage (Oct. 2020)

(Click on photos to enlarge/Hit back arrow to return)

It was the last warm autumn day of 2020, a year that was otherwise fraught with unpleasantness and peril. As a break from our Covid lockdown, my wife Susan and I decided to take our bicycles and ride a portion of our popular area bike path , the Great Allegheny Passage: over  the Eastern Continental Divide, through the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel, and down to the Mason Dixon Line, which separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. This would turn out to be the perfect time to make the 8-mile round-trip journey: temperature in the 70’s with bright, clear skies. There are plenty of Youtube videos that include this portion of the GAP, as it’s referred to. What I’m about to share came as a revelation to me as we biked that day, not long after I had read about the not-always-friendly-feud between the Quaker Penn family and the Catholic Calverts back before the American Revolutionary War. The inspiration to investigate further came to me as Susan and I rode along one of the most famous sections of what’s known as the Rails to Trails. Come along with us as we ride into family history.I’ve written earlier about my 5Xpaternal Scots-Irish great-grandparents, William (c.1740-1815) and Elizabeth Dixon Hill (unknown) of Adams County, PA, whose titled  farm stretched across the land claimed by both the Penn and Calvert aristocracies. The “Introduction: Hill” cites The History of Adams County text which calls the William Hill farm the largest “plantation” in the area and refers to “the Hominy Stone,” where Natives came from great distances to pound their hominy, or corn, into meal. Local historians believe that several other stones on the property just south of Gettysburg marked the Mason-Dixon Line there. We’ll talk more about the making of that famous boundary in a minute, but I must mention that research is ongoing to determine the ancestry of Grandmother Elizabeth Dixon and any possible connection to Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), half of the famous English-American surveying team that laid down the Mason-Dixon line from 1764-1768.

Charles Mason & Jeremiah Dixon
straddling their famous line (c.1765)

Dixon was unmarried, a Quaker, but drank too much and certainly didn’t dress like one. In fact, he was the inspiration for the term “Dixieland” and its shorter version “Dixie,” even though he was actually affiliated with the North and the state of Maryland to the south was not part of the Confederacy. He was thought of as a rough-and-tumble rebel.

But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Why were Mason and Dixon contracted to separate the Pennsylvania Quaker estates in the north from the Catholic lands to the south? And what was my Hill family’s connection to that famous east-west boundary line? You may know the story of William Penn, manager of his family’s real properties in various parts of the kingdom, who after a generous grant from Charles II, became the world’s largest private landowner. After inviting several persecuted peoples from Europe to come to his “Penn’s Woods,” and allowing his sons to establish several dozen estates there after his death, his managers would probably have liked to kick the free-loading Scots-Irish settlers off these lands. According to one source, members of this group were looked upon as “Squatters.” Most of these immigrants had no ownership of their frontier farms and settlements. In 1724, James Logan (1674-1751), secretary of the province and himself  Scots-Irish, said, “As [the Scots-Irish] rudely approach me to propose purchase, I look upon them as bold and indigent strangers, giving as their excuse, when challenged for titles, that we had solicited for colonists and they had come accordingly.”

Portrait of William Penn
by Frederick Lamb

Yes, William Penn (1644-1718) had indeed invited many Europeans, in what he called his “Holy Experiment,” to populate his new commonwealth, and the Protestants of Ulster, Northern Ireland, were among them. But as an excerpt from a 1727 letter from Logan to the elder Penn’s son John (1700-1746), who was serving as Governor at the time, said this about the “Irish,” as he called them, with regard to property: “[They] pretend they will buy, but not one in twenty has anything to pay with. The Irish settle generally towards the Maryland line, where no lands can honestly be sold till the dispute with Lord Baltimore is decided.” We’ll talk about that, the main subject of this piece, in a minute. But not so incidentally, the Swiss-German Palatines, most who were ancestors to my wife’s Amish-Mennonite families, were always lumped into this accusation. My research indicates that this group, probably because of their strong religious convictions, always paid their obligations. Later, after the various treaties with the Indians, the Scots-Irish would move beyond the East to just over the Alleghenies into Western Pennsylvania. Many of my ancestors fell into this group, and I honestly don’t know if they had paid their previous debts or not. Susan’s families either stayed down east or stopped on their way west when they got to Northern Appalachian counties like Somerset (PA) or Garrett (MD) which, they claimed, reminded them of the mountain lands of their native Switzerland. I also know that by the time each of these communities, my Scot-Irish and Susan’s former Palatinate Germans, settled farther west, much of the land was practically being given away. Some was offered as a reward for serving the American cause in the Revolutionary War, as in the case of my Henry Moon family. These were known as “Depreciation Lands.” Some land was offered with unusual conditions, such as the “Tomahawk Rights” measurement, as in the case of my wife’s Yost Miller family.

William Penn spent a total of only four years in his colony, arriving in 1682. By then, Philadelphia, the capital, had been laid out His personal estate, Pennsbury Manor, just 25 miles north of the city along the Delaware River, was complete. In that short period of time his achievements were great: a representative government, religious and ethnic tolerance, and a judicial system that even included jurors from the local Lenape tribe of American Indians. Later his heirs would not have the same visions and practices. Penn returned to England in 1684, when a disagreement with Lord Baltimore, as the Baron was called, over the colonial borders, hit a stone wall. It would be 15 years until he returned to the New World, with a change in the monarchy and his imprisonment. The Pennsylvania-Maryland border dispute had begun when Charles II made Pennsylvania’s charter official in 1681 and, relying on an inaccurate map, mistakenly had the two borders overlapping. The issue was where exactly the 40th parallel was, north of the entire Potomac River. This was to be the demarcation between the two provinces.

It wasn’t until 1732, fourteen years after the death of the older Penn, that a compromise between the Proprietary Governor of Maryland and Penn’s sons was reached. However, later that year Calvert renigged, saying that the language in the contract was not his. Several years after that, settlers on both sides of the border began what was called Cresap’s War. The shooting match was lead by Colonel Thomas Cresap, a trader who operated in both states but had military loyalty to Lord Baltimore. It was only after the conflict between militias from both states that Cresap was captured and arrested. He was paraded through the streets of Philadelphia, where unbroken, he shouted, “Damn it, this is one of the prettiest towns in Maryland.”

Maryland sent a petition to King George II, asking for intervention. On August 8, 1737, an order was given by the monarch to cease hostilities. By the next spring a peace treaty was signed, prisoners exchanged, and a temporary border was established. By 1760, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, professional surveyors, were contracted to draw the official line between two states. The compromise latitude of 39-degrees and 43-minutes was marked. Stones were placed every mile, with larger capstones set every five miles. Their work was completed on October 18, 1767.

Capstone from the Mason-Dixon line with crests representing each state on respective sides

I don’t know at this time the exact origins of my 5Xgreat-grandfather William Hill, but I presume he was Scots-Irish as were most of his neighbors. One more prominent family name was our James Wilson, Sr. (1704-1776). I won’t go into detail here except to say that William Penn’s family had dozens of parcels surveyed throughout Pennsylvania for their own personal use after he died. In 1736, one of the largest, 43,500 acres southwest of modern day Harrisburg, was patented as “The Manor of Masque” (or Maske), after an old English estate owned by distant relatives. Stretching 6 miles by 12 miles, it encompassed what is now Gettysburg. The Wilson estate in Hamiltonban Township fell within, as did Our William Hill farm in Liberty Township.

In 1740, the Penn brothers had ordered all the Scots-Irish settlers off the land of the newly formed Manor. After their well-know stubborn character, these families of Ulster origin  refused to leave. A letter dated 1741, written by Penn surveyor Zachary Butcher, tells of these “unreasonable Creatures” and how they threatened to “kill or cripple” anyone who would try to move them. Unfortunately, Butcher’s list of such creatures included our James Wilson. The issue was resolved when another agent of the landlords, sent to prosecute and remove “the squatters,” received further orders from the Penns to allow them to stay, farm the land, and organize a defense against Indian raids. They became the core of what was known at the start of the American Revolution as McPherson’s Battalion, and they eventually became the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment. In the end, the Penns realized that allowing the Scots-Irish to stay “planted” on their lands was the easiest and most inexpensive way to keep the Indians out and keep the peace among all settlers.

Susan & Larry riding the
Great Allegheny Passage

Read more for yourself. And in another aside, before I forget and so you don’t confuse the two, the William Hill of this Mason-Dixon story had a successful grandson  also named William (1799-1875), surely after the Scottish naming practices. It was that William’s son, Captain John Dixon Hill (1824-1915), whom I’ve written a great deal about for his role in the American Civil War and father-figure in the settlement of southern Butler and northern Allegheny Counties in the western part of Pennsylvania. These are good examples of how my family of Scots-Irish emigrated west to settle various parts of the frontier.

1st Baron Sir George Calvert

How does the Calvert family of Maryland, in a border dispute with the Penn family of Pennsylvania, come into play with our family? I have to be honest and confess that when I heard of the dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, I associated the southern state with “Bloody” Catholic Queen Mary I (1516-1558) of England. Perhaps it was some deep-seated prejudice this person with Ulster roots still holds? I hope not. The great irony is that I taught at Mt. Aloysius College, an historic Sisters of Mercy of Dublin, IE, institution, for 21 years. My wife was choral director for Bishop McCort Catholic High School for 10 years. We both have deep respect for these fellow Christians and their tradition of quality education. It was Bloody Mary about whom I’ve written for martyring another of my family namesakes, Lady Jane Grey in 1554. But, a little more research and I find that King Charles I (1600-1649), awarded the colonial Province of Maryland to his former Secretary of State, Sir George Calvert (1579-1632), to provide religious freedom for Roman Catholics in the New World, but George died as the charter was being issued. His son Cecilius (c. 1605-1675) was named “Baron Baltimore,” a lower royal title that included the Calvert family estate in Ireland. The title held for six generations, ending with the death of Frederick Calvert in 1771. Officially the colony is said to be named in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, a devout Catholic from France, but some Catholic scholars believe that George Calvert named the province after Mary, the mother of Jesus. The name in the charter was phrased in Latin, Terra Mariae, Anglice, Maryland, translated “The land of Mary, of England, called Maryland.” The English name was preferred due to the undesired associations of Mariae with the Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana, linked to the Inquisition.

Plaque honoring Jeremiah Dixon
along the
Great Allegheny Passage

But the story doesn’t end here. My wife’s parents, Richard and Hilda (Krause) Miller, spent their pre-World War II days, in anticipation of “Dick” going off to war after their wedding, living with her brother Ernest and working in several industries in Baltimore. Check these links for all the romantic details and one interesting article about Dick’s promotion from Calvert Distillery laborer to night watchman. Hilda filled the much publicized role of “Rosie the Riveter” in the Glen L. Martin aircraft factory. That war is long over now, and Susan’s parents are gone, but today Maryland has many distilleries several aerospace and defense factories under many different names. I don’t know what this signifies except that life goes on, and the only thing that remains the same is change – oh, and men’s enjoyment of alcohol.

Larry & Susan rest (with water) along the
Great Allegheny Passage (July 2020)

Our journey that beautiful October day began and ended atop the Allegheny Mountain in Pennsylvania. The half-way point was just over the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland. The 8-mile round-trip was truly like riding back into family history: remembering my 5Xgreat-grandparents, William and Elizabeth Dixon Hill’s farm in Adams County, Pennsylvania, just north of the Mason-Dixon line; the tenacity of our Scots-Irish and German ancestors in both Pennsylvania and Maryland; and Susan’s loving parents, working together in pre-World War II Maryland, Dick in a Calvert distillery and Hilda in the Glen L. Martin aircraft factory. And finally, as part of this article, which was delayed in researching, writing, and posting by almost three months because of my testing positive for the Corona virus later the same week as our trip, I want to say how grateful I am to be back on my bike, healthy again and still riding into history with my wonderful wife of 50 years, the very best part of the year 2020.

Susan & Larry Pearce on their Golden Wedding Anniversary
(November 28, 2020)

Additional photos of the Mason-Dixon Line crossing the GAP

Cement seats at the angle of the
Mason-Dixon Line crossing
(courtesy Penelope Percival)

Monument at the line
(courtesy Brook Boliek)

One foot in each state
(courtesy Brook Boliek)

We challenge you to ride all or part of the GAP. Write your comments below and/or E-mail me a few photos of your experience at the Mason-Dixon Line, and we’ll try to include them here: LRYPEARCE@GMAIL.COM .

Last revised 3/24/22



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