Introduction: Barber

Larry Pearce
2/29/12 & 2/13/14

How many famous people with the last name “Barber” can you think of? For what it’s worth, the ones who come to mind first are either American composer Samuel Barber or Barber sports figures: Red the announcer and the three football players, brothers Tiki, Shawn, and Ronde. Of course, there are dozens of other Barbers considered celebrities at The Barbers in our family were far from famous by today’s standards, but in my book they were heroes for settling on the early Pennsylvania frontier. We know very little else at this point but their names and partial dates, however that’s enough to attach them to my father’s maternal family tree and credit them with growing roots where few had grown before. If we don’t know where they came from then let’s ask questions like, “Where did their surname come from?” “What was life like in those wilderness days?” “Where did their descendants go?” We’ll try to answer these and other questions in the next few pages. states that the origins of our Anglo-Norman Barber name is as simple as it sounds: Old French “barbier” (bar-bee-AY) is for one who cuts hair. The Latin base, “barba,” means “beard,” so the assumption is that barbers cut beards too. But that occupation in the Middle Ages included other skills—pulling teeth and doing surgery, thus the red stripe around the traditional barber’s pole. The modern surname has two main forms: Barber and Barbour, the second being mostly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, because the French Normans took control of England after William’s successful invasion in 1066, the first recorded spelling of any kind was for Alan le Barbur, 1221. He was a witness in the “Assize Court Rolls of Warwickshire” during the reign of “The Frenchman,” Henry III. Later namesakes included Londoners Thomas le Barber, 1282, and Seykin le Barbier, 1299. Perhaps the first Barber to America was also a Thomas. He sailed to New England on the Christian in 1634.

If you’ve looked at the Barber Coat of Arms on our family tree, you see three red fleurs-de-lis divided by two red chevrons all on a gold shield. When I first spied the crest I wondered why the French influence, and now I know. The modern Barbour family plaid from Ayershire, Scotland, is also displayed on our family tree. Googling “Barbour plaid” reveals many manufacturers and retailers associated with that name.

Thanks to the internet, one can look at many American Barber ancestors by county, particularly in the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where immigrants first arrived from Europe. That’s where I found Adam (1764/7-1836) and wife Mary Ann, parents of Sarah (1797-1873) who married William Hill (1799-1875) of Adams County, PA, my three-times great grandfather. Adam and Mary Ann had at least eight children. Some sources list as many as ten: Thomas, Adam, Jr., Elizabeth, Jane, Mary Ann, Robert, our Sarah, and William for certain, and not necessarily in that order. Other sources add a Susannah and a John. We know that our Sarah was born in Huntingdon County, central Pennsylvania, but where did Adam and Mary Ann emigrate from originally and where did they first settle? The couple at some point lived in Lawrence County, Western Pennsylvania, but records indicate that they were buried in nearby Mercer County, perhaps in Leesburg with Sarah and William. We continue to research that.

Northwest Pennsylvania had many families from Adams County who may have accompanied our William Hill from back East to Centerville, now Slippery Rock, Butler County – the Slemmons and the Crosses, to name a few. A look at “Introduction: Hill” shows William and Sarah establishing residency there about 1823. William’s father John is believed to have died and been buried a little farther east in Indiana County. We don’t know when John had left his parents for the frontier or how young William met Sarah. We do know this, according to A History of Butler County (1895): “It is probable that the earliest settlers in Slippery Rock Township were our Adam Barber, David Cross, and John and William Burrows, but they made no permanent settlement.” This would have been before 1795. Butler County was still part of Allegheny County until 1800. So, by 1823 William Hill and wife Sarah owned one of four houses in the little village of Centerville. We don’t know when and where they had been married, but their son John Dixon Hill was born the next year. William and Sarah later moved a few miles north to near Leesburg, Mercer County, where they lived out the remainder of their lives and are buried. William and Sarah’s son John Dixon Hill married a Marshall from nearby  Lawrence County where his grandparents lived, so the roads among pioneer families must have been at least passable back in those days.

What was life like in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? By the time William Hill arrived in Slippery Rock, which comprised one-quarter of the county, the population was barely 1,000. As prospectors would soon find, coal was abundant and natural gas and oil reserves numerous. One story relates an explosion on the Smith farm about 1845 when salt wells were being drilled and the gas got into the water. The vapor ignited, destroying every manner of machinery. It’s not known if anyone was killed. Just five years before that, farmer David Cross had found a copper kettle exposed after the spring rains laid open the bank of the Wolf Creek. Eli Beckwith found a rusty old combination knife and fork, probably of iron, dropped by an early hunter or trapper. Sometime later, while splitting hickory firewood, he came across a lead bullet buried in 87 rings of annual growth. That takes us back to the time the French explored the area.

Wild game was abundant, but one legend tells of a hunter who lived on Juneberries and milk for two weeks when his other provisions had run out. Back then, salt was only $16 a barrel, but merchants had to travel back East to get it. Zebulon Cooper, one of the first settlers, told of hauling his first kettle the whole way from Pittsburgh on horseback. That must have been quite a sight. Maybe that pot the David Cross had found later was his. Another early resident, Phillip Snyder boiled maple syrup in the spring of the year and sold it at the county seat, Butler, to earn money for his taxes. John Christley is listed as paying just $4 real estate tax on his 200-acre farm in 1841, not much by today’s standards, but a lot of money for few services in return back then. John’s descendants, Jacob and Jesse, among the oldest living residents of the township in 1883 when the first history of the county was published, recorded this story:

Nearly all the settlers used sleds for hauling hay and grain. They had a cart or wagon with wooden wheels (sawed from the end of a log) made by their father. Wooden plows, which invariably clogged up between the coulter and the point, pitchforks made by blacksmiths, and broad Dutch scythes, sharpened by means of a hammer and anvil, were some of the farming implements in use in the early days.

As charming as that life may seem to us today, not unlike The Little House on the Prairie series, the dangers were seemingly everywhere, according to these excerpts from the same local history book:

The primitive denizens of the forest–the bears, wolves and panthers–did not desert their haunts until many years after the advent of the settlers. One evening Peggy Walker was returning home just at dusk from her neighbor Armstrong’s house, situated near Wolf Creek, riding horseback. When about one mile from home, she was startled by the terrific scream of a panther which sprang from the bushes close by the path. Her horse was frightened and ran; the panther followed, often coming close upon the horse and rider and occasionally making a leap at them. The horse was the swifter, however, and the savage animal was at length left behind. The girl reached her home in safety, though almost overcome with fright.

It is related that a man was set upon by wolves near Wolf Creek at night, just as he was about to cross the stream. The wolves were on the opposite bank from him. To advance would be destruction, and to retreat, equally perilous. He therefore walked back and forth upon the log all night with a stout club in his hands, keeping the wolves at bay. It was a long and terrible night for him. At dawn his foe retreated into the forest and he continued on his way unmolested.

These lands were Indian hunting grounds and the natives still roamed these creeks and valleys long after the Whiteman arrived. William Miller, who came from Northern Ireland and settled just after our Hills, claimed that the deer were so abundant that they had a well-worn path around his cabin. The Indians were hunters and gatherers while the English and Scots-Irish were farmers. What we had was a culture clash, no matter what treaties had been bought and paid for. The following is a story of the brutality of one race, one gender, against another, remembered by locals as “The Mohawk Murder.” It took place just 20 years after Sarah and William settled in Centerville, and not far from their house. Take note that the language and tone of the story teller is that of a late 19th century White American, but it in no way exaggerates the violence that took place. While it may seem long, I think it’s important to let it be read as it was published, uninterrupted [minor annotations mine]:

On the last Saturday of June, 1843, in the southern part of Slippery Rock Township, was enacted a deed of brutal slaughter as fiendish and as savage as any embraced in the annals of Indian warfare. An Indian known as Mohawk, who had passed down the road to Butler from the upper lumbering county some days previous, came to the Stone House [where George Washington had slept—now a national landmark] on the stage[coach] on Friday, late in the evening. In Butler he had been drinking and acting suspiciously. On his arrival at the hotel, without a knock or a warning, he passed up stairs into the room where the landlord, Mr. Sill, was sleeping. Sill ordered him out and picked up a club to hasten his departure. The Indian left, and it is supposed that he passed the night among the rocks near the Stone House, as he was seen going up the road early the next morning. He went directly to the house of James Wigton, who was away from home, having gone to the house of his father, a mile distant, to get a horse to use in his farm work. Mrs. Wigton and her five small children were alone in the home. Just what passed there no one was left to tell. Before the return of the husband, Lemuel Davis and his wife and son, had come to help Wigton about his hoeing. They entered the house and beheld a scene such as no pen can depict. Mrs. Wigton was lying dead in a pool of blood. Evidently she had not yielded her own life and the lives of her children without a struggle. One of her hands was cut nearly off, as though a knife had been forcibly drawn through it. It is supposed that she tried to defend herself with a butcher knife which was found near by, stained with blood. Her babe in the cradle, was, at first, thought to be unharmed: but when it was taken up, the horrible discovery was made that its brains had been beaten out. Four children up stairs in the sleeping room were found–all dead, and their blood stained the floor, wall and ceiling. A stone which had been used in the fire-place of the wash-house, in place of an iron, was found covered with blood. This had been the instrument of death in the hands of the fiendish savage, and the heads of every victim bore marks of the blows inflicted by it.

Mr. Davis aroused the neighbors, and soon more than a hundred excited people, who had come from the Hickory Furnace and the neighboring farms, were at the scene of the murder. It was soon learned that the Indian had been at Joseph Kennedy’s and had thrown a stone at young Joseph. Mohawk was hotly pursued and ran to Philip Kiester’s house. There were no men about the place, and the women, who were already informed of the murder, hastened to leave the house. The Indian entered and ran up stairs. The pursuers rushed after him, and one of the number, Mr. Blair, was knocked down by a stone thrown by the savage. It is supposed that Mohawk had gathered up a pocketful of stones on his way to the house. The Kiesters informed the pursuers that there was a loaded pistol in the room where the murderer had taken refuge, and a shot from it was momentarily expected; fortunately the Indian never discovered it. Next an attempt was made to get a dog up stairs, but to no purpose. Then several of the men, carrying a board over their heads, to keep off the missiles of Mohawk, made a rush up the stairway, seized the Indian, overpowered him and tied him with a bedcord. Then they led him to the house where the mangled bodies of his victims lay; he acknowledged his guilt, but said nobody could prove it.

The citizens were mostly in favor of lynching the savage at once. But William Stewart, a man of considerable influence, counseled otherwise and urged obedience to the law. The Indian was taken to Butler, tried in due course, and sentenced to death. He was hung in the spring of 1844.

After the arrest there was great excitement in all the northern part of the county, and even in other counties. People who were familiar with the Indian traits feared that the savage would somehow be able to escape from the jail. Previous to the trail, companies of armed men–one company from New Castle and several from the northern part of the county–gathered at Butler, with the intention of lynching Mohawk. Great excitement resulted. The companies rendezvoused at Jacob Schleppey’s tavern, and there they were met by a number of the most prominent men of Butler who argued and expostulated and finally restored peace and order. No whisky or ammunition was sold in Butler during the day. Some of the more violent advocates of mob-law even threatened to burn the town. Fortunately no evil resulted from the excitement occasioned by this “great popular uprising.”

Our Adam died in 1836, so all didn’t affect him, but Mary Ann was still alive when this all took place. What was her reaction? Was our William part of the mob? Was Sarah afraid for her life after that horrible incident? We can never know, anymore than we can know the conditions on that Pennsylvania frontier under which they lived. Nor do we know now our Adam Barber’s ancestors, near or ancient. But, we continue to search for clues, assumptions, and presumptions, all the while appreciating the struggles they made and the obstacles they overcame so that their descendants might live in this land of opportunity.

Works Cited

“Barber Family in Pennsylvania.”

“History of Slippery Rock, PA.” History of Butler County, PA, 1895

“Misc. Cross records.” CROSS-L Archives.

“Slippery Rock Township.” History of Butler County, PA, 1883

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.