Our Contacts with Native Americans

Larry Pearce

“Political Correctness” (PC) of the late 20th Century ushered in a wave of tolerance for a lot of things. One of the images that was changed was that of the American Indian. In fact, the PC term is now “Native American.” School children are now taught that they were the first human inhabitants of North America, that they hunted and gathered with respect for the land, and that they worshipped an omnipotent god not unlike, and probably the same as, the Jehovah of the Judeo-Christian heritage. We learned earlier [see “Our Quaker Beginnings”] that Quakers in the colonial Pennsylvania legislature opposed any violence against the Indians on the Western Pennsylvania frontier. We don’t know that any of our early Beards had emigrated to America by that time or influenced the benevolent attitude of those lawmakers, but it may surprise you to know that later family actually had some very close connections to Native Americans. We’d like to share some of these interesting encounters with you in the next few pages. As a teacher, I’ve found that many students, in any discussion of genealogy or American history or literature, are quick to boast some connection to the Redman (not PC). Seems like just about everyone is “part Indian.” But, at the same time, a certain prejudice has always existed against these mysterious people. This article will explore a little deeper some of the past references to our family’s contacts with Native Americans and tell several fascinating, if not tragic, new stories involving our two races.

We began early in this series relating the stagecoach (1820) and later Conestoga wagon (1821) rides the Richard Pearce and Charles Austen families took from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. While the Original Family Narrative (OFN) doesn’t mention it, we have talked about the threat any diversion from the beaten path would have posed from Indians [see “Commentary on the OFN: Part III”]. Although the French and Indian War, and formal skirmishes in Western Pennsylvania, had ended with the Treaty of Paris (1863), it wasn’t until after the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1784 that most of the “Red Threat” was replaced by recognized land deeds and patents [see “Pittsburgh in 1820”]. I say “most” because, while the French had retreated either back across the sea to deal with the events leading to their internal revolution of 1789 or to western positions that would become our Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Indians continued to skirmish and harass white settlers in Western Pennsylvania as late as the early 1800s from the Ohio territory. Small bands of renegades apparently felt as if they had been betrayed by their tribal councils in selling off their land [see references to the Pearce and Austen Pine Creek settlement as “Depreciation Lands” in other articles].

Several famous and ancient Indian trails criss-crossed Western Pennsylvania and parts were still well-traveled right through the first quarter of the 19th century:
• Cherokee/Catawba (north-south along Chestnut Ridge),
• Kittaning (east-west what is now Rt. 422),
• Venango, and Kushkushkee (north-south from Pittsburgh, or Shannopin’s Town, to Erie).

This part of the state also still retains many Indian names for rivers and streams: Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio, Connoquenessing, Neshannock, Kiskiminnetas, Loyalhanna, and Conemaugh, to name a few. But, let’s go back and look at those Indians and whose side they were on.

One of Texan Bill Pearce’s aunts did some research in the 1930s on a Thomas Pearce, probably no direct relation, who had settled around Petersburg, VA, around 1740 [see “Pearce Lines: Part II”]. She claims that he fought in the battle for the French Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, on July 9, 1755, which in known as Braddock’s Defeat. General Braddock was mortally wounded on the retreat and was buried in the middle of the wagon road so that the Indians wouldn’t find his body and desecrate it. Today that spot along U.S. Rt. 40 in Fayette County near Ft. Necessity is marked with a large monument. Unfortunately, modern records show that Thomas Pearce deserted 12 months earlier, the year that his son John was born. Bill Pearce believes that desertion for family matters was not uncommon in those days and that Thomas probably did fight in the earlier Battle of Ft. Necessity. By the way, son John Pearce lived to be 102 and fathered 24 children to two wives. Maybe fighting Indians wasn’t those Pearce’s strong suit.
Scottish-born British General John Forbes, who is credited with the victorious conversion of French Fort Duquesne to English Fort Pitt in 1758, wrote of his encounters with the Indians in letters and memos, which have been republished in a collection by James Procter. Forbes “paid off” certain friendly Indians, mostly Cherokee and Delaware, as he carved a new road straight east to west over the Allegheny Mountains, through the dense Appalachian forest, and into Pittsburgh. When the French and Indians discovered his military advancement, they set fire to the fort and either jumped into one of the three rivers or set sail down the Ohio. In a letter dated “Aprille 24, 1758” he writes to Commander Abercromby: “[My] Indians and Savages are to be provided with all necessarys . . . who by the by when all collected together, would not make a breakfast to the Cherokees” (71). His plan doesn’t appear to have been working, because on July 3 he writes again to the Commander: “I do not believe we shall have one Indian left, as I hear that 46 of [Col.] Byrds have left him at Fort Cumberland [Maryland], and Bouquet leads a dog’s life with those at Raystown [Bedford, PA]” (167) [In another article entitle “One Unusual In-law” we explore the possibility that, Sparks Bird, one of our family by marriage was a descendant of this famous military leader, though his name is spelled differently]. By August 11 he is desperate and writes to Abercromby:

Col. Byrd’s Indians left him at Fort Cumberland 10 days ago, and are gone home, those Indians at Raystown are following them fast, 50 of them having left Col. Bouquet the day before yesterday; he writes me that they were to come to Fort Loudon to demand the presents designed for them and laid by there for them til the latter end of the Campaign, where if they were refused they would undoubtedly commit some outrage. . . I have no mortal about me that understands Indian affairs or their Genius. (174)

One wonders who in is control. The Indians seem to have the upper hand. Other writings of the day express the tremendous fear that White settlers and lone travelers had of the Redman. The usual torture, or even the scalping [a “proof for bounty” actually taught by the Europeans] that we might see in early TV westerns is, and please excuse the expression, “pale” in comparison to this punishment: A prisoner is buried in the ground with only his head sticking out. Then a fire is lighted next to the prisoner’s head, and the Indians dance around the victim until his eyes burst open, his hair and skin burn away, and he is dead. As with modern day terrorism, there didn’t need to be a lot of uncivil Indian activity, i.e. cabin burnings and women and children-taking, for public opinion to be turned against the Red race. It appears that some Indian attacks further east such as Berks County, Pennsylvania, may have actually encouraged some white settlers to move further west [see the account of the Hochstedler massacre of 1757 in E-Gen: Lee, the accounts of my wife’s family].

Perhaps one of the most balanced portrayals of these deadly alliances between the French and Indians and the British and Indians is found in the writing of James Fennimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans. Although set in upstate New York, not far from the town founded by Cooper’s ancestors and made famous by the Baseball Hall of Fame, the scenery and events are reminiscent of Western Pennsylvania. The major European powers seem to fight to a draw in the narrative, while the colonists and natives come out the losers. This is recommended reading for all ages, and the 1992 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular. As I watch the Redcoats marching two-by-two through the thick mountain forest to the steady beat of the parade drum, with the Redmen poised ready to ambush from behind each tree, I have a sense of what Forbes’ 1758 march on Pittsburgh must have been like. The original Forbes’ Road passes within four miles of my house on the eastern slope of Laurel Hill Mountain near Jennerstown. The rough journey of Richard Pearce and Charles Austen and families to Pine Creek is never far from my mind.

In 1774, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore went to Pittsburgh to, once and for all, make peace with the Indians. When he couldn’t find a consensus among the redmen, he raised an army of 1,000 volunteers to sail down the Ohio to “open up” the western boundaries of his state (now West Virginia and Kentucky) for settlement. While camped at the mouth of the Little Kanawha River, between Parkersburg and Huntington, in the early morning hours, they were attacked by a band of about 500 Shawnees, under the leadership of Chief Cornstalk. What now is known as the ferocious Battle of Point Pleasant lasted most of the day, but Dunmore’s forces were victorious. Driving the Shawnees north and into their villages across the Ohio, he negotiated the release of their white prisoners, horses, and other property. The Shawnees agreed not to hunt south of the Ohio or harass river traffic (WWW.OHIOCENTRALHISTORY). Dunmore’s War, as it is known, had a positive effect on the settlement of Ohio as well.

Great-great-great grandfather Ambrose Austen (1757-1841) followed the Forbes Road to Pittsburgh in 1818, but rather than settle with his son Charles and wife Sarah Pearce Austen and daughter Susan and son-in-law Richard Pearce at Pine Creek, he continued across the great river and into the east-central part of Ohio near Wooster. Several members of the Pearce and related families followed Ambrose. To give you an idea of how dangerous this “Indian territory” was around that time we need to look at its background. About 1762, Mohican John, chief of the Mohegan tribe, settled this area with about 200 of his followers. In honor of him, the village was called Mohican Johnstown. But, the location was also known as Jeromestown or Jerome’s Place, after the legal owner, a French Canadian named John Baptiste Jerome, who was married to an Indian woman. He sold seed corn and traded horses and cattle, according to our Australian cousin Brian Austen. It’s in his relocated and remodeled cabin that our Austen relatives, Ralph and Mary, raised a family beginning in the 1920s. Mary still lives there today. But, according to the History of Ashland County, if we go back almost 250 years:

The village contained a council house and about sixty or eighty pole lodges or wigwams. The village was a common resort of hostile Indians on their warlike excursions to Western Pennsylvania and Virginia in the days of the border wars. Many white captives had been led up the [Wyandot] Trail from 1780 to 1795. (185)

Along with the Mohegans and Wyandottes, the area was the home of Shawnees, Chickasaws, and some Cherokees. The Delaware had lived nearby until the War of 1812, when the British began recruiting them to fight against the Americans. Their leader, Chief Pipe, was an “implacable foe of whites” and had distinguished himself in the battle of St. Clair’s Defeat by killing them “until his arm was weary with the work” (185). A road was cut westward from Wooster through the forest in 1812 by American General Beall and his army. When they reached Jeromesville, they constructed a blockhouse for the protection of both settlers and soldiers in the event of Indian attack. After advancing the wilderness road another three miles and making camp, Beall’s forces were attacked by the remaining Indians in what is called the battle of the “Cow Pens.” One can reach this sight today by following markers off U.S. Rt. 30. But the road was eventually finished, and Jeromesville was made safe for settlers like our Austens and Pearces. However, at least one mystery remains, according to cousin Marge Austen. It seems that Ambrose’s son, Ambrose Jr. “disappeared from the Ohio scene and it was rumored that perhaps he ran away with a tribe of Indians.” She says that he appears in an early census but not in any local cemetery records. Our research continues.

It was not unusual to find Indians frequenting local establishments around the area where the Austens and Pearces had settled in Ohio. One story reports a violent explosion in a grist mill as two holdovers from a local tribe were smoking their pipes on a loading dock near where some grinding was taking place. Apparently, a spark ignited the fine dust in the air and everything went up, including the Indians, in the blast that ensued.

In one final irony, we relate our family connection to Native Americans in the placement of three Indian families in North Park by Allegheny County after it was developed from Pearce and other Pine Creek private properties through the Right of Eminent Domain in 1927 [see “Settlement at Pine Creek: Part III”]. Big Beaver and wife Lone Star, Two Eagle and wife Kouoa, Eagle Ribs, and Joe Black Man came from the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana, to care for a herd of buffalo. My late Uncle Walt Pearce, who was still living at the mill and farmhouse then, was paid $7 a day to install the six-foot high cyclone fence that kept the animals under control. He used his father’s one-horse sled to haul the steel posts, fencing, tools, and cement. He said that he had regular conversations with the Indians and that they made quite an impression on him. Within three years the Indians had returned to their western reservation, Uncle Walt moved on to work in the Wildwood coal mine, and all connections between the Pearce and Austen families and Native Americans were forgotten. For a thorough explanation of the Indians’ role in the settlement of Pennsylvania, and in particular the land around Pine Creek, see the “Township of Pine: 1796-1996,” published by the Pine Historical Committee for the township’s bicentennial. It contains a striking pre-1939 picture of Chief Hawk Eye, called “the last living Indian in Pine Township.” We’re not certain if he was one of North Park’s Blackfeet, or if he truly was a holdover from the natives who once inhabited this area. Future research may reveal the answer, but he casts a pathetic shadow over the settlement of this North Pittsburgh area by the Whiteman.

So, our families were not as far away from the natives of America as you might think. They were not that long gone when Richard Pearce and Charles Austen explored and settled in the New World in the 1820s. Later, in the early 20th century, when the original Pine Creek Settlement in Pennsylvania was taken by the government as part of a “return to nature” movement, in what could be considered great irony, the Native Americans were “invited” back to keep the buffalo company, and thus become a prime tourist attraction themselves. How different, really, is the common and legal “right of eminent domain,” through which our family lost the property and business they had owned since 1820, than all the military action and treaties the various British and American governments enacted with and against the Indians since the Pilgrims landed in 1620? It’s been said, “What goes around comes around.” From Bible times when Joshua entered the Promised Land by force, the victor has always looked at the victim with scorn. School textbooks as recently as the 1920s still referred to Indians as “savages.” The Native Americans didn’t receive citizenship until 1924. Today, we are more tolerant but only the poorer for having been so long in granting them justice. Finally, they are a part of the community we call America. Were the Pearces victimized in 1927? I really can’t say, but I remember my father saying that the takeover of our land to build North Park was “just something that happened in the name of progress.” All the families of that area moved out and moved on with their lives. Like the Native Americans who were “re-settled,” our family can easily relate to that part of American history. The Pearces and Austens had truly been a part of each others’ communities for over a century in Western Pennsylvania and East-central Ohio.

A Few Works Cited

James, Alfred Procter. Writings of General John Forbes. Menasha, WI: The Collegiate Press, 1975.

The Last of the Mohicans. Dir. Michael Mann. Perf. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.

“Township of Pine: 1796-1996.” [A bicentennial book published by the Pine Township Historical Committee]. Pittsburgh: First Impression Printing Co., 1996.

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