General Robert Orr

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Robert Orr was born in Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania (probably in Hannahstown), upon March 5, 1786. His father, (a sketch of Robert Orr, Sr., appears in the chapter devoted to Sugar Creek township) whose name descended to the subject of our sketch, had been one of the defenders of the Pennsylvania frontier; had enjoyed some official distinction in Westmoreland county, and was one of the earliest pioneers of Armstrong county west of the Allegheny. His mother�s maiden name was Fannie Culbertson. Coming with his parents to what was then almost the verge of the inhabited portion of the country while still a minor, Robert Orr entered upon his manhood as a pioneer, and had considerable experience in that rugged condition of life for which the strong alone were fitted. His boyhood had been passed in a region which afforded educational and other opportunities scarcely in advance of those he found in sparsely settled Armstrong county. His instruction had been very meager, his schoolmasters few and, doubtless, of limited talent; but as boy he had been (and as a man ever continued to be) an apt pupil in that great and thorough school wherein the teachers are observation and experience. To this fact, in conjunction with strong native ability, strict honesty and more than average energy of character, may be attributed both his usefulness and his success in life. The young man resided with his parents in Sugar Creek township for a few years, and in 1805, when the county was organized for judicial purposes, came to Kittanning to serve as deputy for his brother John, who was the first sheriff of the county. Subsequently he studied and followed surveying, and in still after years was appointed deputy district surveyor.

Gen. Orr inherited from his father the strongest spirit of patriotism and a fondness for military pursuits. When the war of 1812 broke out he was very naturally found among the defenders of our country, and rendered valuable services. History states that the second brigade of the army rendezvoused at Pittsburgh on October 2, 1812�where the subject of this sketch was elected mayor,--and left that place the same fall under command of Gen. Crooks to join the northwestern army under Gen. Harrison, on the Miami river, where Fort Meigs was afterwards built. At Upper Sandusky they were joined by a brigade of militia from Virginia. From that place Maj. Orr, by the direction of the general, took charge of the artillery, munitions, stores, etc., and set off with about 300 men to headquarters of Gen. Harrison. While on the march he was met by an express from Harrison, bringing information of the defeat of Gen. Winchester on the River Raisin, and requesting him to bring on his force as rapidly as possible. After consolidation with the balance of the army from Upper Sandusky, they proceeded to the rapids of the Miami (Maumee), where they remained until the six-months term of duty of the Pennsylvania and Virginia militia had expired. Gen. Harrison then appealed for volunteers to remain fifteen days longer, until he should receive reinforcements from Kentucky. Maj. Orr and about 200 other Pennsylvanians did volunteer and remained until they were discharged, after the battle at Fort Meigs, upon April 19, 1813.

It was not long after Gen. Orr�s return from Fort Meigs that he received his first honor in civil life. He was elected to the legislature in 1817. He served two terms in that body and was then (1821) sent to the state senate to represent the large, but comparatively thinly settled, district composed of the counties of Armstrong, Warren, Indiana, Jefferson, Cambria and Venango, the latter county including much of the territory now in Clarion. After serving one term he was led to enter the contest for election to congress, and doing so, defeated Gen. Abner Laycock. He thus became the representative in the nineteenth and twentieth congresses of the district composed of Armstrong, Butler, Beaver and Allegheny counties. In the legislature, in the state senate and in the congress of the United States he served satisfactorily to his people and with unwavering integrity of purpose. Calm, judicious and experienced, his presence in the national counsels could not but exert a beneficial influence in the direction and control of the affairs of the country, which at that time witnessed the earlier symptoms of the disturbance that eventually culminated in the tragic events of 1861.

Later in life Gen. Orr was appointed by the governor associate judge of Armstrong county and served very acceptably to the people. He retained his interest in military affairs and was active in the militia organizations of Western Pennsylvania, thereby acquiring the rank and title of general.

After all, it was not in official life that Gen. Orr was greatest or that he was most useful to his people. He was one of those men who needed not the dignity of office to give him a name among his fellow citizens, or to command their love and respect. His true loftiness and kindliness of character were daily attested by little acts, which in his long lifetime aggregated an immense good.

Gen. Orr became possessed of a large number of land tracts in Armstrong and adjoining counties, which he leased or sold as he had opportunity. During the years he was most extensively engaged in his land business, money was scarce and it was very frequently the case that purchasers were unable to meet their payments. Debtor never had better creditor than Robert Orr. When those to whom he sold were embarrassed and could not meet their obligations, he extended their time and gave them easier terms. With many individuals this was done again and again, until at last they were able to pay. Gen. Orr never dispossessed a man of property on which he was toiling to discharge his indebtedness. Often the sons of the men who contracted with him for lands completed the payment for them. Through this leniency and lack of oppression in the subject of our sketch many families were enabled to gain homes. He was in a very literal sense the steward of his riches, holding them for others� good as well as his own. His kindness of heart and practical philanthropy found expression in many ways beside the one on which we have dwelt. He was unostentatiously and judiciously charitable throughout his life. He did much to advance the interests of the school and church, and for many years prior to his death was a member of the Presbyterian church.

Gen. Orr�s whole life was identified with Armstrong county. For about three years (1848-52) he resided in Allegheny City, and for a short time, about 1845, he lived at Orrsville (mouth of Mahoning), but the greater number of his years were passed in Kittanning. He was interested in and helped to advance almost every local public improvement inaugurated during this time. Laboring zealously for the construction of the A. V. R. R., he lived to realize his hope in that direction and to see the wealth of his county practically increased by its mineral and agricultural resources being made more easily available to the uses of the world.

In politics Gen. Orr was a Democrat, in 1861 a War Democrat. He used his influence and contributed liberally of his means to assist the organization of the military, and the camp where the 78th and 103rd regts. Rendezvoused was appropriately named in his honor. His appearance upon the ground, when the soldiers were encamped there, was always the signal for an ovation, or at least hearty cheers, and all who knew him gathered round him to shake the hand of the old soldier of 1812.

Gen. Orr lived to see the war ended and the country he loved so much still preserved in union. He lived to witness the nation recover from the worst effects of that war and in the centennial year rejoice in peace and prosperity.

Upon May 22, 1876, this grand, good old man passed away at his residence in Kittanning, after a lingering but not severe illness, "full of riches, full of honors and full of years."

Gen. Orr was married in 1836 to Martha, sister of the late Judge Robert C. Grier, of the United States supreme court, who died December 7, 1881. Two children were the offspring of this propitious union�Grier C. Orr, Esq., and Fannie E. Orr. The last-named, of most esteemed memory, died March 14, 1882, after a brief illness.

Source: Page(s) 587-589, History of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania by Robert Walker Smith, Esq. Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1883.
November 1998 by Debra Shelkeyt for the Armstrong County Smith Project.
Contributed by Debra Shelkeyt for use by the Armstrong County Genealogy Project (

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