Chapter 3 - History of Huntigdon County

Created: Thursday, 24 March 2011 Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email



John Harris, from whom I have quoted the distances from place to place through Huntingdon county, deserves to be inscribed on the list of those who have written history without knowing it. In addition to his statement concerning the Standing Stone, he has given us another fact of perhaps not less importance, and one which has been almost obscured by the traditions of more than a century. It is not always a pleasant task to dispel the illusions that underlie the romances of a people, and which, to them, have passed beyond the confines of uncertainty and entered into their most sanguine and unquestioned beliefs. But the simple truth recorded by John Harris will not permit us to rear any other historical structure than that which rests upon it as a corner stone.

There has long been a popular error in regard to the origin of the name of those narrows through which the Juniata passes immediately below Mapleton. What is the story that has been repeated at many firesides during the last two or three generations, of the redoubtable, or, rather, doubtable, hero of that place, the very picturesqueness of which is sufficient to invest with an air of probability any fable that may be told the credulous ? It is said that about one hundred and twenty -five years ago, and subsequently, there flourished in that neighborhood a mysterious individual of swarthy complexion and herculean proportions, whose name and history were known to none but himself; that he was supposed by some to be a half-breed and by others a quadroon, but that he was probably a white man ; that he built a cabin near a spring, and sought there a solitude and a repose, unbroken except by the society of his family ; that he was a harmless man, raising bis hand against none but the beasts and fishes over which dominion had been given him, and engaging in no other pursuit than hunting and fishing.

But, if we are to believe the story, the place he had selected was an unsafe retreat for one of his peaceful disposition and habits. After a short absence from his cabin, on a certain occasion, he returned to find it burned and his family murdered. At once he became a changed man, taking a solemn vow to devote the rest of his life to the destruction of the savages. So relentlessly did he carry out his purpose, that he made himself a terror to the race that had incurred his enmity, and gained the expressive names of "Black Rifle," "Black Hunter," "Wild Hunter of the Juniata," and others, which might have served as the titles of the most improbable tales of adventure. But he is best known in the traditions of the locality as Captain Jack.

His bitter and unceasing warfare against the Indians, we are told, was beneficial to the white settlers in affording them protection. The latter formed a company of scouts or rangers, and placed themselves under his command, styling themselves "Captain Jack's Hunters," and fighting the Indians in their own way and with their own weapons. Their commander's exploits, if they could be correctly described, would perhaps be a proper subject for history, but so much has been written concerning them that is purely fictitious, that it is impossible to separate the false from the true.

The error to which I have alluded as existing in the public mind, that Captain Jack impressed his name upon the narrows I have mentioned, and the surrounding works of nature, has found expression in the writings of an author , from whom I will quote : "The present generation, however, knows little about the wild hunter. Still, though he sleeps the sleep that knows no waking, and no human being who ever saw him is above the sod now, the towering mountain, a hundred miles in length, bearing his name, will stand as an indestructible monument to his memory until time shall be no more." It is because so little is known about him, because his name and color are matters of doubt, that we must receive everything that has been said of him as unreliable.

And there is still better evidence to throw doubt around him. According to John Harris, who was contemporary with Captain Jack, the narrows took their name from an entirely different person. He mentions them as "Jack Armstrong's narrows, so called from his being there murdered." As Armstrong was oftener called Jack than anything else, it is not strange that the name of the place where he met his death should also be abbreviated, and that it should afterwards be extended to the mountain through which the river has forced its passage, and to the spring which bursts from the mountain side. Harris's memorandum serves, too, to locate the scene of the massacre of Armstrong and his party. He fixes it at eight miles from Aughwick and ten miles from Standing Stone.

It was one of the earliest events that occurred within what is now Huntingdon county. Besides Armstrong, his two servant-men, James Smith and Woodward Arnold were murdered. An account of the occurrence was given by Shickalamy, a converted chief and a steadfast friend of the whites, from which I make the following extract :

That Musemeelin owing some skins to John Armstrong the said Armstrong seized a horse of the said Musemeelin and a rifle-gun; the gun was taken by James Smith, deceased. Sometime last winter Musemeelin met Armstrong on the river Juniata, and paid all but twenty shillings, for which he offered a neck-belt in pawn to Armstrong, and demanded his horse, and Armstrong refused it, and would not deliver up the horse, but enlarged the debt, as his usual custom was ; and after some quarrel the Indian went away in great anger, without his horse, to his hunting cabin. Sometime after this, Armstrong, Avith his two companions, on their way to Ohio, passed by the said Musemeelfn's hunting cabin, his wife only being at home. She demanded the horse of Armstrong, because he was her proper goods, but did not get him. Armstrong had by this time sold or lent the horse to James Berry. After Musemeelin came from hunting, his wife told him that Armstrong was gone by, and that she demanded the horse from him, but did not get him; and, as is thought, pressed him to pursue and take revenge of Armstrong. The third day, in the morning, after Armstrong was gone by, Musemeelin said to the two young men that hunted with him, ' come, let us go toward the Great Hills to hunt bears ;' accordingly they went all three in company. After they had gone a good way, Musemeelin, who was foremost, was told by the two young men that they were out of their course. ' Come you along,' said Musemeelin ; and they accordingly followed him till they came to the path that leads to Ohio. Then Musemeelin told them he had a good mind to go and fetch his horse back from Armstrong, and desired the two young men to come along. Accordingly they went. It was then almost night, and they traveled till next morning. Musemeelin said, ' Now they are not far off. We will make ourselves black ; then they will be frightened, and will deliver up the horse immediately ; and I will tell Jack that if he don't give me the horse, I will kill him;' and when he said so, he laughed. The young men thought he joked, as he used to do. They did not blacken themselves, but he did. When the sun was above the trees, or about an hour high, they all came to the fire, where they found James Smith sitting; and they also sat down. Musemeelin asked where Jack was. Smith told him that he was gone to clear the road a little. Musemeelin said he wanted to speak with him, and went that way, and after he had gone a little distance from the fire, he said something, and looked back laughing, but, he having a thick throat, and his speech being very bad, and their talking with Smith hindering them from understanding what he said, they did not mind him. They being hungry, Smith told them to kill some turtles, of which there were plenty,

I and they would make some bread by and-bye, and would all eat together. While they were talking, they heard a gun go off not far off, at which Woodward Arnold was killed, as

I they learned afterwards. Soon after, Musemeelin came back and said, 'Why did you not kill that white man, according as I bid you ? I have laid the other two down.' At this they were surprised, and one of the young men, commonly called Jimmy, ran away to the river-side. Musemeelin said to the other, ' How will you do to kill Catawbas, if you cannot kill white men?' You cowards! I'll show you how you must do;' and then taking up the English axe that lay there, he struck it three times into Smith's head before he died. Smith never stirred. Then he told the young Indian to call the other, but he was so terrified he could not call. Musemeelin then went and fetched him, and said that two of the white men were killed, he must now go and kill the third ; then each of them would have killed one. But neither of them dared venture to talk anything about it. Then he pressed them to go along with him ; he went foremost. Then one of the young men told the other as they went along, ' My friend, don't you kill any of the white people, let him do what he will; I have not killed Smith ; he has done it himself ; we have no need to do such a barbarous thing.' Musemeelin being then a good way before them, in a hurry, they soon saw John Armstrong sitting on a log. Musemeelin spoke to him and said, 'Where is my horse?' Armstrong made answer and said, ' He will come by-and-by; you shall have him.' 'I want him now,' said Musemeelin. Armstrong answered, ' You shall have him. Come, let us go to the fire,' (which was at some distance from the place where Armstrong sat), and let us talk and smoke together.' 'Go along, then,' said Musemeelin. 'I am coming,' said Armstrong, 'do you go before, Musemeelin; do you go foremost.' Armstrong looked then like a dead man, and went toward the fire, and was immediately shot in the back by Musemeelin, and fell. Musemeelin then took his hatchet and struck it into Armstrong's head and said, ' Give me my horse, I tell you.' By this time one of the young men had fled again that had gone away before, but he returned in a short time. Musemeelin then told the young men they must not offer to discover or tell a word about what had been done for their lives, but they must help to bury Jack, and the other two were to be thrown into the river."

Shickalamy also relates, with great minuteness, the disposition that was made by Musemeelin, of Armstrong's goods, the latter having been a trader, on his way to the Ohio, the discovery that the murder had been committed, the efforts taken to arrest the guilty parties, and their delivery to the whites. There is no statement as to whether Musemeelin was tried, convicted or punished.

As soon as it was suspected that Armstrong, Smith and Arnold had been murdered, a party, consisting of Alexander Armstrong, Thomas McKee, Francis Ellis, John Florster, William Baskins, James Berry, John Watt, James Armstrong, David Denny, and eight Indians, went in search of the traders. Before they had proceeded very far, three of the Indians deserted. The white men and the remaining five Indians went to the last supposed sleeping-place of Armstrong and his men, and there dispersed themselves to find the corpses. At a short distance from the sleeping place, was found a white-oak tree with three notches on it, and near it a shoulder bone, which was supposed to be Armstrong's. The white men of the party say in their desposition, that this bone was handed around to the five Indians, and that when it was placed in the hands of the one who was suspected of having committed the murder, ' his nose gushed out with blood, and he directly handed it to another.' " But they were mistaken in the supposition that the bone was part of the remains of Armstrong, for it was not found at the place where Armstrong had been killed, and besides, according to Schickalamy's statement, he had been buried by Musemeelin and the two other Indians. From thence they followed the course of the creek toward the "Narrows of the Juniata," but before reaching the river the five Indians had also disappeared. The first corpse found, that of James Smith, had been attacked by bald eagles and other fowls, and it was the presence of these birds that attracted attention to it. About a quarter of a mile from Smith, they found the body of Woodward Arnold lying on a rock,

The next morning, they say in their report, they went back to the corpses, which were "barbarously and inhumanly murdered by very gashed, deep cuts on their heads, with a tomahawk, or such like weapon, which had sunk into their skulls and brains, and in one of the corpses there appeared a hole in his skull near the cut, which was supposed to be with a tomahawk, which hole these deponents do believe to be a bullet hole."

In the light of these facts, much of the grandiloquence concerning Captain Jack sinks into insignificance. It is Jack Armstrong who, at the base of the towering mountain, "sleeps the sleep that knows no waking." It is to his name and memory that the everlasting pile, thrown up by nature, is an indestructible monument. Let the oft-repeated and generally accepted fable be forgotten.

SOURCE:  History of Huntingdon County, in the state of Pennsylvania: from the earliest times to the centennial anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1876 (1876); by Milton Scott Lytle