Bits from the Brokenstraw Valley
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Bits from the Brokenstraw Valley

On the nineteenth day of October, 1869 the Youngsville Lodge No. 500, 1. O. O. F., dedicated the Youngsville Cemetery. Under the direction of W. G. Marshal and Robert L. Bodine a procession formed in the village at 1 o'clock and marched to the cemetery where exercises were held. On that occasion the Hon. Samuel P. Johnson, of Warren, delivered an historical address which was reproduced in the press of the day. In 1903 the Johnson speech was reprinted for the Odd Fellows' Cemetery Association of Youngsville, with compliments of J. B. White. The following bits of history of the Brokenstraw Valley are for the most part taken from this excellent address, with due credit to the man who delivered it, and the man who preserved it.

"The hunting ground of the Indian here was first invaded by the surveyors of the Holland Land Company, in 1794, who came to appropriate these lands to warrants procured under the Act of April 3rd, 1792, which first brought the territory North and West of the Ohio, Allegheny and Conewango Creek into market. That portion of the State north and west of the Allegheny was then a part of Allegheny County, out of which, with a part of Lycoming east of the river, eight new counties, including Warren, were formed by Act of the Legislature, passed March 12, 1800. By this Act, Erie, Crawford, Warren, Venango and Mercer, although made provisional counties, and directed to be surveyed, were all declared to be but one county, having but one municipal and judicial organization, which centered in Meadville. In 1805, Venango county was fully organized, and Warren was annexed to it for all civil, political and judicial purposes. So it remained until the Act of the 15th of March, 1819, when its separate organization was effected.

Prior to 1820, in addition to the privations and deprivations of living in a new and unproductive country, without roads or means of conveyance, parties, witnesses, jurors, and return judges of this county had to make their periodical pilgrimages, mostly on foot, to Meadville and Franklin. This, then, was a journey of two days each way. It would now be considered an intolerable hardship, when it can be accomplished in a cushioned car in about as many hours, without any tax on the muscles.

"On the 21st of February, 1801, by an act of the Legislature, Warren county was made a separate election district, and the election directed to be held at the house then occupied by Robert Andrews, at the mouth of Little Brokenstraw. Thus it continued till 1808, when the Court having divided Warren county into two townships, Brokenstraw and Conewango, a law was passed on the 25th of March, 1808, making Conewango township a separate election district. From that time, Broken-straw ceased to be the head of the county.

Under the Act of the 18th of April, 1795, commissioners were appointed by the Governor to lay out the town of Warren, and reserve tracts upon the land reserved for that purpose by the settlement law of 1792. They came on in the summer of that year, and with them John McKinney, whose name, history and place of residence are still fresh in the memory. McKinney, then a fresh import from the Emerald Isle, young, vigorous and adventurous, had first halted at Lancaster, where his services were engaged by the Commissioners. His visit here had given him a view of this valley, and a knowledge of the fact that there was land here to be had for the taking.

So the next year he returned and took up the McKinney farm, almost in sight of where we stand and where he lived to a good old age, and died. His first residence was on the north side of the creek, where for three years he lived and struggled alone with the surrounding forest, then returned to Lancaster and brought back with him a companion and helpmeet in the person of Miss Arthur, the mother of the family that still bears his name, and constitute so large and respectable a portion of your community.

"During the first year of his sojourn here he had the society and fellowship of Callender Irvine, who, like himself, was keeping bachelor hall near the mouth of the creek, performing settlement duties. McKinney's house afterward became the hotel and headquarters of the settlement. Of his shrewdness, hospitality, democracy and fine social qualities I need not speak, for are they not written in the memories of all the old surviving settlers of the Brokenstraw?

Robert Andrews was, perhaps, the pioneer of settlers on the Brokenstraw. He strayed from Chester county. His first adventure was the purchase of the Stiff Knee Island in the Allegheny river, known in local history since as Mead's Island, from a well known Indian Chief "Silver Heels." He soon after removed to the mouth of the Little Brokenstraw, built a sawmill, cleared a farm, played the fiddle, relished fun, hunted, fished, and amused himself generally. He had two wives and two sets of children, one of whom still lives upon the creek, a credit to his race and country.

"His oldest son, John, a sedate, well educated man, long identified with the history of Warren County as Major, Justice of the Peace, County Treasurer, Surveyor and Clerk to the Commissioners, took up and settled on a tract of land on which the Irvine Mansion House now stands about the year 1798, built a sawmill near the spot, the remains of which are still visible at low tide in the river, and the first distillery in the county, at the mouth of what is known as "Still House Run." The first squatter upon the tract above this and the mouth of the creek, was John Holman, in 1795, but finding soon after that General Wm. Irvine had a warrant for it, sold out to him for a rifle gun, and floated off in a canoe to a point on the river below, afterward quite celebrated as the Holman farm and ferry, where the first road opened from Eastern to Northwestern Pennsylvania, crossed the river.

In 1797, Callender Irvine, then a young man, undertook in person, aided only by his faithful servant, known to history as "Black Tom," to make the actual settlement then required to perfect the title his father had procured. The first house built and land cleared was where the Irvineton depot now stands, but which was abandoned for higher ground after the "pumpkin flood" of 1805. He had for near neighbors John McKinney, two miles above, Matthew Young on the flat in front of us, and Robert Andrews, at Pittsfield.

Matthew Young was a Scotchman, a bachelor, a scholar and a gentleman. He pitched his tent where your handsome village, the orphan child of his celibacy, now stands, in the spring of 1796. You will pardon me for relating an incident characteristic of both the man and the place.

Late in the spring of that year, Callender Irvine, anxious to cultivate acquaintance with his neighbors, and to see how they prospered, walked up to see Mr. Young, and found him engaged in opening out what is now the main street of the borough, and extending it down the creek.

He inquired of Young, with real curiosity, what he was about, and why he was not putting in some crops. With the utmost simplicity Young replied: "Why, man, I'm more fond of a beautiful prospect." To which Mr. Irvine retorted: "The prospect is, you will either starve or have to leave the country before spring."

Sure enough, when fall came, he had no corn and was kept from starvation only by the surplus provisions Irvine had, and generously furnished him when he went abroad to winter.

Young lived for many years the life of a recluse, taught school, served as the first Treasurer of the county and died August 4th, 1825, while on a visit to Charles Smith, in Deerfield Township, and was brought back in a canoe and buried in the graveyard of the village to which he had given his patronymic. Although a bachelor, he was remarkably fond of children and was equally beloved by all the juveniles in his vicinity. His genial, good heart made him a general favorite.

No history of Brokenstraw settlers would be complete without honorable mention being made of Joseph and Darius Mead. With infinite toil and perseverance they found their way from Boonville, on the north branch of the Susquehanna, to this valley of their choice, by way of Pittsburgh, in a cloth-covered emigrant wagon, in 1799, and halted where the old Mead mills now stand, a mile or so above Young's settlement.

How they ever got their wagon, containing their families and outfits, so far into the woods without a road is a mystery unexplained by history or tradition. Very soon they had made their mark in the wilderness and had erected both a gristmill and a sawmill and cleared up quite a farm. Their trenchant blows soon brought the forest to their mills and made the earth pay tribute to their industry.

Prior to the erection of the Mead mill, the nearest grinding to be had was at the mill of Mr. Miles, where Union now is, and the Holland Company's mill near Titusville. To those distant points many grists were borne from this county on the backs of their owners, or on their patient oxen, guided through the trackless woods only by the Indian's trail.

Mead's mill, for many years, was the Mecca to which a large district made its pilgrimages for supplies. It is said that in dry times some grists came forty miles to its hoppers. From Columbus, for lack of roads, they used to bring their grain in canoes.

After some years, Captain Joseph Mead purchased and removed to a farm and island on and in the Allegheny river, which took and still bears his name, and where he died in 1846.

Darius continued on the creek, was an acting justice for several years, was hospitable and social in his habits, and the only impropriety reported of him was his going to the cupboard and taking a drink of whiskey with his friend Isaiah Jones during the preaching at his house, of a sermon by the Rev. Bishop Roberts, and when requested to postpone the drinking till after services were over, irreverently replied: "Bishop, stick to your text, never mind us, we'll not disturb you."

While speaking of Mead's mill and religious services, I must not omit to name the miller, honest John Gregg, who for many years ground the corn and tolled it honestly, preached the gospel that he practiced, to the sinners on the creek, made hickory splint cables for the lumbermen at three dollars apiece, and educated two sons to adorn the ministry of the church he loved in later years.

Above this point upon the creek, about the beginning of this century, we find Philip Simms, Andrew Evers, John Sample, Charles McNair and John Watt, with his four sons and his son-in-law, Elijah Jackson.

In the year 1801, Daniel Horn and Abram Davis found their way to the site of Columbus by the lines of the Holland Land Co's. survey. They came from Northumberland county, young men and hardy, packing on their backs their earthly goods, built their cabin without the aid of man or beast, cleared land and raised some crops the first year, kept bachelor's hall five or six years and opened a large clearing.

At first their nearest neighbor on the east was Robert Miles, two miles east of Sugar Grove, with Robert Andrews at Pittsfield some fifteen miles to the south. They raised their own provisions, and to get salt to season them, as was the custom then, pushed a canoe by way of Brokenstraw and Warren to the head of Chautauqua Lake, and packed the salt up from Portland Harbor on Lake Erie.

In the spring of 1807 Horn sold out his interest in their betterments to Davis for eighteen day's work, and moved down the creek to the place where he has ever since lived until, at the age of 91, he bade adieu to earth and friends.

Earlier than he, upon the lower creek, was old James White, the founder of the White settlement and now dead about sixty years. He was an earnest, quiet, Christian man. With his sawmill he got up his church and school house also, and divided his energies between the cultivation of corn and the propagation of Calvinism.

Mark C. Dalrymple came to Warren County in 1810. He was born Yankee, originating in Massachusetts. He stopped a couple of years in Sugar Grove; and in 1812, having gone back and formed a life partnership, he purchased a river tract second above the mouth of the Brokenstraw, cleared up a farm, built and ran a distillery ten years; kept a hotel, was elected the first Sheriff of the county in 1819; sold out to Asa Scott and moved to Pittsfield in 1829, upon the farm first settled by Robert Andrews, where he still lives in a cheerful old age.

A few items of local history concerning the Broken-straw valley may not be inappropriate. Its original name, Cushanadauga, meaning Brokenstraw, originated in the fact that the Irvine flats once bore an annual crop of tall grass, which would break and fall over. On this spot, during the revolutionary war, the Indians had quite a village called Buckaloon, from which they descended the river in canoes and committed depredations on the country below.

In 1781, Col. Broadhed, with a detachment from Pittsburgh, attacked, and after a siege of some days, drove them from their village and destroyed a large crop of corn then growing on the flats. He then fortified himself by erecting breastworks at the highest point on the bank of the river, a short distance above the mouth of the creek, traces of which may still be seen.

No extended improvements were made on the Irvine warrants until Adam Shutt took charge of them in 1812. He was followed by Dr. John W. Irvine, who resided there some years prior to the advent of the present incumbent. In the fall of 1805 the entire Brokenstraw valley was swept by a flood, afterward called the `Pumpkin Flood" because it carried away large numbers of pumpkins. Another deluge occurred in 1835 when the creek rose eight feet in an hour, sweeping away bridges, dams and fences.

First Foreign Traffic in Pine Lumber

The first foreign traffic in pine lumber from this section of which I have any authentic account, was a fleet of three boat loads got together at the mouth of the creek, in the fall and winter of 1805-6, and started on its perilous voyage to New Orleans, on the first day of April 1806. The lumber had been gathered from the mills of Long, Andrews, Mead and others, of the best quality, stub shotted and kilndried during the winter while the boats were building. It was owned by Col. Wm. McGraw and Win. B. Foster, and brought in New Orleans forty dollars per thousand feet. Daniel Horn and Dan McQuay were two of the hands on board.

In the spring of 1807 another fleet of seven boats, freighted with sawed and seasoned lumber, owned by Joseph Mead, Abram Davis and John Watt, started on the same precarious trip; the owners returning by sail t9 Philadelphia, the pilots and hands finding their way back as best they could. This was the morning twilight of the lumber trade, that for half a century thereafter furnished so large a field for the enterprise and industry of the dwellers on the Brokenstraw. Infant-like at first, boards crept cautiously down the creek, in floats or single platforms with the aid of halyards and Gregg's hickory splint cables. Gradually the markets, mills and rafts enlarged, until they absorbed nearly all the capital, the enterprise and the energies of the country.

If its history should ever be written, what scenes of struggle and starving, of successful and unsuccessful efforts, -That bright anticipations and blighted hopes it would have to record. Some succeeded, many failed. At first it was a bold adventure. The country was almost inaccessible except through the natural water channels. Provisions and supplies, pork, flour and whiskey, had to be canoed from Pittsburgh; salt, nails and glass from Mayville. Lumber brought less in market, even up to 1820, than it is now worth in the tree. Nothing but industry, economy and indomitable perseverance insured success. Even then it came tardily, lingering in the rear, to be enjoyed by the generations that followed after."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 99-109: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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