A Visit to Cornplanter in 1798
Old Time Tales of Warren County


A Visit to Cornplanter in 1798

Extracts From the Diary of Joshua Sharpless

In the year 1798 Joshua Sharpless, great-grandfather of Doctor W. T. Sharpless, of West Chester, traveled through the primeval forests of western Pennsylvania on a mission to the Indians of the Cornplanter tribe. He was one of a party of representatives of the Friends, or Quakers. The diary, written by Joshua Sharpless on this journey, presents a priceless picture of this section of Pennsylvania at the close of the eighteenth century.

The cabin mentioned in the entry of May 15 was unquestionably that of Robert Andrews, the first settler on the Brokenstraw. John McKinney had built a cabin at the present site of Youngsville three years previous to the pilgrimage of Sharpless. But the distance from the cabin to the Allegheny, mentioned as seven miles, proves the first stop of the Quaker missionary was at the log cabin of Robert Andrews which was located at Pittsfield, near the east bank of the Little Brokenstraw and close to its union with the larger creek.

The Diary

Pittsburgh. May 12, 1798.

Being now ready to depart we took leave of several of the first characters of this place, who wished us success and affactionately bade us farewell. Crossing the Allegheny we entered a wilderness county but little inhabited, the settlement not more than two or three years old, and scarce provision for man or horse. Feeding at Durkin's eighteen miles, we got in the evening to a place called the Double Cabin, fifteen miles. Here we could get neither pasture, hay, corn nor oats for our horses; but having a little oats with us, after feeding them, we tied them to stakes until morning. After partaking of some of our own victuals we wrapped ourselves in our blankets, and tried to get some sleep on the earthen floor, being all the bed we could meet with.

May 15th. A large white frost this and the last five or six mornings. Set off for Broke Straw, a large water. About two miles of very good land down the waters of Oil Creek, we then entered a white pine forest, being the first worth noting since we crossed the mountains. Here the Holland Company is erecting a grist mill, a saw mill being already put up, though there are but few houses within twenty miles. We have had a cut road ever since we left Pittsburgh to this place. Which now ending we entered the wilderness without any path.

A number of trees being marked last fall, were now to be our guides. It was a thick wood we had to pass through, with a great quantity of young stuff and brush in the way.

Our journey this day was truly wild and romantic. We had a continual succession of logs to cross, sometimes three in a perch, divers of which we had to jump our horses over, and with difficulty got round others; in places such a jumble of large stones and rocks that we were in continual danger of getting our horses' legs fast, or broken in the cavities between the stones. Presently we would have to descend banks, almost perpendicular, into swamps, then out again with great difficulty. These cuts were very frequent and the roots of the pine and hemlock trees were also very troublesome, the ground in many places being laced over with them. The underbrush and limbs of the trees were another great difficulty as were some very steep hills in the latter part of this stage. It was called twenty-four miles, which we thought were very long ones, for it took us twelve hours industriously traveling, including about an hour we turned our horses out to try and pick a little grass, thought next to none was to be seen in this day's ride; nor one house for twenty miles. The land was heavily timbered, but not kindly soil.

Many natural curiosities presented in this day's ride, one of which the large quantity of green moss, which covered all the rocks, the stones, the old logs, and the whole surface of the ground, under the forest of pine trees. I thought the coat of moss for thickness and length resembled a fleece of wool. Some large rocks twelve or more feet high, thus covered over having received seed from the neighboring trees which sprouted and took root, have large trees of two or three feet over, growing on them. Three or four such trees I have seen on one rock, and their roots spread down its sides ten or more feet, until they have joined the ground and grown firm therein, so that the sides of the rocks were bound with them like so many large ropes. We arrived at Broken Straw in the evening, where we found plenty of pasture for our horses, and a cabin that was erected last summer, the owners of which kindly let us have quarters, and directed where the best pasture on the creek was, to turn our horses to. We had provision with us, after partaking of which, we spread ourselves on the floor to take some rest, which we found small enough for us and the family. The night being cold, and the cabin very open, we often had to rise to mend the fire.

May 16. Set off for the mouth of Conewango. Went to the Allegheny river seven miles down the east side of Broken Straw. The bottoms on the creek were rich and beautifully coated over with a luxuriant vegetation. We saw several sugar camps erected by the Indians, where they came in the season to make sugar, though more than twenty miles from their village.

May 17th. A pleasant day. Set off with our Indian guide. He could not talk English, nor understand any, that we knew of. In less than two miles we crossed the Conewango, a beautiful stream, which flowed along with a gentle current. For about two miles after we crossed this water the land was good, but from thence to the Allegheny river, perhaps eight miles, we had a rough mountainous country and I think much of it poor thin soil. Our road was better calculated for an Indian path than traveling on horseback. There was great abundance of wind-fell timber to cross, we thought on an average, one or more for every two perch. Some we could get around, and others we jumped our horses over.

When we arrived on the river, we stopped awhile to let our horses eat grass, there being great plenty on some of its bottoms, which was a pleasing sight, and had a tendency to remove some fears which attended when in the naked woods where no grass was to be seen, that our horses, after their journey, when we got among the Indians, must suffer for want of provisions. While here, a number of Indians came by in canoes, who stopped to see us, shook hands with us, and looked pleasant. One man came down the mountain to us with a large turkey on his back, which he had just shot. We thought it would have weighed more than twenty pounds. The sight of this conveyed an idea that small game was plenty amongst them, and it was likely we should come in for shares. One of the canoes also had a quantity of fine fish in it, but we found when amongst them, that a turkey was very seldom taken, or any other small game. It is rare to see a squirrel in the wilderness; we saw some pheasants but no partridges.

After a short conference on the weighty business we were embarked in, we proceeded up the river, not without some exercise of mind, and would have been glad had we sent a messenger forward to have informed the chiefs of our coming. But this was out of their power for none of the Indians we met with could talk English; we therefore moved forward with our minds attentive to best directions. When we came in sight of the town, many Indians appeared in view looking toward us. Our guide turned into the first cabin he came to and would go no further, but pointed to Cornplanter's house. We paid him one dollar and moved forward.

We presently saw the chief with a number of other Indians coming toward us. Upon our riding up to them and alighting, they appeared to welcome us with open countenances. We did not know Cornplanter nor could we distinguish him by his dress; but upon shaking hands with one that stood foremost, we asked if he was Corn-planter? He informed us in his way that he was. After shaking hands with them all round, we were conducted to his house, which was not distinguished from the rest only by being larger. After unsaddling our horses, and carrying in our baggage, and being seated, Cornplanter, his son Henry, and several others came in and set down. The chief presently asked us if we would like to see his people in general council. We let him know we would as soon as it was convenient. Tomorrow at ten o'clock was therefore fixed on, and runners dispatched immediately to give notice.

It was about two o'clock when we arrived here, and sometime after the conference Cornplanter came into our apartment and asked us if we could eat in the Indian way. We informed him we expected we could. He presently brought in some dinner in a bark bowl, and a tin kettle. The bowl was placed on a seat beside us, and the kettle on the ground before us, and we were invited to eat. We saw the bowl and the kettle, but what was in either of them we knew not, or whether they were to be eaten together or separate. The bowl contained a number of round lumps of something tied in cornhusks, with a string at each end and in the middle. We let them know that our ignorance was such that we did not know how to begin, which set some of the younger sort a laughing.

The chief took out his knife for they had set neither knives, forks, nor spoons, and taking up the dumplings, he cut one of them in two, then stripping up the corn husks, he cut off a piece of the dumpling, and dipped in the kettle, which we found contained bear's oil, and ate it. We followed the example, and made a light meal. The bear's oil was cold and not grateful to our palates. We have since seen that this way of eating is often practiced among them; though cold Indian bread dipped in the oil is more frequently used.

May 18th. Last evening after we had lain down to rest, Cornplanter and his son Henry came into our apartment and informed me he would like to know what we intended to say to his people in council. We told him we would inform him in the morning; which this morning we complied with and let him know that we could not tell all we should say, for we believed on such occasions it was right to wait on the Good Spirit to be directed. We read to him the certificate sent by the Indian Committee, which particularly pointed to our business; also General Wilkinson's letter with which he appeared satisfied. His son Henry, who has had an English education in and about Philadelphia, interpreted for us, for his father can neither speak nor understand English. Henry was our interpreter on all occasions whilst among them. He was not ready and we believe the business we went on suffered for the want of one better qualified.

About twelve o'clock between thirty and forty of their principal men met in council, which Cornplanter opened by a short speech, expressing his satisfaction in seeing us come riding through the bushes, and that it was the Good Spirit which preserved us in our long journey, for which they were very glad. He then informed us of their poverty, the poorness of their houses, which were covered with bark, and their inability to make good ones. We thought the latter of this speech was calculated to draw our charity. He then let us know that all were met who were likely to attend; that their women could not come but the men would let them know what we said to them, we having particularly requested their women might attend.

We then opened our business by letting them know the love their old friends, the Quakers, have for them, and our willingness to take a long journey to see them; some of us having left loving wives and tender children with comfortable dwellings, and exposed ourselves to the hardships and difficulties of a perilous journey, with no other view than for their improvement. We then read the epistle or instrument of writing the committee sent, which particularly opened the design and cause of our coming amongst them. It was read by paragraphs and interpreted with some difficulty. We next read General Wilkinson's letter; then dropped some advice, wishing them when they took our proposals into consideration, they would guard against discouragements that might present in their looking forward towards a change in their manner of living, for we did not doubt but there might be many difficulties in their way, and their progress might be slow; yet there are accounts among the writings of the white people of a people who lived beyond the great waters in another island, who many years ago lived much like they do now, yet were by industry and care become very good farmers and mechanics of all kinds and from that people many of these fine leggings with the other striped and nice clothing they had on, came.

We then let them know we had a boat coming up the Allegheny River with various kinds of goods among which were a number of plough-irons, hoes, axes, shovels, and spades, with carpenter's, mason's and cooper's tools which we intended never to take away; but leave amongst them; but while our young men stayed they should be placed in their care to lend out to them as they wanted and when done with were to be returned. Upon our letting them know we had nothing more to say amongst them at this time, they informed us they would take our proposals into consideration, and give us an answer tomorrow.

May 19th. The Indians were this day in council on the business we laid before them. They divers times sent their difficulties for us to explain some part of the business we had opened to them. One of them was, how they should draw their ploughs, seeing they had no oxen? We let them know we had seen two horses running about their town, and that was enough to draw one plough, and if they would save some of the money they were to get of the white people, they might buy a pair of oxen, and they would draw another plough; and that our young men would lend them their horses some times, that we did not expect any great matters from them at first, and that these would do to make a be-beginning.

With this answer they appeared pretty well satisfied, though we thought it was very evident it was not such a one as the question was fully calculated for. At another time they told us we must wait with patience for an answer for it was a great thing and they were all consulting about it in their houses. About five o'clock they informed us they were nearly ready to give us an answer, and wished to know if it would suit us this evening. We let them know we were waiting their time but as the day was far spent, left it with them to judge whether this evening would be suitable. About six-thirty some of them met us. The opportunity I thought was owned, a degree of solemnity attending. After a short pause Cornplanter opened the council. The following is the substance of his speech:

Brothers, the Quakers, listen now to what I am going to say to you. You know, Brothers, that the red people are poor; the great Spirit has made them of another language, so that it is very hard for us to understand one another plainly as there is no person here that can interpret very well.

Brothers, we take great plains to settle the proposals you made to us, but we differ in opinions, and we must take great pains to have everything complete.

Brothers, we suppose the reason you came here, was to help poor Indians some way or other, and you wish the chiefs to tell their warriors not to go on so bad as they have done; and you wish us to take up work like the white people. Now, Brothers, some of our sober men will take up work and do as you say, and if they do well, then will your young men stay longer here, but some others will not mind what you say.

Brothers, we can't say a word against you. It is the best way to call Quakers brothers. You never wished our lands, you never wished any part of our lands; therefore we are determined to try to learn your ways and those young men may stay here two years to try. By that time we shall know whether Morris will leave us any land, for last summer we sold our land, and we don't know yet whether we shall get what we reserved or whether we shall get our money, but by that time we shall know and then if they like it your young men may stay longer.

Brothers, if your young men stay here, we want them to learn our children to read and write.

Brothers, two of you are going home again. If they hear anything about our land or our money they must write to these young men here, and they must tell us if we are like to be cheated. Brothers, this is all I have to say.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 375-384: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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