Nehemiah York
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Nehemiah York

Along about 1815 Nehemiah York arrived in Warren County from New York State, bringing with him his wife and two young children. Autumn had already colored the leaves of the great forests of maple trees in the region of Sugar Grove, then called Brownsville, when York came traveling through, and over the hills into the Brokenstraw Valley, which must have been, when this early settler first saw it, a region of virgin beauty unsurpassed.

But it was not in the valley that Nehemiah settled, he had higher aims, he took up four hundred acres on top of the high hill which bears his name. And it was only a day or two after the Yorks arrived, that the first snow storm of the season came riding over the hills, singing a song in the oaks and beeches. But it was a song of warning to Nehemiah York, he knew there was not time to build a log cabin, single handed, before real winter set in.

There are giant, gray rocks scattered here and there on the summits of the York Hill region. Some of them are as large as a house. Looking at one of these great, square rocks gave Nehemiah an idea. He knew the solidity and weather-resisting quality of stone, he was a mason by trade and had built more than one house of stone blocks. The big rock was twenty feet high and much more than twenty feet in length. At one end of it, standing close, and at right angles, was another huge stone. Nehemiah saw two sides of a mighty solid house already built for him. He cut heavy poles and made a lean-to ; a crevice running up at the rear, between the two big rocks, made a mighty fine stone chimney.

In this pole lean-to, which was warmer, and certainly more solid than many a frame house, Nehemiah York and his family passed their first winter on York Hill. The lean-to was on the south side of the great rock and when winter came in deadly earnest and the north wind blew its bitterest blasts over the high summits of York Hill, the Yorks knew little of the weather, when they stayed at home in their primitive abode. It was the most solid house, on two of its sides, to be found anywhere. The natural chimney, which York, with his stone mason's experience in building chimneys, had helped out with some additional stones, drew nicely. With a forest full of deer, partridges and snowshoe rabbits, York was comfortable and happy. He was part Scotch, and he'd saved expense on two sides of his house.

The next summer Nehemiah built him a log cabin, which a few years later was burned flat to the ground, with all his worldly possessions, while the family was down in Youngsville. The cabin stood close to the present site of the Crippen homestead.

The hilltop settler had brought his stone hammers and trowel with him to Warren County. It was not long till he was at work on a stone house on the Irvine estate. He helped build both the old stone dwellings now standing near the Newbold home, and his trowel placed the mortar in the chinks of the quaint old stone house now standing near the over-head bridge at Irvine.

Nehemiah was the true pioneer type, a powerful man, capable of a tremendous amount of work. After working all day laying up stone at Irvine, he would walk to his home on the hilltop and split wood by the light of the moon. When he had cleared enough land to raise a little patch of wheat, he carefully threshed his first two bushels of grain with a flail, put the wheat in a sack and walked through the woods to the mouth of Sulphur Run. There he loaded his precious wheat in a canoe and paddled down to Catfish Falls, below Franklin, where there was a small grist mill. He brought his flour back over the same route, and it is not on record that anybody ever said of Nehemiah that he didn't earn his bread.

Like a great many of Warren County's hard-handed pioneers, he liked a drink of whiskey, and sometimes another. They tell how he would stride off to his day's chopping in the woods with a full quart bottle in each side pocket of his coat. When he came home the bottles would be empty, but Nehemiah York could still swing his ax all day with such accuracy he could "cut out the line" hewing a log. Either the whiskey was not so strong in those days, or the men were stronger. A couple of men cradling wheat would take a jugful to the field in the morning. At eventide the jug was dry, and perhaps the cradlers were too, and had to have a little appetizer before supper.

Men drank prodigious quantities of whiskey and performed unbelievable amounts of work. Their tremendous activity burned up a great deal of the alcohol, no doubt, and the sweat produced by hard labor accounted for a great deal more. In a day book of the Kinnear store in Youngsville for the year 1839, are entries, showing that one well known citizen purchased two gallons of brandy on Monday and another two gallons on Saturday of the same week. Further entries in the book show that the man was still living, six months later.

For some years Nehemiah York owned the only gun on York Hill. It was a long-barreled flintlock which had killed countless deer, and possibly a few Indians. It had a bore like a small cannon, and a kick like a mule. It was a gun with a come-back, was Nehemiah's flintlock. The fact that Nehemiah owned the weapon,-he had traded twenty-two thousand shingles for it in Youngsville,-was well known by other settlers on the hill, who were proud to have a gun in their midst and looked up to Nehemiah as a protector of the region.

One moonlit night in the fall of the year, John Sedores' pigs suddenly set up a terrific squealing. Rushing out from their log cabin, the Sedores discovered a huge black bear in their pig pen. He was plainly visible in the moonlight. He had already slain a plump young pig and was indulging the bear's well known propensity for pork. When the excited family came out, the giant bear paid scant attention to their voices, he just looked up, blinked his eyes and went back to the enjoyment of his feast.

The Sedores had no weapon but an ax and a butcher knife. There was no competition for an opportunity to go close enough to the big bear, to use either on him. Bruin showed no disposition at all to run away, he was going to stay where he was and enjoy his pig.

One of the Sedores thought of Nehemiah York's gun! Perhaps the bear would wait. A boy started on the run toward York's cabin, a mile through the woods.

Before long the boy and Nehemiah were back, also York's oldest son Amos. They had made good time, and brought the loaded gun,-but alas, a catastrophe, the piece of flint had dropped out of the cock. Without the flints-no spark, without the spark-no shooting! And there was the big bear, still in the pig pen, sitting on his haunches, devouring the fresh pork. It was a tense situation. The pioneers needed their pigs, also the skin of the great black bear would make a wonderful bed covering for cold nights, a fine robe for the ox sled. It would be such an easy shot, if the gun could only be fired!

The pioneers learned resourcefulness early in life. Every day had its problem, or battle. Nehemiah York conceived an idea. "Run into the house and fetch me out some hot embers in the tongs," he told his son. Amos hurriedly brought the glowing coals.

Nehemiah put fresh powder in the pan, took careful aim at the bear and said, "Now touch off the gun with the embers."

Young Amos applied the sparks, the long-barreled flintlock hissed, hesitated and went off with a roar. When the smoke floated away the bear lay dead, the first and probably the only bear ever shot with the aid of a pair of tongs.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 173-178: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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