Chapter XXXVI
History of Ridgway Township 

Ridgway, the fourth township, was organized in 1826, being taken from Pine Creek. It was named for Jacob Ridgway, of Philadelphia, who was the owner of a large body of land in McKean county, and also of another large tract in Jefferson county. It was then bounded on the north and east by McKean county, and on the south and west by Pine Creek township.

The taxables in 1826 were 20; in 1828 there were 26 taxables, 1 deaf and dumb person; votes cast at election, 16; votes cast at general election, 19. In 1829 the taxables were still only 26; in 1835, 40; in 1842, 75. The population, according to the census of 1830, was 50, and in 1840, 195.

In 1831 the greatest area of the township was, length twenty- three miles, breadth seventeen miles.

The first election, as recorded in the office of the prothonotary, at Indiana, was as follows: "Ridgway township. At an election held at the house of James Galagher, in said township, on the 16th of March, 1827, the following named persons were duly elected: Constables, Nehemiah Bryant had 8 votes, Manson Vial had seven votes; supervisors, James Gallagher and Alonzo Brockway were unanimously elected; poor overseers, Naphtala G. Barrus and William Maxwell were unanimously elected; fence appraisers, Nehemiah Bryant and William Taylor were unanimously elected; town clerk, James Gallagher. Signed, John Stratton, inspector; Nehemiah Bryant, James M. Brockway, Alonzo Brockway, judges; attest, James. Gallagher, clerk."

"From 1825 to 1845 the plan of Fourier -  that of communities with a union of labor and capital, and working under fixed rules -  was actively put into operation in this section of Pennsylvania. On the main road from Ridgway to Smethport are the remains of the town of Teutonia, once a large community; but jealousies grew up, and the members dispersed among the people at large, and became industrious and useful citizens. The sudden advent and exit of this community had its prototype within half a mile of Teutonia. The mouldering wood and growth of trees of half a century mark the spot where was laid out the town of Instanter. Its plot is duly recorded in McKean county. Mr. Cooper, a large landholder, was the instigator, if not the forerunner of the settlement. As the streets were marked out, the buildings went up like magic; but Madam Rumor spread a report that the land title was unsound, and on investigation such was found to be the fact. Work suddenly ceased, and the settlers left."*

Part of the Cooper lands were situated in what was then Jefferson county, and the flaming handbill which was gotten up to advertise these lands, gave the following very explicit directions for getting to them:

"Title. Three hundred thousand acres of land, for sale and settlement in the counties of McKean and Jefferson, in the State of Pennsylvania, joining the New York line and the Genesee lands, extending forty miles and situate about two hundred and fifty miles northwest from Philadelphia, etc., etc.

Settlers and others wishing to go into the aforesaid lands from the northern part of Jersey, New York and New England States, take the Newburgh and Cohecton turnpike or such roads as will be most direct to the Painted Post, then cross the York and Pennsylvania line, taking the Tioga road to Dr. Willar’s or widow Barry’s; thence west to and on the east and west road, passing Wellsborough and Cowdersport to Smithport; thence ten miles to Instanter (proposed county town of McKean). For settlers and others south of Easton, fall into the Lehigh and Berwick or Sunbury pike; from thence to Williams-port, passing by Jersey shore to the aforesaid east and west road. For such as go out on foot or horseback they can take the Ellicott road from Jersey shore, passing through Dunnstown, and up the Susquehanna and Sinnemahoning to Coxe’s Settlement and Instanter.

Benjamin B. Cooper. Cooper’s Point, April 25, 1812."

Day’s Historical Collections of Pennsylvania, published in 1843, says: "A road leads from Brookville to Ridgway, a settlement of New England people, made some years ago on the Little Mill Creek branch of the Clarion River, in the northeastern corner of the county. It took its name from Jacob Ridgway, of Philadelphia, who owned large tracts of land in this vicinity."

Mr. Ridgway selected high ground about six miles northeast of the present town of Ridgway, for his settlement, on the Jefferson county lands, which was about four hundred and fifty feet above the Clarion River, at Ridgway. In locating this settlement he experienced many difficulties. It was twenty-five miles from his settlement at Bunker Hill, in McKean county, and twenty- two miles from Judge Bishop’s (in McKean county), through a dense and heavily timbered wilderness.

Mr. Ridgway secured for his agent in this undertaking, James L. Gillis, a relative by marriage, who came on from his home in Ontario county, N.Y., n June, 1820, to look at the land, and moved on it in December, 1821. Mr. Gillis gave the name of Montmorency to his new home in the wilderness. As the roads were very bad in summer Mr. Gillis brought their furniture and household effects in sleighs from the old home. It took two days, and sometimes longer, to make the trip, and the travelers had to camp out at night. Mr. Gulls had ample means at his control, and being a man of unusual energy he soon had some four hundred acres of land cleared and ready for cultivation. He also erected a mill and carding- machine at Kersey. Mrs. J.C. Hauk, of Ridgway, a daughter of Mr. Gillis, who came with him to Montmorency, and from whom we obtained most of these facts, says: "We had very little furniture except what was made on the place by a man who could use a saw and hammer."

The first settlers to penetrate into this wilderness came about the year 1812, and located on the Bennett’s Branch. Leonard Morey, Dwight Caldwell, John Mix and Eben Stephens were probably the pioneers of the Bennett’s Branch. Morey built the first saw- mill. About this time the lands of Fox, Norris & Co., and Shippen, McMurtrie & Co., large landholders of Philadelphia were thrown upon the market, and settlements made there by these companies. The former company constructed a road into their lands, and built a grist-mill on Elk Creek, about two miles from the present town of Centreville (in Elk county) about the time that the Kersey mill, as it was called, was built. The Clarkes, Brockways, Vialls, Greens, Johnsons and others who followed these first settlers, locating in this section about the year 1823, are all mentioned under the head of "Early Settlers," in a preceding chapter. They were principally from the New England States, and were a hardy, honest, intelligent type of manhood, and they have left their impress upon the people of Elk county, and the northern portion of Jefferson county, where their descendants are yet found among the best citizens of the localities in which they dwell.

The privations and disadvantages under which these early settlers in this part of the county suffered, can be told from the fact that they were obliged to travel from Montmorency to Indiana to transact all legal business. Mr. Gillis erected a grist- mill and a carding machine soon after he located at Montmorency. It will be wondered at that the latter was necessary in the wilderness, but by the utmost vigilance and watchfulness the people of the settlement contrived to guard their sheep from the wolves, and soon raised enough wool to clothe themselves and their families.

Among those who accompanied Mr. Gillis, and settled at Montmorency, were Reuben A. Aylesworth, a brother- in- law of Mr. Gillis, Enos Gillis, his brother, James Gallagher. These, too, were the first property holders in the present town of Ridgway, where Mr. Gillis made the first improvements by erecting two or three log houses and a saw- mill, the first house being built in 1824.

The Olean road crossed the Ridgway lands, but this road not proving of as much benefit in helping to open up and develop the region through which it passed as its projectors expected, Mr. Gillis, in the winter of 1824, conceived of the project of building a road from Bellefonte to the New York State line, an undertaking that demonstrated the spirit of the age, and of the man, for the route was through the densest wilderness, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles, but Mr. Gillis having gotten his neighbors in the county to sign his petition for .a charter, took his horse and sleigh, crossed the Bennett’s Branch near Morey’s, going from there to Karthaus, his being the first team ever driven through that wilderness. At Bellefonte he secured a few signers to his petition, and then proceeded to Harrisburg, and there, with the aid of Judge Burnside, State Senator, and John H. Mitchell, a member of the House, and both citizens of Centre county, the bill granting the charter asked for was passed, but the Legislature failed to make any appropriation for the work. However, Mr. Gillis persevered, and the next winter the Legislature subscribed twenty thousand dollars to the stock of the road, and it was finally completed.

In 1826 Mr. Gillis succeeded in having a mail route extended to Montmorency, and a post- office established there, Reuben A. Aylesworth being appointed postmaster. February 14, 1826. Prior to this time the nearest post- office was at Coudersport, sixty miles from Montmorency, and it took a man from two to three days to make the trip on horseback. This was the second office established in Jefferson county.

Mr. Gillis represented the districts to which Brookville was then attached in both Congress and the State Senate, and was appointed associate judge by Governor Porter, but as Elk county was then organized taking Ridgway township from Jefferson county, he resigned.

Judge Gillis was a remarkable man, and his long connection with the business and politics of the county, deserves more than a passing notice, and we cull a few facts of his career from a very able sketch of the " Late James L. Gillis, the Pioneer of Elk and Forest," contributed to the Philadelphia Times in 1881 by Hon. Henry Souther, of Erie.

"He was born in Washington county, N.Y., October 2, 1792, and was one of a large family of sons -  all hardy, sturdy men. His father lived to a ripe old age, and visited his sons, James and Enos, late in life, when they resided at Ridgway. A few years prior to the War of 1812 the family removed to Ontario county, N.Y., and there James enlisted in a company of New York Volunteers, and was immediately commissioned a lieutenant of cavalry, and assigned to a regiment commanded by one Colonel Harris, regular dragoons. He was in the battles of Fort George, Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane. Shortly after this battle he was, taken prisoner by the British and confined at various places in Canada, and in 1814, while under parole he was arrested and put on board a transport about to sail for England. Gillis and several others were successful in making their escape by capturing a boat belonging to the transport, and gaining the bank of the St. Lawrence River, opposite Quebec, at which place the vessel was lying. All were finally retaken. They wandered about for several days wishing to reach the United States frontier, but made little headway in that direction. Finally they made terms with a Canadian Frenchman, who promised to guide them to the boundary, but betrayed them. The red coats got them, returned them to confinement, and Lieutenant Gulls was not again permitted to escape. He remained in confinement till the close of the war, when he was exchanged at Salem, Mass. When Congress, about 1853, passed a law giving a bounty of one hundred and sixty acres of land to the soldiers of the War of 1812, Judge Gillis had no trouble in proving his title to one. He considered it too sacred to part with, and for years kept it hanging in his home in a gilt frame, which was a luxury in the way of fine arts that his neighbors generally could not indulge in.

In 1816, he married Miss Mary Ridgway, of Philadelphia, a niece of his future employer. By that marriage he had three children: Ridgway B., Charles B. and Caroline, now the widow of Judge Houk, late of Ridgway. In that wild region he reared these three children. His wife died in 1826, and in 1828 he married Miss Celia A. Berry, who died in 1855, leaving seven children. In 1830 he moved from his farm, which he had cleared, six miles from Ridgway, to that place to which he gave its name, of Ridgway. Here his family resided for many years. In that country, where the benefits of education were very limited, he brought up his ten children, giving them such education as the county afforded, and all of them have acquitted themselves very creditably in life. One of his sons, Captain James H. Gillis, United States Navy, did gallant service during the late Rebellion. He was in command of a war vessel, throughout the war, and at the bombardment of Mobile, his vessel came in contact with a torpedo, was sunk to the gun deck, but he fought her as long as there was enough of her above water to stand upon. While he was a midshipman, and the vessel to which he was attached was in a South American port, he called for volunteers from his crew, took One of the ship’s boats, and saved the crew of a Chilian vessel, which was going to pieces in a fierce storm, two miles from shore. He took the crew from the rigging, and brought them safely to land. The act was recognized by the Chilian government in a fitting manner. Captain Gillis, who was born at Montmorency, in Jefferson county, is now a commodore in the United States Navy.

After Judge Gillis retired from Congress, he was appointed agent for the Pawnee Indians, and located them upon their reservation, built buildings for them, among others a grist- mill, and was their faithful friend and protector, as long as he remained with them. No act of peculation was ever laid to his charge, either there or in any of the other public offices that he held. As an evidence of his kindness of heart, he adopted from the tribe a little Pawnee girl aged five or six years, under the following circumstances: Both the parents of the child were dead; she had no relatives, who under the laws of the tribe, were bound to care for her, or support her, and was, therefore cast off by every one. The story goes that Judge Gillis found her picking the pieces of fat off the entrails of a decayed buffalo. He immediately took her to his own quarters, had her washed up, clothed and cared for, as if she was the most precious child in the world. He brought her to Ridgway with him when he returned; she lived in his family while he remained there, went West with him when he moved to Iowa, and died there."

While Judge Gillis lived at Montmorency, he was obliged, as was all the other settlers in Jefferson county, to go to Indiana to attend to all legal business, and also to report there for military duty. On one occasion he had failed to report for the latter, and also paid no attention to the fine imposed upon him, and an officer was sent to arrest him. The officer on his arrival, near nightfall, was cordially received by Judge Gillis, and entertained with the lavish hospitality for which Montmorency was noted. The judge suspected his errand, but did not in the least remit any of the attentions that he would have bestowed upon the most honored guest. In the morning the officer, overwhelmed by the kindness of his reception, began in a shamefaced way to explain his errand, when Judge Gillis, similating the greatest wrath, ordered him to be gone, telling him if his errand was known, his life would not be worth much in those woods, etc. The poor fellow, frightened by this storm of wrath, mounted his horse and rode off with all speed, and this was the last his prospective prisoner ever heard of him or the militia fine.

Judge Gillis was throughout his life a staunch Democrat, and on his last visit to Ridgway, at a Democratic meeting in October, 1880, he made a speech for Hancock and English. He died at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in June, 1881, in the eighty- ninth year of his age, having lived through the three wars that this country has seen.

* Dr. Eggles’s "History of Pennsylvania."

Source:  Page(s) 526-531, History of Jefferson County by Kate M. Scott. Syracuse, N.Y., D. Mason & Co., 1888.

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