Chapter VIII
The Tories of Sinking Valley


One of the melancholy tragedies of the revolutionary frontier is connected with the effort of a band of tories to escape from Bedford county and join the British and Indians on the Allegheny river. While the tory plotting, which led to the flight of McKee, Girty and associates, was going on at Fort Pitt, during the winter of 1777-78, British agents were busy at many places on the western border seeking to corrupt the frontier settlers. During that winter these agents, from Niagara and Detroit, visited the lonely settlements of Bedford and Westmoreland counties, insinuating sentiments of discontent into the minds of the border farmers, assuring them that the American cause was sure to fail, and making glittering promises of reward for those who should join the cause of the King.

One of these agents, who spent the winter months in the valleys of the Alleghany Mountains, in what is now Blair county, but was then a part of Bedford, was successful in deluding a considerable band of ignorant frontiersmen by the most despicable methods.

The villain did not confine himself to the promises authorized by the British authorities, as endorsed by Governor Hamilton, of Detroit. These promises were that any man who deserted the American cause and joined the British should have Zoo acres of land, on the conclusion of peace, and that any officer of the American forces should receive a corresponding commission under the King. The rascal who worked among the mountaineers held out to them a vision of wholesale plunder and carnage on the property and lives of their patriot neighbors. His appeals were made only to the vicious. He told them that if they would organize and join a force of British and Indians, coming down the Allegheny valley in the spring, they would be permitted to participate in a general onslaught on the settlements, and would receive their share of the pillage. In addition to this, they should receive grants for the lands of their rebel neighbors, to the extent of 300 acres each, wherever they should select.(1)

One of the men who entered into this desperate plot afterward confessed that it was the design to slaughter the peaceable inhabitants without mercy, men, women and children, and to seize their property and lands. Such a scheme could be taken up only by men of the lowest character and the most cruel instincts, but such men were not wanting on the border, either at that time or in later years, when the frontier had been pressed hundreds of miles farther to the westward.

In the northern part of Blair county is a deep valley amid the mountains, called Sinking Spring valley. It is still a wild and romantic country, but no years ago was a singularly desolate and lonely spot, almost unknown, except to those few persons who lived in the immediate neighborhood. It was a fitting place for the meeting of such conspirators as had been enlisted in this cruel tory plot. In that isolated valley the tory band held its gatherings in February and March, 1778. Many of the plotters were from the frontier settlement of Frankstown, near what is now Hollidaysburg. The leader of the enterprise was John Weston, a bold and lawless man, half farmer and half hunter, who lived with his wife and brother Richard in one of the secluded mountain cabins.

The British agent, having fully enlisted Weston in the murderous undertaking, returned up the Allegheny, promising to come to Kittanning about the middle of April with 300 Indians and white men, there to meet his mountain friends, and with them swoop down on Fort Pitt, Franks-town and the other settlements, and make all of his partisans weary with the burden of their rich plunder.

Weston carried on the propaganda, and early in April had enlisted some 30 of his neighbors in the adventure. All were ignorant men, Irish, German and Scotch settlers, although it appears that only one Scotch family was involved.

Alarming intelligence of the tory plans leaked out and reached the settlement of Standing Stone, now Huntingdon. It was reported that a thousand Indians and tories were about to fall on the frontier, and the greatest alarm was felt. Although a stockade fort had been erected at the Standing Stone, it had a garrison of not more than a score of militiamen, and the borderers did not feel that it would afford protection. There was a general flight of the terrified people from the upper valley of the Juniata toward Carlisle and York, and by the middle of April that region of country was depopulated except by a party of bold men who still held the little fort, determined to stand until the last.

The band of schemers meeting in the Sinking Spring valley was joined, about the first of April, by a man of the name of McKee, who came from Carlisle. There he had been in communication with a British officer confined at Carlisle with other prisoners of war. The officer gave to McKee a letter addressed to all British officers, vouching for the loyalty of McKee and his associates. It was to be used in securing protection and a welcome for the Sinking Spring plotters when they should meet with the force of British and Indians on their flight to the Allegheny.

At the appointed time word reached the valley that a large force of Indians had gathered at Kittanning, where they had occupied the rude fort deserted by the Americans in the preceding year. Weston and his associates felt that their time had come, and that their enterprise was assured of success. The last meeting of the tories was held in the forest, at the loneliest spot in the glen. There 31 men took the oath of fidelity to King George, and pledged themselves to adhere to Weston.

In the morning they set out on their march over the mountains. They crossed the main range at Kittanning Point and struck the old Indian trail leading toward Kittanning. On the afternoon of the second day they came within a few miles of their destination, when they encountered a band of Iroquois Indians, numbering about 100. The savages burst suddenly out of a thicket, clad in war paint and feathers.

John Weston, who was in advance of his party, ran forward, waving his hand and crying out, "Friends! Friends!" The Indians were not in the conspiracy. They were out on a plundering raid, on their own account, and regarded Weston and his men, all armed, as a hostile array.

The Indian war captain fired at Weston. The aim was quick but accurate, and the tory leader fell dead. His followers halted in dread astonishment. Another of the savages sprang forward, and, before the ignorant borderers could recover from their surprise or comprehend what was being done, tore the scalp from Weston's head. The savage uttered the scalp halloo and darted back into the thicket.

McKee, holding aloft in one hand the letter from the British officer at Carlisle, and in the other hand waving a white handkerchief, called out to the Indians, "Brothers! Brothers!" The savages did not respond. Almost as suddenly as they had appeared they vanished into the undergrowth, leaving the bewildered mountaineers alone with their dead and mutilated leader. Weston was buried where he had fallen, and his resting place was unmarked. It was a just end for one who had entertained such sanguinary projects.

The thirty other tories, left leaderless, in a wilderness, whence hostile savages sprang apparently from the very earth, were completely dazed and disorganized. They feared to go forward; many of them feared to return to their homes. They retired to a sheltered place and held a consultation. Some declared their intention to return to Bedford county, but those who were best able to appreciate the nature of their offense apprehended arrest and announced that they would seek safety elsewhere.(2)

Hard was the fate of this company. Some of them wandered in the forests and perished from hunger. Others made their way southward, and reached British posts in the southern colonies after great suffering. Five of them, returning to their homes, were seized by the aroused frontiersmen, and conducted to the log jail in Bedford. Richard Weston, brother of the dead leader, was caught in Sinking Spring valley by a party of Americans going to work the lead mines there, and was sent under guard to Carlisle. He confessed the whole plot, but claimed that he had been misled by his older brother. He escaped from imprisonment before he could be brought to trial.(3)

A special court, of which General John Armstrong, of Carlisle, was president, was appointed by the Supreme Executive Council to try the prisoners at Bedford. It held two sessions in the fall of 1778 and the spring of 1779, but did not convict any of the defendants of high treason. The leaders of the conspiracy were either dead or out of the country, and the few men brought before the court were but ignorant and deluded yeomen, who were sufficiently punished by their imprisonment and the contempt of their neighbors.(4)

Those who had fled away were attainted of treason, and their estates were declared forfeited. It appears that a few of them returned to Pennsylvania, after the war was over, and procured the removal of the attainder and the restoration of their land.

1 See the confession of Richard Weston, Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. vi.. D. 542.

2 Day's Historical Collections of Pennsylvania, p 272; Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. vi., pp. 436, 438, 446, 467, 469, 512; Lytle's History of Huntingdon County, Lancaster, 1876, pp. 80, 283; Jones's History of the Juniata Valley, Philadelphia, 1856, pp. 250-257.

3 His escape is shown by the fact that he was attainted of treason with all those who fled to the southern states; see Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. x., p. 259.

4 The court did not, report any treason convictions to the Supreme Executive Council, but did report one conviction for murder, Colonial Records, vol. xi., p. 581. See, also, on this court, Colonial Records, vol. x., p. 556; Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. vi., pp. 569, 750. 769; vol. vii., p. 297.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 49-53: Old Westmoreland, A History of Western Pennsylvania During the Revolution by Edgar W. Hassler, J.R. Weldon & Co, Pittsburgh, 1900

Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (

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