Chapter XVIII
The Derry Settlement


The afflictions and daring deeds of the pioneers of the Derry settlement during the Revolution will illustrate the experiences of other districts in the Westmoreland country. Derry was a long, triangular territory near the northern border of the county, bounded on the east by Chestnut Ridge, on the north by Conemaugh river, and on the southwest by Loyalhanna creek. Its first settlers were from the Cumberland Valley, and were either natives of Derry, in Ireland, or their immediate descendants. The circumstances under which these pioneers went to the border show that they were bold and self-reliant. The time was a year or two prior to the purchase of the land from the Indians, and the settlers were trespassers. Yet they fearlessly penetrated the forest, built their cabins and hewed out their clearings, taking their chances of withstanding the savages on the one hand and the colonial authorities on the other. When the land office opened, in the spring of 1769, most of these Deny "squatters" were successful in obtaining warrants for their holdings.

The leaders in this Derry settlement were Robert Barr, James Wilson, John Pomeroy, William Guthrie, John Shields, Samuel Craig and Richard Wallace. A few of their compatriots, among them Charles Campbell and George Findley, ventured to settle north of the Conemaugh river, in the valley of Blacklick creek, where they were in the most exposed situation in all the border region.

The cabins of the Derry men were of logs, and, being furnished with loop-holes for rifles, were capable of stout defense against the Indians. Richard Wallace built on a hill near the Conemaugh, about a mile and a half south of the site of Blairsville. He erected a grist mill which ground the grain of the entire settlement. When Dunmore's war began, in the spring of 1774, he constructed a strong stockade around his house, which afforded a refuge. for the neighborhood. This stockade became known as Fort Wallace.

About five and a half miles to the southwest, on a tributary of the Loyalhanna, settled Robert Barr and his sons, and when the Revolution began a stockade was constructed there, known as Fort Barr. A mile farther south, immediately overlooking the Loyalhanna, was the log house of John Shields, and it also was surrounded by a stockade. These three stockades were the strong places of the Derry settlement, frequently assailed but never overcome by the savages. Robert Barr's two sons-in-law, James Wilson and John Pomeroy, dwelt in isolated clearings between Fort Barr and Fort Wallace.

The official records of Pennsylvania contain only occasional references to the perils of the Derry settlement during the Revolution. Details of the adventures of the pioneers have been preserved in family traditions, and some of these have been collected in print. These traditions are far from trustworthy, save as corroborated or corrected by contemporary records. Two events are sometimes mingled into one, circumstances are distorted or exaggerated, and dates are often far out of the way. The men who cleared the woods and fought the savages were either unlettered or too busy with deeds to find time for writing. The human memory is very fallible, and tradition is a fragile support for the historian; yet it serves to give life and color to the dull statements of official reports.

It was in harvest time of 1777 that the Indians first raided the northern border of Westmoreland. North of the Kiskiminetas a few men were killed or captured, and the Blacklick settlers fled away to Fort Wallace with their wives and cattle. Among the fugitives was Randall Laughlin, whose horses escaped from the pasture at Fort Wallace and returned to the Blacklick farm. Laughlin determined to venture back after them, and was accompanied by four of his neighbors, Charles Campbell, a major of the militia; two brothers Gibson, and a man of the name of Dixon. In safety they reached Laughlin's cabin, and while resting there on Sept. 25, they were surprised and surrounded by a band of savages, probably Wyandots, led by a Frenchman. On the promise that their lives would be spared, the settlers surrendered. They were permitted to write a note, describing their capture, and to tack it on the cabin door. Then they were hurried away, through the wilderness, to Detroit. Rangers who went in search of the missing men, found the note on the door and within the cabin four printed proclamations, from Governor Hamilton, of Detroit, offering reward to all who would desert the American cause. Along the Blacklick valley the rangers discovered the scalped bodies of four settlers, whose lives had been the forfeit of their temerity.(1)

Major Campbell and his companions were taken to Quebec, where they were liberated on exchange in the fall of 1778. Dixon and one of the Gibsons died on shipboard during the voyage to Boston, but the three others returned to the Westmoreland frontier, where Campbell subsequently attained high position.

Several small parties of savages prowled through the Derry settlement during the autumn of 1777, stealing and killing live stock and burning deserted cabins. The settlers kept close in the three forts and suffered little personal injury. On November I Lieutenant Samuel Craig, who lived near Shields's fort, was riding toward Ligonier for salt, when he was waylaid and killed or captured at the western base of Chestnut Ridge. Rangers found his beautiful mare lying dead near the trail, with eight bullets in her, but not the slightest trace of the rider was ever discovered.(2)

Three days after the taking of Craig, the Indians attacked Fort Wallace. The savages opened fire from the edge of the woods on one side of the fort, while on the other side a white man appeared, wading in the shallow water up the tail race of the mill and waving a red flag. His action was a mystery to the defenders of the stockade, but their curiosity did not restrain their triggers. As the flag bearer approached the palisade, he received a volley and fell dead with seven bullets in his body. In a bag suspended from a cord around his neck were found two proclamations like those left in Randall Laughlin's cabin on the Blacklick. He was one of Hamilton's emissaries from Detroit, and when he fell his savage followers glided away into the woods.(3)

The Indians did not leave the settlement. Major James Wilson, working about his farm, heard the firing of guns at the cabin of a neighbor. Wilson got his rifle and went to investigate. He found his neighbor's body, the head being severed and lying near. Wilson then hurried his wife and children to Fort Barr, and a party of the borderers, led by Robert Barr, was soon gathered to pursue the marauders. This party included two of the most experienced Indian trailers on the frontier, Major James Smith and Captain John Hinkston. The Indians were followed across the Kiskiminetas toward the Allegheny river, and were overtaken near Kittanning. A sharp conflict ensued, five of the savages were killed and the others were dispersed. The dead savages were scalped, and the ghastly trophies were sent to Philadelphia for reward.(4)

In the spring of 1778 the Indians came down again, across the Kiskiminetas and the Conemaugh. On April 28 a score of rangers, under the command of Captain Hopkins, who had gone out from Fort Wallace, were surprised by a superior force of savages in the forest and were defeated after a hard fight. Nine of the rangers were slain and their bodies left behind; Captain Hopkins was slightly wounded, and four of the Indians fell.(5)

This is probably the combat in which Ebenezer Finley took part, described in Dr. Joseph Smith's "Old Redstone."(6) Ebenezer was the son of the celebrated pioneer preacher, Rev. James Finley, and, according to the story related of him, was serving a tour at Fort Wallace as a member of a small militia company from the Monongahela valley. A horseman dashed into the fort, with an alarm that Indians were in the vicinity, that he had left two men and a woman coming in through the woods afoot, and that they must be overtaken if not rapidly succored. Eighteen or twenty militiamen sallied forth, and, at a distance of about a mile and a half from the fort, fell into an Indian ambush. After the first exchange of shots, the militiamen retreated, and a running fight took place nearly to the gate of the fort. Many of the white men "were shot down or tomahawked." Finley fell behind while trying to prime his gun, and was in imminent danger of being overtaken. Putting forth extra effort, he succeeded in passing a comrade by striking the other man on the shoulder with his elbow, and a moment later this comrade was felled with a tomahawk. Thus young Finley saved himself by sacrificing the life of another, and the pious author would have it that Finley escaped by the interposition of Providence. Rev. James Finley was in Philadelphia at the time, and at the very hour of the ambuscade was affected by a strong impression that his son was in danger. He betook himself to intense prayer, and after a short period was relieved by a feeling that the danger had passsed. It was not until several weeks later that he learned the nature of his son's peril and the manner of his escape.

Certain family traditions of the Derry settlement relate to another bitter combat with the savages in the immediate neighborhood of Fort Wallace, at an uncertain period during the Revolution. This affair may have taken place during the summer of 1778, for it is known that desperate inroads were made by the Indians at that time into the northern precincts of Westmoreland.(7) The story goes that signs of Indians were seen near Fort Barr, and the settlers throughout the southern part of Derry took refuge there. They were preparing to withstand an attack, when brisk firing was heard in the direction of Fort Wallace. Major James Wilson, at the head of about forty men, promptly set out from Barr's to the relief of the other post. They arrived within sight of Fort Wallace, which they found heavily besieged, but as soon as Wilson's company appeared, the savages turned upon it and assailed it in overwhelming force. The principal conflict took place on a bridge over a deep gully, about 500 yards from the fort. Several Indians were there slain and others were thrown over the bridge; but Wilson's party was forced to retreat and fought desperately all the way back to Fort Barr. During this retreat two of Robert Barr's sons, Alexander and Robert, were killed, but their bodies were saved from the scalping knife. All others gained the stockade in safety, and the Indians soon afterward disappeared from the settlement.(8)

No record has been found of further Indian attacks on the Derry district 'until the spring of 1781. On the first day of April, while Colonel John Pomeroy and at least three hired men were at work in a field, they were fired upon by Indians and one of the men was killed. Pomeroy fled to his cabin, while the two hired men ran for Fort Barr, about a mile away. Only one of them reached the fort, where he related what had occurred. Very few men were in the fort, but James Wilson and James Barr mounted horses and rode away to Pomeroy's assistance. From a hilltop near the house they saw several Indians skulking about Pomeroy's barn, but no sound came from the cabin. Wilson called out, "Pomeroy, are you alive?" From the cabin came the lusty response, "Yes; come on and we'll kill all the rascals yet." Wilson and Barr left their horses, made a dash for the dwelling and entered it unharmed. There they found that the owner and his wife Hannah had been making a gallant defense for nearly three hours. They had hidden their children under the heavy oak floor and had betaken themselves to the loft, from whose port holes Pomeroy had been firing. He had two good rifles, and, while he was handling one, Hannah loaded the other, taking, meanwhile, frequent liberal pinches of snuff.

Upon the arrival of Wilson and Barr, the Indians, who were few in number, ran to the woods. The children were drawn from their hiding place and Pomeroy's family was conducted, without molestation, to Fort Barr.(9) On the following day Colonel Archibald Lochry, the county lieutenant, arrived in the settlement with a company of militia and visited Pomeroy's farm. The dwelling had been broken open by the Indians, and nearly all the contents carried away. In the field the body of the scalped laborer was found and buried. A second hired man, who had fled, was never found.(10)

1 Pennsylvania Archives, vol. v., p. 741; Caldwell's History of Indiana County, p. 140; Thomas Galbraith's Journal, In Frontier Forts, vol. ii., p. 287.

2 Galbraith's Journal, Frontier Forte, vol. ii., pp. 244, 287.

3 Frontier Forts, vol. ii., p. 244.

4 Greensburg Herald, November 23, 1870; Pennsylvania Archives, vol. vi.. p. 09.

5 Pennsylvania Archives, vol. vi., pp. 469, 495.

6 Old Redstone, or Historical Sketches of Western Presbyterianism, Philadelphia, 1854, p. 284.

7 Fort Pitt, pp. 282, 288.

8 Greensburg Herald, November 23, 1870; Frontier Forts, vol. ii., p. 347.

9 Greensburg Herald, November 28, 1870.

10 Pennsylvania Archives, First Series, vol. ix., p. 51.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 116-122: Old Westmoreland, A History of Western Pennsylvania During the Revolution by Edgar W. Hassler, J.R. Weldon & Co, Pittsburgh, 1900

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