Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Fleming's Life in Bald Eagle Township

From Pennsylvania's Revolution
 By William Pencak


Page 128 to 130

The earliest surviving assessment of Bald Eagle Township is a list from 1774 of one female (a widow named Dewitt) and thirty male proprietors, which records the size of their property in acres, the number of acres they had improved, and the number of horses and cattle they owned. Most names on the list appear to be of Scots-Irish and English descent, although at least two men, Gershom Hoff and Anthony Saltsman, were probably German. At least seven of the men share one of two family names, Fleming or Wilson, and are either related as brothers or fathers and sons. One man, Abraham Dewitt, was a tenant of John Fleming, Esq. The average size of an individual’s landholdings was approximately three hundred acres, although one was as small as fifty acres. Several had holdings consisting of 100, 150, or 200 acres, and John Fleming, Esq., had more than a thousand acres. On average, these property holders had improved about eighteen of their individual properties, which indicates that most farms were designed for subsistence. Property improvement could mean as little as a mark on a tree or as much as land cultivation or home construction. In several cases the owners had improved five or fewer acres. John Fleming had improved 143 acres. Twenty-eight of the listed settlers had on average two horses and two cattle.

Through the Eyes of the Preacher

    Phillip Vickers Fithian (1747-1776) provides an account of the New Purchase region in the manuscripts of his supply ministry, which extended from the Shenandoah Valley up through Mercersburg and Sunbury in Pennsylvania along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Trained at Princeton from 1770 to 1772, Fithian began his journey on May 9, 1775, three weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and passed along the West Branch of the Susquehanna to the home of John Fleming, Esq., on July 25, 1775. Although a bit melodramatic at times, or perhaps influenced by his prejudices against the Native Americans, his affinities for the colonial cause, and his disdain for backcountry living, Fithian’s selective observations offer interesting details for the study of this part of the frontier and the nature of its settlement.

    When Fithian passed through the region, he found a land and its diverse peoples in transition, somewhat foreign to him, and not fully understood. He followed the West Branch of the Susquehanna to where it meets Pine Creek and noted the long clearing on either side of the creek, where he had been told Indian towns once existed. In their place Fithian found the cattle and horses of European settlers grazing on what he called a common. At John Fleming’s place, Fithian found the largest tract in the region, which included all the land between the Bald Eagle and Susquehanna to more than two miles upstream, where the Fleming house stood on the riverbank. Upon inspection, Fithian suspected that Fleming’s property included the site of the former Native American settlement across from Great Island and a clearing of more than 100 acres that the Indians had made long before the arrival of the European Americans.

    Fithian also made note of various people he met on his journey. On the way to “Squire Fleming’s” at dusk on July 25, 1775, Fithian met an “Indian Trader” and his companion, who were passing over Pine Creek. The man rode on horseback armed with a “bright rifle,” followed by a horse with packs and “his Man” with their luggage. Fithian also saw two Native Americans on the first full day of his stay with the Fleming family. He experienced an unpleasant feeling when he viewed these “heathenish savages”, but he also noted that they carried “clean Riffles” and were headed downriver with skins (probably for trade with the European settlements).

    Fithian kept notes on the nature of the homesteads, which provide insights into the nature of the household, the division of labor, the situation of the home in relation to the surrounding settlements, and the political, regional, and even global connections implied. Squire Fleming went to work in the fields well before 7:00 am, when the women began working in the same room where Fithian slept, waking him in the process. Fleming’s daughter helped with the milking and his niece helped with the reaping. The Flemings’ home was also a way station for people traveling through the region and a place where settlers’ families could socialize. On the second day of his stay, Fithian recorded Squire Fleming’s hope that the sparse settlement would “soon form to society.” That evening, Fleming’s brother and his family joined them all for dinner.

    On the fourth evening of his stay, July 28, 1775, Fithian described his visit with the family of William Read, where he ate a dish of huckleberries and drank coffee, which Fithian noted was a rare commodity for the region. The same evening Fithian returned to the Flemings’ home to meet a Mr. Gilaspee, who had just arrived from Northumberland with the latest gossip about a local couple’s infidelity. On the evening of the next day Fithian recorded his conversation with a young gentleman, Mr. Waggoner, who had arrived at the Flemings from Pennsylvania on his way upriver with a surveyor. In the late afternoon William Read’s daughter, Jenny joined Fithian, John Fleming’s daughter, Betsey, and Mr. Gilaspee for a trip over the river and up the mountain to collect huckleberries. On their return across the river, Mr. Gilaspee purposely overturned the canoe in a “rare Diversion”, throwing the women and the fruit into the shallow current. Their diversion became a water fight that ended in Mr. Gilaspee’s submission, as many people watched from the shore. In the “Squire’s Library” Fithian also noted John Dickenson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British colonies (1767-1768), which criticized British colonial policy and suggested resistance, though not necessarily independence. In his journal entry for July 28, 1775, Fithian also expressed his concern for “poor distressed Boston, to the  Eastward.”

    On Sunday, July 30, at 11:00 am, Fithian held a worship service for approximately 140 people on the “Indian Land” along the north side of the Susquehanna River, opposite the Great Island. He stood at the base of a large tree and his congregation sat on the grass and in the bushes around him. In his journal he recorded three points that he stressed in his sermon” observation of the Sabbath, regular attendance, and the establishment of a more permanent ministry. Fithian provided no further information about the nature of the people gathered at this worship service. It is interesting to note that he held the service outside the officially designated territory of the Pennsylvania New Purchase. Most people were probably of European descent, although it is not clear how many were officially settled on the New Purchase tract and how many were squatters. It is also likely that Native Americans were present, given Fithian’s description of another service he held later at the Boggs homestead further up the Bald Eagle Valley. This suggests a greater level of interaction between Native Americans and Europeans, centered around the Christian religion, for this time and place than the current historiography, which stresses sharp racial divisions, suggests.

    On the following Monday, Fithian traveled with Mr. Gilaspee up the Bald Eagle Creek. Before leaving, John Fleming paid Fithian twenty shillings for his “Supply,”