The Course of
French Creek’s History *
by Jonathan E. Helmreich, Professor of History Emeritus, Allegheny College
* This essay is an expanded and revised 2005 version of a talk presented by the author to a workshop in October 1995. As such, it is not accompanied by the scholarly documentation and footnotes customary for written research. Readers should be aware that definitive documentation regarding the early history of the French Creek Valley is scarce; existing sources frequently contradict each other. The story presented here is construed according to the best resources and judgments that are currently available. Duplication, quotation, or reprinting of this essay may be undertaken only if accompanied by proper citation of its source and author.
French Creek served for centuries as the key means of communication in northwest Pennsylvania and first led white settlers to the region. By the close of the twentieth century it was acknowledged as one of the most valuable environmental resources of the commonwealth and the nation. The creek’s glaciated watershed is one of the last remaining, largely intact ecosystems in the Ohio River drainage. French Creek supports more species of fish (eighty, including fifteen on Pennsylvania’s list of endangered and threatened species) than any other creek in the state, and also twenty-six species of freshwater mussels (fifteen on Pennsylvania’s list), again more than any other creek in the state. The Nature Conservancy places it in the top 20 percent of high quality watersheds in the nation, and considers it one of the thirty most ecologically valuable creeks in the nation. Perhaps for this reason, and even more because of the scenic farmlands and woods that line much of its path, French Creek has also flourished as a tourist destination. New steps are now being taken to protect it for the future.
French Creek near Utica, Pennsylvania
French Creek has evolved over time, but none of the changes it endured in the last millennium come close to the transformation it experienced between some 2 million and 10,000 years ago, when it literally turned around. At one time, the entire region was a seabed. After geologic action raised the seabed to a plateau, drainage flowed to the northwest into the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence, and the North Atlantic. Experts believe that a stream far larger than the current creek formed near the mouth of what is now the Clarion River. It coursed north to present-day Franklin, then on to Meadville, and emptied into Lake Erie, west of today’s city of that name, and north of Albion.
A major exterior force was required to turn the creek’s direction around. The grinding action of glacial invasion, especially of the Illinoisan and Wisconsin glaciers, provided that force. The large moraines left by these glaciers blocked the passage of water northward, causing streams to reverse, or in some instances to divide their flows, with part flowing north and part flowing south. Thus, runoff today can trickle successively into Dick Run, Mill Run, French Creek, the Allegheny River, the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. The length of that route suggests how far any particular act of pollution can reach.
French Creek near Saegertown, Pennsylvania
French Creek takes its most remote source from Chautauqua County in New York, in a reforestation area near the town of Sherman. It is joined by western and southern branches soon after it enters Pennsylvania east of Wattsburg. In subsequent years, a still more westerly arm that actually ran north to south—which George Washington called the Western Branch in his journal—has been renamed Le Boeuf Creek. So while Washington wrote of Fort LeBoeuf on French Creek, that location is now no longer considered on the creek itself.
Numerous flowages augment the volume of French Creek as it travels about 117 miles to join the Allegheny River at Franklin, 124.5 miles above Pittsburgh as that river winds. With the aid of these creeks and Conneaut Lake, the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania, the French Creek Watershed drains for 1,270 square miles (1,200 in Pennsylvania). Over all, the creek falls some 820 feet from an elevation of 1,865 feet above sea level in New York State. Most of the fall occurs near the source and at the mouth, where the rates are between 20 and 30 feet per mile. In Crawford County, the average is about 3 feet per mile, and immediately below Meadville, only about 2 feet. This slow rate of fall accounts for the meanders that so annoyed Washington when he hurried to Fort LeBoeuf in 1753. They also contributed greatly to the great flood of 1959.
The French Creek Watershed
George Washington, of course, was not the first traveler of the creek. Even the Native Americans of the region relied on trails created by their own key prey, now extinct: the eastern bison. Only distantly related to the wood bison currently found in Athabaska, Canada, the eastern bison were larger and darker in color than their more westerly plains cousins shot by Buffalo Bill. The bison provided the meat, blankets, and clothing that made survival in western Pennsylvania possible for early settlers, whether Native American or white. Large and slow moving, they offered the ideal target for the cumbersome, somewhat inaccurate, but nevertheless powerful muzzle-loaded long rifle. The last bison in the commonwealth were killed or died in the first years of the nineteenth century. Their story is an interesting illustration of the interrelationship of population movement, technology, and environmental impact.
Bison were not the sole quarry of early human hunters. The region held deer, waterfowl, small game, many large turkeys, and fish. Washington’s hunter killed five bears while traveling from the mouth of French Creek to Fort LeBoeuf. Unlike today, the woods also contained lynx, wildcats, wolves, and rattlesnakes. These were feared, but more troublesome were the biting insects, so thick that European settlers’ cattle were known to die from toxic reaction and loss of blood if not provided smudges or shelter.
When the bison migrated from the shores of Lake Erie in the summer to the warmer climates of Alabama and Kentucky in the winter, they traveled in groups known as families, not in massive droves like the western bison because of heavy forestation. During these centuries, a squirrel could travel from Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi, touring north of the Allegheny River, without ever touching the ground. Season after season, the bison ambled single file over paths in the woods, imbedding their tracks so firmly that the ridges they cut along the sides of hills in West Virginia could still be identified for more then a century after the bison’s extinction. Their trails also provided “highways” for the Native Americans.
Given the thickness of the woods, the bison often walked alongside streams or in the stream bed itself. As their prime movements were north and south, it is not surprising that they followed the Allegheny River and French Creek to reach Lake Erie. They traced the east bank from the creek’s mouth, crossing Sugar Creek at its mouth, and then cut cross country to Carlton. From there the bison followed the creek, sometimes closely, sometimes several hundred yards inland, pausing at whatever meadows were available. Early settler David Mead tells us their trail followed what is today Water Street in Meadville—at that time very close to the creek. At what the voyageurs called “the big crossing” just above Venango, the bison trail switched to the west bank. When Washington traveled the route in late 1753, high water prevented him from taking the big crossing; instead he chose a lesser trail north to Le Boeuf Creek along the east bank. From Le Boeuf, the Venango Trace continued to Presque Isle on Lake Erie. Though it is about 52 miles by road from Franklin to Waterford, the Reverend Timothy Alden Jr., founder of Allegheny College, estimated in 1817 that by the wanderings of the creek, the distance was 100 miles; Washington thought it was 130.
French voyageurs, canoeing through the area, had no name for the strange beasts (bison) they encountered. The animals did, however, remind them of cattle, or boeuf in French. So they named the stream so heavily traveled by bison Cattle River, or Riviére aux Boeufs. More than a few historians believe that Englishmen—hearing the French describe cattle in the streams as boeuf à l’eau (water cattle)—corrupted the French pronunciation into “buffalo.” Hence the never-ending American confusion between buffalo and bison, and the name for the great port city on Lake Erie, which should properly be called Cattle or Beef City.
For a while, the English used the term “Beef Creek” as a translation of the French name for the stream. But when George Washington first visited the area, a Frenchman controlled the trading post at the creek’s mouth, and the French presence led the Virginian to dub the stream “French Creek.” The later publication of Washington’s journal, as well as the triumph of the British in the French and Indian War, assured that the creek would be known by posterity according to the name assigned to it by Washington.
Native Americans also had a name for the stream. What it was for the Allegewi is unknown to us today, and even the Seneca term is somewhat in doubt. Supposedly the Seneca name “In nungash” became corrupted into “Venango.” What did it mean? Cornplanter, the Seneca chief, implied that it referred to a portion or all of an indecent carving on a tree along the bank near a trail junction. The late Professor Frederick F. Seely of Allegheny College suggests the name came from the Seneca word for mink: Onenge. Most likely it came from the Delaware word for the same critter: Winingus. A tavern keeper in Wattsburg stated in 1845 that the meaning of Venango was “crooked,” which aptly describes French Creek. The term “Pymatuning” also incorporates the concept of crookedness, however, and I find little similarity in the two words.
Of the various Native American nations that at one time or another dwelled in the valley of French Creek and hunted bison, the earliest we know of is the Allegewi. But we know precious little. Some sources assert it was part of the larger Cherokee nation. Because of the earth piles attributed to the Allegewi in the region of Cochranton and the hundreds of timber-lined oil pits to the east, some writers believe the Allegewi were part of the mound-builder civilization centered about Moundsville, West Virginia. Other authorities suggest that the Allegewi came from the east and displaced the mound-builders.
In any case, Native Americans of the middle to late Woodland period—that is, from about the time of the birth of Jesus to the arrival of the colonists—created or at least expanded the meadows or prairies near the junctures of Cussewago and Le Boeuf creeks with French Creek. The soil along the creek was rich, true prairie soil that still contains traces of typical prairie grasses such as bluestem. Rich in organic matter and plant remains containing opal, this loam alternates with gravel and clay left by the retreating glaciers. The grasslands interspersing the oak woodlands were expanded as resident Native Americans cut trees for firewood. As the resultant meadows attracted game, the natives lived along the margins of wood and meadow and occasionally burned the grass to prevent saplings from taking over. Such care in management suggests that the Native Americans who did it were, like the mound-builders, well organized and well-committed to their locales.
Several late prehistoric village sites and burial mounds are scattered throughout French Creek Valley and the Conneaut and Pymatuning marshes. One such site is near Wilson Shute; another was on the McFate farm in Cochranton by a former French Creek meander and oxbow lake. The latter site, excavated in the 1960s, revealed as many as eight to ten separate village reoccupations, determined from the postholes, refuse pits, and artifacts retrieved.
Late prehistoric village sites (red) of French Creek Valley and
Conneaut and Pymatuning marshes: earlier period burial mounds (green)
and mineral springs or deerlicks (blue) on map of glacial deposits
Postholes of house (wigwam) wall, Wilson Shute site
McFate site. 1960s excavations at the McFate farm site,
showing postholes and refuse pits (dark area).
An artist’s reconstruction of the McFate site.
It experienced numerous reoccupations.
A typical McFate site incised ceramic vessel
Chert arrowpoints from the McFate site
Tools and ornaments of bird, deer, and elk bones
(bone beads and awls, antler arrowpoints and chisel)
from the McFate site
Whether part of the unknown mound-builder society or not, the Allegewi were warriors. They protected their villages with earthen walls and forayed to the east. The mountains that had to be crossed by war parties were known as “the great war path,” or Allegheny. Incidentally, the Native Americans referred to the present Allegheny River as the Ohio: “Beautiful River.” Only in white man’s times has the name “Ohio” been reserved just for the river below the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh.
Despite their martial skills, the Allegewi were in time driven from the valleys of the upper Ohio River and of French Creek by the Lenni Lenape and Mengwe tribes coming from the west. The former, whom whites called the “Delawares” for the villages they would establish along that river, had dwelled west of the Mississippi, but for some reason sought land to the east. Delaware legend states that the Lenni Lenape requested and were granted permission to cross the Mississippi and pass through Allegewi lands. But when the latter discovered how numerous the Lenape were, they chose to attack them and drive them out instead. The Lenape asked for aid from the Mengwe, who lived northwest of the great river. They agreed to conquer and divide the Allegewi territories, and in time they succeeded. The Allegewi fled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and the Lenape took the land to the east. The Mengwe took territories to the north and came to be known as Mingoes or Iroquois, or “Poisonous Snakes.” Many of the Mingoes settled along the mid and southern sections of the Allegheny River.
To the north, along the lake, dwelled the Eries, or “People of the Cat.” According to French missionaries, the term “Erie” referred to the many wildcats of the area, now long gone, although they are still remembered as mascots of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University. One of the chief outposts of the Eries was a settlement where French Creek joins the Allegheny River, once called Venango and now called Franklin. Some accounts say that its capture by an attacking Seneca tribe of Iroquois against an Eries force three times greater in number spelled the extermination of the Eries tribe. Those Eries not killed or taken as slaves in the several battles died as a result of rampant disease; only a few fled westward.
Nittany lion statue at Penn State University
The arrival of Europeans and their claiming of lands along the East Coast led to a massive dislocation of Native American groups and to a realignment of their alliances. The Iroquois Confederation, a coalition of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations, was formed in the late 1500s through the diplomacy of the Onondaga chief Hiawatha. In 1722 they would be joined by the Tuscorora and would be known as the Six Nations. The Seneca, or “People of the Stone,” took responsibility for defense of the western borders of the confederation’s lands: they were the “Keepers of the Western Gate.” Thanks to early contacts with the Dutch and English along the Hudson, the confederation had access to firearms that enabled it to easily defeat tribes to the west. In time, however, these tribes traded furs for arms from the French out of Montreal by way of the Great Lakes. The Senecas generally settled somewhat to the east of French Creek. The lands of this region and the Pymatuning swamp served as a neutral buffer zone and common hunting ground between the Iroquois and more western tribes, such as the Hurons and Shawnees.
The Iroquois were sworn enemies of the powerful Shawnees, a warrior tribe that occupied much of what is now the state of Ohio. The Shawnees were closely tied to the Hurons, long respected and termed “grandfather” for their wisdom and leadership. The Iroquois and Hurons indulged in sporadic warfare that intensified as Jesuits and French settlers from the St. Lawrence Valley supported the Hurons, thus ensuring Iroquois animosity.
In 1649 the Iroquois defeated a band of Hurons, who in flight were granted refuge by the Eries. When tracked to the shores of the great lake, the Hurons fled and the Iroquois took their vengeance on the Eries. The reputation of the Iroquois as warriors was perhaps unduly enhanced by their victory at Franklin so greatly aided by their possession of British-made weapons. But their relations with the Hurons and the more powerful friends of the Hurons, like the Shawnees, were forever scarred. The Pymatuning buffer zone was therefore practical because it diminished the possibility of encounters that might turn into war-causing incidents.
French Creek Valley as a neutral region was not heavily populated by the Senecas, even in the eighteenth century. Villages would be established and disbanded with regularity at such sites as Franklin. Custaloga, chief of the Wolf Clan of the Delawares (known as the Munsee), had a settlement on Deer Creek near French Creek, close to today’s Carlton. In 1760 it held forty houses and about 120 fighting men, plus women, elderly, and young. Custaloga later played a key role in Pontiac’s Uprising. Another small village was at the mouth of the Cussewago, so named “Big Belly” by the Native Americans because they had seen a black snake there that had recently swallowed a rabbit whole. Perhaps the name simply meant “snake,” in reference to the sinuous course of the stream. In 1779 an American colonel reported the successful burning of the thirty-five Native American houses at Mahusquechikoken on the west bank of the creek, just above the entrance of the Conneaut Outlet.
The lack of settlement in the region resulted not only from its inaccessibility and the tradition of neutral hunting grounds, but also from the influential roles of French and British policy. The French, when they controlled Canada, established a system of laws intended to hold peasants on the agricultural estates of the seigneurs along the St. Lawrence, and to protect the fur trade with Native Americans in the Mississippi watershed. Those laborers who did flee usually could not pay the stiff license fees meant to reduce the number of traders who might disrupt the natives. Nor could they make the payments required for taking leave from their agricultural chores. So they lived a nomadic lifestyle, failing to establish settlements for fear of being caught: they were coureurs-de-bois, or “woods runners.”
As late as 1749 French maps showed the region between Lake Erie and the Allegheny River as unknown lands, despite the visits of French missionaries to the Eries in 1626, and Father Hennepin’s journey in 1676–77 along the Allegheny as far south as the mouth of French Creek. But now the French were concerned to better their control of the region west of the Alleghenies. The French and the British had been on opposite sides in the confusing European war of the Austrian Succession. The British emerged in 1748 from the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle a somewhat defeated nation, save in the New World.
The humpbacked Marquis de la Galissonière, governor of New France, thought to strengthen French control west of the Alleghenies while the British were in a weakened condition. In 1749 he commissioned Captain Pierre Joseph de Céleron de Bienville to lead an expedition from Chautauqua down the Allegheny, planting lead plates and posting tin sheets proclaiming the territories as those belonging to the king of France. When Céleron reached the current site of Franklin, he found the Seneca village the French called La Paille Coupée, or “Broken Straw.” The village chief was absent, but the subchief, Yellow Eyes, heard out the French message admonishing the Native Americans to have no dealings with the British. Céleron went on his way. He was to bury only six lead plates, however, for Native Americans friendly to the British stole one and took it to the English.
Facsimile of lead plates buried by
Captain Pierre Joseph de Céleron de Bienville
Indeed, Céleron’s report that most of the Native Americans over the 1,200 miles he traveled were favorable to the English prodded the French to take further action. The pro-English stance of the Native Americans was primarily based on the better quality and lower prices of goods brought from Britain, due to that nation’s lead in the industrial revolution. French governors in Montreal therefore could not hope to out-compete the British in trade, but they could try to take the upper hand militarily. Another expedition set forth in 1753, ordered by the Marquis DuQuesne de Menneville, general in chief at Montreal. Its purpose was to build a fort at Presque Isle, construct a wagon road south to French Creek, build a fort there, which would be called Fort LeBoeuf, and proceed south to the Allegheny with the goal of eventually constructing fortifications at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. For a brief while, the French established a small goods depot near where the Cussewago enters French Creek, but soon abandoned the project.
The Marquis DuQuesne de Menneville
A modern early spring view of the confluence of
Cussewago and French creeks in Meadville
No white settlements existed in the area except for the trading post at the mouth of French Creek. One story states that a Seneca by the name of Fron-goth founded a small village there in 1750, near the former site of Broken Straw. A tall blond Scots trader by the name of John Frazier came upon Fron-goth shortly after the native had fallen, breaking his arm. Frazier set the arm in a splint and helped Fron-goth back to his village. In gratitude, the Seneca invited Frazier to set up a trading post. The white man was delighted to do so, for the location was a prize, enabling him to trade with the western Iroquois and perhaps gain some of the trade of Native Americans from farther west, such as the Shawnees and even the Hurons. These tribes normally traded with the French, but would be spared a long trip north if they sold their furs to Frazier.
The Scot did not enjoy his trading post for long. He was run off in early 1753 by Captain Daniel Jean Coeur. Some sources assert that Jean Coeur was captured as a boy and raised by the Iroquois. Other accounts describe him and his brother as the sons of a French officer by a Seneca mistress. In any case, Jean Coeur was acting on the orders of Captain Henri Marin at Presque Isle. At the time, Frazier was not at Venango, as the French called the confluence of French Creek with the Allegheny River. But his two white associates were captured and taken north. Jean Coeur stayed on at Venango, hoping to win over the Senecas to the French cause.
The local inhabitants, however, had no liking for the French. At Logstown, seventeen miles below the forks of the Ohio River, dwelled Tenacharisson, a chief the English called the Half King, because as a Delaware he led his village but was subservient to the Iroquois. He had already journeyed to Presque Isle, demanding that the French leave the region and burn their new forts. He was quickly rebuffed and insulted by Captain Marin. Despite his firm appearance, the Frenchman was dying of dysentery. So were most of his troops, had they not already died of scurvy. And so French plans for construction of a fort at Venango had to be postponed.
The English also cherished designs on the area. The colonies of both Pennsylvania and Virginia coveted the region, as their western boundaries were not clearly defined. In fall 1753 Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, sent a messenger to Fort LeBoeuf to ask the French to leave. Dinwiddie hoped to gain not just the lands for England, but also for Virginia. The perils experienced by his messenger, twenty-one-year-old George Washington, then a major in the Virginia militia and an experienced outdoorsman, are frequently recounted. He was lucky to emerge alive.
Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington
in the uniform of a Virginia militia colonel,
circa age twenty-one
The weather was bad, replete with freezing rains and snowstorms. On his way, Washington enlisted the aid of an experienced guide, Christopher Gist. At Logstown, the Half King—furious over Marin’s insults and the memory of the death of his own father at the hands of the French—agreed to accompany the young white man. They set forth on November 30. At French Venango, Jean Coeur told Washington he must speak to French officers at Fort LeBoeuf, fed Washington well, and attempted to persuade the Half King and his natives to defect by supplying them with rum. The spot where Washington camped on his trip north, wet and tired on the night of December 8, 1753, as he followed the Venango Trace, is shown by a marker on Terrace Street in Meadville.
An A. G. Richmond painting that imagines Washington
negotiating with the French at Fort LeBoeuf
At Fort LeBoeuf, Washington spoke with the new commander, Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. He gave him Dinwiddie’s note, part of which stated, “It becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure.” Saint-Pierre took his time in replying, meanwhile doing all he and rum could to debauch Washington’s Native American companions. In the end, the Frenchman simply said he would forward the message to Montreal.
Washington, meanwhile, observed more than 200 canoes and deduced that the French were preparing a spring attack. He soon sent his weakened horses south with most of his men toward Venango to separate them from French rum. Saint-Pierre dispatched a canoe along the creek, carrying supplies and soldiers, supposedly to assist the visitors. Washington feared they had a more sinister purpose. The creek took charge, however, capsizing the canoe on the third day, forcing the soaked French soldiers to hike back to Fort LeBoeuf in the cold.
Voyageurs repairing a canoe
Washington himself and a companion or so took a canoe down the creek on December 16. In his diary, he complained, “We had a tedious and very fatiguing passage . . . several times we had like to have been staved against rocks and many times all hands were obliged to get out and remain in the water half an hour or more, getting over the shoals.” Ice jams also blocked their passage. On the sixth day, Washington reached Venango. There he elected to leave the horses to rest, while he and Gist proceeded on foot. The major offended the Half King by declining to return to Logstown to report to the chiefs assembled there. Tenacharisson and his men suddenly departed, marking the beginning of a rift with the Americans that would prove costly to the latter during their revolt against Britain.
The two walkers soon encountered a Native American who, after misdirecting them, fired his gun at them. He missed, and Gist caught and prepared to stab the man. Washington insisted he be let free. Thereafter the two whites pushed on even faster, fearing the native would find accomplices and attack again. They hiked all through the night, nearly reached the forks of the Ohio River, and discovered it was not frozen over. They made a raft, were tipped over by a floating ice cake, and nearly froze as they spent the night on an island. The next morning, the channel east of the island was iced over, and they made their escape. Eventually they reached a cabin built by the Scots trader John Frazier on the Monongahela after he lost his trading post. But for Frazier’s misfortune at Venango, Washington and Gist might not have survived.
Another A. G. Richmond painting that envisions Christopher Gist
and George Washington overlooking a Native American village on
Some historians have fairly suggested that the key event on this continent that lead to the outbreak of the French and Indian War was the English demanding the French to abandon the territories they had claimed. This war, however, was really only a sideshow to the greater war in Europe, known as the Seven Years War of 1755–63. Washington’s trip, joined with the political implications of the mercantilist economic theories and practices of the time, nevertheless insured that the New World would not be spared the conflict taking place in the Old.
As word of the failure of Washington’s mission circulated in Williamsburg and London, Captain Daniel Jean Coeur completed a small fort on the Allegheny sixty rods south of the mouth of French Creek. It was named Fort Machault, in honor of French financial statesman Jean Baptiste Machault D’Arnouville. In response, the British began constructing Fort Trent at the forks of the Ohio River. Before it was finished, the French appeared with a force of 80 bateaux and 300 canoes, containing a few cannon and about 1,600 men. While many of these came from Venango, others had been sent down French Creek from Fort LeBoeuf on a spring freshet—the first military convoy to use the Creek in a white man’s war. Indeed, the quantity of pirogues constructed exhausted the supply of large trees along the upper regions of the creek, according to French reports. So even this small aspect of the war had an environmental impact.
The French seized Fort Trent in April l754 and completed it as Fort Duquesne. Washington would return with a small Virginia force, part of a larger command led by a Colonel Fry, who would soon die of injuries received when thrown from his horse. In rapid succession came Washington’s massacre of a small French force led by Ensign Coulon Jumonville de Villiers, the retaliatory defeat of Washington’s men at Fort Necessity, all in 1754, and the massacre of English General Edward Braddock’s army as it approached Fort DuQuesne in 1755.
Despite that victory, great difficulties prevented the French from holding their extended possessions and they withdrew from western Pennsylvania. The British reconstructed Fort Duquesne as Fort Pitt, and in 1760 British irregulars, Roberts Rangers, occupied the region of French Creek. Unhappy over the treatment they received from the British, worried that British settlers might take their land, and still friendly with the French, remnants of several western Native American tribes rose up in 1763 under the leadership of an Ottawa chief, Pontiac. They destroyed the forts at LeBoeuf and captured Fort Venango by ruse, which the English had built near the former Fort Machault.
The Native Americans were eventually beaten at Bushy Run, south of Pittsburgh. The defeat of Pontiac and Custaloga, then, was a sad prerequisite for the establishment of white settlements in French Creek Valley.
For a while, the British themselves prevented settlement here. Anxious to control the conquered French and Native Americans and to calm frontier disturbances, in 1763 they created a north–south Proclamation Line along the height of the Alleghenies; the region west of the line was to be a reserve for Native Americans free of European settlement.
Thus, expansion west from Quebec was stymied. But the British soon changed their tune when they found the thirteen southern colonies becoming restive. Rather than repress the French Canadians, Governor Sir Guy Carleton decided to win their support by restoring aspects of French civil law, removing disabilities against Catholics, and reopening western lands to the juncture of the Ohio River with the Mississippi to settlers from the basin of the St. Lawrence. The Quebec Act of 1774 allowed white settlement along French Creek again. It also greatly irritated the inhabitants of the thirteen southern colonies. They saw this development as a rival to the claims they already made on the region, as well as a vehicle for establishing popery in lands they thought should be Protestant. Thus the British move of 1774 became a key ingredient on the list of “Intolerable Acts” the colonists held in grievance against the British.
Governor Sir Guy Carleton
If territorial disputes along French Creek were one of the many issues contributing to the Revolutionary War, the region had little role in the actual fighting. The British held the area throughout the war before abandoning it. In 1787, four years after peace was reached, the Americans erected Fort Franklin, a half mile up French Creek from its mouth. In 1796 they shifted back to the mouth of French Creek to a stout building called the Old Garrison, from which troops were withdrawn in 1803, as they were no longer needed. That building served as a county jail in subsequent years; by the last half of the nineteenth century the gradual southward shift of the mouth of French Creek put the location underwater.
The establishment of Fort Franklin facilitated expansion of white settlement on the banks of French Creek. Three of the soldiers involved in its construction would become settlers in Crawford County. A different soldier, however, led the way. Prevented by conflicts between Connecticut and Pennsylvania from settling lands to which they claimed title in the Wyoming Valley, David Mead and his brother John scouted this area in 1787. In order to gain support for Virginia’s cause, Governor Dinwiddie had ordered George Washington’s journal to be published, in which the colonel had described “very rich meadows.” Open areas that did not require extensive clearing were rare, and no doubt the report attracted Mead.
On May 12, 1788, Mead returned with two brothers and six other men, camping beneath a large wild cherry tree, approximately where Mill Run formerly entered French Creek.
Mead and Cornelius Van Horne planted their first crop on the large and mostly treeless Cussewago Island, only to have it washed out by a June freshet. Thomas Grant, who selected the land where Meadville now stands, returned east that fall. Mead, whose original holdings were, like those of Van Horne, on the west bank, took over Grant’s land and built a block house close to the present intersection of Water and Randolph streets.
Cornelius Van Horne
Mead’s block house
Fortitude, strength, and friends were required to found a new frontier community. Mead had all of these. Nearly 6’ 4”, a giant in size and strength for his time, he possessed both a strong will and persona. While only four of the original settlers stayed at the village, by the end of 1789 it was much larger. Other soldiers had arrived to claim donation lands as payment for their services in the Revolutionary War, since the federal government was out of cash. The growing population included twenty Meads, counting David’s newborn daughter Sarah, the first white person born on the banks of French Creek. The price paid by the settlers was considerable. A brother-in-law drowned; Mead’s father was killed; Cornelius Van Horne was taken prisoner at Conneaut Lake by Native Americans before escaping; William Gregg was scalped; and still another man was made prisoner and taken to Detroit, where two gallons of whisky bought his freedom.
Most of these tragedies occurred during the troubled years of 1791–94, but not all Native Americans were hostile. A misplaced Mohawk known as Stripe Neck and his family who dwelled on the west bank were of great help. He was later buried along the creek, but in time the grave was dug away, perhaps during the building of the railroad. Though his bones were lost, more recently a memorial has been erected on the grounds of the Meadville City Building near their original resting place.
Stripe Neck memorial, Meadville
Another helpful Native American was the Seneca chief Cornplanter. He fought with the French against General Braddock and against the American colonists during their revolution. Once the United States was established, Cornplanter opposed further bloodshed and supported the peace treaties of Fort Stanwix. By that treaty of 1784, the Six Nation confederation relinquished all claim on the northwest regions to Pennsylvania. Most of the Senecas moved north, following the creation of the Allegheny reservation. Cornplanter became a friend of the new country and the settlers of French Creek Valley. The hostiles came from the west: the Shawnees, Ottawas, and Miamis, all former part of the Cherokee or Algonquin groups.
It was a Seneca, Flying Cloud, son of the village chief Canadaughta, who warned in March 1791 of a band of Wyandots lurking to the south of Meadville. On April 2 the women and children of Mead’s settlement were sent to Fort Franklin by canoe. Half Town, the half-brother to Cornplanter, provided Native Americans to accompany them, six patrolling each bank of the creek. Half Town and fifteen other warriors joined the white men initially at the ford where Mead had first camped, then at Mead’s blockhouse. On April 4 the white men moved to Fort Franklin, protected all the way by Half Town’s band.
It was later that spring that Van Horne attempted to return to plow his fields west of the creek. There he was briefly captured but escaped, while Gregg was killed and Thomas Ray was captured. Darius Mead, David’s father, was captured that same spring while plowing north of Fort Franklin. That night he apparently attempted to escape, killing one of his Delaware captors, but in turn was killed by another who eventually also died of the wounds Darius had inflicted on him.
For most of l791 and l792 the first white civilian settlement along the creek remained abandoned, though for a few winter months a detachment of soldiers briefly stood guard. Some settlers returned at the end of 1792, but fled again in spring 1793 after a warning of danger from Flying Cloud. Some returned when a detachment of troops was sent from Fort Franklin. Upon their recall to the main army, Van Horne raised volunteers who manned the fort while a few hardy settlers tilled the grounds during the day and the women stayed within the stockade.
More settlers slowly filtered back in the succeeding year. American troops established a stronger presence at Franklin and at the forks of the creek, as the juncture of Le Boeuf and French creeks was then called. Part of the problem was that British agents had convinced many Native Americans, including some of the Iroquois, that the British would soon return. Some Senecas therefore resisted the notion of an American fort at Presque Isle. The Americans held several councils with the natives, one at Fort LeBoeuf in June 1794, to persuade them that the United States would stay in control. Then in August 1794 the western Native Americans were brutally defeated by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at Fallen Timbers. The Senecas henceforth listened more fully to Cornplanter’s advice and ceased to oppose white expansion in the French Creek Valley and to the west. The last deaths along French Creek at the hands of Native Americans occurred when two woodcutters were scalped near the juncture of the Conneaut Outlet and French Creek in June 1795.
What was the creek like in those days? Early accounts describe the creek and its tributaries as crystal clear, not the muddy color they mostly are today. Incidentally, the tributaries greatly facilitated the pioneers’ settlement. Smaller, with more controllable flows than French Creek itself, they provided waterpower for the scores of grist and saw mills that processed farm crops, which made cabin roofs less heavy and leaky than those made with logs. Soil erosion into these streams was slight, given the hundreds of acres of tree roots that held the soil and absorbed rainfall and snowmelt. Flooding did occur, though the rise and fall was less marked and quick than a century later, thanks to the forestation. Nevertheless, fluctuations were such that George Washington was unable to use the flooded big crossing when traveling north, but a few days later his guide heading south commented that the waters lowered very fast and that he feared for the successful passage of his boats.
Excepting meadows around Meadville and where the present Le Boeuf Creek enters French Creek, the region was heavily forested. North of Meadville, a beech-sugar maple climax forest predominated, while the less elevated and southerly regions sported oak woodlands. The border area, around Meadville, contained many walnut and cherry trees, along with that most useful and now almost extinct giant, the American Chestnut. The deepest ravines and swamps were home to dense hemlocks and huge white pines.
In 1761 British Colonel Henry Bouquet wrote that “Beef River” would be the best form of communication, but logs and trees were “so intangled [sic] and heaped in some narrow places” that many hands would be required to clear them, and trees would continue to fall, making the job unending. John Reynolds more recently wrote of “giant trees, usually water maples and sycamores, weighted down by a luxuriant mass of vines, creepers, and mosses,” and of his father’s tale of a “drift pile on the channel back of Cussewago Island as high as a house and perhaps two acres in extent.”* Timothy Alden, who founded Allegheny College in 1815, noted that at some seasons the creek could be navigated as far as Waterford by boats with capacities of up to 20 tons, yet for a few weeks in the summer it was hardly usable by any craft larger than a canoe. Be that as it may, the creek was the best means for transporting heavy or bulky goods.
As early as 1790 the Pennsylvania legislature assigned $400 to improve the navigation of French Creek; another $500 was allotted in 1807. The first bridge to span the creek at Meadville was built in 1810–11 at the Mercer Street crossing, almost exactly where David Mead first camped. It was a toll bridge built for profit by Dr. Thomas Kennedy. In 1815 two public bridges were constructed at Broadford and at the Deadwater (now Cambridge Springs). Even though efforts were underway to construct a wide network of roads by that date, heavy transport still relied on the creek, and the public docks at Meadville were busy.
Public docks? In founding his village, Mead knew the creek was its lifeline. At that time, travelers coming up the creek found it took a sharp bend to the east just above the entrance of Mill Run before turning north again. The water there was deep and slow, and Mead decreed that all land between Dock Street, which ran east and west, and the creek to the north of it, should be open and public forever. Dock Street itself was 70 feet wide, an ample width intended to service the projected traffic to the public docks erected a few years later. Shortly farther north stood the shipyard where John Mattocks and Noah Town (for whom Townville is named) built flatboats, keel boats, and arks. These were constructed upside down, then turned on their sides to be slid into the creek. All men of the town were then summoned for an evening to push pike poles, and by brute force to turn over and launch the boat.
What did the keelboats carry? They brought passengers and a wide range of manufactured goods from the east to the valley. On the return, they took hay and straw for the horses of Pittsburgh, straw paper, wheat, flour, and corn. Much needed salt from central New York State voyaged to Pittsburgh by way of Buffalo and Erie. The Crawford Messenger of December 12, 1805, reported that eleven flat-bottomed boats and six keelboats passed Meadville on the most recent freshet carrying 2,230 barrels of salt. Their value was estimated at $11.00 per barrel in Meadville and $13.00 per barrel in Pittsburgh. Almost exactly two years later, twice the number of barrels passed through.
Timber, bark, shingles, and staves were valued products of the immediate area. They moved on rafts. Another important local product was liquor. Money was in scant supply, and the bulk of products such as corn made their shipment prohibitively costly. Yet corn could be turned into a potable and portable substance. It became a medium of exchange and the best means by which the early inhabitants could purchase the many goods they needed from outside.
Canoes remained a popular mode of transportation. It was by canoe that nine men left the area in 1806 to join Aaron Burr’s tentative plot to become president of an independent New Orleans and to carve an empire out of Mexico.Notes:
*John E. Reynolds, “The Venango Trail in the French Creek Valley,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 16: 1933, 17. See also his In French Creek Valley (Meadville: Crawford Country Historical Society, 1938). Note as well Walter J. McClintock, “The French Creek Feeder and Conneaut Reservoir, 1827–1872,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 22: 1939.
Meadville’s Dock Street is no more. In the 1860s, leading figures in the town desired most anxiously that Meadville have access to the new wonder of transportation: a railroad. They attracted a firm, but the railroad’s builders wanted to use the flat land of Cussewago Island and its five neighboring, smaller islands. Moreover, the railroad did not wish to build a big bridge at the north end of the island. The town fathers approved the railroad’s proposal to dig a straight canal through the western portion of the island, connecting two bends of the smaller, more westerly channel of the creek, and effectively diverting all flowage to the new channel. The eastern channel was filled in at its northern end. Today, some of its more southerly sections are receiving fill to expand an industrial area. The old westerly channel came to be called the back channel of French Creek. It meandered west to its old juncture with the Cussewago, and with that creek journeyed another few hundred feet southeast to join the new channel. The new channel, straight and shallow, flowed quickly and became less usable for boats larger than a canoe. The railroad built its lines east of the new creek bed, and the public lost all access to the creek in Meadville. Dock Street, no longer adjacent to the creek, was renamed Mead Avenue.
Cut off from the creek for over a century, Meadville finally regained access to it during its national bicentennial. As one of the area projects for that festival, the town created a small park to the south and west of the original docks; unfortunately the waters there are no longer deep and slow. But before the railroad even existed, a canal was built.
Western road travel in the early 1800s was neither easy nor quick. Roads were muddy and rough. Bridges over the many feeder creeks were few, and after rainstorms, fording could be dangerous. Larger bridges over the big creeks were rare, and passengers and goods often had to be ferried or make long detours. Not until well into the century would the mail coach travel from Meadville to Pittsburgh in less than twenty-four hours. Therefore, the creek remained the main artery of travel long after towns had been settled. As deforestation continued, the creek became increasingly unreliable, with ever more rapid and extensive changes in level. Its course could seldom accommodate large boats that provided true economies in shipment.
The concept of a canal connecting Lake Erie with the Ohio River took impetus from the success of other canals throughout the nation. Most importantly, a linking of canals by a system of cables and rails that pulled boats over the Allegheny Mountains made shipments possible by boat from Philadelphia and the East Coast to Pittsburgh. Work commenced on a north–south canal linking the Ohio River at a point near Beaver to Erie, and seventy-two locks were planned to surmount the glacial moraine height of land dividing the Ohio River and Lake Erie basins.
There was a major problem with this plan, however. At its highest elevation, just west of Conneaut Lake, the canal would not have enough water. The lake, which is fed primarily by springs and a couple of small inlets, did not have enough water to supply the canal; moreover, its surface was lower than the projected level of the canal. The only possible water source higher than the canal was French Creek. A dam was therefore created 2 miles north of Meadville on the property of Dan Bemus. Water from the pool created there was transported by the Feeder Canal through Meadville—rowboats actually did pass in front of the Market House. The canal continued south at an elevation greater than that of French Creek, crossing by aqueduct over the creek at Shaw’s Landing. A set of locks there enabled boats and rafts to transfer from canal to creek and vice versa. From the landing, just north of the juncture of Conneaut Outlet with the creek, the canal turned northwest, flowing in the opposite direction than did the outlet, and emptied into Conneaut Lake.*
The lake was too low to feed the canal, despite its small dam. So the old dam was raised 11 feet, bringing the height of the lake to 509 feet above that of Lake Erie. Flooding of the shoreline caused a stench from decaying grasses and brush that drove many people from the town of Evansburg, as the borough of Conneaut Lake was then called. They also fled because of an outbreak of malaria concomitant with the flooding that took several lives.
A third of a mile up the lake, another canal carried water west, water that a few miles farther on was pumped to a level sufficiently high to feed the Beaver–Erie canal near what we refer to today as Meadville Junction. All this construction took time. The Feeder Canal from Bemustown to Meadville was completed in 1828, and the Feeder Canal reached Conneaut Lake at the end of 1834. The main canal was completed in 1844.
The course of the Feeder Canal through Meadville
A boat livery on the Feeder Canal near Race Street
The prospect of the canal’s diversion of traffic away from Franklin upset merchants of that locality. They banded together and persuaded the legislature to build a system of locks and dams on French Creek below Shaw’s Landing, creating a slack-water route to the Allegheny River. It opened in December 1833. But while this route facilitated the passage of boats, it impeded the progress of rafts. The rafts were more dependent upon the current for propulsion, and because they were too bulky for the small locks, passage through the dams was a problem. The locks were too small for the larger boats, and the creek was often too low. At high water, the locks could accommodate only a few boats or rafts at a time. This limitation was exacerbated when farmers and lumbermen along the creek were all attempting to ship as much of their produce south as quickly as possible, while the water was still available. In one riot at Franklin, boatmen destroyed a dam with the hopes of getting their craft through more quickly. After high water damaged the system severely in 1837, little effort was put toward necessary repairs.
The Beaver–Erie Canal, or the Erie Extension Canal, as it was called, fared somewhat better. It brought commercial life to areas such as Shermansville and Conneautville, which shipped timber as well as great quantities of hay to Pittsburgh’s horses. Used heavily in its first years, it suffered many breakdowns. Competition from railroads sapped its commercial prospects, and the collapse of the Elk Creek overduct brought upon the decision to abandon it in 1872. The dam at Conneaut Lake was lowered, and Wolf Island almost became a peninsula. The Feeder Canal was abandoned, though for some while it still carried water as far as Spring Street in Meadville, where it passed through waste gates into the former channel of French Creek. Slightly south of that location, a small portion of the canal is preserved by the Crawford County Historical Society and may be observed from the road. The view beyond, now of a commercial plaza, is very different from the vista once enjoyed by the fine houses erected along the terrace, which overlooked the Venango Trace, the Feeder Canal, French Creek, and what was known as Island Park—all located within yards of each other before the coming of the railroad.
The creek, the railroad, and the canal west of Terrace Street, Meadville
*Some writers have suggested that the enthusiasm of Meadville citizens in constructing the Feeder Canal reflected belief that the main Pittsburgh to Erie canal would follow French Creek through Meadville. It is true that the Pennsylvania legislature in 1822–23 authorized the survey of possible canal routes, recommending two: one via the Beaver and Shenango rivers, the other by way of the French and Le Boeuf creeks. But in 1826 the legislature instructed canal commissioners to build the Feeder Canal to the summit level of Conneaut Lake and to survey a route for a canal from there to Lake Erie. Were the main canal to pass through Meadville, the Feeder would not have been necessary. The haste of Meadville to begin the Feeder Canal in 1827 was apparently prompted by the fear that, given time, the legislature might choose a less-expensive route for the Feeder west of the creek, rather than the more-expensive route through Meadville that the citizens had persuaded the surveyor to recommend.
The canal marked one of the first and most extensive investments of state funds in the French Creek Watershed. In subsequent years, there would be more such investment by both state and national governments. In the years after 1868 the commonwealth drained much of the marsh below Conneaut Lake and deepened the outlet at a cost of $1,000 per mile. Landowners profited, for they gained unusually rich farmlands and were charged only 50¢ an acre. These farmers did not consider themselves robber barons, but they did gain from the expenditures of others and from the destruction of what we now consider valuable wetlands. Protection of the environment was generally limited. The population was not, for example, concerned for the quality of French Creek, but rather about the threat its waters posed to human health, which led Meadville, following a 1908 outbreak of typhoid fever, to cease using the creek as an outlet for raw sewage.
Other government involvement focused on controlling floods. Though good records exist from only after the turn of the nineteenth century, flooding was a problem from the earliest time of settlement and became more serious as deforestation continued and erosion increased. One reason David Mead took over Thomas Grant’s lands was because they were less susceptible to floods than those Mead originally held. The first planting of the settlers had been washed away, and they could not afford a second episode. One early settler by the name of James Lowry was so convinced that a great flood was coming to sluice away all the local sinners that he built an ark and moored it on French Creek; then he put it on wheels and moved it to the city common, known as the Diamond, where he and his family dwelled in its two small rooms for another four years.
Floods were aggravated by the meandering nature of the creek, which abetted the creation of ice dams that raised water levels significantly—as much as 2 feet in 1959. Floods occurred almost annually at many sections of French Creek. A great flood took place in 1904 and an ice gorge led to the break of the Bemustown Dam in 1906.
Bemustown Dam north of Meadville
Painting of Bemustown Dam north of Meadville, artist unknown
Canal locks near Bemustown Dam
Other substantial floods occurred in 1913, 1947, 1948, 1960, and 1964. In 1959 the worst flood of all, as great or greater than that of 1904, hit Crawford County. Damage of over $5 million occurred in Meadville; more than 1,500 people had to be evacuated. That flood was alleviated after two weeks by the dynamiting of a 2-mile ice jam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The destruction experienced in the lower-lying regions of Meadville stimulated that city to undertake significant urban renewal efforts that were once approached only gingerly. The disaster engendered a comprehensive flood control plan by the Army Corps of Engineers. Rainbow and Tamarack Dams on Mill Run were dedicated in 1965, and the major Union City dam on French Creek was dedicated six years later. Woodcock Creek Dam and lake were inaugurated in 1974. The final step in the plan to control French Creek, a dam on Muddy Creek near Teepleville, has been postponed indefinitely.
Meadville’s fifth ward in the flood of 1904
Meadville’s West Street in the flood of 1959
Efforts to shield the French Creek Watershed from pollution and inappropriate development finally appeared at the close of the twentieth century. Educational ventures such as the French Creek Project and Creek Connections work to alert the region regarding the value of the watershed, assess water quality, and assist farmers and timbering firms in adopting best management practices. Land trust organizations such as the French Creek Valley Conservancy, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Allegheny Valley Conservancy, and the Pennsylvania chapter of the Nature Conservancy collaborate to establish areas of conservation easements. New initiatives undertaken by the state government through the Department of Community and Natural Resources and the Fish and Game Commission also support protection programs.
Despite the pollution—both inevitable and avoidable—associated with the creation of a modern, highly populated and industrialized civilization in its valley, French Creek remains one of the purest and most beautiful streams of the commonwealth. It has witnessed a great deal, from marauding tribes to warring white men, from keelboats to robber barons, from natural disasters to the spirit of renewal and the achievements of modern engineering.
For the creatures of the valley and its first settlers, the creek and the Venango Trace were lifelines of communication. Today, we view the creek as a biological, recreational, and economic resource worthy of preservation. The human history of French Creek is a cautionary one regarding the human condition. It is also one that should inspire us to live, to dare, to attempt, and to do—all in reverential connection with the highways and paths provided us as we travel our own lives in our own times and attempt to protect and enjoy the silver thread that binds our times and lives together.