Bridgeville Remembered

First Families

By John F. Oyler

We know a lot about the Lesnetts from a family history prepared by Daniel M. Bennett in the 1920s. There are numerous copies of this document available, including several at the Bridgeville History Center.

Christian Lesnett was born in Hesse-Kassel, Germany, in 1728 and came to America in 1752. On his voyage across the Atlantic he befriended a young man who was making the trip accompanied by his pregnant wife. Unfortunately he became seriously ill and died; his wife, Christianna, gave birth to a daughter soon after his death. Lesnett stayed in touch with the widow after they arrived in the New World; they were married in Frederick, Maryland in 1757. The daughter, Nancy, was adopted by Mr. Lesnett.

He was a cabinetmaker by trade and was forced to relocate to Hagerstown, Maryland, when his shop in Frederick was destroyed by fire. The Lesnetts’ first son, Frederick, was the first male child born in Frederick, in 1758; hence his name. Francis was born in 1759; Sophia, in 1762; Christopher, in 1765; and Margaret (Peggy), in 1767.

When he was at Fort Pitt, Christian decided that he would like to move his family into this area. We presume that he had the opportunity to do some exploring and wonder if he got into the Chartiers Valley. At any rate we do know he was extremely disappointed when he learned that resolution of the war included a prohibition of any settlements west of Allegheny Mountain.

Five years later he was equally thrilled to learn that the Fort Stanwix Treaty had moved the frontier far to the west; settlers were now permitted to homestead anywhere east of the Allegheny River and south of the Ohio. In the spring of 1769 he and his sons Francis and Frederick, accompanied by a friend named Gallion, set out for the Ohio country.

Mr. Gallion ended up staking his claim in the area that is now Heidelberg; the Lesnetts moved farther south to the Coal Pit Run watershed. There they cleared land, built a crude cabin, and planted crops – corn, rye, and turnips. At harvest time Christian decided to return to Hagerstown and bring the rest of the family back, “before snow flies”.

Unfortunately he was subpoenaed as a witness in a court case in Cumberland and was unable to return, with the rest of the family, until April, 1770. They were overjoyed to find the boys “hale and hearty”, having survived the winter. The family proceeded to construct their homestead and become the first permanent settlers in what now is South Fayette Township.

Their first neighbors were the Boyce family, who arrived in 1772 and staked their claim farther south along Chartiers Creek in the area that now bears their name. The information we have regarding this family is from a book produced by Carol Boice Jones DePaul, entitled “The Boyces”, with significant input from Andrew Knez, Jr. (himself a Boyce by way of his mother).

Richard Boyce was born in Ireland in 1734 and migrated to America in 1756. In 1769 he married Lydia Fawcett Young, a widow with three sons. By the time they came to this area they had two daughters and a son. Two of Boyce’s cousins, John and Thomas Fawcett, accompanied the Boyces, and claimed land adjacent to them, in the Fawcett Church Road area.

Following Mrs. Boyce’s death, Richard married Peggy Lesnett, thirty five years his junior, in 1789. They proceeded to have four sons and three daughters; Mr. Boyce was 103 years old when he died in 1837.

Boyce descendant Alice Freed is responsible for one of the most interesting stories about the Boyces’ life in the early days. Richard Boyce set out on horseback with several sacks of grain one morning. After having it ground into meal at some unidentified gristmill, he began the journey home. “Near Bridgeville” he was set upon by a pack of wolves. He temporarily held them off by throwing them several handfuls of meal, then headed for a nearby haystack.

Once he reached the haystack he threw the sacks of meal on top of it, sent the horse off with a slap in the rump, and climbed to the top. The horse promptly ran to the Lesnett farm. There the men, realizing something was wrong and hearing the wolves howling, set off for the rescue. Boyce was delighted to see them and grateful for their help. Isn’t it neat to realize that there once were man-eating wolf--packs in this area?

In 1774 the Heckman family arrived. Once again we are indebted to a family history, this one compiled by a man named Hoyt Leon Hickman for information about these people. Johan Nickolaus Heckman was born in Rothenburg, Germany, in 1723. Immediately following his marriage to Elizabeth Hoffman in 1752, the couple left their homeland for a future in the New World.

Mr. Hickman’s book suggests that the immediacy of their departure was related to a local requirement that a prospective husband have at least three hundred dollars to become legally married. At any rate the Heckmans eventually got to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they lived until 1774 when they too moved to the Chartiers Valley.

According to family history they obtained rights to a site farther up Coal Pit Run from a man wanting to move west. The Heckmans were of modest means, with their most valuable possessions being two milk cows, one of which they traded for rights to the property. The family included two daughters and two sons; family legend reports they lived on “sarvis berries and cow’s milk” tht first summer.

Their story includes a detailed description of the difficulties associated with the trip from Germany to America. First they had to get to the Rhine River and book passage on a vessel bound for Rotterdam. The trip down the Rhine took six weeks, largely because of the presence of twenty six custom houses along the way, each of which required a major delay.

The vessel they boarded in Rotterdam went into the North Sea and down the English Channel to the Isle of Wight, where it took on provisions before heading into the Atlantic. The Heckmans’ voyage took ninety days, in the hold of a crowded ship beset with a variety of diseases –scurvy, dysentery, thyphoid fever, and smallpox. Many passengers did not survive the trip. Incidentally, the Heckman name was modified to Hickman not long after they arrived here.

These three families have made their mark on the Bridgeville Area. Reading about their early days certainly reinforces our opinion about the hardiness of these first families.

The Author

  • John Oyler's column,
    "Water Under The Bridge",
    appears weekly in the
    Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication.
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