Bridgeville Remembered

The Bridgeville Area During the Early Years of Our Country

By John F. Oyler

The first event of local significance occurred in 1784 when George Washington came here to inspect 3000 acres of land he owned on Miller’s Run. He was disappointed to learn that fourteen families of squatters had illegally occupied his land, believing that the fact they had built homes there and improved the land took precedence over the claims of an absentee landlord.

Washington met with the squatters at the home of their leader, David Reed, and offered them the opportunity to rent or purchase the land from him, at what he considered reasonable terms. They rejected his offer and took the issue to court. Eventually Pennsylvania’s highest court upheld his claim; the squatters “pulled up stakes” and moved elsewhere. Incidentally, David Reed was captain of the Rangers company in which Christian Lesnett served.

Christian Lesnett had prospered. The 1783 tax rolls for Cecil Township, Washington County, reported that he was the proud owner of 400 acres of land, six horses, four cows, and five sheep. In 1787 his daughter Sophia married William Rowley.

His son, Frederick, had an exciting adventure in the early 1790s. He and a group of friends purchased a large quantity of flour at Canon’s Mill, built a modest keelboat to transport it, and set off down Chartiers Creek with their ultimate objective being selling the flour at a nice profit in New Orleans. With some effort, they got the boat to the Ohio River at McKees Rocks and set off downstream.

Near Wellsburg, West Virginia, they spotted a flock of wild turkeys on the Ohio shore. Frederick set out in a canoe to shoot one; unfortunately a band of Indians was there before him. One of the Indians took a shot at him and wounded him in the calf of one leg. He was able to get back to the boat and be transported to Wheeling, where he left the expedition and returned home. This was a fortunate experience for him, and for all the Lesnetts descended from him; his friends were killed by “Spanish ruffians” in Louisiana and their cargo and boat stolen.

In 1796 Frederick married Isabel Wilson, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister who performed services at St. Luke’s, where a wooden church had been constructed in 1790. Their first child, Christopher, was born in 1797.

The Boyces also prospered. Richard Boyce had 300 acres of land, two horses, seven cows, and twelve sheep in 1783; his taxes that year were 156 pounds. In 1787 his wife, Lydia, died after delivering a still born child. After a proper mourning period Richard married Peggy Lesnett, the daughter of his next door neighbor, Christian Lesnett. Boyce was fifty seven years old; his bride was twenty two.

The Boyces produced a son, Isaac, in 1790; Christian in 1793; John in 1796; and a daughter Nancy in 1798. Richard and Lydia’s daughter Jane married Robert Dobbins in 1791 and moved to Wellsville, Ohio.

As for the Hickmans, Adam and his wife Polly produced eight children – John, 1781; Nicholas, 1782; Jeremiah, 1785; William, 1787; Mary, 1790; Joseph, 1791; Sarah, 1796; and Elizabeth, 1798. His sister Elizabeth married a Mr. White. These folks will disappear from our story, as they all moved to Columbiana County, Ohio, in 1802.

Not so for Peter Hickman – he married Abigail Fawcett in 1796, inherited the family farm and added to it by purchasing land from William Brice and Stewart Jordan. Abigail soon delivered two sons – Joseph in 1797 and John in 1799 – thus continuing the Hickman line in this area.

The land which now makes up the Borough of Bridgeville was still very sparsely populated. It was covered by three warrants. Thomas Redman owned Gould City Hill and the land northwest of it, to Chartiers Creek. Benjamin Reno owned most of the land east of Washington Avenue; Thomas Ramsey most of it to the west.

Reno died during this time frame; his land became known as “the widow’s portion” and was sold off piecemeal in the ensuing years. Very little is known about Mr. Redman. Ramsey however is remembered quite negatively. The road from Washington and Canonsburg into Pittsburgh, now known as “the Black Horse Trail”, forded Chartiers Creek on Ramsey’s property. He improved the ford and tried to charge a toll for anyone using it.

This practice alienated the local farmers, precipitating a serious confrontation. Eventually Ramsey lost the dispute when the Pennsylvania Legislature, in 1793, passed a law dealing with navigable waters. If a stream was large enough that a commercial vessel could use it, it was declared navigable, and property rights ended at the high water mark. Frederick Lesnett and his friends had proven Chartiers Creek was navigable. Ramsey eventually gave up and sold his land to Moses Middleswarth.

Two major Indian campaigns were waged in these years, both against the Miamis led by Little Turtle and the Shawnees led by Blue Jacket. In 1791 General Arthur St. Clair’s troops were badly beaten by the Indians, along the Wabash River. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne reversed the result in 1794 at the battle of Fallen Timbers, near Toledo, a victory sufficiently conclusive to effectively end the threat of Indian raids in this area.

The same summer saw the local crisis of the Whiskey Rebellion. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton levied a severe tax on the production of whisky, in an effort to provide financing for the new federal government. The tax was particularly punishing on the farmers west of the Alleghenies, who relied upon whiskey as a cash crop. After much unrest federal Marshal David Lenox was sent to Allegheny County to subpoena farmers who were resisting paying the tax. When he and John Neville, the federal tax collector for this area, visited the Oliver Miller farm, they met resistance; several shots were fired. The next day about thirty protesters surrounded Neville’s mansion, Bower Hill, demanding to see Lenox. One of them, Oliver Miller, was killed by a shot from inside the mansion.

The next day, following a rally at Couch’s Fort, the mob had grown to six hundred, and the assault on Bower Hill was resumed. After several exchanges of gunfire, a cease fire was called and a white flag of truce waved from the mansion. As the leader of the rebels, James MacFarlane, approached the house, he was killed. The ensuing chaos ended with Bower Hill being burnt to the ground. A few days later seven thousand protesters marched on the city of Pittsburgh.

News of anarchy prompted President Washington and the Congress to mobilize 13,000 militiamen, led by General “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and to send them to Pittsburgh to restore order. By the time they arrived, the leaders of the insurrection had escaped to the West and cooler heads managed to resolve the issue peacefully. According to family history, Christian Lesnett opposed the Whiskey Rebels and refused to join them, since he considered John Neville a neighbor and friend.

This was a volatile time in the life of our young country, and the Bridgeville area was right in the middle of it.

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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