Waterford: No Castles or Brick Houses in 1795.
By Beverley Bittner, From the autumn, 1980 issue of Reminiscence.
By the mid-1700’s, the French had built several forts along Lake Erie. They did not seize the land from the Indians, but only traded there and by gifts and promises made friends of the Indians. The forts were to insure their trading rights. It appeared that they intended to contest Great Britain’s claim to the territory.
In 1753, 21-year-old George Washington, wearing the plain blue uniform of the Virginia militia, led an expedition to scout the area west of the Allegheny Mountains. With his men he paddled up French Creek to Fort LeBoeuf to deliver a letter of protest from Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to the commander of the French fort.
The letter expressed surprise that “on property so notoriously known to belong to Great Britain … a body of French forces are erecting fortresses and making settlements.”
Washington’s account of his trip was published by the governor. That account, including many details of the French operations, influenced the colonists and Great Britain to take immediate action against the French on the frontier.
The French and Indian War ended in 1760, leaving all the western Pennsylvania area under the control of the English. The French soldiers burned Fort LeBoeuf and their other forts as they retreated north.
The Indians in the area tolerated the English, but made no secret of the fact that they had liked the French better. However, the English rebuilt Fort LeBoeuf as well as other forts along Lake Erie and in the wilderness.
An influential Indian chief, Pontiac, head of the Ottawa tribe, pretended to be friendly with the English, but secretly plotted with other tribes to attack them. The Indians took the English by surprise. Nine of the thirteen forts in the Western Lands fell to Indian attack. Among those to fall was Fort LeBoeuf.
The fort was attacked on June 17, 1763 by more than 200 Senecas and Ottawas. The thirteen soldiers manning the fort had no chance to defend it. They escaped through a drainage tile at night, hiding in the woods and swamps until they could make their way to Pittsburgh. The Indians burned the fort the next day, then marched on to Presque Isle, where that fort fell five days later.
After the forts were captured and burned by Indians, the sparsely settled area was indeed “a dark and bloody ground.” Hundreds of traders and settlers were shot, tomahawked, or scalped. A 1763 treaty with the ‘Indians was soon broken. Another the next year was also broken almost before it was signed.
The English made no attempt to rebuild the forts. The land was in complete control of the Indian tribes as far south as Pittsburgh and east into New York State.
But civilization was not to be denied. In 1788, a large tract in western Pennsylvania was made the County of Allegheny with Pittsburgh as the seat of justice. The tract known as the Triangle, which included Presque Isle harbor, was purchased by Pennsylvania from the United States government in 1792.
The state then had to purchase the land from the Indians, paying $1,200. Another tribe then wanted to be paid also and were given $800. At last, it seemed safe to survey the land and encourage settlers to come.
Andrew Ellicott, the leading surveyor in the country, (he had surveyed the western Pennsylvania border and had assisted in laying out the nation’s new capital, Washington) was hired. Part of his job was to layout the towns of Erie, Franklin and Waterford in 1795.
Ellicott’s men left Philadephia in May, 1795, first visiting Pittsburgh, where George Burges, one of the surveyors, wrote in his diary, “We put our horses to pasture and spent the day in viewing the town and forts, which is a very pleasant place, but many of the inhabitants a very corrupt people.”
On June 23rd, Burges wrote at Fort LeBoeuf, “We have now fixed a place for the market with many of the main streets, but yet there are no castles nor brick houses, but on the contrary, but five or six little dirty log huts surrounded by a great wilderness of seventy or eighty miles with Indians hooping and halloing and begging for whisky.”
Burges continued in a philosophical bent, “Should providence grant (it to become a city of commerce) may pride and avarice keep far distant and not make it appear more savage than its present state.”
Burges’s wish seems to have been granted as Waterford never became a city of commerce. It remains today a quiet, serene small town, known to Corryites mostly as a pleasant spot to pass through on the way to Erie.
Beverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.