By Renée S. Gordon
“The founder of our federate republic — our bulwark in war, our guide in peace…”
–Major-General Henry Lee, December 26, 1799
We think of George Washington as the general who led the revolutionary troops and the president who led the newly created United States and other than his dalliance with the cherry tree we think very little about his youth. Everyone has a “backstory,” those events that shape and prepare us for what lies ahead and George Washington is no exception. It is in Pennsylvania that the true nature of the man was tested for the first time and it is also in Pa that he gained valuable military experience in the French and Indian War.
Visitors can follow in his footsteps, and even bed down in some of the areas where he slept, on a tour of sites in Butler County. There are also opportunities for outdoor adventure, experiential tours, re-enactments, festivals, insights into the first frontier and visits to unique sites and small towns.
By the mid-18th century both England and France laid claim to the Ohio Valley and the British feared that the French would control the Forks of the Ohio River, now Pittsburgh. Virginia Governor Dinwiddie wanted someone to carry a message to the French, telling them to halt encroachments in the territory, and Washington volunteered. He set out in October of 1753 on his journey to Fort Le Boeuf. His seven-man party included four frontiersmen, guide Christopher Gist and French interpreter Jacob Van Braam with additions of local natives as they traveled. On December 12th they reached their destination.
While at the fort, Washington saw all the indications of an imminent attack and realized the importance of a speedy return to warn Dinwiddie. With the French response in hand he and Gist set out on December 22nd, undersupplied and on foot. Washington published his diary when he returned and people in the colonies and England were enthralled. The most grueling, dangerous and exciting parts of the 900-mile trek occurred in Western Pa.
On the return Gist and Washington retraced their path along the Native-American Venango Trail and on December 27th they passed through an Indian village known as Murdering Town. We know it was in Butler County but the exact location continues to be hotly debated. In the village they encountered a “French” Indian who offered to show them a shortcut. They had not gone far when the Indian fired on them, missing them both. After subduing their attacker Gist wanted to kill him but Washington argued for his life and ultimately they released him and continued on the trail.
On Rte. 68, a few miles east of Evans City there is a monument relating the incident erected by the DAR and at the original site of Fort Le Boeuf there is a marker and a statue of Washington presenting Dinwiddie’s message. The marker and sculpture are not in Butler County but are in George Washington Memorial Park in Waterford, Pa. Circular Washington Trail Markers have been placed along his route and maps and guides are available that outline driving, hiking, biking and walking routes. www.washingtonstrail.com
Washington and Gist passed through the unsettled area that is now Cranberry Township. It would not be settled until 16-year-old Matthew Graham and his 13-year-old brother arrived in 1796. They purchased land and lived along the Venango Trail, now Franklin Road, as wolf hunters because the government paid a bounty for the hides.
The 1874 Sample Schoolhouse is located on the grounds of the Cranberry Township Historical Society. The school was one of six in the area so that no child walked more than two-miles. The school was named after the farmer who donated the land and was in use until 1951. It was moved, at a cost of $142,000, from its original location and reconstructed based on the recollections of former students. Daily routine in the one-room school is interpreted through the use of artifacts and interactive activities. www.twp.cranberry.pa.us
The first oil well in the US was discovered near Titusville, Pa on August 27, 1859 and rapidly wells sprang up in Western Pa. The Muddy Creek Oil Field Restoration interprets one of the 242 in the area. This 1932 well was restored on its original site in 2000 and visitors can view the process in action. This is a very unique attraction. www.muddycreekoilfield.com
The portion of Washington’s Trail that is within Moraine State Park roughly coincides with the modern Glacier Ridge Trail. Indians used “braided” trails, routes with slight variations depending upon the weather conditions and because of the poor weather Washington would probably have traveled this higher trail. An easy hike along the ridge provides views reminiscent of the 18th-century wilderness and Lake Arthur. Fishing and boating and the only protected prairie in the state are also offered. www.stateparks.com/moraine
Providence Plantation is an educational institution that does an excellent job of presenting 18th-century life, in fivethematic divisions, in the Upper Ohio Valley. The complex consists of a series of buildings in which interpreters re-enact authentic historic stories of the black, white and red people who populated the area. A variety of programs are offered throughout the year and I highly recommend each of them. www.frontier-history.org
Western Pa’s first National Historic District was the town of Harmony. German Lutheran Separatists founded it in 1804 on the former site of a native village. A tour of the historic area includes the Harmony Museum, the Ziegler Log House, the Harmonist Cemetery and the oldest Mennonite Meeting House west of the Alleghenies. George Washington crossed the Conocoheague River in Harmony and a monument at the end of Main Street commemorates the event. www.harmonymuseum.org
The 1810 Cooper Cabin was occupied by family members for 158-years. The pioneer homestead has several outbuildings and is filled with furnishings and personal items that belonged to the owners. There is a full schedule of events and living history programs. www.butlerhistory.com/coopercabin
To visit Saxonburg is to step into history. The Main Street is listed on the National Register and 32 of the buildings are more than a century old. John Roebling, the town’s founder, designed the Brooklyn Bridge and Roebling Park features a bridge replica and museum. Walking tour information is available.
For the past 27 years Saxonburg has been the site of the annual Penn’s Colony Festival, voted the “#1 Traditional Show in America.” The September festival combines a folk-art marketplace, hands-on activities, cultural presentations and performing arts all within the context of colonial history. www.pennscolony.com
Butler, one of the most historic Western Pa cities, was chartered in 1802. Most of the downtown area, 122 buildings, is on the National Register. Guided walking and trolley tours begin in Diamond Square with several points of interest. A monument, “Our Silent Defender,” faces the courthouse. It was erected in 1894 at a cost of $3500 and may be the only public monument that refers to the Civil War as the “War of the Rebellion.” The Bantam Company created the army jeep in Butler in response to the army’s 1940 request for a prototype within 49 days of a four-wheel reconnaissance car. The company’s achievement is recognized on a plaque in the square.
Walter Lowrie once owned the Lowrie/Shaw House, the oldest brick building in the city. He was one of two attorneys who negotiated the freedom of Frederick Douglass. After the $711.66 was paid it was Lowrie who gave Douglass his freedom document. This house museum was constructed in 1828.
The 1813 Covenant United Presbyterian Church was the first in the city. In the 1860s the church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A tunnel that was used as a hiding place and point of entry and exit can be viewed on a tour. Reservations are encouraged.
The French and Indian War began in 1754 and formally ended with the French capitulation at the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763. Some historians argue that war expenditures caused the French king’s money problems and ultimately the French Revolution. The British, to help defray the cost of the war, levied the additional taxes on the colonists that led directly to the American Revolution. George Washington would gain a reputation and leadership expertise that would sweep him into the presidency.
Butler County is both a great destination and a wonderful base from which to venture into nearby areas. History starts here, and you should too! www.visitbutlercounty.com
I wish you smooth and easy travels!
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