Tube City Almanac

July 30, 2012

Early History of McKeesport: Part 1

Category: History || By Walter L. Riggs

Editor's Note: For the next several days, we will be running excerpts from "The Early History of McKeesport," written by local businessman and historian Walter L. Riggs and published in 1960 during the city's Old Home Week celebration. (The excerpts were not copyrighted and are now believed to be in the public domain.)

These excerpts have been condensed slightly and edited to remove certain phrases and language that would now be objectionable. Certain outdated references that a modern audience would not understand have also been changed.

Otherwise, these excerpts are much as Mr. Riggs wrote them.

"As we intended to take horses here, and it required some time to find them, I went up about three miles to the mouth of the Youghiogheny to visit Queen Alliquippa, who had expressed great concern that we passed her in going to the fort. I made her a present of a match-coat and a bottle of rum, which latter was thought much the best present of the two."

So wrote George Washington in his journal on Dec. 31, 1763, making the first definite authentic record of a visit of a European or American colonist to the present site of the City of McKeesport.

Washington, of course, was accompanied by his guide, Christopher Gist, on this occasion, and Gist also made a record of the visit in his journal.

Many another traveler on his way to the Forks of the Ohio over Nemacolin's Path or Trail had visited the home of the trader and gunsmith, John Frazier, at the mouth of Turtle Creek, but, as Nemacolin's Path gave the mouth of the Youghiogheny a wide berth, and as the incentive that prompted Washington to leave the beaten path was a stranger to the mind of the average traveler, it is not surprising that the section now known as McKeesport was little visited.

As Queen Alliquippa was the first permanent resident at the mouth of the Youghiogheny, it may be fitting to consider for a moment this regal personage.

Queen Alliquippa was what might be termed an anomaly among Indian rulers, in that she was one of the very few women who became the leader of a band of Indians; in fact this, no doubt, accounts for her prominence in history.

. . .

In the year 1701, Alliquippa, with her husband and infant son, visited William Penn at Newcastle, Delaware; in 1706 Thomas Chalkley found her ruling her tribe in Chester County, Pa.; in 1748 Conrad Weiser dined with her at her town near the mouth of the Monongahela; in 1749 Celeron found her at Shannopin's Town on the Allegheny River, although he did not see her, for she fled to the hills at the approach of the French, and did not return until after they had departed; in 1752 Messrs. Patten, Fry and Lomax, commissioners of Virginia, presented her with gifts at her town on the Ohio River below the mouth of Chartiers Creek; and finally Washington found her at the mouth of the Youghiogheny in 1753. When the French drove the English from the Forks of the Ohio, Queen Alliquippa fled from the mouth of the Youghiogheny and joined Washington's camp at Fort Necessity in 1754, and upon the surrender of that fort, she was sent to Aughwick, now Shirleysburg, Huntingdon County, Pa., where a few months later she died.

"Alequeapy, ye old quine is dead, and left several children," tersely reported George Croghan, in charge of Indian Affairs at Aughwick, to the Colonial authorities under date of December 23rd, 1754.

Queen Alliquippa was possibly seventy-five years of age when she lived on the hill above the present site of the McKeesport-Duquesne bridge. She was a Seneca, and not a Delaware as some times stated, and her crowning virtue seems to have been that she ever remained the firm friend of the English.

Subsequent to the visit of Washington there is no definite record of the presence of any European or American colonist at or near the mouth of the Youghiogheny until Braddock and his army passed that place on July 9, 1755.

The capture of Fort Necessity convinced the English of the immediate need of taking active steps to drive the French from the frontiers of Pennsylvania, and Major General Edward Braddock was the man selected to accomplish this purpose. Braddock arrived in America with two regiments of the King's regulars and, after procuring the services of George Washington as an aid-de-camp, proceeded to Will's Creek (Cumberland, Md.), where George Crogan and a band of fifty Indian warriors joined the camp.

After a bitter dispute between the King's regulars and the native warriors, most of the native warriors returned to their homes. It may be suggested parenthetically that the loss of these warriors may have contributed to Braddock's tragic defeat.

From Will's Creek the army followed Nemacolin's Trail over the mountains, although it had to be widened from a path to a road to permit the passage of the heavy wagons and artillery, and thereafter it became known as Braddock's Road.

. . .

On the evening of July 7, 1755, Braddock's army encamped at Circleville, near Irwin, Pa., and its course of march from that encampment to McKeesport will be traced for the benefit of history, and the present names of places will be used for location purposes.

When the army broke camp at Circleville on the morning of July 8th, the scouts and wood choppers went ahead, as usual; the soldiers with the slow moving heavy equipment followed. When the scouts under Christopher Gist reached a point on Nemacolin's Trail where they could view the Turtle Creek Narrows, they quickly decided against leading the army through that narrow defile with steep sloping hills on both sides as it appeared to be an ideal spot for an ambush.

Turning back they met the general at Stewartsville, where a council of war was held, and on Gist's advice it was decided to reach the Monongahela River at a point below the mouth of the Youghiogheny.

From Stewartsville the route of the army was approximately westward, passing through the farm of Joseph Johnston to Lincoln Way, thence along Lincoln Way to Sampson's Mills, opposite Rainbow Gardens; thence through the Oliver Evans' Plan and the Park Forest Plan, thence up the hill and through the property of William L. Buck.

When the scouts were directly in front of the home of Mr. Buck, they had their first view of the Monongahela River, which was their objective for the day. At sight of the river, the scouts turned north, down the hill and through the property of the writer to the level ground of the Fawcett Plan, where the "Camp on the Monongahela" was located.

All of Braddock's encampments had a regular form, and occupied a space 450 yards broad and 675 yards long, and therefore, the "camp on the Monongahela" occupied a large part of the Fawcett Plan. There was an old spring on Braddock Avenue or there-about, called "Braddock's Spring" and which was supposed to have furnished water for the army.

However, as it would take considerable water to supply an army the size of this one, it might be more authentic to say that "Braddock's Spring" was one of the larger springs supplying water for the army.

. . .

Shortly after the army went into camp, a covered wagon appeared, and from it two soldiers helped George Washington, who had been left behind a few weeks before on account of illness. General Braddock was considerably relieved at the arrival of his aid-de-camp, as the general had promised him that he would not attack the fort until Washington was ready for duty.

On the morning of July 9, 1755, Braddock's army passed down the valley, now known as Hartman Street, and forded the Monongahela River at the present location of the McKeesport-Duquesne bridge, then known as the "Upper Riffle." Prior to the building of dams on the Monongahela River, the depth of the water at this point during the summer season did not exceed three feet.

. . .

The history of McKeesport during the period from 1755 to 1768 is shadowed in doubt, and there is no authentic record of events occurring during that interim. However, notwithstanding the want of information on the subject, virtually every history of Allegheny County and of McKeesport relates that David McKee settled at the mouth of the Youghiogheny in 1755 "under the protection of Queen Alliquippa."

As Alliquippa had died the year before, and as it is definitely known that the English had been driven from the Monongahela by the French prior to 1755, little credence need be placed on these assertions. David McKee may have made a visit to the mouth of the Youghiogheny as early as 1755, but even that is extremely doubtful, and if the story is not purely a myth, it at least lacks historical confirmation.

It will be remembered that on Feb. 3, 1768, the Assembly of Pennsylvania passed a law declaring that all settlers occupying lands not yet purchased from the Native Americans should remove from the same at once, or "suffer death without benefit of clergy," and that a commission was appointed to visit the various settlements and explain the law to the settlers.

In the report of that commission dated April 2, 1768, is a list of the settlements visited and the names of the settlers, but the name of McKee does not appear therein. While that report does not pretend to give the name of every settler, the absence of the name of McKee therefrom is at least significant.

. . .

If David McKee was not in southwestern Pennsylvania at the time of that report, there is positive assurance that he was there on December 25th of the same year. In a volume of the early Supreme Court Reports is a case known as Richard Smith vs. George Crawford et al.

This case decided in 1793, was an action of ejectment for "300 acres at Braddock's upper crossing on the west side of the Monongahela about 14 miles from Fort Pitt," the present site of the City of Duquesne.

It recites that James McKee claimed the land under a permission granted to Alexander Ross by Captain Charles Edmunstone, commanding officer at Fort Pitt, under date of Sept. 29, 1768. Upon the attainder of Ross for high treason, the estate was declared forfeited, and sold at public sale to James McKee for 35 pounds Sterling.

Therefore, in lieu of any authentic information on the subject other than the commissioners' report before mentioned and the Supreme Court record, David McKee and his family must have arrived at the mouth of the Youghiogheny some time between April 2, 1768 and December 25th of the same year.

. . .

David McKee was born in Scotland in 1710. His parents were strict Presbyterians, serious minded and deeply religious, and for that reason they were persecuted, as was the custom of the day. In the year 1715, while David was a mere child, his family was forced to flee from Scotland to northern Ireland. But religious persecution followed the family into Ireland, and possibly in the year 1750, David and several of his brothers, with their families, came to America in search of a "church without a bishop and a state without a king."

The McKee brothers, and their families, located near Philadelphia, and there is no authentic record of the families until the building of the cabin at the site of the present city of Duquesne.

David's brothers are presumed to have located in Virginia, Kentucky, and other states. When the Proprietor's Land Office opened on April 3, 1769 in Philadelphia to receive applications for the purchase of land in the "New Purchase," which included southwestern Pennsylvania, David McKee was present on the opening day, and filed his application for 306 acres of land at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers.

Two days later, his two sons Thomas and Robert filed their applications, the former for 253 acres adjoining his father's purchase on the south, and the latter for 285 acres adjoining his father's purchase on the east.

To specify more particularly the boundaries of the three tracts, using present day streets, David McKee's tract extended from the Youghiogheny River to Huey Street, and from the Monongahela River to approximately Eleventh Street, and eastwardly between Versailles Avenue on the north and Jenny Lind Street to the south to the neighborhood of Soles Street; Robert McKee's land extended from the Monongahela River on the north to Versailles Avenue on the south, and from Huey Street on the west to Riverton Street, extended, on the east; Thomas McKee's land extended from the Monongahela River eastwardly along the southerly border of David McKee's land.

. . .

The McKees were not the only pioneers procuring lands at the mouth of the Youghiogheny. Samuel Sinclair became the owner of land across the Youghiogheny from David McKee's property, later known as the "Forks of the Youghiogheny," and at the present time the Tenth Ward of the City of McKeesport; Jacob Zeinnett made application for land on the Monongahela River east of the Robert McKee tract; Peter Keyser applied for the same land for which a prior application had been filed by Thomas McKee, and upon ascertaining his error, Keyser purchased the Zeinnett tract. Later young Hugh Goben arrived in the community, and took up the land lying west of Grandview Avenue and south of Versailles Avenue.

Thus, it will be seen that the greater part of the land now included within the present city limits of McKeesport was originally owned by six men, David McKee, Thomas McKee, Robert McKee, Peter Keyser, Hugh Goben and Samuel Sinclair.

Very early two of these men were taken from the field of activity by death. Thomas McKee was a victim of disease, but Peter Keyser met a more tragic end. While Mr. Keyser and his two sons, aged 18 and 20 years respectively, were in the field sowing wheat, a band of Indians suddenly appeared at the cabin, and killed Mrs. Keyser and her four small children.

After setting fire to the cabin, they went into the fields in search of Mr. Keyser and the two older boys. Keyser was killed, but the two boys fled to the Monongahela River, where the younger was shot just as he was plunging into the water. The elder son, Jacob by name, swam the river and escaped --- the sole survivor of the family of eight.

. . .

The place of Thomas McKee in the community was soon taken by James Peebles, some times spelled Peoples. However, instead of making application for a new tract of land, he promptly married Mary McKee, daughter of David McKee and sister of the deceased Thomas McKee, and together they took possession of the Thomas McKee tract of land. Later, on Feb. 19, 1779, the brothers and sisters of Thomas McKee conveyed all their interest in said land to James Peebles, and received therefore the sum of 400 lbs.

The deed conveys a "tract of land on the east side of the Youghiogheny River about one mile from the mouth of said river and adjoining David McKee's land on the north and John Whitticor's land on the south, and is located in Thomas McKee's name." The deed is recorded in Deed Book Vol B-16 in the Recorder's Office of Westmoreland County.

The original cabin of David McKee and his family was located near the northeasterly corner of Second Avenue and Water Street, and with the aid of his sons, he cleared the land, planted a large orchard and raised various kinds of grain. The excess grain was turned into whiskey, as was the custom of the day. Mr. McKee's stillhouse was located near the southwesterly corner of Shaw Avenue and Huey Street. He also had a small brewery, which was located near the corner of Locust Street and Spring Street.

It might be apropos to state, in order not to offend, that the drinking of whiskey during the days of our pioneers did not carry with it the odium it does today. In fact, there is a record of clergymen passing out cups of whiskey to the male members of their congregations at the close of their prayer meetings.

. . .

Living at the junction of two rivers, David McKee's mind naturally suggested river transportation, and it was not long before he was operating ferries over both the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny. Early histories relate that the right to operate these ferries were given to McKee by the Colonial authorities, but the Colonial records are silent in this regard. However, it is certain that such ferries existed, for the minutes of the Virginia Court for Augusta County under date of Feb. 21, 1775, record the appointment of viewers for a proposed road "from the mouth of the Youghiogheny River at McKee's Ferry."

It may be that these ferries were operated without any express legal authority from the Colony of Pennsylvania, and it is certain that he did not have such authority from Virginia, which claimed jurisdiction at that time, and the lack of such permission from Virginia caused the temporary suspension of the operation of McKee's ferries during the year 1775. Samuel Sinclair, who resided across the Youghiogheny, taking advantage of McKee's ommission in this regard, on Feb. 24, 1775, made application to the Virginia Court for Augusta County sitting at Fort Dunmore for permission to operate ferries across both rivers. The minutes of the court on that date provide as follows: "On motion of Samuel Sinclair, who lives at the forks of the rivers Monongahale and Youghagano, leave is granted him to keep a ferry over each of the rivers, and that he keep boats."

A few months later, David McKee, realizing his error in not having procured such permission from the Virginia courts, appealed to that body, but with less success. The minutes of the court on May 16, 1775, are as follows: "On the motion of David McKee for leave to keep a ferry over the Mononghale and Youghagano, which motion being opposed, on hearing the parties it is considered that the ferry is unnecessary; it is therefore ordered that the motion be rejected."

Thus it will be seen that Certificates of Public Convenience as granted by the present Public Utilities Commission are not particularly new, the old Virginia courts having exercised the same jurisdiction in a somewhat limited form.

It is not known just how long David McKee's ferry remained inactive, but on Feb. 5, 1784, the Assembly of Pennsylvania passed an Act granting to John McKee, son of David McKee, the right to operate ferries over both of the aforesaid rivers.

Tomorrow: Plantation (and slave!) owner John McKee founds the village of "McKee's Port."

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Feedback on “Early History of McKeesport: Part 1”

Very interesting. What is located at the spring in Fawcett Plan now? Is this location still visible/visitable?
Vince (URL) - July 30, 2012

The literature is a very interesting read. I tried to google the author and title in hopes of finding a copy to purchase. As luck would have it I failed miserably. Does anyone know where a copy of this book can be purchased?
Harry Miller - August 03, 2012

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