Tube City Almanac

July 31, 2012

Early History of McKeesport: Part 2

Category: History || By Walter L. Riggs

Excerpted from "The Early History of McKeesport," published in 1960 as part of the city's Old Home Week celebration.

When David McKee came to present-day McKeesport in 1768, he brought his wife, Margaret, his five sons, Robert, James, Thomas, David Jr. and John, and his two daughters, Mary and Margaret.

There is an unconfirmed tradition that David McKee was by descent Baron of Lairg, Scotland, but, as he cared little for pomp and ceremony, he never claimed the title.

Shortly after the McKees settled at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, John Cunningham and his family came across the mountains from Virginia, and with him came his wife, Mary, his son, Samuel, and four daughters, Elizabeth, Margaret, Jean and Mary.

The Cunningham family settled in present-day Dravosburg. Mrs. Cunningham is reported to have been closely related to the family of Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of the Colony of Virginia, and therefore quite aristocratic.

Her daughters were not only aristocratic, but also fair to look upon --- quite fair. John Cunningham from Dravosburg was a passenger one day on David McKee's ferry, which at the time was only a skiff, and they became acquainted. David McKee and his wife visited John Cunningham and his wife, and the Cunninghams politely repaid the visit.

One day at the dinner table, Mrs. McKee casually dropped the remark, in the presence of her sons, David and James, that the Cunningham girls were "quite beautiful," and thereafter when the McKees visited the Cunninghams, sons James and David found that their mother had been extremely conservative in estimating the beauty of the young ladies.

But while David and James McKee were courting the Cunningham girls, matters of a more serious nature were taking place. The American War for Independence, in so far as Western Pennsylvania was concerned, was not a conflict between Colonial troops and English Red Coats, but a fight between pioneer settlers and natives.

When Sir Henry Hamilton, in charge of the English forces at Detroit, offered to native warriors a cash bounty for scalps of men, women and children, the war was brought to the very doors of the colonists in Western Pennsylvania. Immediately the sturdy pioneers joined the colors, and assembled at Fort Pitt. Among them were John, David and James McKee.

Samuel Cunningham formed a company of volunteers, of which he was the captain, David McKee a lieutenant and James McKee a private. They were called frontier rangers. John McKee enlisted in Captain Munn's company as a private.

David McKee Jr. and James McKee did not permit their duties as frontier rangers to interfere with their campaign for the hearts of the Cunningham girls, and soon David Jr. had married Margaret Cunningham, while lovely Jean Cunningham wed James McKee.

David and Margaret McKee settled on a tract of land, which he called "Reed Manor," located across the Monongahela River from the mouth of the Youghiogheny. His cabin was located on the brow of the hill, from where he could view the farms of virtually all of the early settlers of McKeesport.

Together, they raised five children, David, James, John, Sarah and Mary. Sarah McKee married Thomas Whigham, whose children including William Whigham, first president of The First National Bank of McKeesport and grandfather of longtime McKeesport Mayor George H. Lysle, and John Whigham, grandfather of the writer, Walter Riggs.

James McKee built his cabin at the site of the present City of Duquesne. However, little is known about him.

Robert McKee was drowned while crossing the Monongahela River on horse back at Braddock's Upper Crossing --- near the site of the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge --- on April 5th, 1782. He left behind his widow and four children.

(It may be interesting to note that Sinclair Street takes its name from this family of Sinclairs, the members of which family pronounced their name as though it were spelled "Sinkler.")

. . .

The passing years took their toll as David McKee traveled along life's highway, and at the age of 71 he was ready to transfer the cares of the plantation to the broad shoulders of his son, John McKee, who alone remained at home with his aging parents.

On December 10, 1781, David McKee executed a deed conveying his entire plantation of 306 acres to John McKee, and took back a bond, providing his son's family with "one-half of the profits of the east side of the Youghiogheny ferry, and one-half of the south side of the Monongahela ferry" and "one-half of the grain and fodder" raised on the farm.

David McKee died Oct. 11, 1795, at age 85, and was respectfully and lovingly laid away in the old Ninth Avenue cemetery, which he had dedicated many years before to the public for burial purposes.

. . .

John McKee, the founder of McKeesport, was born in the year 1746 in northern Ireland of Scotch ancestry, and was about 22 years of age when the family arrived at the present site of McKeesport.

At first he does not seem to have been interested in taking up land, and, while his father and brothers made applications for large tracts, the name of John McKee does not appear in the land records for years thereafter.

His father and brothers, however, obtained their lands for the permanent use and occupation of themselves and their families, while John McKee, when his interest in land was awakened, bought and sold land in Pittsburgh, along the Allegheny River, in Beaver County, and in Versailles Township, of which McKeesport was then a part.

Through his real estate operations and other business ventures he became one of the wealthiest men in western Pennsylvania. With the coming of wealth came also the desire to live in a home suitable to his station in life. The old log cabin was abandoned, and a large stone mansion was erected on Second Street east of Walnut Street.

He purchased fine horses and blooded cattle, and the work about the plantation was left to slaves.

In the records of Allegheny County there are numerous references to John McKee's slaves. The U.S. Census of 1790 says that there were seven members of his household and two slaves.

. . .

McKee was twice married; his first wife being Sarah Goben, a sister of Hugh Goben, and his second wife, Sarah Redick, popularly known as "Sally." By reason of both wives having the same first names, historians seem to have overlooked the first wife entirely, and no mention of her has been made in any published history.

At least two children were born to John McKee and his first wife, bearing the names of Margaret and Margery. Margery McKee married William Thompson, "lately arrived from Kentucky." McKee then purchased the Hugh Goben farm, which had been the home of his wife, and turned it over to his son-in-law, William Thompson. The Thompsons lived on the farm for many years and reared two daughters. Margaret McKee, John McKee's second daughter by his first wife, never married.

. . .

John McKee's first wife died some time between May 1789 and June 1790, but he did not long remain single. One day in July 1791, a man on horse back and leading a second horse on which was a lady's side-saddle, stopped at the home of John McKee. The rider was Hugh McCoy of Fort Pitt.

He was promptly joined by John McKee, also on horseback and leading a second horse on which was a lady's side-saddle, and together they rode away. They followed Braddock's road into the Cumberland valley, and finally stopped at the home of John Redick, a wealthy and aristocratic land owner. That evening, July 26th, 1791, a double wedding took place, and the next morning when the riders started homeward, the beautiful Sally Redick rode by the side of John McKee, and her sister, Rachel Redick, rode by the side of Hugh McCoy.

The comely Sally was duly installed as mistress of the McKee plantation, and the blue blood of the Redick family joined the wealth of the McKees, and the first aristocracy of McKeesport was formed.

Although this marriage was a May and December affair, Sally being 25 and John 20 years older, the union was a happy one. The vivacious Sally attracted to her home the society of the surrounding country, for Sally was a real patrician, and the prominence of her brothers, John Redick of Beaver County, and David Redick of Washington County, extended her social reign into both of these counties.

John Redick was an associate judge of Beaver County and David Redick was one of the most prominent men in Western Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and served a term as Vice-President of that body. He was also a member of the first Constitutional Convention, and for a time was its president.

. . .

However, the affairs of John and Sally McKee did not always run smoolhly. Then, as now, when a man or woman, by social position, education or financial circumstances rose above his or her neighbors, he or she soon became the target for the gossips of the community.

In 1794 and prior thereto, the citizens of western Pennsylvania engaged in an altercation with the federal government relative to the taxation of stills and the products therefrom (editor's note: Riggs is referring to the "Whiskey Rebellion"). Certain gossips in the neighborhood began to circulate reports that John McKee and his wife were giving information to government tax officials concerning the stills in the vicinity.

This gossip became so insistent that it became necessary for John McKee to make a public denial of these accusations, and on August 12, 1794, the following advertisement appeared in the Pittsburgh Gazette:

"Whereas some evil minded and ill disposed persons, with a view, no doubt, to injure me, both in my character and property, have circulated two false reports against me and my family. One is, that when I was last in Philadelphia, I informed upon the distillers on this side of the mountain, who had not entered their stills with the excise man, and had received three hundred pounds for the same, and that I came up with the Federal Sheriff of Fayette County. The other is, that Mrs. McKee should have said that, "if Tom the Tinker burnt all we had, the State would make it good." Now I do hereby solemnly declare the above reports to be fake and groundless; that I do not know Clymer or Miller, the excise men, nor Lennox, the Federal Sheriff, nor ever spoke a word to one of them in my life, and of this I am ready to make oath, if called upon. And I do hereby call upon the malicious and false propagators to come forward and substantiate the charges, and do hereby put tho world of mankind to defiance to prove and support the same. Mouth of Yough., August 12th, 1794, John McKee."

. . .

At about the same time, the financial affairs of the McKees took a turn for the worse. Judge John Redick of Beaver County had entered into a contract with the colonial government to furnish supplies for the army of General Anthony Wayne for his expedition against the Indians, and John McKee had underwritten the judge's contract.

When Redick failed in his undertaking, McKee was forced to pay the amount of the bond. He offered to pay in scrip issued by the Continental Congress, but the government demanded gold, and it was upheld by the District Court at Philadelphia.

The payment of the judgment against Redick not only depleted McKee's bank account, but compelled him to borrow from his friends and acquaintances, and the repayment of this borrowed money caused him extreme financial embarrassment.

From this personal economic situation the idea of laying out a town on the home plantation was born in the mind of John McKee.

. . .

On February 5th, 1795, the first public announcement regarding the new town was made. It took the form or an advertisement in the Pittsburgh Gazette, reading as follows:
"A NEW TOWN is laid out by the subscriber on a spot known for many years past by the name of McKee's Ferry.The ground intended for the town is delightfully situated on a fine level point at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers about 16 miles from Pittsburgh by water, and 12 only by land; the plan on which the town is to be improved consists of upwards to 200 lots of 60 feet front and 120 feet deep, each lot having the advantage of a street and an alley 20 feet wide, for the convenience of stables, etc. The principal streets are 80 feet in width, and others 60. Near the center of the town is a large Area or Square intended for a Public Market House; 48 of the lots front the two rivers, Monongahela and Youghiogheny.

"Four lots will be given by the Subscriber for the use of a place of worship, and a seminary of Learning. The situation of the place is so well known in the western country that it needs no encomium that can be given it, but for the information of those persons below the mountain who may wish to become purchasers, it may be necessary to premise that its situation is one of the best in the western country for trade and commerce, having the advantage of the 2 rivers, Monongahela and Youghiogheny, flowing under its banks, being near several grist and saw mills close to what is known as the Forks of the Yough Settlement, which is indisputably the richest we have; it is at least 12 miles nearer Philadelphia than Pittsburg is; it has public roads laid out from it in different directions; the price of each lot is $20.00 and $1.00 ground rent to be paid annually.

"To avoid disputes the lot each purchaser is to possess is to be decided by a lottery, which will be held on the spot on the first day of April next. Each purchaser at the time of receiving his ticket is to pay $10.00 and the residue when he draws his number and gets his deed. The majority of persons present at the drawing are to choose the persons who shall draw the tickets, which persons shall point out the four lots appropriated to public uses prior to the drawing. Tickets may be had of John Hannah, merchant, Pittsburgh; Andrew Swearingen, Washington; John Taylor, Esq., Greensburg; James Wallace, Esq., Carlysle; Peter Whiteside, merchant, Mercersburg, and of the subscriber on the premises. John McKee. N. B. In front of those lots which are laid next the two rivers is a considerable portion of ground extending to the water edge, which, as it will be of great use to the settlers for a variety of purposes, the proprietor intends as public property for the accomodation of all the inhabitants, reserving only to himself the sole right of keeping ferries, and so much ground at each ferry as a ferry house may stand on; should the present buildings of the proprietor interfere with any of the lots, these lots will not be included in the lottery. A plan of the town with proposals annexed may be seen at any of the above places."

On March 26, 1795, announcement was made that 187 tickets for the drawing of lots had been sold, and that any person desiring a clear deed for any lot drawn, free and discharged from the ground rent of $1 a year, could obtain the same by paying an additional sum of $10, thereby making the purchase price of each lot $30.

. . .

The drawing for the lots took place as advertised on April 1, 1795, and two days later the following notice appeared in the Pittsburgh Gazette:

"Those who have become purchasers in the NEW TOWN at McKee's Ferry are hereby informed that their deeds will be made with every possible dispatch, and when prepared further notice will be given of the time when and the place where they may apply to make good their second payment and take up their deed. April 3rd, 1795. John McKee."

Following the sale of the lots in the new town, there was some delay in procuring documentation for the land, and rumors circulated that McKee had been unable to obtain a clear title, and that a fraud had been perpetrated upon the public. On November 4, 1795, the patent was officially issued, and McKee again resorted to an advertisement in the Pittsburgh Gazette to inform the public of the fact, at the same time taking the opportunity to say a kindly word to those who had circulated the false report concerning his title. The advertisement read as follows:
"To All Concerned: There has been much said by those who are enemies to my interest and the progress of the town laid out at the junction of the rivers Monongahela and Youghiogheny called McKee's Port, but I have the pleasure to inform the public that I now possess a patent for the land on which the town is laid out and will all entitled to conveyances for lots to make them their respective deeds from the 21st day of December next until the 30th of the same month. And as all persons who have demands against me (a few only excepted) are straining every nerve to compel payment, I shall expect the purchasers of lots in the aforesaid town to prepare themselves to pay off the remainder of the purchase money at the time above mentioned, under the penalty of forfeiting their claims. John McKee, McKee's Port, Nov. 26, 1795."

. . .

The name of the new town had changed from McKee's Ferry to McKee's Port. This became necessary because a small settlement near the present site of McKees Rocks had assumed the name of McKee's Ferry, and a small settlement on the Susquehanna River was also known by the same name.

During the time limit set in the advertisement only 41 persons responded, but in the following months 60 additional lots were paid for, and before the end of 1796 a total of 133 deeds had been delivered.

As the consideration mentioned in all of these deeds is $30, it appears that the populace did not take kindly to the British idea of renting the ground, and chose rather to pay the full purchase price and receive a clear title to their lots. The records of Allegheny County disclose that during 1796, several persons who had not participated in the drawing purchased choice lots which had not been drawn, and paid as much as $100 each for them.

Tomorrow: The end of the McKee family fortune

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I find the early history of our region very interesting — especially how the settlers were able to live long lives in a very hostile environment — transportation by horse back and wagon was not easy but may have been better than PAT. They were true entrepreneurs and risk takers who overcame the heavy hand of the British. Please continue keeping us informed about how McKeesport became what it became — a valuable area to the early settlement of this Nation.
Donn Nemchick - July 31, 2012

Excellent article!!!! Thank you for the post!
Diane Maydew - July 31, 2012

I’m trying to find certain ancestors: Henry/Heinrich Lamp, Dora Weinman, Frederick Lamp, John Lamp, George Loeb, Katherine Barbara Loeb, and Elizabeth Loeb. Anyone see them in the cemetery? Is there a directory for the local cemetery?
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