Friday, June 17, 2016

The Penn's Creek Massacre: Part Two

Monuments to the Penn's Creek Massacre,
The John Harris Ambush, and the Albany Purchase
The first part of the Penn's Creek Massacre can be found here: Part One

Hidden along Penn’s Creek, near the spot where it flows into the Susquehanna River, are two markers that are easily missed, though they are a very short distance from a number of major roads – Route 522 terminates less than a mile south at the junction with Routes 11/15. I would have driven past them once again had they not been brought to my attention by a friend who knew I was researching the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

The two monuments stand at the southern end of South Old Trail on the northern bank of Penn’s Creek. Arriving at the spot near the mouth of Penn’s Creek, I studied the two monuments and the surroundings, realizing for the first time that the bridge on 11/15 that crosses Penn’s Creek can easily be seen from this spot and wondered how many of those passing by knew of these monuments.

The first of these monuments recognizes the Albany Purchase. The stone is marked that it was brought to this location from Henry Shoemaker’s estate in McElhattan. The current plaque states that this is a replacement plaque – the original plaque was stolen when the stone stood on the Albany Purchase line, roughly a mile north of this location.

The Albany Purchase was a land deal was between the Provincial Government and the Six Nations in 1754. This land deal would cause a rift between the Delaware Indians and settlers, and also between the Delaware Indians and the Six Nations. The Six Nations had prevented the Delaware Indians from selling their lands previously, but with this treaty, they sold the lands that had traditional belonged to them. This sale of the Juniata and Susquehanna Valleys was done without allowing the Delaware Indians any voice in the decision.

During the summer of 1755, with the defeat of General Braddock, the Delaware Indians abandoned the English took up arms with the French. Empowered by the fact that the English had been defeated in battle, the Delaware Indians were hoping to push the settlers out of the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania.

Penn's Creek Massacre and
John Harris Ambush Monument
The second monument at this spot has two plaques on it. The top one mentions the Penn’s Creek Massacre. The bottom of the two plaques continues the story of the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

The first person to record the details of the Penn’s Creek Massacre was John Harris, who operated a ferry downstream from the massacre site. This John Harris would later have a city named in his honor – Harrisburg. However John Harris almost lost his life near the location of the present-day marker for the Penn’s Creek Massacre.

On October 20, 1755, Harris wrote to Governor Morris reporting the known details about the massacre on Penn’s Creek. In a postscript to his letter, he recorded that the Six Nations were urging for the Province of Pennsylvania to be put on defense. Conrad Weiser reported the same events to Governor Morris on October 22, stating six families had been murdered and twenty-eight people were missing.

Plaque for the John Harris Ambush
The lower of the two plaques on
The monument
On October 23, John Harris led a group of men – between forty and fifty in strength – up the Susquehanna to bury those killed in the massacre. Upon arriving, the group discovered that the dead had already been gathered and buried. Though the group wanted to return to Paxtang, they were urged by John Shikellamy to continue to the Indian town of Shamokin (present-day Sunbury) which was about five miles upstream from their location.

In the process of researching this, I’ve found most accounts say Harris’ party found the dead already buried. This leaves the question of who buried the victims of the massacre? Some writers have suggested friendly Indians arrived and buried them. I’m not one hundred percent agreeing with those authors. I have found in a couple places where it states that “John Harris and his party found traces of the massacre,” which to me means one of two things. One: they found the bodies and they were the ones to bury the victims; or Two: They found the results of the massacre and left them there. Honestly with hostiles raiding the frontier, the second of the two options seems more likely, but we will probably never have a clear answer on this.

Upon arriving at Shamokin, Harris and his men immediately noticed a number of strangers painted completely in black. Among these strangers were Indians they were familiar with, including Andrew Montour, who often served as an interpreter. Harris records that these strangers had come from the Ohio and Allegheny River Valleys to tell their brothers in the Susquehanna River Valley that they should leave and join them against the settlers.

The morning of October 25 John Harris and his men left Shamokin, heading down river to the safety of the settlements. The group was advised by Andrew Montour to stay on the eastern side of the river on their return journey. Harris and his group decided to ignore the warning and instead returned southward on the western side of the Susquehanna.

The group had only gone a short distance, arriving at the mouth of Penn’s Creek when they were ambushed by a group of Indians between twenty and thirty strong. The ambushers waited until the Harris’ men started across Penn’s Creek before opening fire upon the unsuspecting party. Shots were exchanged and Harris lost three of his men, while four of the ambushers were killed. Harris and his men retreated through the woods for half a mile before deciding to cross the river.

While in the process of crossing the river, one man was shot and four men drowned. The man who was shot was a doctor described as a large, fat man, who was mounted on the same horse as Harris. Upon entering the river, the doctor was shot in the back and killed, saving Harris' life. Part way across the river, Harris abandoned his horse (which had previously been wounded), and swam the rest of the way across.

While Harris and his men staggered back to Harris’ Ferry, a group of friendly Delaware Indians who had been living in Shamokin followed and went after the ambushers. They returned with information – a large group of French soldiers, combined with a a number of Indian tribes, were preparing for an attack on the settlements.

Penn's Creek Massacre
The top plaque on the monument
Despite this information, John Harris was determined not to flee. Instead he cut holes in his trading house and prepared for the worst. In addition to preparing himself for war, he also informed the Provincial Government, and also others on the frontier, to prepare for the worst – war was coming to the frontier.

As I stood there, I could not help but wonder 'What if John Harris had fallen that day?'  John returned to his home at Harris' Ferry and prepared it for any attacks. While others were already fleeing the frontier at the early signs of danger, he remained steadfast and strong. Had Harris fallen, I imagine that many more would have fled the area rather than staying on their homesteads along the Susquehanna.

Not only would history have changed if John Harris would have died during this bloody ambush, but also the geography of Pennsylvania. Harris' Ferry would grow and the town would eventually be known as Harrisburg. It is very likely if John Harris had fallen that day, Pennsylvania's capital would be known by another name or even possibly located at a different location in the state altogether.

As I stood there in the heat and humidity, I was overcome by sadness. The air was mixed with the anger of the Delaware Indians, the terror of the victims, the fear of the captives, and the sadness of the innocents. The frontier that was dangerous in the past was suddenly hostile and violent. Nothing would ever be the same again on the Pennsylvania frontier.

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