Armstrong County

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Editor’s Note: With this article, this magazine begins a series to highlight historical events and persons within various counties. Focus will also be directed at the counties’ historical societies.


Kittanning, the seat of Armstrong County, is the oldest identified Indian town in Western Pennsylvania. While the state is planning celebrations to commemorate the Revolutionary War, Kittanning had its bicentennial almost twenty years ago.

Kittanning was settled by the Delawares prior to 1730 and eventually became an important spot, particularly during the French and Indian War. Shingas, king of the Delawares, occasionally resided with Captain Jacobs at Kittanning. In 1755, it is believed Shingas actually lived in Kittanning, and the location became very important as Indians congregated there to avoid the French and Indian conflict around the forks of the Ohio.

Kittanning was settled by Delawares when they moved westward about 1724 from the Wyoming and Minisink regions. Its name means simply “at the great river,” an allusion to its location on the left bank of the Allegheny (which the Indians considered an extension of the Ohio.) By the time of the French and Indian War, it had become an important spot to traders and Indians.

According to the late Harry C. Golden, attorney and charter member of the Armstrong County Historical Society, incorporated Jan. 31, 1924, Kittanning was strategically important as a base for Delaware raids on the Pennsylvania frontier. Captain Jacobs lived on the north side of the present Market St. between Grant Ave. and McKean St.

Armstrong County, of course, derived its name from Col. John Armstrong, later General Armstrong.

The Kittanning Medal on the cover of this publication was struck by the Corporation of the City of Philadelphia to commemorate Colonel Armstrong’s destruction of Kittanning. It states:

“Kittanning Destroyed by Colonel Armstrong, Sept., 1756.” The medal shows a log cabin in flames, to the right the Allegheny River, in the foreground an officer accompanied by two men pointing to a soldier firing under cover of a tree and an Indian falling on the bank of the river.

The reverse side of the medal shows a shield consisting of four devices: a ship represented under full sail, an evenly balanced pair of scales, a sheaf of wheat and two hands joined.

Each of the commissioned officers in the battle received one of these medals in silver. The dies were made by Edward Dueffield, a clock and watchmaker of Philadelphia; bronze restrikes have been made by the 11. S. Mint.

According to Illustrated History of the United States Mint, copyrighted by George C. Evans in a revised edition in 1885, Philadelphia, the silver medal was struck sometime between September 1756 and January 1757 and is one of the earliest medals executed in America. This fact has been confirmed by the U. S. Mint.

Numerous raids upon white settlements originated from Kittanning. In order to provide protection and gain better strength, a plan was designed to attack the Indians at Kittanning. With the approval of Gov. Robert Hunter Morris, Lt. Col. John Armstrong, commander of the Second Battalion of the Pennsylvania Regiment, devised secret plans for an attack. He used information obtained from an escaped prisoner, John Baker.

With a force of 300 men, Armstrong marched to Kittanning. A description of Armstrong’s victory is contained in “Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet No. 17,” published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. In summary, although the raid was expensive and risky, it provided real benefit by boosting the morale of the settlers as well as inflicting a setback to the Indians. The Delawares abandoned their settlement at Kittanning. In the course of the battle at Kittanning, it is believed that Captain Jacob’s house was set on fire, and he, his wife and his son were shot as they fled.

Blanket Hill, also shown on the cover and now located on U.S. 422, 6.2 miles east of the junction of U.S. 422 and Pa. 66 was the spot where Armstrong’s men left their blankets and other items enroute to attack on Sept. 8, 1756. James Hogg and several of his men were killed or wounded, and many blankets and other items were lost. From this, the name Blanket Hill was derived. The site is marked both by the Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission as well as by the Kittanning Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

From the Pennsylvania Archives the following information about the Kittanning Expedition is noted: Killed – Thomas Power and John McCormick; Wounded – Lt. Colonel Armstrong, James Carruthers, James Strickland, and Thomas Foster; from Captain Hamilton’s Company: Killed – John Keely; from Captain Mercer’s Company: Killed – John Baker, John McCartney, Patrick Mullen, Cornelius McGinnis, Theophilus Thompson, Dennis Kilpatrick and Bryan Carrigan; Wounded – Richard Fitzgibbins; Missing – Capt. Hugh Mercer, Ensign John Scott, Emmanuel Minskey, John Taylor, John , Francis Philips, Robert Morrow, Thomas Burk and Philip Pendergrass; from Captain Steel’s Company: Missing – Terence Cannaberry.

Many persons believe that Armstrong County was not important during the American Revolution. The many graves in the county of men who fought in the war would belie that point. In the third volume of Pennsylvania: Colonial and Federal, it is noted that a group of armed men, commanded by Capt. Samuel Moorhead, gathered and at the outbreak of the war was stationed at Kittanning.

No mention of Armstrong County history would be complete without at least a reference to Indian Scout Samuel Brady, about whom much has been written or discussed. Brady served as a scout for General Brodhead and according to Smith’s History of Armstrong County, Pa., had “Delaware Joe” as his closest friend. H. R. Fleming of Kittanning is quite an authority on Brady (as well as all Armstrong County history). He noted that Brady set out to seek revenge for the death of his father and his brother. A bounty was eventually placed on Brady’s head, and a trial was finally held in 1793 in Pittsburgh. Brady was cleared of the charge and then began scouting for Anthony Wayne.

Armstrong County, as noted previously, derived its name from Colonel Armstrong (later General Armstrong). General Armstrong purchased 556 1/2 acres from the Province of Pennsylvania for a tract dated March 22, 1775. One of the early pioneers was Capt. Andrew Sharp.

Reviewing County history briefly, an act, passed March 12, 1800, provided for the appointment of John Craig, James Sloan and James Barr as trustees for the County. Col. John Armstrong, as previously noted, received the deed for the present town of Kittanning from Thomas Penn and others. Later, Armstrong and others conveyed the land to James Sloan, James Matthew and Alexander Walker, county trustees. On Nov. 3, 1807, the and was conveyed to Jonathan King, James Jackson and Thomas Johnston, Armstrong County commissioners.

The first Kittanning school was opened in 1805, taught by Adam Elliot. It was located in a log house; among its pupils were Mrs. Catherine Truby and her brothers Jacob and John Mechling.

As early as 1810, Capt. James Alexander established a newspaper, the Western Eagle, in Kittanning. The next newspaper was the Kittanning Columbian and Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Advertiser. Proprietor and publisher was Frederick Rohrer, assisted by his younger brother, George Rohrer.

The Rohrer name continued in Kittanning journalism. In 1834, Frederick Rohrer and John CroII established the Armstrong Democrat, and John Rohrer published and edited the Democratic Sentinel after 1864. Naturally, there were additional newspapers that existed in the interim from 1810 to the present Leader-Times.

Armstrong County had made several ventures into journalism. And as with Sam Brady, no mention of the County’s history is complete without noting the famous Nellie Bly, a native of Cochran’s Mills. As an aspiring reporter she created an international stir in the late 1800’s when she worked for Joseph Pulitzer. She was noted for her “round the world trip,” as well as her colorful exposures of fraud.

In Freeport, the first newspaper, the Olive Branch, was founded in 1833 by William Badger. Robert McKissen printed the Warren Lacon, Apollo’s first newspaper in 1835. After the Civil War (in 1873), a monthly journal was established in Leechburg, the Leechburg Enterprise. In the extreme corner of Armstrong County, the Elder and Orr Co. published the prosperous Dayton News after 1882.

In the religious realm, two Presbyterian churches were organized and two log buildings were erected in 1802 about eight miles apart on the west side of the Allegheny River. By 1850, that number had increased to sixty-five churches.

Still in the religious area, Thomas Hamilton presided at the first meeting of the Armstrong County Bible Society on Sept. 15, 1828, at the Armstrong County Courthouse. James E. Brown served as secretary.

The only educational facilities that existed until the act of 1834 establishing free schools were the Kittanning Academy and “pay” or subscription schools. At first, there was strong opposition to a county superintendent. In fact, at the first convention of school directors in May of 1854, the salary for the superintendent’s post was set at $300.00. Eventually, the figure was raised to $400.00, and Rev. J. A. Campbell took the position.

Since there were no good roads when the County was settled, one post office between Kittanning and Indiana carried the one weekly mail on horseback in 1818. Commercial traffic between “upper” county and Pittsburgh was accomplished via canoes and keelboats, propelled by man. After its completion, the Pennsylvania canal provided transportation, and Freeport became a hub for merchandise and freight arriving from the East and items from Pittsburgh. After 1828, passengers, goods and freight were transported up and down the Allegheny River in steamboats and barges, which towed them when there was sufficient water.

In 1856, a railroad was constructed, running from Pittsburgh to Kittanning, with Kittanning as its terminal point for about nine years.

Armstrong County had about twenty stores by 1825; by 1840 the county boasted seventy-nine. industry figures include (for 1840): twenty-five distilleries producing 20,633 gallons; (for 1830): three iron furnaces, one of the largest being in Brady’s Bend, yielding forty tons per week; (for 1830): twenty-four salt wells producing 65,500 barrels of salt per year. Naturally, other statistics are available, but certainly agriculture was the greatest industry, followed by coal.

According to the 1870 census, Armstrong County produced:
290,194 – bushels of wheat
135,257 – bushels of rye
680,314 – bushels of corn
883,846 – bushels of oats
33,192 – tons of hay
126,068 – pounds of wool
355,586 – tons of bituminous coal.

The Kittanning Academy, as previously noted, had six trustees: Thomas Hamilton, James Monteath, Robert Robinson, Samuel Matthews, David Reynolds and Samuel Harrison. Kittanning boasted a library, a brass band and a boat club.

Although Armstrong County was not technically formed until March 12, 1800 (from parts of Allegheny, Westmoreland and Lycoming Counties), its historic basis dates back to at least twenty years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

No article about Armstrong County would be comprehensive without noting William Freame Johnston, Pennsylvania’s governor from 1848 to 1852. Johnston was the third governor of Pennsylvania under the constitution of 1838 and was born in Greensburg, Westmoreland County. He later became a lawyer in Armstrong County, served as the County’s district attorney, represented the County in the House of Representatives and was elected a senator in 1847 for the district embracing Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana and Clearfield Counties. In 1847, he was elected president of the senate and when Gov. Shunk resigned, Johnston became governor. He was then re-elected to the gubernatorial position in 1848.

Armstrong County played a critical role in the French and Indian War, a role in the Revolution, and of course, a role in the Civil War. In less than six days after President Lincoln issued his call, a company of 114 men from the Armstrong County area left Kittanning by rail on April 18, 1861, for Pittsburgh and then on to Harrisburg.

The History of The Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Company 103rd Infantry Volunteers 1861-1865, written by Luther S. Dickey in 1910, relates that Company C was formed by merging the nucleus of three companies recruited by Simon P. Townsend, Albert Fahnestock and John M. Cochran. Cochran and Townsend recruited their men from Cochran’s Mills and Spring Church. The Armstrong County Company, according to Dickey, was known as “McClellan’s Guards.”

Among other historically significant places was the Soldiers’ Orphans’ School in Dayton. Established after the Civil War, one of its largest stockholders was an early Dayton settler, Robert Marshall (1803). Marshall also helped to organize the Dayton Union Academy. Eventually, of course, the Orphans School was phased out. The orphans homes were established to assist children of men killed during the Civil War, then later to assist children of those injured in the war. Age limits (for admittance) were from four to sixteen years.

The original organizers of the Dayton Orphans’ School, probably the second largest in the state, were Rev. R. K. Duff, Rev. T. M. Elder, Dr. William Hosack, Dr. J. R. Crouch, Robert Marshall, Wesley Pontius, William R. Hamilton, William Marshall, T. P. Ormond, Thomas H. Marshall, Smith Neal, William Morrow, W. J. Burns, J. W. Marshall, Samuel Good, J. H. Rupp, William Hindman, John Beck, Jacob Beck, John Craig, David Lawson and David Byers. Rev, T. M. Elder was the first principal, followed by Rev. J. E. Dodds and Prof. Hugh McAndless.

Other historic places within the County include Fort Armstrong, built in 1779 near the present site of Manorville on Route 66, Fort Green built in 1791 near the present site of Rosston, and an early blockhouse commanded by Capt. John Craig on the present site of Freeport.

Other historical sites in Kittanning include the Court House at the head of Market Street, and the Historical Museum located in the Federal-style McCain House, built in 1842.

Throughout the County are various other historic sites. The Marshall home, occupied today by Mrs, J. J. Huff and her daughter, built in 1801 of bricks made on the property, is perhaps one of the oldest homes in the County. It is located one-half mile south of Dayton, just west of Route 839 near the Glade Run Church, and served as a station for the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.

Located approximately forty miles north of Kittanning, is still another historic site – Parker. Parker lies nestled in the hills overlooking the Allegheny River. One side of the town is located in Armstrong County, the other in Butler County. At the time of its incorporation as a city in the early 1890’s, Parker was part of a booming oil area. During its boom era, Parker had a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 persons.

Among other historic sites for the county visitor are the Drake Log Cabin, located between South Warren and Kiski Avenues in Apollo, built in 1816. It is maintained by the Apollo Area Historical Society and is open to the public by appointment.

The County’s first church, “the German meeting house,” was built in 1796. It is just south of Kittanning on Route 422 three miles east of Kittanning. The church was commonly called “Rupp’s,” after the early settlers of the area.

St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church is the oldest Catholic Church in Western Pennsylvania. It is located west of Route 268 in Sugar Creek Township and was built in 1805 and 1806. It is maintained in its original log structure.

Armstrong County is active in restoring and marking its historic sites. Many sites exist that are not mentioned in this article. County residents, some of whom are descendants of original settlers, take pride in their heritage.

An act of Congress in 1968, “National Trails Systems Act,” established the “Kittanning Trail.” This trail leads from Shirleysburg in Huntingdon County to Kittanning.

Current president of the Armstrong County Historical Society is John W. Rohrer III, descendant of the original Rohrer family. Corresponding secretary is Mrs. Belle White. Correspondence should be addressed to the president at 219 North Jefferson St., Kittanning 16201.

The museum has displays of early farm tools, glassware and other items. Two other features are a historical-genealogical library and an educational classroom center. Approximately 180 persons are members of the historical society.

Other officers include Frank B. Henderson of Worthington, vice-president; Miss Margaret McKee, Kittanning, recording secretary; Mrs. Georgia M. Firestone, Kittanning, treasurer; James R. Rayburn, Kittanning, curator; and Miss Kay Calbert, Kittanning, assistant curator.


Betty L. Seanor, the writer, is indebted to John W. Rohrer III, president of the Armstrong County Historical Society; to H. R. Fleming, Armstrong County historian and member of the historical society; and most of all, to Wayne B. Owen, editor of the Kittanning Leader-Times. Not only did Mr. Owen provide information and photographs for this article, it was he who first inspired the writer to become interested in local history. Much of the historical material is based on Robert Smith’s History of Armstrong County, Pa., published in 1883 by Waterman Wathens & Co., Chicago.