A Historical Sketch of Indiana County

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Indiana County was named for the native Indians. During historic times the two principal tribes were the Delawares and Shawnees. Being reluctant to give up their lands, the Indians struggled desperately to keep out the tide of European settlers.

Perhaps the first white settler to enter Indiana County was James LeTort, an Indian trader, about 1726-27. A place called “Letart’s town” near Shelocta was mentioned in an application for survey in 1769 when the Pennsylvania Land Office opened. In 1748, Conrad Weiser and William Franklin (son of Benjamin) came through Indiana County on their way to Logstown. Several trains of George Crog­han’s packhorses came at the same time bearing gifts for the Indians.

During the French and Indian War an expedition of more than three hundred men led by Lt. Col. John Armstrong came over the Kittanning Path through Indiana County to attack the Indian stronghold at Kittanning in 1756. The sortie was the first successful English blow against the French and Indians. Afterward, Capt. Hugh Mercer became separated from the main body of Armstrong’s men and, with a broken arm, had a very difficult time in the wilder­ness before reaching Fort Littleton. Mercer’s experience was duplicated in 1758 when Richard Bard escaped from his Indian captors near present Homer City.

At the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 the land south of the “Purchase Line” was purchased from the Indians. The Purchase Line ran from “Canoe Place” at Cherry Tree to near Kittanning. In 1772 more than two hundred Christian Indians led by the Moravian missionaries, Revs. John Ettwein and John Roth, came through the north­western part of the county on their way to new homes in Ohio. A few settlers had already begun to move into the area, one of the first being George Findley, who arrived about 1764-65 in the “Wheatfield” region. Fergus Moorhead settled near Indiana about 1770 and shortly after­ward his brother, Samuel Moorhead, built a gristmill. In fact the Penn heirs had reserved as early as 1760 a tract called the manor of “Cherry Hill” near Penn Run.

Cumberland County was the first to attempt to exercise jurisdiction over this region, then Bedford County, and finally in 1773 Westmoreland County. The “Mahoning Country” north of the Purchase Line remained Indian territory. In 1774 Joseph Wipey, an aged Delaware Indian living along the Conemaugh River, was killed by two Virginia partisans while Dunmore’s War was raging. Not wishing for Pennsylvania to be involved in this Virginia war with the Indians, Governor John Penn issued a broadside offering a reward for Wipey’s murderers.

Indian warfare, ignited by the Revolution, began in western Pennsylvania March 16, 1777 when Andrew Simpson was killed and Fergus Moorhead captured. This caused the few settlers to flee to the protection of blockhouses south of the Conemaugh. Others, such as Mrs. Fergus Moorhead, returned to their old homes in Franklin County. A series of other Indian attacks followed. Charles Campbell and a number of others were captured and taken to Canada. George Findley was attacked and wounded and a boy with him killed and scalped. In 1778 some thirty Tories gathered in the Sinking Valley of Blair County and marched west over the Kittanning Path, intending to join the British and Indians at Kittanning, but their purpose failed because the Indians, misunderstanding their motives, shot their leader, John Watson. More Indian attacks and incidents occurred throughout the Revolution, ending with the burning of the county seat at Hannastown, July 13, 1782.

Following this event, the settlers began to return. The Mahoning Country north of the Purchase Line was acquired in 1784 at the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix. A rough road called the “Frankstown Road” was opened in 1790 from Frankstown in Blair County to Pittsburgh. A town called Newport was founded at this time near the confluence of the Conemaugh with Black Lick Creek. This was Indiana County’s first town, but it disappeared some fifteen to twenty years later. In 1792 another town, Armagh, still in existence, sprang up along the Frankstown road. Indian attacks continued and many settlers were killed and forced to build blockhouses and fortified houses for protection. The last Indian incident occurred in 1794 when a party from Indiana County led by Capt. Andrew Sharp was attacked while floating down the Kiskiminetas River en route to Kentucky. Sharp died in Pittsburgh of wounds.

The Act of March 30, 1803 creating Indiana County named three trustees to receive and act upon proposals for the granting of lands for a county seat not more than four miles from the geographical center of the county. Among those who submitted proposals were Joshua and Thomas Gilpin, who owned seventy-five tracts in Indiana County totaling 24,398 acres, and George Clymer, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, who had a bloc of 3,050 acres. The Gilpins proposed that, should the county seat be on one of their tracts, it be named “Gilpinsbourg.” The trustees, however, preferred George Clymer’s offer of 250 acres. The Act of March 25, 1805 named Charles Campbell, Randall Laughlin and John Wilson trustees to survey the Clymer tract, receive a deed for it, and have it divided into lots and sold at public auction. Clymer deeded 250 acres to the county September 7, 1805 and the trustees placed advertisements in various newspapers for a sale of lots to begin December 10. The Act of March 10, 1806 provided for the judicial and civil organization of the new county following the first election of county officers October 14. The first court convened December 8 in a log tavern in Indiana. A stone jail was completed in 1807 and a courthouse in 1809.

Transportation has been important throughout Indiana County’s history. The Huntingdon, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike, a toll road completed in 1818-19, was an im­provement of the older Frankstown Road. A new town named Blairsville, in honor of John Blair, president of the turnpike company, was laid out in 1818 at the terminus of the turnpike on the Conemaugh River. A single-span 295-foot covered bridge was erected here in 1822. Later came the Pennsylvania Canal. The first boat reached Blairsville July 22, 1829, passing through a tunnel en route from Saltsburg. The tunnel near present Tunnelton was the first ever built west of the Alleghenies. The first Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive reached Blairsville late in 1851 and a branch line was extended to Indiana in 1856. Another line from Blairsville to Freeport opened in 1863-64. The Buf­falo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad from Punxsutawney to Indiana was built 1903-04 to open up the coal fields. Streetcar lines from Indiana to Creekside, Clymer and Blairsville went into service 1907-09. The last streetcar ran in 1933 and the last passenger train in 1950, both victims of the automobile and new concrete highways. Indiana’s first airport opened in 1929. Today Indiana has the Jimmy Stewart Airport.

Agriculture has always been important. The first Indiana County Fair was held October 16-18, 1855. Dairying is now the principal farm business. Christmas trees are also impor­tant. Indiana County lays claim to the title “Christmas Tree Capital” of the nation. Musser Nurseries is one of the largest producers.

The first major industry of Indiana County not related to agriculture was the manufacture of salt. In 1813 William Johnston successfully drilled a well and pumped up salt brine, which was converted into salt by boiling. The need for fuel to boil salt water led to the first major use of coal. The town of Saltsburg owes its origin in 1816 to the salt industry. In later years the industry declined and died due to the discovery of cheaper sources of salt. Four charcoal iron furnaces were in operation at various times from 1840-60 but were unprofitable and were abandoned. A foundry in Blairsville and another in Indiana were more successful. In 1907 and 1911 two large blast furnaces and other equipment costing more than two million dollars were erected in Josephine, but the company later went bankrupt and everything was dismantled. The timber in­dustry was of major importance from the 1840’s until about 1890. Thousands of rafts and millions of longs went down the West Branch of the Susquehanna from Cherry Tree to the mouth of the Susquehanna at Marietta. Mahoning and Two Lick creeks also carried a large volume of rafts and logs.

Two noted Indiana County inventors were Samuel M. Kier, who in 1854 perfected the process of refining oil, and John B. McCormick, whose experiments, beginning in 1868, resulted in the water turbine. Linton Park designed a Venetian blind which won a first premium at the Centen­nial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia. Park is also highly acclaimed as an American primitive painter.

The firs􀀙 “coal town” was Glen Campbell, in 1889. After 1900 a coal boom developed and many new coal towns sprung up, including Ernest, Lucerne, Clymer, Rossiter, lselin, Robinson, Commodore, Graceton and others. The last .coke ovens were closed in 1971. After a slump during the Depression, the coal industry surged back to new im­portance during the energy shortage. Indiana County is now also the “Electric Capital” of the United States, with huge coal-fired steam generating plants at Homer City, Huff and Robindale producing more than three million kilowatts of electrical power, which is transmitted to eastern cities. At Homer City is the world’s tallest smokestack, 1,216 feet high. A new 34.3 million dollar experimental plant to convert coal into gas, the largest of four in the nation, was dedicated in 1976. At Indiana is the National Mine Service Co., one of the largest firms dealing in mining supplies. Much coal is now obtained by strip mining.

Other industries of the county are the drilling for natural gas and the fracturing of wells, the McCreary Tire & Rubber Co., Syntron, Robertshaw Controls, Fisher Scientific, and Seasonall aluminum products.

Indiana County has made considerable educational and cultural progress. The first academy was opened at Indiana in 1816 and was followed by many others. Elders Ridge Academy and the Blairsville College for Women were two of the most outstanding. Indiana Normal School opened in 1875 and has grown to become Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Vale Technical Institute in Blairsville is a noted school for training insurance adjusters and automo­tive mechanics. Indiana Hospital, founded in 1914, is now undergoing a ten million dollar expansion and renovation program. It is impossible in a short article to tell of the many other cultural advances, or of the place in our cul­tural history of such persons as James Stewart, film star; Col. Samuel Loboda, conductor and commander of the U.S. Army Band; Edward Abbey and Agnes Sligh Turnbull, authors; or “Cherry Tree Joe” McCreery of folklore fame during the heyday of rafting and logging.

The political history of Indiana County has had many twists and turns. The first newspaper, The American, published in Indiana beginning about 1814, was Federalist. In spite of this, the county was Democratic during the early years and gave good majorities to Andrew Jackson every time his name was on the ballot. Then an upheaval of antimasonic feeling broke the Democratic hold and, after a brief period of power, the Antimasons gave way to the Whigs, who were followed briefly by the Know Nothings, and finally by the Republicans.

Many of the people were antislavery, especially after the noted “kidnappings” of 1845 which resulted in Dr. Robert Mitchell being tried and convicted in federal court of harboring and aiding fugitive slaves. Numerous citizens were very active in the underground railroad. Jane Grey Swisshelm, a noted abolitionist and feminist of Pittsburgh, owned a summer home at Diamondville in Indiana County, and on July 4, 1853 made a notable address at an anti-slavery picnic attended by more than five hundred persons. One of John Brown’s men, Albert Hazlett, was from Indiana County and died on the gallows in 1860.

After a long period of Republican control, recent years have seen a resurgence of the Democrats and a more competitive political situation. Among the more noted political figures associated with Indiana County are Matthew Stanley Quay, educated at the Indiana Academy during the time his father was minister of the Presbyterian Church of Indiana; Judge Thomas White and his son, Judge Harry White; Titian J. Coffey, deputy Attorney General of the U.S. (serving part of the time as acting Attorney General) during President Lincoln’s administra­tion; John S. Fisher, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1927-31; Silas M. Clark, Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsyl­vania, 1883-91; John Taylor, Surveyor General, 1836-39; A.H. Stewart, Secretary of Health, 1940-45; E.J. Trimarchi, Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1961-64; and John P. Elkin, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, 1899-1903 and Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1905-15. Gen. John J. Pershing’s ancestral roots are in Indiana County, his grandfather, Joseph M. Pershing, being buried in the cemetery of the Bethel Presbyterian Church.

The population of Indiana County has grown from 6,214 in 1810 to 79,451 in 1970. The principal urban areas are Indiana, White Township, Blairsville, Homer City, Saltsburg and Clymer.

Among Indiana County’s scenic and historic attractions are four covered bridges; Ewing’s Mill, built in 1838 and still in operating condition, using one of John B. McCor­mick’s turbines; Conemaugh Gap (Routes 56 and 403 to Johnstown). deepest gorge in the U.S. east of the Missis­sippi; the old courthouse, built in 1870, and John Sutton Hall on the Indiana University campus, built in 1875, two splendid examples of Victorian architecture recently saved from destruction; Yellow Creek State Park, Pennsyl­vania’s newest, opened in 1976; the big Conemaugh flood control dam; St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Blairsville, built in 1830; the Keystone Overlook giving an excellent view of the huge Keystone electric generating plant; the Amish settlement in the Smicksburg-Plumville-Trade City area; the Saltsburg Stone House museum dating to 1830; the beautiful Victorian mansion in Indiana, once the home of Silas M. Clark, now housing the library and museum of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County; four county parks with many facilities for recreation; and White’s Woods, a natural area near Indiana, once owned by Thomas and Harry White, now preserved by the Indiana Recreation Department for the study and enjoyment of nature.


Clarence D. Stephenson is an Indiana County historian-writer. He is writing a county history, part of which will be published in 1978, the county’s 175th anniversary.