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

Although named for the most northern of England’s shires, Northumberland County has been often called by many the “Mother County.” Organized on March 21, 1772, as Pennsylvania’s tenth county, at one time it encom­passed eighteen thousand square miles! The county once extended from the Lehigh to the Allegheny rivers, with the New York border as its north­ern boundary. Its territory embraced more than a third of the Commonwealth, including twenty-one present-day coun­ties and parts of ten others.

Northumberland County’s sheer size and early formation made it witness to benchmarks of state and national history. Even long before settlement in the mid-eighteenth century, the vast wilderness territory was the stage upon which Indian pageantry – often vio­lent, always dramatic – unfolded.

Geography had much to do with the history of Northum­berland County. The broad Susquehanna River, with its junction of the North and West branches at Sunbury, was the principal means of transporta­tion for the Native Americans. Indian settlements punctuated the river corridor, and Sun­bury, originally called Shamo­kin, was home to the great Oneida chieftain Shikellamy. However, the name Shamokin applied to the entire region at the forks of the Susquehanna River, a radius of about fifteen miles. In fact, during their occupation of the area, the local tribes called several sites Shamokin, although present­-day Sunbury was the most important Indian center in what is now Northumberland County, and was considered by many historians and ar­chaeologists as the Indian capital in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1755. To further con­fuse researchers, Shamokin was the Delaware name for the West Branch of the Susque­hanna. Today’s Shamokin, incorporated as a borough in 1864, was originally laid out by John C. Boyd in 1835 during the early boom years of the anthracite trade.

Shikellamy, dispatched by the powerful Six Nations in 1728 to maintain Iroquois con­trol of the region, served as the chief negotiator between the provincial government and the Indians for two decades, earn­ing him a place in American history as one of the truly outstanding Indian statesmen of the period. During the same year, two Indian traders were authorized to conduct trade with the local Indians.

In July 1754 at a conference in Albany, New York, John Penn and Richard Peters, rep­resenting the Provincial Coun­cil, and Isaac Norris and Benjamin Franklin, represent­ing the Assembly, purchased vast tracts of land west of the Susquehanna River from the Iroquois. Almost immediately, ambitious settlers began clam­oring for land in the fertile region. Barely a year had passed, however, when the Western Delawares­ – disgruntled because they believed the Iroquois had sold lands they actually owned­ – mounted the infamous Penn’s Creek Massacre of October 16, 1755. The massacre was the first Indian hostility since Penn’s Treaty at Shackamaxon nearly three-quarters of a century earlier.

Frightened pioneers and friendly Eastern Delawares, together with the sons of the deceased Shikellamy, en­treated the Assembly to ade­quately fortify the remote upper Susquehanna River valley. Lieut. Col. William Clapham recruited a battalion of four hundred which adopted its name – as was the custom – to honor a patron, in this case, the widow of Fre­derick, the Prince of Wales, Augusta of Saxe-Coburg. She was also the mother of a son, who in 1760 ascended the English throne as George III.

Fort Augusta, Northumber­land County’s famous colonial outpost, was initiated by Gov­ernor Morris and the Quaker assembly in 1756 as a strong­hold against the French and their northern Indian allies. Although it played a role in the French and Indian War of 1756, the Pontiac Conspiracy in 1763 and the Revolutionary War in 1779, it was never as an instrument of aggression. It was never under siege. It was never a command center for the American forces. It served as a refuge and to protect the region’s settlers, including the pioneers who in 1778-1779 sought haven within its con­fines upon the return of Gen. John Sullivan’s army. Its strategic location as one of the larg­est and – most important of the many numerous frontier forts in Pennsylvania concerned the French occupying the north­western section of the Com­mon wealth, who planned its destruction but did not suc­ceed.

An eyewitness account by Samuel Miles, a member of the Second Pennsylvania Battal­ion, recounted the actual building of Fort Augusta.

We crossed the Susquehanna and marched on the west side thereof until we came opposite to where the town of Sunbury now stands, where we crossed over in batteaux, and I had the honor of being the first man who put his foot on shore at landing. In build­ing the fort at Shamokin, Captain Levi Trump and myself had charge of the workmen, and after it was finished, our battalion remained in garrison until the year 1758. In the summer of 1756, f was nearly taken prisoner by the Indians. At about half a mile distance from the fort stood a large tree that bore excellent plums, and an open piece of ground near what is now called the Bloody spring. Lieutenant S. J. Atlee and myself one day took a walk ta this tree to gather plums. While we were there a party of Indians lay a short distance from us concealed in the thicket, and had nearly got be­tween us and the fort, when a soldier belonging to the bullock­-guard came to tire spring to drink; the Indians were thereby in dan­ger of being discovered, and in consequence fired at and killed the soldier, by which means we got off and returned to the fort in much less time than we were coming out.

As an outpost of settlement in the vast isolated wilderness, Northumberland County fig­ured prominently in the Revo­lutionary War for defense, as well as for supplying troops for George Washington’s army. At the time another strong­hold, then in the county’s boundaries, Fort Muncy, helped protect the frontier families. Attacks by the British and Indians forced the settlers to leave in what has been called the Great Runaway and eventually culminated in the Wyoming Massacre in July 1778. Fort Augusta served as the site for the collection of supplies and provisions for the Sullivan Expedition in 1779, while Fort Freeland, another in the chain of outpost command centers, was captured by the British and the Indians to stop aid to General Sullivan.

According to a sensational account published in the nine­teenth century, three hundred Indians and two hundred British “laid seige to Freeland’s fort, which was commanded by Captain John Lytle. There were brave men in that fort, who would have defended it to the death; but it was also filled with women and chil­dren, whom it was not thought prudent to expose to the cruelties that might result from a capture by storm. When, therefore, the enemy were about setting fire to the fort, a capitulation was entered into, by which the men and boys, able to bear arms, were to be taken prisoners, and the women and children were to return home unharmed. There was a Mrs. Kirk in the fort, with her daughter Jane and her son William. Before the capitulation she fixed a bayo­net upon a pole, vowing she would kill at least one Indian; but as there was no chance for fighting, she exhibited her cunning by putting petticoats upon her son Billy, who was able to bear arms, but had yet a smooth chin, and smuggled him out among the women.”

Local scholars have long contended that Fort Augusta­ – the site of which is now a historic site – was not only a point of assembly for the Sul­livan Expedition, but that it served as the strategical and tactical point for the protection of the entire Pennsylvania frontier. In fact, many histo­rians claim that the success of the expedition was based on the speedy concentration of the quartermaster’s and com­missary’s stores at the wilder­ness stronghold.

Fort Augusta’s importance, however, was not limited only to the eighteenth century military maneuvers. It also played a significant role in the development of the region’s early roads. While stationed at the fort, Colonel Burd – in a diary entry dated January 15, 1757 – wrote, “This day I went with Capt. Shippen and a party and laid out a straight road around Shamokin Hill for the benefit of transporting our provisions hither, finding it impracticable to pass over the mountains.” Two days later work began on clearing a road­way, and on December 20 Burd wrote that he had dis­patched “a small party to ex­tend the road from the first rise over the gut to the forks of the road on top of the moun­tain, with orders to blaze it …. Capt. Shippen returns and reports he had found a very good road, with an easy ascent over the mountain that could be traveled at all times and had blazed it well. This day the party clearing the road to the first rise and making the bridge over the gut reports the same finished.”

Although the first roads were actually meandering Indian paths, many of which radiated from the junction of two branches of the Susque­hanna, later roads followed their routes. Northumberland County’s first legally estab­lished road, later known as the Tulpehocken, began in Read­ing, Berks County, and trav­eled north through Sinking Springs, Pine Grove and above the mouth of the Mahanoy Creek. Earlier, the Six Nations had granted the provincial government the right to build a road to Fort Augusta, but they prevented its construc­tion. However, through a se­ries of maneuvers, resolutions and acts of the Provincial As­sembly, most notably the In­dian Trade Bill of 1757, a primitive road was laid from the inhabited parts of North­umberland County to Fort Augusta.

Preserved in the diary of Lutheran minister Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg is the account of his travel with Indian nego­tiator Conrad Weiser along an early wilderness road in June 1771. Upon arriving at the Susquehanna River, Weiser and Muhlenberg led their horses through the currents and spent the night with Cas­par Reed who, “above all, keeps a hotel, dispenses whis­key or brandy, and has to furnish every one (asking for it) six feet in length and a foot and a half in width of space on the floor of his house. If it is wanted he also furnishes something to eat. After consid­erable confusion all retired to rest.”

Because the nearest house was about six miles away, three families also spent the night at Reed’s hostelry, which a disgruntled Muhlenberg described somewhat petulantly.

Let anyone imagine, if he can, how he would feel if some twenty odd people, besides cats and dogs, were to occupy a space of twenty square feet (for a sleeping apart­ment). I was considerably dis­turbed, but being very tired, I fell asleep, and did not waken before the break of day. But I was greatly frightened when I saw and felt countless living insects upon me. I arose in haste, took a clean shirt, and went into the woods several hundred yards and put if on. The other shirt I washed, for I could not tell whether if was white or black, so full it was. There were many nationalities and races among these insects, and none had remained away. I believe that I had several dozen of every tribe who had come to welcome me as a stranger.

In 1791, an act of the legisla­ture provided for the opening and improvement of navigable waters and roads, including funding for the construction of several bridges on the road leading from Reading to Sun­bury, popularly known as the King’s Highway. The King’s Highway was originally de­clared a public road twenty years earlier, but the bridges and improvements were funded privately.

Not long after the network of early roads and turnpikes was developed, stage lines­ – one as early as 1808 – began to service the territory between Reading, through Hamburg, and Sunbury. In 1826, the Mount Carbon, Sunbury and Northumberland Stage Lines extended from Philadelphia to Sunbury, and offered connections to Wilkes-Barre (Luzerne County), Williamsport (Ly­coming County) and Belle­fonte (Centre County).

Following the development of roads were the canals, as well as the golden age of rail­roading which dramatically changed the way people and goods were transported throughout Pennsylvania during the nineteenth century. The earliest railroad in the region, the Danville and Potts­ville Railroad, was chartered in 1826 with its projected line described as “beginning at or near the ferry house on the south side of the Susque­hanna, opposite the town of Danville, in the township of Rush, in Northumberland County, and extending to the Schuylkill Canal at Pottsville ….” Two years later, the original charter was revised to enable the company to “mark and fix such a route as they shall deem expedient for said railroad, beginning at or near the lower or southern bound­ary line of … Pottsville … and extending to some suitable and eligible place or places upon the river Susquehanna, at or near the town of Danville … and to mark, fix and estab­lish a branch railroad from the most convenient point on the said Pottsville and Danville Railroad, to the Susquehanna, at or near Sunbury … ”

By July 1834, construction commenced on the section between Shamokin and Sunbury and was completed the following summer. The section was formally opened in No­vember 1835 with much fan­fare, according to an exuberant account published by the Sunbury Workingman’s Advocate.

Two elegant and commodious passenger cars, lately built at Pottsville (the “Shamokin” and the “Mahanoy”), large enough to convey, inside and out, about thirty persons each, having been placed on the road upon the bank of the Susquehanna, the ringing of bells at 12 o’clock and the joyful cheers of the traveling party and spectators announced their depar­ture …. Two of Mr. Weaver’s mail­-coach horses drew each car. … The oldest citizen of Sunbury, the oldest member of the bar attend­ing, Daniel Levy, was appointed President of the festivity, Lewis Dewart and Charles Donnel, Vice-Presidents, Peter Lazarus and Daniel Brautigam, secretaries, and Hugh Bellas was requested to deliver an address.

Although financing was depleted with the opening of the first section, the company connected its basin at Sunbury with the Susquehanna River in 1835 for the shipment of coal, and three years later the road was opened to Shamokin. However, the company fell on hard times and, after several attempts to revive the road by private companies, the Com­monwealth ordered a sale of its right-of-ways and assets. In 1851, what was left of the rap­idly disintegrating company was purchased on behalf of investors and creditors and reorganized as the Philadel­phia and Sunbury Railroad. The line was later extended throughout the region to inter­sect with other railroads. Of the lines that served the area were Shamokin Valley and Pottsville Railroad, acquired by the Northern Central Railroad in 1871; the Sunbury and Erie Railroad Company, which extended from Williamsport; the Danville, Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre Railroad Com­pany, originally established in 1859 as the Wilkes-Barre and Pittston Railroad; and, natu­rally, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company. Chartered in 1833 and origi­nally running from Philadel­phia to Pottsville, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was not among the first lines to enter Northum­berland County, but its system eventually absorbed some of the earliest railroads. North­umberland County’s pioneer­ing railroad companies, some of which never even built a road, numbered dozens, al­though several Lines were operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In addition to its impor­tance in Indian affairs, provin­cial government, and transportation, Northumber­land County was also home to Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), most commonly called the “Father of Oxygen,” who wrote of the area: “When I compare the perturbed state of Europe with the quiet of this place, I wish all my friends were here – it is a pleasure to be in a place that is continually im­proving. Nature has here done every thing that can be done for any place.” Priestley’s wife Mary also wrote to a friend, claiming “I am happy and thankful to meet so sweet a situation and so peaceful a retreat as the place I now write from. Dr. Priestley also likes it and of his own choice intends to settle here, which is more than I hoped for at the time we came up.”

A friend to Benjamin Frank­lin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Joseph Priestley chose Northumber­land for his American home, selecting a site for a large white house to overlook the broad Susquehanna River in August 1794. Although invited to fill the University of Penn­sylvania’s chemistry chair, he declined as he had no desire to live in Philadelphia. He de­clined other offers as well, tending to continue his experi­ments, report new observa­tions to the American Philosophical Society in Phila­delphia, work on his church history and add to his memoirs.

In the northeast wing of the house he built his laboratory, in which he relentlessly experi­mented with gases and va­pors, one of which he collected by passing steam over heated charcoal: carbon monoxide. However, most of his work during the last ten years of his life were devoted to his reli­gious and theological beliefs. “But after all,” he wrote, “how insignificant are all subjects, compared to those which relate to religion.” The scientist died at his beloved home on the Susquehanna River on February 6, 1804.

Another prominent person whose experiments are known worldwide and who played a role in Northumberland County’s history was none other than Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), who traveled from his famous MenJo Park, New Jersey, laboratory to Sunbury to carry our his experiments with the electric light.

Edison chose Sunbury because of its proximity to the rich anthracite fields, less than twenty miles away. On July 4, 1883, he threw the switch for the first commercial incandes­cent lighting station in the world! Granted a charter in April of that year, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company strung Lines from a small plant at Fourth and Vine streets through the community to the City Hotel. The hotel became the first building in the world to use incandescent lamps. Edison personally supervised the construction of the Sunbury plant, which burned anthracite to fuel two generators. The Reading Railroad’s passenger station at Sunbury was the first railroad depot in the world to be lighted electrically when it opened two years later. Thomas Edison last vis­ited the community in 1922 for its sesquicentennial celebration.

Communities throughout Northumberland County each possess a rich and distinctive heritage, even though they do not claim to be the home of an internationally renowned scientist or the site of the world’s first electrically illumi­nated structure. Milton, for example, laid out in 1792 by Andrew Straub, was the home of an academy whose students included two governors, a number of judges, mission­aries and prominent entrepre­neurs. Watsontown, originally laid out by its owner John Watson in 1794, was virtually heralded as a new community when nineteenth century capitalist Ario Pardee – the founder of Lafayette College in Easton – established a regular building plan. Incorporated in 1870, Mount Carmel grew as the coal trade boomed. But there are other towns and villages who have contributed greatly to the heritage, as well as to the prosperity, of North­umberland County. There are Kulpmont, Dalmatia, Snyder­town, Turbotville, Trevorton, Elysburg. And Dewart, Union Corner, Gowen City, Atlas. And Rebuck, Herndon, Chil­lisquaque. All which have played a role in the history of Northumberland County, truly the Mother County.


For Further Reading

Bell, Herbert C. History of Northumberland County, Penn­sylvania. Chicago: Brawn, Runk and Company, 1891.

Carter, John Haas. Early Events in the Susquehanna Valley. Northumberland, Pa.: Northum­berland County Historical Society, 1981.

Cupper, Dan. “Sunbury Made Early Use of Edison’s Light Bulb.” Harrisburg Sunday Patriot­-News. October 21, 1979.

Holt, Anne. A Life of Joseph Priestley. London: Oxford Uni­versity Press, 1931.

Lyon, Edward. “Priestley in America.” Northum­berland County Historical Society Proceedings. 5 (May 1932), 5-13.

Priestley, Joseph. Autobiography of Joseph Priestley. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univer­sity Press, 1970.

Rupp, Israel Daniel. History and Topography of Northumber­land, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Centre, Union, Columbia, Juniata and Clinton counties, Pa. Lancaster, Pa.: G. Hills, 1847.

Snyder, Charles F., ed. Northum­berland County in the Ameri­can Revolution. Northumberland, Pa.: Northum­berland County Historical Society, 1976.

The Town of Shamokin, North­umberland County, Pa. Phila­delphia: C. Sherman, 1853.

Wallace, Paul A. W. Indians in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1970.


Michael J. O’Malley III is editor of this magazine.