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

While there are many similar stories to be told on the subject of historical and social evolution in all regions of Pennsylvania, there are also many tales unique to every city, town, or county. Southwestern Pennsylvania has its share of unique stories, and no museum interprets the saga of this region so succinctly as the Somerset Historical Center.

Adding to the effectiveness of docu­menting the region’s history is a cooperative relationship between the center and the Historical and Genealogi­cal Society of Somerset County. The Somerset Historical Center provides a history of communities, the people, agricultural, industrial and cultural development, and a window to the archaeological and written past, with a wide sweep of most cow1ties in south­western Pennsylvania. The genealogical society enables visitors, especially those with Somerset County roots, to personal­ize the relevance of local history through its genealogy library, publications, and staff and volunteer members who assist visitors researching ancestral connections, all conveniently located in the same visitors’ center.

The cooperative effort and consoli­dation of resources have resulted in exhibits, docu­mentary projects, and preservation initiatives that would not have been otherwise possible because private donations have been attracted to reward their outstanding efforts.

It may be difficult for visitors today to think of a four-mile drive from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Somerset Historical Center – built in 1970, just north of the county seat of Somerset, along Route 985 – as being “out-of-the-way” or even remote. But two centuries ago the county lay in the heart of a vast, isolated, and dangerous frontier.

In October 2000, the center will unveil its most ambitious exhibition, interpreting more than one thousand years of archae­ology, history, and development uniquely portrayed in an agricultural setting. The dense forests, plentiful game, and rich soil sustained Native Americans for thou­sands of years, as well as the earliest settlers during the eighteenth century. The pioneer spirit for which rural southwest­ern Pennsylvania is known to this day has endured even through the mechanical revolution of modern farming.

Using archaeological discoveries, a collection of vintage tools and machines, photographs, and re-created settings, the historical center has organized various aspects of the interpretations chronologi­cally into periods that lead logically from one era to the next. Upon entering the first area of the exhibit, visitors are transported back in time hundreds of years to when the occupants of the land were the Monongahela Indians, in a region known to archaeologists as being part of the Woodland Indian culture. Thanks. to archaeological digs, especially in 1938 and additional investigations conducted between 1994 and 1999, a thorough picture of Monongahela village life is possible (see “Archaeology in Black and White: Digging Somerset County’s Past During the Great Depres­sion,” by Bernard K. Means, Summer 2000). No one is certain why the Monon­gahela disappeared from the region, but it is known that it was long before the arrival of European settlers. Archaeolo­gists and historians believe disease and tribal warfare are possible reasons. Only Native American hunters from other tribes were found in the region when Europeans first arrived.

It is difficult to know with certainty when the first white person set foot in the region or built the first dwelling. The distribution of land, because of the remote wilderness, was not as well organized as it was in southeastern Pennsylvania. Often “firsts” were based on when written documents were recorded. What records do show is that by the 1730s, Pennsylvania’s southwest frontier saw the first footprints of white men. In 1747, a group of Virginia land speculators formed the Ohio Company for the purpose of land sales, purchases, and settlement. Until the present-day boundaries of Pennsylvania were settled, Virginia held claim to areas of southwestern Pennsylva­nia until 1779.

While fur traders continued westward, the French were laying claim to the region, and German settlers in search of rich new lands to farm were arriving in Pennsylvania. Native American tribes, such as the Six Nations of the Iroquois, saw this as an encroachment on their hunting grounds. Private property claims by white settlers were alien concepts to nomadic people who lived off the land.

Before 1750, the only routes between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio Valley were two Native American trails, both crossing what later became Somerset County. In 1749, members of the Ohio Company, uneasy about their investment in unseen tracts of land, dispatched Christopher Gist, a young surveyor, to the region. While he may not have been the first white man to set foot there, Gist was certainly the first to document his findings. Historians know that Gist and his party camped on top of the Allegheny Mountains on November 5, 1750, before crossing Stoney Creek and camping in “an abandoned Indian hut” for three days.

Four years later, on another surveying mission, Christopher Gist was joined by a young gentleman and militia officer from Virginia. His duty was to travel west along the Nemocolin Trail to deliver a stern warning to the French on behalf of England’s King George III and the governor of Virginia. He was George Washington. The French informed Washington that the English should stay on their side of the mountains and mind their own business. The Virginians, underestimating the strength of the French, returned with four hundred soldiers, including Washington, who promptly retreated after French musket balls thinned their ranks.

On July 9, 1755, General Edward Braddock and two divisions of British regulars marched through the region toward the French at Fort Duquesne. While cutting a new road with a military objective through the southern area of the region, Braddock and his men were ambushed by a small force of Indians commanded by French officers. Braddock was killed, the troops disasterously defeated, and a cannon, supplies, and secret papers were lost to the French. One of the few survivors fleeing the region was Washington (see “Into the Valley of Death” by Iola B. Parker, Winter 1988).

[t was three years before the British would be ready to return to engage the French. An army of six thousand men assembled at Fort Bedford in Spring 1758 under the leadership of General John Forbes, with Lieut. Col. Henry Bouquet second in command. On July 31, 1758 Forbes gave an order to clear a new trail through the northern county. For the British, this would save fifty miles of marching toward the French at the forks of the Ohio. For settlers, this new trail, known as the Forbes Road, would become a significant link from the Atlantic settlements to new claims in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The defeat of the French in the French and Indian War did not settle the issue of land claims in the region. Native tribes pragmatically allied themselves on both French and British sides during the war. However, the natives, among them an Ottawa leader by the name of Pontiac, soon learned that they would not gain any advantage over white settlers who regarded the Ottawa, or any other native tribe, as having no land rights.

One of the region’s earliest settlers learned firsthand the perils of trying to establish a farm prior to 1768. In 1739, George Dibert selected a small clearing one mile from present-day Berlin to build a cabin and plant crops for him, his wife and five children. As Dibert was burning tree stumps at the edge of his clearing, he suddenly heard his wife and children screaming. A shot rang out and his oldest son fell dead. 1he family was under attack by native warriors. Dibert did not have his rifle with him, using it only for hunting food, so he was helpless as he hid and helplessly witnessed in horror the scalping and murder of his wife and children. As his cabin was being ran­sacked and burned, Dibert was spotted by two of the marauders who gave chase. He managed to keep ahead of his pursuers for a day and a half, even as Dibert caught glimpses of them on his trail. He circled his farm clearing for three days and nights before determining it was safe enough to return to the ashes of his cabin under the cover of darkness. One by one, he moved the remains of his family to a shallow grave, covering the bodies with stones. Grief stricken, hungry, and exhausted, avoiding any native trails, Dibert stumbled one hundred thirty-nine miles east to Carlisle one week later before telling the authorities his story. Dibert remarried and returned in 1768 to the region, settling in Bedford Township (now part of Bedford County).

In 1767, the Mason-Dixon Line survey, which permanently fixed the southern boundary of Pennsylvania, effectively removed the direct influence and jurisdic­tion of Virginia. In effect, settlers in southwestern Pennsylvania were trespass­ing on the Penn family’s land because no land warrants had yet been granted. Governor John Penn advised the colonial assembly that settlers should be removed since they did not have legal entitlement to their land. In February 1768, the assembly responded with a law that threatened severe penalties for squatters: ” … persons so neglecting or refusing to remove with his or their Family or returning to settle as aforesaid or they shall settle on any such lands after the Requisition or Notice Aforesaid being thereof legally convicted by their own confession or the verdict of a Jury shall suffer Death without benefit of clergy.”

How the new law was perceived by the occupants, declared illegal trespassers, may provide insight into the independent spirit of these pioneers. John Penn appointed four men to travel to the western settle­ments to explain the new law. The appointees returned and wrote their report to Penn: ” … on the thirty first of March [1768] we came to the Great crossing of the Youghiogheny [River] … in a place called Turkey­foot. .. ” The settlers reportedly read the proclamation while leaning on their grubbing hoes, or as they continued to clean their long rifles. They then went back to their cabins with no intent to obey the new law, or to abandon their land or their American pioneer spirit. The government did not have the resources or ability to enforce the law across the frontier. This, and the benevolent spirit of founder William Penn, continued to temper governing decisions.

The issue of land ownership was finally resolved on November 5, 1768, as the Penn family and the Iroquois signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The land was purchased for ten thousand pounds and immediately offered for sale. In truth, the land did not belong to the Iroquois, but to tribes such as the Delaware and Shawnee. Nevertheless, illegal settlers became legitimate citizens, obligated to follow Pennsylvania law and pay taxes. Before the first land warrant was issued, cabins and farm plots already dotted the landscape. What the first recorded land warrant in 1769 signaled was a land rush and the permanent transformation of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Somerset Historical Center’s exhibit segment portraying the area’s agricultural heritage opens with the period of “settling the frontier,” between 1750 and 1820, as the era of working the land by hand. The Penn family offered land at five pounds sterling for each tract of one hundred acres, and one cent per acre quit rent each year. A typical family farm was about two hundred acres. On view is a selection of tools that allowed the settler to build the family’s first log cabin and clear the land of trees for planting crops that sustained the family. Trees were girdled (removing a band of bark from the tree to kill it) or set fire. Many of the implements were made by the farmer, or by a blacksmith, if one was available.

One of the key illustrations of this era is the story of flax processed into linen cloth, and the 1m loom on the display floor will represent one of the region’s main home industries. The flax plant grew plentifully in southwestern Pennsylvania. While the plant yielded seeds that could be pressed into linseed oil, the stem of the plant produced fibers of light color. Although the process was labor intensive, linen was inexpensive to produce at home. Linen cloth was in demand in America and the farm family benefited from this need until early in the twentieth century. Flax, however, did not adapt as easily as cotton to mechanization and fell victim to the new king of textiles from the South.

The period from 1750 to 1820 saw the establishment of traditions and lifestyles of the rural southwestern counties. After the land was officially opened for settlement, the influx of settlers after 1768 was slowed only by the Revolutionary War. Amish, German Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, and German and Swiss sects were among the first settlers. The Amish arrived about 1750, settling in the “glades” area in what became Brothersvalley Township. By the late 1760s, a heavier migration of Amish from Berks County occurred which, in turn, attracted even more Amish directly from Germany during the first third of the 1800s. Amish influences were eventual­ly weakened by migrations to cheap, fertile land elsewhere, such as in Ohio; by internal disagreements over morals and adoptions of more modern lifestyles; and by assimilation into non-Amish churches.

The region’s slow progress was greatly influenced by its geography. Early roads were poor, and transporting grain over the mountains to more distant markets proved difficult, so pioneering settlers began converting grain to whiskey.

In 1783, the new federal government faced an enormous Revolutionary War debt of seventy-seven million dollars. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton came up with the idea of placing a tax on all alcoholic beverages. In Pennsylvania, five thousand known grain distillers were in operation at the time, twenty-four of them within present-day Somerset County borders. To many pioneers, this tax ran counter to what many of them had fought for against the British. The idea of govern­ment agents entering private homes, measuring distilled products, and collecting taxes did not sit well with the independent spirit of rural settlers. They viewed the agents as “rev­enuers with their hands in the public coffers.” Banners appeared on “liberty poles” proclaiming “Liberty and No Excise.” George Washington and Hamilton viewed the rebels as “insurgents” and sent fifteen thousand troops, commanded by Governor Harry Lee of Virginia and accompanied by Hamilton himself to quell what became known as The Whiskey Rebellion (see “The Whiskey Boys versus the Watermelon Army,” by Jerry Clouse, Spring 1991). While there were no organized resistance and no battles, there were plenty of arrests, and prisoners were paraded through the streets of Philadelphia wearing placards reading “Insurgent.”

The next agricultural period the center explores is between 1820 and 1880. This was a time of abundant harvests, and while life on the farm was still labor intensive, there was an increasing use of more complicated farm machines and devices powered by muscle, horse, or water. Roads began to improve and movement of farm commodities to market became somewhat easier.

With the completion of the Pennsylva­nia Main Line Canal, linking rail routes and waterways between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1835, daily rail traffic began, operated by the Pennsylvania and Ohio Transportation Company, utilizing both the Main Line Canal and Union Canal. After one hundred years of relatively slow development, the pace of change increased, bringing new settlers, new markets for farm commodities, and the setting for the next era. The period from 1880 to 1920 is the next era the visitor will see in this multi-faceted portrayal. This was a time when steam power revolutionized industry as weU as life on the farm, a time when farmers’ sons went off to war, and a time when western Pennsylvania became a leader in the production of bituminous coal. The largest acquisition on exhibit for this period is a Frick thresher and steam engine from about 1900. There is also an 1897 Deering Ideal self-raking reaper.

While most of the original hemlock forest in Pennsylvania was cut or marked for timber production by the opening of the twentieth century, there was a notable exception of virgin forest in southeast Cambria County and northeast Somerset County. It took steam in the form of small logging railroads to bring the lumber to market. In the counties of Payette, Somerset, and Westmoreland alone, there were no less than fifty lumber mills and related logging railroads operating during the first quarter of the twentieth century, providing winter jobs for farmers, as well as transient lumberjacks.

The final segment of the center’s showcase of agricultural history is the modern era from 1920 to 1970. Tractors by now were replacing horse-driven plows. Large equipment displays at the historical center include a 1930s Sears and Roebuck self-propelled plow with a Briggs and Stratton engine and an expected addition of a 1932 tractor. Life on the farm is well illustrated in this era as well, with clothing, clocks, and the “hit and miss,” an engine so-called because of its sound. While the region’s indepen­dent spirit has prevailed, the Great Depression brought cooperative efforts for survival on the farm that included tractors being shared or leased.

Also, portrayed both in the visitor’s center in the 1920 to 1970 period and in a separate building is the making of maple sugar and syrup. One of the ways that helped provide farmers with enough income to make it to the next harvest was to have a winter crop. Southwestern Pennsylvania, notably Somerset County, is noted to this day for its plentiful maple trees and sweet syrup. The farm family found a welcome break from the long winter when the late winter daily temperatures finally began to moderate, with daytime above freezing and night time below freezing temperatures. Initially, sugar was the preferred product of the maple sap because it was much easier to transport and store and could be easily converted back into syrup again after reaching the market place. Each year the museum presents an interactive program where one can visit the “sugar camp” and see the tapping of trees, a rustic building that houses a five hundred gallon sugar water holding vat, and large open pans ready to receive and evaporate the water from the sap over a fire to leave behind the sweet cash crop.

It is interesting to note the changes during this latter era, whose effects are visible today. While change has been slow and sometimes welcomed by farmers, and sometimes not, rural farm life in southwestern Pennsylvania continues to be a significant part of the landscape. This is in spite of the statistic that farmers fell to less than five percent of the population following World War II and that products once produced in the region were undercut in distant markets. The Somerset Historical Center is insuring that the legacy of this culture, the backbone of the region’s rural heritage, is being documented and preserved.

In addition to the museum’s exhibit in the visitors’ center and the sugaring camp, there are other interesting build­ings to visit on the property. Among them are two log cabins from 1773 and 1798, with two more farmsteads planned for the future exemplifying the 1860s and the 1920s. Visitors can get a taste of exactly what a pioneer home would have looked like before the American Revolu­tion. A typical round log cabin has been faithfully built according to known construction techniques of the period. This early cabin would have been a temporary shelter until the settlers were able to build a larger, more permanent structure.

A more permanent structure is represented on the property in an astounding preservation accomplish­ment. The historical center has done more than recreate a typical homestead. They have relocated the actual cabin from the land of the first recorded deed, on June 20, 1795, of Somerset County. Somerset County was formed out of Bedford County on April 17 of that year. Adam Miller (1750-1827) was the buyer of “lot 56” in the new town of Berlin for which he paid a sum of fifteen shillings and an annual ground rent of one Spanish milled dollar given to the Calvinistic congregation for their schools. Miller, a native of Germany and a Revolutionary War veteran, served as justice of the peace until 1798 when he was elected to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. The homestead includes a reconstructed barn, smokehouse, and interior furnish­ings and implements representative of the period.


Events and Travel Tips

Lectures, seminars, and hands-on learning workshops continue throughout the year that enhance the cultural experience. On Thursday, October 19, Robert Anderson will present a lecture entitled “Women Traveling the Frontier Trail.” Museum curator Barbara Black will talk about how to handle and preserve “grandma’s quilt, comfort, coverlet, and articles of clothing” on Thursday, November 2 [2000]. The annual Museum Shop Day, is scheduled for December 2 [2000], with special promotions, publications, “make-it, take-it crafts,” and samples of holiday fare.

One event of national note is the annual Mountain Craft Days in early September, which recently completed its thirty-first year and is sponsored jointly by the Somerset Historical Center and the Historical and Genealogical Society of Somerset County. According to Mark Ware, museum educator, out of about one hundred twenty craftspersons, there are no more than two of each type of exhibitor. Visitors to this event can learn from uniquely skilled artisans, such as a fifth generation blacksmith, and experts in coopering, log hewing, rail fences, timber frame construction, masonry, and bobbin and lace making.

The Somerset Historical Center, located four miles north of Exit 10 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, is open each Wednesday through Saturday, from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.; and Sunday, from Noon to 5 P.M. Information may be obtained by writing: Somerset Historical Center, 10649 Somerset Pike, Somerset, PA 15501; by telephoning (814) 445-6077; or by visiting the Somerset Historical Center website. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone the center in advance of their visit to discuss their needs.

Somerset County, part of the Laurel Highlands is rich in historical, recreation­al, and scenic areas, such as the highest elevation in Pennsylvania-the elevation of Mt. Davis is thirty-two hundred and thirteen feet. The Old Petersburg­-Addison Historical Society, in Addison, operates a small museum featuring local artifacts and everyday tools, equipment, pottery, glass and furnishings once used by area residents. Similar museums are administered by the Berlin Area Histori­cal Society, in Berlin, the Conemaugh Township Area Historical Society, in Davidsville, the Rockwood Area Historical Society and Genealogical Society, in Rock­wood, and the Springs Historical Society and Museum, in Springs.

For information about these and other attractions in Somerset County, write: Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, 120 East Main St., Ligonier, PA 15656; or telephone (724) 238-5661, or toll-free (800) 925-7661; or visit the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau website.


For Further Reading

Butler, Mary. Three Archaeological Sites in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1939.

Doyle, Frederic. Early Somerset County. Somerset, Pa.: Somerset County Historical Society, 1945.

Fletcher, Stevenson W. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1940. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.

Kopperman, Paul E. Braddock at the Monongahela. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Witthoft, John. Indian Prehistory of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1965.

Wallace, Paul A.W. Indian Paths of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1998.


The author thanks Charles Fox, site adminis­trator, Barbara Black, museum curator, and Mark Ware, museum educator, of the Somerset Historical Center, who provided much of the information and background for this article.


Fred J. Lauver is assistant editor of Pennsyl­vania Heritage.