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

The story of Butler County is one of many stories. It is the story of an unusual religious commune. Of an engineer whose invention made the Brooklyn Bridge a reality. Of a European baron who con­structed a German castle he named Bassenheim. Of an oil boom town which sprang up­ – and crashed nearly overnight. Of the birthplace of that be­loved American automotive institution, the jeep. Of the man who financed the Ameri­can Revolution, and who lost everything – except his place in history – in a bitter twist of fate. And of generations of countians whose pioneering spirit placed Gen. Richard Butler’s namesake in the an­nals of state and national his­tory forever.

The story – and fascinating history – of Butler County predates its official establish­ment at the opening of the nineteenth century, but be­cause its title was not released by the Indians until 1784, historians consider it a post­-Revolutionary county. Not until two years later did the the Commonwealth assign it to any county, when it was designated a part of Westmore­land County. In 1788, the area now encompassing Butler County was assigned to Alle­gheny County, of which it remained a part until March 12, 1800. Named for General Butler (1743-1791), the county was organized because settlers began pushing northward from the Pittsburgh area and southward by the old Venango Trail dating from the French and Indian War period. Many of the early settlers were vet­erans of the American Revolu­tion and were attracted to this region by the Donation Lands offered in 1786-1788 as bounty for their service to the Ameri­can cause during the bitter struggle for independence. At the time of its formation, But­ler County counted 3,916 residents.

Butler County’s early years were turbulent at best. Before the dose of the eighteenth century, Indian troubles kept few settlers from venturing west of the Allegheny River and north of the Ohio River, and even fewer above the county’s southern boundaries. The first adventurers, David Studebaker and Abraham Snyder, on a scouting journey from Westmoreland County, crossed the Allegheny River near the mouth of the Puckety Creek and followed Indian trails into the heart of the wilderness. They eventually stopped at the site of an Indian village on Slippery Rock Creek, where Studebaker built a small cabin.

Most of the region’s earliest settlers were restless, fiercely adventurous and ambitiously searching for new homesteads. They; perhaps more than any other factor, relentlessly pushed ever westward the young nation’s uncharted frontier. Originally from New Jersey, the aggressive James Glover, one of the area’s earli­est and most stalwart pioneers, arrived in 1792 took four hundred acres of wilderness which he cleared and culti­vated. Two years later Patrick Harvey blazed trees for his new plantation in what was later Clinton Township. Land speculators Dunning McNair and John Ekin followed not long after, staking claims in Conoquenessing Township. Despite the remoteness of the area, they were followed by scores of intrepid pioneers, bent on acquiring land in But­ler County once the region had been opened following its purchase from the Indians.

Settlement of Butler County was enhanced by the Donation Lands, created by a legislative act of 1780 that guaranteed officers and privates “certain donations and quantities of land, according to their several ranks, to be surveyed and divided off to them severally at the close of the war.” Passed three years later, the act en­couraged quick settlement of the region, declaring that “all officers and privates … are hereby directed to make their respective claims within two years after the peace shall be declared, and in the case of their failure to make such application in person, or that of their legal representatives, within one year of their de­cease, then it may be lawful for any person or persons whatever to apply to the Land Office, locate and take up such parcels of said land upon such terms as the Legislature shall hereafter direct.. .. ” By passage of an act on March 24, 1785, Donation Lands were to “be laid off in lots of four descrip­tions, one to contain 500 acres each; another 300 acres each; another 250 acres each; and another 200 acres each.” This act also specifically proscribed the acreage for each applicant: generals, colonels and captains were apportioned the largest tracts, while drummers, fifers and privates received the smallest. To ensure some im­partiality in distributing the tracts, a lottery was held, for which a complicated system was to be followed by the candidates vying for these parcels. Prior to the lottery, land agents inspected the region and tracts considered unfit for cultivation were with­drawn from the competition. Known as “struck lands,” this area included much of north­eastern Butler County where, in the following century, oil was discovered and, ironically, property values soared wildly.

In 1792. land in the “struck districts” and that not claimed by Revolutionary War veterans was offered for sale, by which many of the county’s early settlers acquired their proper­ties. Although this act should have prompted additional settlement, it actually retarded growth and development of Butler County. Many of the Donation Lands grantees be­lieved the area was unsafe to inhabit because of the Indians and a number of unclaimed and unsettled tracts were of­fered in this sale. It was only a matter of time that bitter con­troversy erupted between the actual settlers and the avari­cious speculators. Enter the celebrated Revolutionary War patriot and Secretary of the United States Treasury under George Washington, Robert Morris.

Robert Morris held a great amount of depreciated scrip that was redeemable for land in western Pennsylvania. In­fluenced by his agent (and previously one of the survey­ors of the Depreciation Lands) James Cunningham, Morris obtained vast tracts in Butler County through warrants originally made out to a num­ber of German settlers residing in Lancaster County. Upon acquiring more than three hundred warrants from these middlemen, Robert Morris owned nearly ninety thousand acres in Butler County alone, including the site of present­-day Butler!

Fate was unkind to Robert Morris. He lost his fortune and his holdings were dispersed at a marshall’s sale in Philadel­phia in 1807. However, much of Morris’ real estate was ac­quired by other speculators, most notably Stephen Lowrey of Maryland, who purchased more than a hundred tracts in Butler County.

In the meantime, pioneers had settled the region, even though they held no warrants or legal title to the areas they cleared, cultivated or generally improved. Many of the settlers were dismissed by the land speculators as squatters and forced out of their homes unless they were able to meet terms set by the new land­lords. Although seemingly unfair, the law sided with the speculators who had obtained their property according to established provisions, ignit­ing unbridled contempt be­tween the two factions.

Speculators usually succeeded in evicting settlers – who actually expected to gain title to the lands they improved – and forced them to either relocate on other tracts in the county (which they did not own) or to continue fur­ther westward. Clouded land titles caused great hostility for three decades, inevitably dis­couraging later settlers, and eventually resulting in vio­lence. As late as 1815, the eviction of Samuel Robb, who leased a farm near Butler from Abraham Maxwell who, in turn, occupied land originally owned by Robert Morris and subsequently. Stephen Lo­wrey, fomented much conster­nation as an ambush, directed against Lowrey, went awry and Maxwell was shot by an unknown assailant. Although the crowd of spectators first believed it was one of Lowrey’s agents who fired the shot, it was later determined that the ambush was staged by a fellow farmer and sympathizer of the squatters. Maxwell survived and later evictions were tem­pered; land agents and squat­ters compromised and the settlers were usually given a small tract of land in order to keep the peace.

In addition to the contested land titles, early pioneers encountered a grueling, often desperate, existence at the end of the long journey over the narrow Indian paths and crudely cut roads. With primi­tive tools, farmers slashed the thick underbrush and cleared as many as thirty acres by hand during their first year in the isolated wilderness. Far from friends and, in most cases, family as well, they erected small cabins as tempo­rary shelters near springs or creeks. Early furniture, if it existed at all, was limited to a rustic table and several small peg-legged stools. Cooking and eating utensils were few, crockery scarce and tinware a rarity. Days were long, dedi­cated almost entirely to cutting back the forest, planting, log­ging, harvesting and caring for the few animals that survived the journey.

Despite the hardships en­countered in settling the fron­tier of western Pennsylvania, Butler County did attract set­tlers, mostly Irish, Scotch and Scotch-Irish at first, but fol­lowed by a wave of German pioneers, all of whom left their imprint on the county’s his­tory. The Irish settled Donegal, the Scotch, Connoquensing; and the Germans, Zelienople. The borough of Butler was laid out in 1803, not by newly ar­rived immigrants but by an act of legislature.

The building lots appor­tioned by the March 8, 1803, act sold readily to eager set­tlers, most of whom erected small cabins and survived the dismal winter that awaited them, their only means of communication with civiliza­tion a bridle path leading to Pittsburgh. In his memoirs of the first winter in Butler, Henry M. Brackenridge, serv­ing as clerk to the county’s first prothonotary, remembered, “On my arrival in Butler there were a few log houses just raised, but not sufficiently completed to be occupied. It was not long before there were two taverns, a store and a blacksmith shop; it was then a town. The country around was a howling wilderness, with the exception of a few scattered settlements, as far removed from each other as the kraals [a hut or duster of huts in which natives of South Africa live) in the neighborhood of the Cape of Good Hope.” The following spring new residents buoyed the spirit of the fledg­ling village, and commerce began to flourish. A school was built. Religious services conducted. And the requisite civic meetings duly held. For the first quarter of a century of its existence, the borough of Butler busied itself with the daily business of business itself. It was not until 1824 when a visit by the Marquis de Lafayette, on his celebrated tour of the United States, created a memorable stir.

A local newspaper the Sentinel, founded in 1820 as the Centinel by prominent coun­tians Moses and John Sullivan, recorded the incident in its edition of June 4, 1825.

On Wednesday last June 1, Gen. Lafayette, on his way from Pittsburgh to Erie, passed through this borough. On the evening preceding, a meeting of the citizens was held at the court house, and preparations made for receiving and accommodating him in a suitable and respectable man­ner. A committee of six was appointed, of whom two were to go on and meet him and escort him into town; two were to prepare necessary accommodations for his entertainment while here, and two to accompany him as far as Mer­cer. On Wednesday morning, two triumphal arches were erected, one at each end of the town, deco­rated with laurel and other evergreens, and on the summits of which were hoisted the American flags. From the center of each arch was suspended a tablet with Wel­come Lafayette in large and legible letters, and encircled with wreaths of flowers and roses. When it was ascertained that the General was near, the citizens of the borough, with a numerous concourse of people from the surrounding vicinity, who had been assembled to get a sight of the Nation’s guest, formed in regular order and marched to the southern extremity of the town; there arranging themselves in a single file on each side of the road, they awaited his approach, and saluted him as he passed, after which they turned in and marched in regular procession after the carriage up the main street to the public square, where the General alighted at Mr. Mech­ling’s inn, where a sumptuous entertainment was prepared for his accommodation. After dinner, he walked out among the people, and was introduced to all indiscriminately, who requested that honor.

The General appeared highly pleased during the short time he remained, and being introduced to some old Revolutionary soldiers who had shared the toils and perils of the Brandywine battle with him, it is said that he dis­tinctly recollected their features, and conversed familiarly upon subjects that transpired at the battle. On taking his leave, he bid them an affectionate adieu, and exclaimed, “Farewell, my friends; this is the last time you will see me.” He stayed but a short time, but it is presumed that during his stay he shook hands with not less than 400 people. About four o’clock he departed, carrying with him the good wishes of the multitude, and was escorted by the committee of arrangements. He arrived at Mercer about 1 o’clock next morning.

Buller remained an indus­trious little community, which Sherman Day in his 1843 His­torical Collections of the State of Pennsylvania described as “situ­ated on an eminence above the Connoquenessing cr., which winds partly round the town in the form of a horseshoe. The view from the cupola of the courthouse embraces a large extent of fine rolling land, variegated with copses of woodland, country seats, verdant meadows, and the silvery waters of the creek meandering among them. The town contains the usual county buildings; an academy, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Meth­odist, and Episcopal churches. On the creek there is a salt­works and a number of mills.”

The same year Butler was organized, George Rapp (1757-1847), leader of the Harmony Society, purchased from Detmar Basse a tract of land near the Connoquenessing Creek just fourteen miles southwest of the county seat. The Har­monists, also called the United Society of Germans, left their native Germany in search of religious freedom which they found in a religious commu­nity that Rapp located in But­ler County. Accompanied by his son John, Rapp inspected possible sites for his religious community in several states, and selected Basse’s tract of five thousand acres in Butler County. In 1804, three hundred society members arrived in the United States.

At the organization of the Harmony Society on February 15, 1805, the complex counted one hundred and thirty-five families, all ardent followers of the charismatic George Rapp. who espoused doctrines of communal property, celibacy, the leading of blameless lives and the second coming of Christ. (He also believed the world would come to an end in 1837!) George Rapp’s fol­lowers were a dedicated lot; in their first year at Harmony, they cleared one hundred and fifty acres, and erected fifty log houses, a grist mill, machine shop, barn and a church. By the end of the second year, the Harmonists cleared another four hundred and fifty acres, cultivated a four acre vineyard, and built a large granary. tan­nery, distillery, saw mill and brick yard. Their progress in production, loo. was outstand­ing, if not astounding. In 1809, the society reaped sLx thou­sand bushels of com. four thousand bushels of wheat, ten thousand bushels of pota­toes and thousands of gallons of whiskey, in addition to more beef, pork and poultry than the members could ever con­sume. In 1810, the Harmonists established a woolen factory, the beginning of their cele­brated and international award-winning production of textiles noted for their fineness and, particularly, rich colors.

Less than ten years after the Harmony Society formally adopted Harmony, Butler County, as its new home in the New World, Rapp decided to move on-this time to Posey County, Indiana, where the sect founded its second vil­lage, New Harmony. In 1814, the Society offered Harmony for sale, a complete self­-contained and self-sufficient compound that boasted of one hundred and thirty buildings (in brick, frame or log), a twelve room brick and stone tavern, a building outfitted for spinning and weaving, a dye house, a church, two distill­eries, several mills on both the Big and Little Connoquenessing creeks, a tannery, a brick yard, a brewery, a potash fac­tory, a nail factory, numerous barns and stables, workshops and several orchards. The Harmonists sold the property in 1805 for $100,000, before moving on to Indiana. They eventually returned to Pennsylvania where they settled in Beaver County at Economy, their third and final home (a historic site now administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).

The individual from whom George Rapp purchased the site in Butler County for his unusual religious commune was also a great visionary. Detmar Basse, who wielded great influence in Europe, served as as an ambassador from the City of Frankfurt to Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. Tn 1802, two years after the death of his wife in Paris, his quest for adventure and his insatiable curiosity lured him to the regions near Pittsburgh which he carefully explored. He purchased ten thousand acres of pristine wilderness in the picturesque Connoque­nessing Valley to create a baro­nial estate amidst the Romantic – perhaps even Gothic – landscape.

Basse laid out a village he named Zelienople – or “Zelie’s City” – in honor of his daugh­ter. For himself, he built the fabled Bassenheim, a towering structure in the style of an ancient German castle, on a high mountain bluff dominat­ing the valley. On the estate grounds he erected many out buildings of curious shapes and of exotic designs. True to his European background, he ordered a road laid from Bas­senheim through the forest to Zelienople, which his palatial residence overlooked. Basse’s castle was a landmark in west­ern Pennsylvania until fire destroyed it in 1842.

An individual of many talents and much ambition, Detmar Basse built and oper­ated grist and saw mills, im­ported Merino sheep to western Pennsylvania and erected and fired the Bas­senheim Furnace in 1814, in which pig iron and cast iron kitchen ware was manufac­tured. In 1806, he sailed to Germany but returned to Bassenheim the following year with his daughter and her husband, Philip L. Passavant. He returned to Germany in 1818, where he remained until his death in Manheim in 1836. Before leaving the United States, he placed his son-in­-law in charge of his American affairs and business enterprises.

Detmar Basse’s grandson, W. A. Passavant, born at Bas­senheim in 1821, became a great philanthropist and leader of the Lutheran Church in Amer­ica. He served congregations in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, traveled to Europe and re­turned to Zelienople, where he established the Lutheran Orphans’ Home at Zelienople. He also built hospitals in Jack­sonville and Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Rochester, Pennsylvania, in addition to establishing schools and charitable institu­tions throughout the country.

Another of Butler County’s leading citizens – and another German immigrant – also gained fame and fortune, but not for his contributions to religion. The founder of Sax­onburg in 1832, John Augustus Roebling (1806-1869) was the inventor of wire rope and the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Upon settling in Butler County, Roebling laid out a small village, sold parcels and induced fellow Germans to seek their fortunes in America. His first engineering position was with the Sandy and Bea­ver Canal for which he erected dams and locks, Later work brought him to the Allegheny Portage Railroad and its inclined planes climbing the precipitous mountains, a mar­vel in its own right. It was not long before Roebling thought that the heavy cables bound of hemp could be replaced with much more efficient, sturdier and lighter wire rope.,Since his creation of wire rope, he was assured great success.

Tn 1844, Roebling built the wire aqueduct above the Alle­gheny River in Pittsburgh, followed by a suspension bridge spanning the nearby Monongahela River. By 1850, he was forced by his own success to establish a large factory in Trenton, New Jersey. Several years later his idea for a suspension bridge across the Niagara River was ac­cepted and completed. His list of successful suspension bridges reads much like a litany of nineteenth century engineering feats rivaled by very few inventors and entre­preneurs of the era.

Perhaps his greatest dream came true with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge linking Manhattan and Brooklyn. But it was also this dream which killed him. As he stood side­-by-side with his workmen, a passing ferry boat caused a piece of timber to crush his foot. Not long after, blood poisoning took his life on July 22, 1869. John Augustus Roe­bling’s work ,vas carried on by his eldest son, Washington A. Roebling, born in Saxonburg in 1837, educated in Pittsburgh and resident of New Jersey most of his life.

Butler County claimed some of the most noteworthy individuals and events in the history of both state and nation – the settlement of industrious Harmony, the commercial enterprises of the Basse and Passavant families, the genius of John Augustus Roebling – but it, too, claimed its share of disasters and dis­mal failures . And it was most evident in the region’s early oil explorations.

Following Edwin L. Drake’s drilling of the world’s first successful oil well near Titus­ville, Venango County, in 1859, the entire northwestern region was torn apart by prospectors, speculators and investors, all seeking to claim their fortunes. Bedlam erupted in the tiny villages, which were literally nothing more than row after row of crudely built shacks, as each new well delivered the oozing, black liquid. It was inevitable that Butler County­ – by sheer virtue of its location – would play a part in the unfolding drama which char­acterized the boom and bust era of America’s oil boom industry.

The year after “Colonel” Drake’s discovery, local busi­nessmen organized the Butler Oil Company, which at­tempted to secretly drill for oil near Butler in an effort to avoid the oil fever that swept through Venango County. In 1861, the Butler Pioneer Oil Company was established, followed the next year by the Enterprise Oil Company of Prospect. Although the com­panies encountered early dis­appointments, their failures to produce did not stop the erection of derricks on farmlands throughout what was consid­ered the oil district. Numerous wells were sunk, and many investments lost, but several of the operations did succeed, including the Sunbury Oil Company, which made its first sale of crude oil at Pittsburgh in September 1866; the Jacobs Oil Company, whose well produced sixty barrels a day almost immediately; and the Thorn Creek Oil Company, organized in 1870, that sank a number of successful wells. Throughout the county, com­panies continued drilling wells in an earnest quest for oil. During the 1870s, even more prospectors sank wells on farms, and it was not unusual to find huge derricks dotting the largely agrarian landscape. They were followed by waves of new speculators, several of whose wells were truly pro­ductive, particularly the Peter Rader Well which yielded more than a million barrels of oil! But for many, failure loomed larger than fortune, and today names of several communities – Petrolia, for example – bear witness to Butler County’s turbulent oil boom days.

Butler County’ heritage has touched the Common­wealth’s history in myriad ways. The American Bantam Car Company, located in But­ler, developed compact, light­weight automobiles, the most famous of which, the “jeep,” served on every battlefront of World War II. Its natural resources – oil, natural gas, clay and sand – all played a part in the settlement and development of western Penn­sylvania. Its generations of pioneers helped push back the frontier on the westward tra­vels, and their descendants helped fuel the industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.

If anything, the history of Butler County is a saga of many, many stories, some of triumph, several of tragedy. Nevertheless, it is a proud history, one that contributed the perseverance of pioneers, the foresight of visionaries, the creativity of geniuses, the philanthropy of leaders and the hope and dreams of suc­ceeding generations to the history that has become uniquely Pennsylvania’s. Butler County, indeed, recalls the spirit of a young, ambitious nation that seeks not refuge but challenge, and rests not on accomplishments but finds vigor in facing new opportuni­ties in new ways. Its greatest gift, however, is the diversity which has hallmarked it since its most inauspicious begin­nings nearly two centuries ago.

 

For Further Reading

Day, Sherman. Historical Col­lections of Pennsylvania. Phil­adelphia: George W Gorton, 1843.

Duss, John S. The Harmonists: A Personal History. Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania Book Service, 1943.

Egle, William H. History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylva­nia. Philadelphia: E.M. Gardner, 1883.

History of Butler County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Water­man, Watkins and Company, 1883.

Knoedler, Christiana F. The Har­mony Society: A Nineteenth Century American Utopia. New York: Vantage Press, 1954.

McKee, James A. Twentieth Century History of Butler County, Pennsylvania, and Representative Citizens. Chi­cago: Richmond-Arnold Publish­ing Company, 1909.

McKnight, W.J. A Pioneer His­tory of Northwestern Pennsyl­vania. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1905.

Sipe, C. Hale. History of Butler County, Pennsylvania. Topeka: Historical Publishing Company, 1927.

Walkinshaw, Lewis Clark. Annals of Southwestern Pennsylvania. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1939.

 

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