Highland Township (Chap. 54)


edited by A. J. Davis, 1887



transcribed by
Michael Goughler

THE settlement of this township was clouded by a calamity which, however obscure the victims and remote the scene, appeals to human sympathy as one of the most pathetic of backwoods incidents. ---- Purcell was the first inhabitant within the present limits of Highland township, building a cabin on what was afterward the McNaughton farm. He came from the east, but little is known of him, and the date of his arrival cannot be ascertained. The family consisted of a wife and sister-in-law. He was killed by the falling of a tree, near where the corn crib on the Helen Furnace farm now stands. The solitary women were of course unable to extricate his body, and the poor widow traveled on foot, over the State road, to the nearest white settlement, Holman's (1) on the Allegheny, nineteen miles distant, to get assistance for liberating and burying her husband's corpse.

It is likely that this ill-fated pioneer had been a resident of Centre county, for Alexander McNaughton, of that district, bought the widow's right -- it was Bingham land -- helped her to remove from the place, and in April, 1806, settled with his family on Purcell's improvement, now the property of S. Wilson's heirs, at Helen Furnace. He was a Scotchman by birth; had emigrated, married an Irish woman in Philadelphia, and removed to Bald Eagle Valley, Centre county, where he was engaged in transporting and marketing iron from the eastern furnaces and forges, and whence he came to the wilds of Venango county. His family, at that time, was composed of his wife, five sons, Samuel, James, John, David, Daniel Alexander, and two daughters, Margaret and Anne, and a domestic, Betsy Harris -- a splendid auxiliary force for pioneering. These are now all dead. Daniel, the last survivor, died a few years ago. The father, mother, three of the children, and Betsey Harris (Mrs. P. Drysler) sleep in the little cemetery at Helen.

McNaughton and his five sons cleared a large tract and prospered fairly. The father distributed portions of the homestead plantation among his sons. The Clarion township pioneers were not far distant and were reached by a forest trail; but along the State road for many years the nearest settlements were Holmans on the west and Port Barnett on the east. The arrival of the Kapps and Siegworths, Washington township colonists, brought civilization one step nearer. Later came John Vogelbacher. All these immigrants halted awhile at McNaughton's pioneer cabin, and it must have seemed a very haven of rest after their long and solitary journey over the wilderness-girt State road. And here we may remark the important bearing which the existence of this road had on the opening-up of the north.

There were two Indian camps within the bounds of Highland township on the arrival of Alexander McNaughton. The largest was at the State Road Ripple; the other stood on the present George Bittenbender farm. The relations of the early settlers with these dusky sons of the forest were amicable, and they were not unpleasant neighbors. Betsey Harris once witnessed an Indian wedding at the Ripple. Not long after the coming of the McNaughtons, the Cornplanters all decamped. Occasionally after that Indians would pass along the road on hunting expeditions, and in 1820 a party of sixty men and four squaws passed en route to Jefferson county to hunt, returning in the winter.

McNaughton's cabin was a stopping-place and inn for travelers and immigrants on the State road. During the War of 1812 great numbers of militia men from the eastern part of the State, passed over this highway to and fro, and many encamped on McNaughton's farm. Among these was the company to which belonged James Bird, who was executed for desertion at Erie, October, I814, just before the arrival of the messenger bearing a pardon, and whose lamentable fate is the theme of a ballad well known in olden times. "Highland Alex," as was his familiar title, was also an auctioneer, and used to travel miles to act in that capacity.

McNaughton, after some years, was followed by a man named Waterhouse, who settled near by, on the Henry farm. He did not remain. George Hanhold, from New Jersey, came soon after to the farm of Samuel Gilmore. After having raised a family there, he sold the farm and returned. David Whitehill, the next settler, originally of Centre county, came from Armstrong county in the spring of 1817, and cleared the farm on which his descendants now live. Alexander Criswell emigrated from Centre county to McNaughton's Mill in I819, but lived there a short time before departing for the State of Indiana. His eldest daughter, Hannah, married Daniel McNaughton, and is still living at the age of eighty-eight. In 1820 William Reed came from Holman's Island, in the Allegheny, to the present farm of Joseph Porter. Alexander Porter removed the same year to the land now occupied by Louis Franz; and about the same time two Irish families, those of David and James Boyd, located, the former on the Duncan McNaughton farm, the latter on that of Paul Mahle.

John Reed, in 1821, moved to a tract now occupied by the farms of Isaac Imhoof and others. The descendants of William and James Reed are very numerous. Thomas Cathers settled in the township next, and after him came John Callahan (a Dunkard) in 1827, from Bedford county. Then the region began to fill up more rapidly.

Churches and Schools. -- The Methodists were the first to organize a church here. In 1828 or '29 one Johnson formed a class, but private dwellings and the open air were used for service and preaching till 1843, when a meeting-house was erected near Criswell's, now Girts's mill, on Little Toby. Since a Methodist Church was built at Helen Furnace. Rev. ---- Frampton is the present pastor. The Presbyterians, having organized in 1841, built a place of worship in 1842 and '43 on the J. Hulings farm, styled the Greenwood Church, of which William McMichael was the first minister. This was destroyed by fire and another erected; a few Dunkards in the neighborhood assisted in its construction, and sometimes held meetings in it. Later a church was built on the William Reed farm (Shiloh Church), and the old building was sold. The Shiloh Church has no regular pastor. These two, the Presbyterian and Methodist, are the only churches in the township.

The township's earliest school was built about 1823 on the present property of Duncan McNaughton; David Boyd, on whose farm it stood, was the first pedagogue. Boyd was succeeded by Joseph Reid, from near Reidsburgh. The next school-house was erected in 1833 on the farm of William Boyd, and was first presided over by Miss Mary Ann Arthurs. There are now four schools in Highland township.

The first flouring mill was erected by Alexander McNaughton about 1815, on the Girts property on Little Toby. Alexander Criswell, from Centre county, built a saw-mill for McNaughton in 1818. It stood near the grist-mill.

After the State road, the Clugh road, in 1822, was the first highway opened. It led from Clugh's Ripple to Helen Furnace, and afforded communication with the lower settlements. About the same time a road was made from Rupert's grist-mill in Elk township to Alexander McNaughton's farm.

Alexander McNaughton kept the first place of public entertainment. About 1836 William Beers started a tavern on what is known as the Paul Neely farm. The next was at Millcreek Eddy, about 1845, by Harrison Hall. Highland township is at present destitute of hotels.

Helen Furnace was erected at the State and Clarion road crossing, on the old McNaughton farm, by Robert Barker, and Wilson S. Packer, in 1845. The property passed into the hands of Samuel Wilson, who ran it till 1857. The Wilson family have been prominently identified with the material interests of this section. The builders named it "Highland" Furnace in honor of Alexander McNaughton, who prided himself in being a Highlander, but the word being pronounced after the Scottish dialect "Hieland," the name was corrupted to "Helen" Furnace, leading to the erroneous supposition that it was christened with a feminine name. The name of the township has the same origin; it is commonly, but incorrectly, pronounced "Helen" township.

Highland township was politically erected in 1848, out of portions of Paint and Farmington. The original Paint township included all but its northeastern angle, but afterward, in the reconstruction of the eastern Venango county townships, Paint was retrenched, and Farmington made to form a much larger portion of the present township of Highland.

The line as established in 1848 by Surveyor J. K. Maxwell, started from a post at the Clarion River and was continuous for its full length with the present Paint-Highland line, which also divides the Holland and Harrison territory, and with its extension into Knox township, till it reaches the northwest corner of Warrant 3681, marked by a rock, thence ran due east by the Gray lands to a post, thence south by the same to a post, thence east by lands of Barber and Packer and David Whitehill to a post, thence southeast to the Clarion River at a post. A considerable section of Highland township was cut off in 1853, to assist in forming Knox. (2)
At the first election in 1848 Lester Warner and Charles McKerr were chosen justices of the peace; Elias Emminger, constable; Harrison Hall and William McDonald, school directors; and Wilson S. Packer, overseer of the poor.

Highland township contains no large streams except Little Toby Creek, which traverses its northwestern part. The greater part of  the surface is drained by a succession of small runs falling into the Clarion. The land facing the river and along the western border is hilly, rough, and sterile, and most of it has been stripped of its valuable timber. Back in the interior, however, in the vicinity of Helen Furnace, the soil is tractable, and agriculture flourishes.

The post-offices in the township are Helen Furnace and Miola. Smithport and State Road Ripple are crossings and rafting points on the river. The nearest approach to a village is the cross-roads at Helen Furnace.

The population in 1850 was 648. The cessation of the furnace and the reduction of its boundaries caused a falling off, and in 1870 we find it only 524; in 1880 it was 698.

1) Now Tionesta.
2) For northwestern boundary, see Knox township.

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