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Pioneer Life in Tioga County
Reminiscences of Old Times in the Cowanesque Valley
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The Agitator, Wellsboro, PA, Wednesday, May 11, 1892
Pioneer Life in Tioga County
Reminiscences of Old Times in the Cowanesque Valley

Written for The Agitator by E.S. Culver

Part I

About the year 1800, or perhaps a little earlier, my grandfather, Amos Culver, made his home in the Cowanesque valley, which, I think, at that time was a part of Northumberland county. The country about was almost an unbroken wilderness. A few emigrants had found their way beyond the Alleghenies and settles along the streams where fish and game were abundant. The roads, where any could be found, were almost impassable, being scarcely more than crooked trails through the woods caused by turning aside for every tree or obstruction which happened to be in the way. A drive up the beautiful little valley, after these many years, will plainly show one the original course of the old road through the woods as it led from house to house, making crooked streets even in some of the villages which were afterward built upon it.

The land was fertile and the water pure, but there was only here and there a little patch cleared upon which to raise a garden truck and Indian corn. The corn, when matured after a season’s toil among the great pine stumps, must be shelled and beaten in a mortar, or taken on horseback to Williamsport, perhaps a hundred miles by the trail, to mill to be ground. These long journeys, of several days’ duration through dense woods full of wild animals, were both difficult and dangerous. There were many streams to cross with no bridges upon them, and in case of high water the only alternative was to camp and wait for the stream to fall and become fordable.

When the grist finally reached home, Johnny-cake, the principal bread of the settlement, was plenty; but to bake it in the absence of cooking utensils of any kind required ingenuity, which was not lacking. A block was cut from a sugar maple log, smoothed off and placed before the fire until very hot. The thick dough was then placed upon it and the block braced before the fire until the cake turned brown and was done. No better Johnny-cake can be made today than those made in this manner over ninety years ago.

Deer were plenty. Trout also filled the streams; but hunting and fishing was done largely by Indians, as the whites were there for another purpose -- that of building sawmills to manufacture into lumber the tall, straight pines which not only lined the streams but extended far back over the hills. I have no means of knowing who built the first sawmill; but it was said to be a great wonder to the Indians, and when they saw the trees so familiar to them turned into boards they named the little river which turned the wheels in the operation "Cowanesque," meaning "sawed board."

Few of the older settlers, I presume thought of making a permanent home in that wilderness, yet few ever moved away. They not only lived there and raised families, but died there, and today many of their old homesteads are occupied by their descendants. Their hardships were many, their amusements boisterous and hearty. Isolated as they were from the outside world, with no mails except at long intervals, with few books and no papers, we are apt to wonder how they could content themselves with such environments; but their history is today repeating itself in many of the wild frontiers of the West, where I have more than once found conditions nearly it not absolutely identical.

Among the names most familiar in those early days were, Beecher, after whom Beecher’s Island -- now Nelson -- was named, Ryon, after whom Ryontown -- now Elkland -- was named, Pinder, after whom Pinderville -- now Osceola -- was named, Knox, after whom Knoxville was named, Tubbs, Hammond, Rathbone, Seely, Bulkley, Howland, Coates, Vronian, Dailey, Inscho, Mascho, Blanchard, Campbell, Bosard, Bottum, Congdon, Slosson, Barker, Smith, Billings, Hoyt and others.

Father’s first school day were spent in a log house on what is now called the Rathbone farm on the north side of the Cowanesque; but as he grew older he attended school at Wellsboro, in the old Academy on the hill, where many years later my brother and the scribe attended in the same building. It has now been converted, I believe, into a Catholic chapel. While there my father used to go occasionally after school or upon holidays about three miles to a lake, perhaps two miles long and a half mile wide, to skate; and while skating there upon one occasion a large buck ran out of the surrounding woods upon the ice and, breaking through, lunged forward only to break through again and again. Father, then a mere boy, lost no time in getting a stone from the shore, and after a severe struggle, in which his clothes were nearly town to shreds, he killed the deer and dragged it out on the ice. He pointed out to me, as we were driving past there one day, the exact location of his adventure. But should one look for the lake today, he would see highly cultivated farms covering the very place it then occupied, for nothing remains to mark the spot save the deep cut or ditch through the meadows, called Marsh creek.

As time passed on new roads were cut through the woods; bridges were built across the streams, and emigration began pouring in. The society of young people grew with the growth of the settlement, and, in Western phrase "times were booming." The young men prided themselves on their nerve and muscle, and young maidens would show no favor to the man who could not or would not "take his own part." Whisky and other liquors were partaken of almost as universally as teas and coffee are today. It is no wonder, then, that a dancing party was considered a failure if it passed off without a fight or fracas of some nature. But failures of this kind were seldom allowed to occur, and if by chance a peaceable party was held, it was voted dull, uninteresting, and the young people were restless until a party was held more in accordance with the spirit of the age.

At the raising of sawmills or other buildings the opportunity to prove who was the "best man" was scarcely ever neglected, and election days were looked forward to as furnishing excellent occasions for great fun and a big fight. The successful candidates for township offices were seized and passed over the heads of the crowd to the bar, where they were expected to stand treat for the whole mass of voters, whether friends or foes, and woe to the man who was at all "backward in coming forward." Horseracing, cock fighting, wrestling matches and kindred amusements were often indulged in and served to lighten the cares of poverty and round off the corners of hard times.

The Agitator, Wellsboro, PA, Wednesday, May 18, 1892

Mr. Culver’s Reminiscences

Correction of some of his Points by a Friendly Critic

To the Editor of the Agitator

Osceola, May 16 - I have read with much interest, in your last issue, the "Reminiscences of Old Times in the Cowanesque Valley," contributed by E.S. Culver, Esq. It is seldom that any one cares to collect, write, or even read the details of our local and family history. For one I am gratified that Mr. Culver has made a contribution to the small amount that heretofore has been written on those subjects, and express the hope that his graceful articles may find a large circle of interested readers.

Therefore, in no spirit of hostile criticism, but from a desire to arrive at correctness of the historic facts stated, I will submit a few.


In the first place I must think your types have played Mr. Culver false in recording the name of his grandfather as Amos. In his lifetime he was known as Amasa, and thus it was carved on his tombstone, which once stood [now torn down, much to the regret of all who respect a place of sepulcher] in the cemetery about the Presbyterian church in Elkland.

As to the date of settlement of the Culver family in the Cowanesque valley. I was informed by C.F. Culver, recently deceased, that the family came here from Angelica, N.Y., subsequent to the birth of Leander, which occurred in 1806.

As to the place of settlement, Mr. Culver thinks this section was in Northumberland county when his ancestor came here. They may be determined by reference to the following dates: Lycoming county was formed from a part of Northumberland county by the act of April 13, 1795; and Tioga county was formed from a part of Lycoming county by act of March 26, 1804.

Mr. Culver states, "they [the Indians] named the river Cowanesque, meaning "sawed board."

The Smithsonian Institution, through its Bureau of Ethnology has systematically taken up the study of the Iroquoian languages. Not long ago I submitted to it for analysis and definition the word "Cowanesque," and received the following reply from Major J.W. Powell, Director:

"The word Cowanesque seems to be no other than ka-hwe-nes-ka, the etiology and signification of which is as follows: co for ca marking grammatic gender and meaning wan for hwe-a the stem of the word o-whe-na, an island; es an adjective meaning long; que for ke the locative postposition meaning at or on; the whole signifying at or on [the] long island."

As is well known, all Indian names were significant, and chronicled some characteristic of the thing named. The application of that fact in the case of this river lies in the circumstance that previous to 1800 or thereabout a large portion of the bottom lands in Deerfield and Osceola, extending from the woolen factory to the mouth of Holden brook, was an island - an island of about 1,600 acres in a small river - an island, about four miles in length and of varying width.

To the Indian mind the remarkable thing about the river seems to have been the long island in it. The early settlers by dams, etc. confined most of the water to the channel on the south side of the island. The name "Island Stream" still attaches to so much of the channel on the north side of the island as is now open, fed by springs and creeks from the north hill. It empties into the river at Osceola.

Furthermore the name Cowanesque was applied to the river before any "sawed board" was manufactured in this region, as witness the name on the map of Andrew Ellicott, of the Northern Boundary Survey, dated October 12, 1786, printed in Pennsylvania Archives, Vol. XI, p.522.

Mr. Culver mentions among the early settlers one "Pinder, after whom Pinderville - now Osceola - was named." I never heard of any early settler by that name. The name Pendarville is thus accounted for in the History of Tioga County: "In 1840 Robt. H. Tubbs published some poetic effusions in the Lawrence Sentinel, edited by John C. Knox. He dated them at ‘Pendarville.’ The name thus playfully given was used in common speech among the people to designate the locality [Osceola] from the time until the Post office was named in 1851. -- by C.T.

The Agitator, Wellsboro, PA, Wednesday, May 18, 1892
Pioneer Life in Tioga County
Reminiscences of Old Times in the Cowanesque Valley
Written for the Agitator by E.S. Culver
Part II

When farms were being cleared along the Cowanesque and upon adjacent hills, general stores were started in the valley, and it became no longer necessary to go long distances to purchase the few needful dry goods and groceries for family use. The stock consisted chiefly of calico, factory cloth, flannels, blue jeans, boots, shoes, hats, caps, crockery, brown sugar, black plug tobacco, Scotch snuff, trace chains, rope, tea, bar lead, powder, shot, needles, thread, fish hooks, New England rum and molasses. The last two when mixed as an Englishman would say "aff and aff" was called black strap.

The farmers were accustomed to meeting at the stores in the evening to tell stories, talk over taxes and partake of more or less black strap which was sold by the cup or used as a gently persuader to buy goods freely. In either case it proved a great success to the trader if not to the too indulgent farmer. There is no doubt that black strap laid the foundation for more than one fair-sized fortune and there is just as little doubt that it was the foundation of many a long lingering debt which ended at last in the loss of the farm. It made a very wide difference to a man’s fortune whether he turned the faucet or held the cup.

Calico at that time, I believe sold at 30 or 35 cents per yard, factory cloth [brown muslin] at 25 or 30, brown sugar at 16 to 20 cents a pound and other things in the same way. But these times and prices are away back in the dim past you say. You are mistaken, They are duplicated in many frontier towns today in the wild and woolly West. In 18-2 I paid in cash $28 for 100 pounds of sugar, $27 per barrel for flour, $4 per gallon for sorghum molasses, $2.40 per gallon for kerosene oil, $1.25 per pound for butter, 7 cents per dozen for eggs, 50 cents per can for tomatoes, 75 cents per can for peaches and bought in sufficient quantities to supply a hotel with 35 boarders. I also paid $100 for a second hand Charter Oak cook stove.

A few taverns in Tioga county were more primitive than the stores. The dining room and kitchen were one and the same. The cooking was done over an open wood fire in a large fireplace perhaps four feet across. Pots, kettles and griddle were suspended by hooks on a crane which was attached to one side of the fireplace and swung out and in over the fire at the cook’s will. Baking was done in a brick oven close beside the fireplace. The kitchen and bar room fires were all that were deemed necessary during the coldest winter and no one though of going to bed in a warm room. When the landlord retired at night he was very careful to shove all the brands of fire close up to the back log in the fireplace and cover them up with ashes to keep the fire until morning, for if it should go out a bran must be borrowed from a neighbor or it must be kindled with flint steel and punk. I remember when quite small of borrowing fire from my aunt a quarter of a mile away and swinging the brand all the way to her house to keep it burning.

Considering time and surroundings, father was very temperate but there was a vein of superstition in his nature, though he would never allow it to deter him from a full investigation of the cause of anything which he did not understand. One dark rainy night, when he was sixteen or eighteen years old he was returning home on foot from the little hamlet called Ryontown. His way led through heavy woods and over a hill nearly two miles. After crossing the little creek which winds along the foot of the hill the road leads up a steep bluff to a level place where there was a small clearing in which stood an old deserted house with the chimney town down and windows broken. Close by the house was a much neglected graveyard with head stones broken and turned over. A few cows and a flock of sheep roamed there at will. It was a gloomy and forsaken spot as can well be imagined.

Just as he neared the graveyard he heard a groan as from some one in distress. As the groans were repeated and he discovered they came directly from the graves or the house, his hair stood on end and he started to run, for graveyards have a dreadful and indescribable awe to boys in the night time. Ghosts of the departed seem to rise unbidden in all directions. The scampering of a few white sheep is magnified into a battalion of shrouded skeletons and then to add those unearthly groans was a holy terror.

After he was fairly past he stopped running and reasoned thus -- I will be ashamed to go home and acknowledge I was frightened on coming past the old graveyard, I must go back and find out the cause of that noise. He went back, got over the fence and followed the sound which appeared now to come from the house. He opened the door and went in and felt all around from one room to another. Matches were unknown, and he had no way to strike a light. Nothing could be found inside. On stepping out the door the sound increased and he became convinced that it came from under the house. He got down and crawled under. A choking noise was now added to the groan. He called but there was not answer. He made his way as fast as he could squeeze himself under the floor and grabbed hold of some object. His excitement was intense, but it soon subsided when he found he had hold of a poor sheep whose head had become so wedged under a timber that it couldn’t even bleat. He soon released it and went on his way home nor sorry that he had investigated.

The county was intensely Democratic, and a Whig was supposed by some to have horns. No voter remained away from the polls, for they all believed it to be their solemn and religious duty to vote the straight Democratic ticket and "lick" any man who didn’t. But fraud was unknown, every man could vote as he pleased and the vote was honestly counted. Tissue ballots and wholesale fraud were reserved for a later generation and a warmer climate. Father voted for Jackson, but it was his last Democratic vote. When William Henry Harrison was nominated he gave him his earnest support and the defeat of Henry Clay was mourned by him as the loss of a dear friend. He was a very ardent Whig. John Mathers and himself, I believe, were the first Whigs ever elected to any office in Tioga county -- Mathers, as Sheriff and father as Commissioner. They were great friends and were elected the same year -- I think in 1848.

The recent death of Charles F. Culver, my father’s brother, removes perhaps the last of the old settlers who were born and raised in the Cowanesque valley. He had an eventful life and had seen much of the world, yet he died at the age of eighty years within plain sight of the place of his birth. The early pioneers are all gone, as their memory recedes from view with the unceasing roll of years, may their children always, by tradition or record, keep their memory green.

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Pioneer Life in Tioga County
Reminiscences of Old Times in the Cowanesque Valley
Written for the Agitator by E. S. Culver.
 (Tuesday, May 25, 1892, The Wellsboro Agitator, Wellsboro, Tioga Co, Pa.)

Times and morals had somewhat improved by this time on the Cowanesque and in the county.  Lumbering became the chief employment of the people.  Saw-mills were multiplying, and mill dams would scarcely a mile apart the whole length of the river.  There were no railroads except one used principally for shipping coal from Blossburg to Corning, and the rails on this were simply strap iron.  The lumber, therefore, to reach a market, had to be rafted and run out of all the small streams like the Tioga and Cowanesque in rafts from five to seven platforms long.  Where the two streams united at Lawrenceville, two of these rafts were coupled together, making what was called a river raft.  My father was in the lumbering business and at the same time was keeping a hotel at Elkland.  He was also a pilot on the Susquehanna river, and it used to be said he had landed more safe lumber at Marietta and Columbia than any other pilot on the river.  The main excitement to me in those days was in rafting-time, providing I had father’s consent to accompany him down the river, which he seldom refused.  As I look back I wonder at this indulgence, for there was so much danger even to men on the river, and scarcely a year passed without a list of drowned or killed.  I remember on one trip we had a very forward and “knowing” young man along.  He had traveled and was ready to give information upon almost any subject that could be mentioned.  From his conversation about himself we had learned that he was brave and fearless and not to be trifled with.  Of course the boys stood in awe of Mr. Dutcher, for that was his name.  One morning we were running along at a good rate, for the water was very high, when we began to hear the faint roar of falling water.  Father took the witch and began witching up the raft.--that is, tightning and wedging the grubs--and then to stretch ropes across the raft.  He told the boys they had better take off their boots and get ready to swim if anything should happen while running Buttermilk falls.  The boys complied.  He then said:  “If any one feels like making disposition of his property, so in case of accident there would be no trouble among the heirs, he had better do it before we enter the rapids.”  He then called out to a man who was rowing a boat near the shore and asked him how the falls were that morning.  “Oh,” says the man “they never were so bad.  Two men were drowned there this morning.”  This was enough for Dutcher.  He wanted to call the boat and go on shore; but his father told him that his life was no more valuable than that of the other boys.  “And, besides, a good swimmer out to save himself anyhow, providing he didn’t get hurt on the sharp rocks.”  This last assurance was no consolation for Dutcher, and he became nearly frantic.  “But, says father, “if you want to strip off and get up on top of the cabin with some matches in your hat so they won’t get wet, why, all right.  I guess the rest of us can manage the raft through the falls.”  By this time we could hear the roar of the falls very plainly, and within two minutes Dutcher was astride the cabin with matches in his hat and his valise in his hand, looking the picture of despair.  As the roar became louder he tightened his grip.  “Sa-say, ca-can’t w-we g-get as-shore?”  “Too late!  Too late!”  father yelled, his voice scarcely heard above the roar of the falls; but the river ahead was as smooth as glass.  As we came along beside the falls, father called to Dutcher that he might come down now, as they had moved the falls over on the bluff.  When we saw where the roar came from and that he had been made a fool of, he refused to come down, but rode the cabin all the forenoon.  Men and boys who saw him from the shore would sing out “Hello there, man on the cabin, how are the falls this morning?”  But Dutcher was as silent as the grave, and he never after reminded the boys of his dare-devil courage.  If I am not mistaken Thomas Allen, now of Wellsboro, was along on that trip.  Most river men remember the first time they passed Buttermilk falls, and consider themselves fortunate if they were not made to play the part of Dutcher. 

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On  06 November 2008
By Joyce M. Tice
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