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Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania, J.C. French, 1919
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From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French


The Indian Marathon
March of Captain Titus
(From Olean Evening Times, John C. French)

 On July 25, 1881, at Carrollton, N.Y., on the Seneca Indian’s Allegany River reservation, the venerable Capt. John Titus, a Seneca chieftain, sitting in an arm chair on the shady porch of John Mahoney’s hotel, told the writer the story of the great march made by himself, at the head  of 100 Seneca youths, from Kill Buck’s town, near Salamanca, to Big Tree, near Lake Erie and West Seneca, and thence by bateaux and canoes across the foot of the lake and down the Niagara River to the beginning of the rapids, and a forced march of two miles to the battle line of Lundy’s Lane, between dawn and sunset of July 25, 1814 – the American marathon race of 80 miles against about 4,500 British soldiers and Indian scouts.

 Seneca John Titus was born in 1784 and at the age of 97 years was erect and strong, as is usually the case at 70 years, and over six feet tall.  In his youth he was taught to read and the tactics of scouting for an army by the veteran, John Gideon Martin, scout of Oriskany, who visited Ceres, N.Y., in 1798, to protest against the improvements, begun by Francis King at that time, on King’s Run, south of the state line, for the Ceres Company, which had received title from William Bingham of Philadelphia to nearly 300,000 acres of forest land in the counties of Potter and McKean in Pennsylvania.  Mr. King was the agent for John Keating, the managing trustee of the corporation – The Ceres Company.

 The Susquehanna Company claimed to won the land from the Conewango, at Warren Pa., to the Susquehanna, between the 40th degree of latitude and the New York line, under a grant from Connecticut which claimed all north of the 40th parallel in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Martin represented the Connecticut claimants and spent much time in the forest, taking the Indian boy with him for a year or two before 1800, when the courts finally disposed of the matter that had caused the “Yankee-Pennamite War” for more than half a century.

 From April to July of 1814, General Winfield Scott established, near Buffalo, a camp of instruction and drilled his raw levies in the French tactics with such effect that on July 3rd they took Fort Erie, opposite to Buffalo, by assault; and on July 5th, fought the drawn battle at Chippewa in Ontario.  Young John Titus had been at the camp for training and he served as chief of scouts at the two battles with such credit that General Scott sent him to the Seneca reservations to select and train 100 Indian athletes and runners for service in Canada.  On July 24, 1814, a runner brought an order to Titus that a battle was imminent and ordering him to report at Fort Erie with his company of scouts in the shortest possible elapse of time.

 A messenger, sent to Cattauragus, took command of the contingent from there.  Another runner, dispatched at once by Titus, told the commandant at Fort Erie that the Indian boys would be at Big Tree, near Lake Erie, at 5 o’clock, on July 25th, ready for boats, arms and ammunition.  The boats were sent, with food, arms and military jackets for the boys.  Sixty Indians went with Captain Titus by boats to Niagara Falls and joined the fight at sunset.  Attached to the command of Colonel James Miller, as scouts, the Indian boys crept through brush and weeds to the fence, near the British center, and poking their guns between the rails, in the dusk, waited for their opportunity to rush upon the men who served the seven cannon upon the little eminence within sound of the cataract.

 There was a lively attack by Col. Miller and his regulars; the cannon were trained on the soldiers; the Indians waited, forgotten by everyone; night had closed in and the battle was ending for the night; another discharge of the battery would enable the British to rush the Yankees back to the Chippewa; the guns were primed for the last shots needed; the gunners lighted their matches, holding them for the order, “Fire!”  It never came.  The Indian scouts aimed at the lights; Captain Titus whispered a hissing order, “ouisheeh,” their fingers pressed the triggers; the guns lighted up the dark band of brush along the fence; the Canadian gunners fell as the Seneca war-cry rose above the din and roar of battle, and Miller carried the height.

Ancient Indian Ceremonies, Customs and Wonders
(By John C. French)

 It is frequently of benefit and interest to us to review what the earliest white visitors to the great Allegheny forest said of the reedmen they met and the wonders they were shown by the enthusiastic Indians.  A letter date, 1629, and published in Sagard’s “Historie du Canada,” 1632, describes a visit to the Snecas, 1627, by the Fraciscan, Joseph d’Allion to the oil spring near Hinsdale, New York, “Ischua,” shown to him by the Indians, the name is equivalent to “Oil place” or “Plenty oil here.”  The oil was collected by the Indians and used as a liniment in treating sprains, frost-bite and rheumatism and internally, for colds and bronchial inflammations; and “to destroy the serpent within, that causes fever and chills.”

 The writer saw the ceremonies at the oil gathering of 1881; and in 1883, Mr. Ashburner, a Pennsylvania geologist, visited Cuba, New York, and saw the proceedings, which he describe to Professor Stillman, in words, as follows:

 “The oil spring, or fountain, rises in the midst of a marshy ground; it is a muddy and dirty pool of about 18 feet in diameter.  The water is covered with a thin layer of petroleum, giving it a foul appearance as if coated with dirty molasses, having a yellowish-brown color.  They collect the petroleum by skimming it like cream from a milk pan.  For this purpose they use a broad flat board, made thin at one edge like a knife.  It is moved flat upon and just under the surface of the water, and is soon covered by a thin coating of the petroleum, which is so thick and adhesive that it does not fall off, but is removed by scraping the instrument on the lip of the trough or pot.  It has then a very foul appearance like very dirty tar or molasses; but it is purified by heating and straining it while hot although flannel or other woolen stuff.  It is used by the people of the vicinity for sprains and rheumatism and for sores on their horses, it being in both cases, rubbed upon the part.  It is not monopolized by anyone, but is carried away freely by all who care to collect it, and for this purpose the spring is frequently visited.  I could not ascertain how much is annually obtained; but the quantity is considerable.  It is said to rise more abundantly in hot weather than in cold.  Gas is constantly escaping through the water, and appears in bubbles upon its surface.”

 The Indians have used this crude oil for several centuries and proudly led Joseph d’Allion over the hills to show him their wonderful treasure.  In 1748, Peter Kahn, a Finnish naturalist, was at the oil springs along Oil Creek, in Venango County, Pennsylvania, and indicated them upon the map that was subsequently published.  French soldiers and officers were led to them also, as a letter from Lieutenant Joumonville, 1750, shows, explaining the impressive ceremony in that wild forest, as only a Frenchman could, translated as follows:

 “I would desire to assure you that this is a most delightful land.  Some of the most astonishing natural wonders have been discovered by our people.  While descending the Allegheny, 15 leagues below the mouth of the Conewango and 3 above the Venango, we were invited by the Chief of the Senecas to attend a religious ceremony of his tribe.  We landed, and drew up our canoes on a point where a small stream entered the river.  The tribe appeared unusually solemn.  We marched up the stream about half a league, where the company, a large band it appeared, had arrived some days before us.  Gigantic hills begirt us on every side.  The scene was sublime.  The great Chief then recited the conquests and heroism of his ancestors.  The surface of the stream was covered with a thick scum, which, upon applying a torch at a given signal, burst into a complete conflagration.  At the sight of the flames the Indians gave forth the triumphant shout that made the hills and valleys re-echo many times.  Here, then, is revived the ancient fire-worship of the East; here, then, are the children of the Sun.”

 Ancient oil pits, sometimes containing trees of the growth of centuries, are said to have been found in the vicinity of Oil Creek, where erosion had cut through the covering and exposed the stratum of oil-saturated sand.  The oil then floated upon the surface of the pools that formed below the source of it and the Indians threw poles across the stream, in time of flood, to hold back the oil, which accumulated in thousands of gallons, and when lighted, burned slowly for ten or twelve hours on the surface of the stream.  Truly, a wonder, sending a black smoke-column thousands of feet high, in the still air.

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 7/23/2001
By Joyce M. Tice