The Early History of French Creek 

 by Birdsell Coe


In the period before the Civil War, the residents of French Creek were concerned their history would fade into the past without any record, as the passing of the early settlers “passed forever beyond our reach”.  The following is the story….written by my Great great great Grandfather Birdsell Coe, the articles were first reported in the local paper, and is reproduced here…


First part.

          The well written article by S. Golding in the last weeks Herald, seems to have touched a tender spot in the hearts of the people by awakening recollections of the early days of our towns history:  the trials, hardships and privations of the pioneer settlers for which we are thankful; especially when we remember that each of the several county histories has barely nodded at French Creek and passed on to more prominent towns to bestow their favors.

          The colonels reference to the “Bakers Dozen” of early settlers yet remaining admonishes us that if this neglect of the historians referred to is ever to be atoned for the time has come when the facts must be collected; fore it is evident that in a very few years the last of the “Bakers Dozen” will be “sleeping with his fathers” and they the only source of reliable data will have passed forever beyond our reach.

          Now we think and believe all will agree with us, that if the Herald can be made the repository of early incidents and recollections, carefully written in ink, and after being read for our present gratification, carefully preserved for future references that our children’s children will appreciate its value much more highly than we do.  We especially invite the attention of the people to this subject and suggest that some immediate arrangement be made for the appearance in each future issue of our gray haired friends.  Nor do we need to confine ourselves entirely to the residents of French Creek.  A few may be living in Mina and Clymer whose memories may be useful in this enterprise.

          Friends, don’t  neglect this. Take some immediate steps.  Of course it will be a little trouble, but surely the object aimed at all will justify it.  We give you this week an article by one whose feelings were deeply stirred by Mr. Golding’s narrative and whose standing in our midst is of sufficient guarantee of its accuracy.  He says:


“In the winter of 1812 and 1813 my father, then in his thirty-third year and mother in her twenty ninth started with a yoke of oxen and sled from Chenango County in this state with five small children and all their worldly wealth, for the wilds of the “Holland Purchase” 400 miles distant.  The sled had a covering of sheets stretched over hoops and bows bent over the top.  A man by the name of Beebe accompanied them.

          At Phelpstown, (now Phelps) in Ontario County my sister Paulina was taken down with the measles and mother was obliged to stop with the children at an aunts house.  Father came on with the team, following the Lake Road to Northeast, and from these a trail or path to French Creek and the lot that he had previously selected.  He immediately put up a small shanty of poles for his immediate use and then proceeded to build a larger one for his family when they should arrive.  The next thing was to chop and clear a piece of land which he accomplished in time to get in some potatoes and a few oats.  Beebe had taken across the creek from Mr. Perry’s.  Only two other men lived in the town at that time.  Andy Noble came two years before and had two or three acres cleared.   Paul Colburn came the same year Father did and settled where Mr. Daily lives now.  In the spring Mr. Beebe started East for his and Father’s families. He had a pair of stags and one horse ( the first and only one in town ) : also a wagon.  In June Father took his oxen and sled to Northeast where he met Beebe with the women and the children.  It took three days for them to come from Northeast.  There was not a road in town then.  The nearest mill, store, or post office was in Mayville or Waterford.  Most of the business was done at Waterford for some years.  Settlers came every year and soon a little corn began to be raised and when “milling” was to be done, one man would take his oxen and sled and carry “grists” for himself and neighbors to Waterford.  It usually took three days but sometimes more.

          I was born August 23 1814 (the first white child born in French Creek) and have been told that father picked a bushel of ears of corn that morning and there was ice in the husks but a fog prevented any injury to the crop.  The first town meeting Father attended was at Bemis Point in the month of March.  He went on snow shoes through the woods and was gone several days.

          This was a part of Chautauqua County then you know.  I think the county seat was at Batavia.  Father had bought a cow down at Tracy’s before mother came and was soon able to get another; and in a few years began to keep hogs and sheep, but for a great many years the sheep had to be kept in a pen or building nights both summer and winter to protect them from the wolves that were quite numerous.  I have heard mother say that in the winter they use to put the sheep in a log barn close to the house and some nights the wolves would tramp a hard path right around the barn in their efforts to get at the sheep.  Their howlings were heard very often for many years particularly in the evenings and just at daylight in the lowery weather.  Sometimes a dozen or more would be together.  I can assure you that the noise was far from agreeable though people were not much afraid of them except at night when it was very much safer to keep near the house.  I recollect that Frank Bidwell and Charles Hooker had been at work one day where Munson Street lives and did not start for home until it began to be dark when the wolves began signaling each other by howling and very soon several of them were after the boys who had a large dog with them that was more frightened than themselves.  The wolves followed them to about where Mr. Durfee’s House stands.  Mr. Hooker lived where Mr. Davenport does or just in front of it.  Almost the only business was to clear land and to make salts.  Salts and fur, being the only thing that would bring money as a general thing for many years excepting cattle.  At one time salts were worth $7.00 per 100 pounds at Waterford; afterwards they fell to 2 ½ to 3 dollars per 112 pounds.

          In the summer the creek flats were covered with a dense growth of wild rye, wild oats and weeds as high as a man’s breast upon which cattle might feed and through which deer, bears and wolves made their way.  My father used to say that he could tell which animal had passed through by the manner in which the weeds were broken and tangled.  When Bob was 12 or 13 years old he started with father for the “Town line cow lick” south of the old Stowell farm.  When they got up on the flats south of Mr. Park’s barn father shot at and wounded an old bear that had two cubs of 40 or 50 pounds with her.  The old bear started off easterly at a lively rate and father and Bob drove the cubs up a tree when father shot one and the other became very uneasy so he concluded to let it come down and kill it with a club.  Before father could find a club young bruin concluded that he was in bad company and ‘lit out’.  Bob wanted to keep it company but thought it best for both to wait til father was ready but this didn’t succeed either.  So Bob thought he might as well have a ride and jumped on the cubs back.  This made bruin a little spunky so, began to kick and squall.  His claws were rather too sharp for Bob’s bare feet and legs and it is more than probable that if help had not been near Bob would have been compelled once in his life to give up.  But a blow with a club by father ended the strife.  They then took the trail of the old bear, followed by the blood on the leaves, and after one or two more shots, ended the contest.  It wasn’t much trouble in those days to get what meat the people wanted.  The men were not all hunters but those who were, were always ready to divide with their neighbors.  In fact this became so much a custom that for many years, if one butchered beef, pork, or mutton, the neighbors had to receive a share and a neighborhood comprised a much larger section, than now.  Men would go eight or ten miles to assist in raising  a house or barn.  I suppose the reason they were so much more friendly and obliging was that they were so much poorer and dependent on each other for favors.

          Young folks of today can have but faint ideas of the privations and hardships of pioneer life.  They talk about hard times and poverty, and to them it is so.  But I tell you, there is a difference between now and fifty or sixty years ago.


                                           Part II


          When my parents came to this country they had a fair supply of clothing, including father’s great coat with its many capes and mother’s Red Cloak (they were right in fashion in their day, i.e. the great cloak and coat) but both had to be used to make clothing for us children before it was possible to clear land, raise flax and sheep.  I perhaps ought to tell you that calico and factory cloth could be bought at the store in Waterford and Mayville for fifty cents a yard, the difficulty being to get the fifty cents.  Mink, muskrat, and coons were worth about 25 cents each, fox about a dollar and otter from two to three dollars.  There was a bounty of forty dollars on wolves.  These with the black salts were the only cash commodities so you can see that but a small amount could be afforded for clothing after paying yearly interest on the land debt, taxes, and other little indispensable expenses.  As soon as flax and sheep could be raised we had linen, tow, flannel cloth, all carded spun wove and made up at home.  The coloring was done at home with butternut bark though in a few years carding and fulling mills were introduced.  Then it was called “full cloth” a suit of which was considered nice enough for any occasion.  My father died in 1825, 12 years after moving to French Creek leaving mother with a large family of children, a new farm to clear up and pay for, all of which she accomplished successfully notwithstanding the many difficulties which surrounded her situation.  There is certainly not a family in the neighborhood that does not receive more money now in one year than my father did the whole time that he lived here, and of course after his death they were not increased for many years so that it is difficult to conceive how it is possible that a woman so situated could accomplish such a result.  I have already told you that the clothing was nearly all made at home from home made cloth.  Shoes, made from leather; it bought or hides tanned at home, were almost universally worn my men, women, and children.  The boys usually wore caps made at home, generally made from an old cloth or two or more from colors, from four to six pieces cut somewhat in the shape of a flatiron only longer in proportion to the width, sewn together (the colors alternating) thus making a pointed cap the top of which was surrounded by a tassel made of yarn.  If the color happened to be bright the owner of the cap was correspondingly proud.  The men and the larger boys wore leggings in the winter.  These were all we had for everyday, holiday or Sunday wear, save sometimes a straw hat in the summer.  Girls and women wore sun bonnets and hoods, all homemade.  In the line of furniture people were not much more extravagant; a few chairs, a table and bedstands either made at home or by some carpenter in the neighborhood comprising the list.  Books and newspapers were hardly thought of, save the bible and in time a few books.  In regard to food and drink we raised nearly all or caught it in the woods or water.  Hulled corn and hulled wheat were eaten a great deal; venison was plenty for many years and the creek was well supplied with trout weighing from a pound downward; it being almost to the exclusion of other fish, it being many years before any rock bass were found in it.  The small streams also had a great many trout in them.  In the early days there was a small stream running across  Mr. Canfield’s meadow down back of the school house here, where we boys caught a great many.  Father and Mother once took a basket and went to the little brook that is now Mr. Sweet’s woods to catch trout.  Father would hold the basket on its side in some narrow spot while mother would scatter a few leaves on the water above which would float down and lodge in the basket; then go further up the stream and scare the fish down.  When they had hidden under the leaves floating in the basket father would raise it up and secure them.  Almost the only fruit was the very poor wild plums along the creek.  Raspberries and soon blackberries soon made their appearance in the clearings, and after a while strawberries began to make their appearance and began to grow in the meadows.  It was many years before the apples were common.

          It was some years after father came that the first grist-mill was built at Findley Lake.  Many people would carry grain there on their backs.  Father would take a bushel, Ferdinand (Harrison and Henry father) half a bushel and Philanzo (Edward and Roswell father) a peck, go through the woods to the pond, and return with the meal or flour as the case might be.  After horses became more plentiful the usual way was to put from one to three bushels in bags across the horses back and the boy on top of that.

          In the kitchen things were equally different from what they are today — cook stoves were unknown then.  Every house had a stone or stick chimney.  A hole would be cut in the end of the house from the ground up four or five feet and six or seven feet wide then filled up with stone laid in clay and from this wall the chimney started.  At a safe distance above the hearth a pole would be placed across the chimney.  From this “ley pole” a channel or piece of chain would be suspended on which the pots and kettles.  The bread was most often baked in a flat bottomed kettle called a “bake kettle”.  When the dough was ready it was put into the kettle which was set on the coals drawn out of the hearth; the cast iron cover was put on the kettle and also covered with coals, the baking was commenced.  By renewing the coals a few time and turning the different sides toward the fire it was completed in a satisfactory manner.  Occasionally an outdoor oven might be seen built of stone, but the Bake Kettle was for many years the main reliance; though some would bake Johnny cake or short cake upon a board set upon the hearth and kept in position by a flatiron or stone behind it. After a while tin ovens came into use and they were very convenient.  They stood on the hearth in front of the fire when in use and would bake bread, pies, cake or meat.  Roast spare ribs was quite a treat and the fashion was to hang it up by a string close to the fire with some large dish beneath it to catch the drippings then baste and turn it from time to time until properly done.  They were good eating.


                                                  Part III


          In regards to crockery the early settlers were equally economical.  My earliest recollection about dishes is of pewter plates -  a large one called a platter set in the middle of the table at meals to hold the meats that were always cut into bits, the usual practice being for each one at the table to reach for a bit with his fork when so inclined; also to stick the fork into a piece of Johnny cake and sop in the grease of the platter preparatory to mastication.  The smaller ones were used for various other purposes.  Bean porridge was also quite an important article of diet in the fall and the winter beans boiled up in water, seasoned with meat to which was sometimes added Indian meal.  This was usually set in a pan in the middle of the table, each one eating there from with a spoon.  The porridge would keep several days in cool weather.  Hence the conplit,  “Bean porridge hot, bean porridge cold, Bean porridge best when it’s nine days old”.  But little tea or coffee was used except for home production.

          Cob lye was frequently used instead of saleratus.  In fact almost every possible expedient was resorted to that could be devised to avoid buying at the store, and this, as I have mentioned before was a matter of necessity rather than choice.  I am certain that in the hardest times now there are many more dollars in French Creek than there were cents in my early boyhood days.

          No history of the early settlement of this country can be complete without Indian stories.  I will tell you what little I know about ‘lo’.  History relates that in the early part of the seventeenth century this country was occupied by a powerful tribe called the Eries from which the lake takes it’s name.  This was more than two hundred years ago and the fact of their existence here rests almost entirely upon the traditions of the aborigines.  Still that country here about was inhabited by man at a very remote date or at least occupied is attested by the fact that pits and what are the remains of earthen forts are still to be seen in various places in and upon which the trees are apparently of as long standing as in the surrounding forest.  But when the first white settlers came to Chautauqua County, the only Indians in it were hunting and fishing parties, save possibly a few living near the outlet of Chautauqua Lake;  but I believe they were all peaceable and never molested the settlers.  But recollections of their atrocities in other communities were at the time to vivid not to excite great fear, especially in the minds of the women.  I well remember the horrible apprehensions of my mother which so affected her at times that she imagined in spite of her reason that she saw a redskin in every old stump or stub and that she could see them move in the edge of the woods that surrounded the house.  And that we children partook of her fears according to our years is evidenced by an incident that I well remember.  On some occasion when mother was away from home and I was left in charge of the smaller children we saw a number of Indians coming down the road passing the house.  To avoid being captured by them I took the children behind the house thinking the Indians could not find us there.  Sophy’s curiosity to see them, proving to be more than a match for her fears, would peek around the corner of the house at them in spite of all I could say so that in desperation I was compelled to box her ears to make her keep out of sight.  I remember one day an Indian came to the house with a wild turkey ready dressed that he wanted to trade for potatoes, pointing out the bag he carried how full he wanted it for the turkey, I should think half a bushel or less.  Father did not care much about the turkey, there were plenty then, but was willing to accommodate; so he filled the bag fuller of potatoes than he was required to.  But the Indian poured out until only what he had asked for was left and went his way.  They used to call frequently but so far as I know were always civil and honest.

          I remember when I had got to be quite a boy, one came along one day in some trouble, I think he had a sick child, and wanted to borrow a dollar.  I had a dollar and lent it to him.  He came two or three times and paid a part each time.  The last payment was all in pennies which he had tied in the corner of his shirt, at the discovery of which we could not help laughing.

          Well many long years have flown since then; many changes in country inhabitants, circumstances, fashions and conveniences have taken place.  But I’m not sure that people are happier or better able to meet the trials and  hardships of life, light though they are in comparison, with loftier courage or more enduring heroism than they did in the days of which I have been telling you.  I very much doubt it.  There are very many women in French Creek today with all the present conveniences of our surroundings would have the fortitude to accomplish what my mother did, and I certainly hope none of them will be forced to make the trial.

          My mother lived til her children were all grown up and some of them were gone before her.  She spent her last days with me and died in the house where Mr. Saxton. She died in 1854 at the age of 71 years.

          My turn will soon come and I hope to meet her in that spirit world where parting never comes and sorrow and trials and afflictions are unknown.

          And now friends if my efforts have added to your enjoyment I am fully compensated.      


                                                                   Birdsell Coe



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