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Peter Goughnour's Reminiscences

Submitted by Dianne Sikurinec

In the 1790's, the Johnstown area was an unsettled wilderness. Brothers Peter, Daniel, and Christian Goughnour moved into the area in 1798, and were among the first pioneers to settle the area. This article, which was published in the Johnstown Tribune in 1856, will give you a picture of what life was like for these pioneers.

PETER GOUGHNOUR, who was born in Maryland in 1773 and died in Conemaugh Township, Cambria County, during the past year, 1855, left a statement of his early recollections of what was in old times called "the Conemaugh country," which statement is now before us. It is much to be regretted that there is not in existence an authentic history of the early settlers and settlements of the Conemaugh country, and with a view to filling a portion of this blank in our annals we will compile from Mr. Goughnourís statement such facts as we think worthy of preservation.

Mr. Goughnour says that the first white settlers in the Conemaugh country were two brothers, SAMUEL AND SOLOMON ADAMS. At the time of their settlement, about 1785, the Indians who hunted and fished on the banks and in the waters of the Conemaugh and Stonycreek were quite numerous. Samuel Adams lived on Samís Run, about two miles south of the confluence of these two streams, and from him it derived its name. Solomonís cabin was located about midway between the junction of the Conemaugh and Stonycreek and his brotherís cabin. Solomonís Run took its name from him. Samuel Adams and an Indian warrior killed each other with their knives while fighting around a white-oak tree on Sandy Run, about five miles east of the junction of the Conemaugh and Stonycreek. Their bodies were buried in one grave under the tree.

Mr. Goughnour settled in what is now Conemaugh Township in 1798. Cambria County was then a wilderness and not known to geographers. At the date of Mr. Goughnourís settlement the Indians had departed from their Conemaugh hunting grounds, but he says that he had found heaps of stones erected over Indian graves, flint arrows, elk horns, and other relics of their presence. A few of these stone heaps are still standing on the banks of the Stonycreek above Johnstown.

JACOB STUTZMAN, who died in 1816, occupied in 1794 the Conemaugh bottom, now the site of Johnstown, and to which had been given the name of Oldtown. Mr. Stutzman was the first white man who ever occupied the bottom. A son of his was killed by an ox-team which had been scared by a rattlesnake. The body of the boy was buried on the left bank of the Stonycreek, where Water Street in Kernville is now located.

JOSEPH JOHNS, or Schantz, a member of the Amish communion and an industrious and honest man, laid out Conemaugh bottom into town lots in 1800. Those who assisted him to lay out the town, and who became its first citizens, were PETER GOUGHNOUR, JOSEPH FRANCIS, LUDWIG WISSINGER, and a few others. They named it Conemaugh-town, but it was generally called Johnstown. Mr. Johns died at an advanced age in Conemaugh Township, Somerset County.

DR. ANDERSON AND WILLIAM HARTLEY opened the first store in the new town and ISAAC PROCTOR opened the second. The necessaries of life at that time rated very high. Coffee was 50 cents per pound; pepper, allspice, and ginger, 50 cents per pound; shad, 50 cents each; salt, $5 per bushel; wheat, $2 per bushel. All other articles rated accordingly. Wages were from 40 to 50 cents per day.

There were at that time no roads through the wilderness to older settlements and nothing but canoes for navigating the streams. Domestic animals were rare but wild beasts of the forest were quite numerous. Panthers, wolves, bears, etc., prowled at night around the cabins of the pioneers. Nevertheless, the first settlers, in Mr. Goughnourís language, had fine times hunting and fishing, as the forest was alive with game and the clear streams were filled with fish. Deer were numerous.

The bottoms in the vicinity of Conemaugh-town were covered with luxuriant verdure and presented a wild and picturesque appearance. The hills also were grand beyond description, with their glorious old forest in which the woodmanís axe had never rung. Pea vines, wild sunflowers, grapevines and other native representatives of the vegetable world twined around and waved between the giant oaks and spruce, and hickories. What a paradise was that Conemaugh country to its first settlers some fifty years ago!

Still those pioneers had their troubles and those forest and bottoms had their drawbacks. Growing among the tall grass was a noxious weed, resembling garlic in taste and appearance, and called ramps by the settlers, which, when eaten by the cows, was sure to sicken them and put a stop to the supply of milk and butter. The grass, from some cause not stated, did not make good hay, and as the cultivation of corn, oats, rye, etc., was exceedingly limited, the result was that in the winter the cattle often fared badly. The settlers, in order to prevent their cattle from starving, were forced to cut down trees so that they could browse on the buds and young branches. The women were required to clear land and do rough farmwork, such as harrowing, harvesting, hoeing corn, etc. They were also accustomed to other phases of hard pioneer life.

Large quantities of maple sugar and molasses were in a few years manufactured by the settlers of the Conemaugh country and packed to neighboring settlements. Venison also became an article of traffic. In exchange for these commodities the Conemaugh settlers received the necessaries which they could not produce themselves. Bedford was their principal market.

In the course of time the population of Conemaugh-town increased as well as the number of farms in its vicinity. A log inn for the entertainment of travelers was built. A road was opened through the wilderness to Frankstown, below Hollidaysburg, upon which bar iron was hauled to Conemaugh-town and shipped in the spring of the year in flat-bottomed boats to Pittsburgh. Conemaugh-town now became a place of some business, and it was found necessary to build another inn.

In 1808 the town was overflowed by a sudden rise in the Conemaugh and Stonycreek and the inhabitants were compelled to fly to the hills for safety. The town was again submerged in 1816. This event was termed "the punkin flood," owing to the fact that it swept away the whole pumpkin crop of that year. Much damage was done by this flood. Fences were swept away, saw-logs and lumber disappeared, and many horses and cattle were drowned. The settlers suffered severely by this flood.

About 1812, the town boasted a grist mill and also a small iron forge on the Stonycreek. In 1816, the first keel boat was built by Isaac Proctor on the right bank of the Stonycreek, near where the Union graveyard is located. Flatboats were also constructed at the same place. While laborers were digging the race for another forge on the Conemaugh, old fire-brands, pieces of blankets, an earthen smoke-pipe, and other Indian relics were discovered at a depth of twelve feet below the surface of the earth.

Notwithstanding the improvements mentioned, the town was still small when, about 1829, the Commonwealth commenced the construction of the Canal and Portage Railroad. Since that time it has steadily prospered and gradually become a place of some note and business importance.


Transcribed from an article in the Johnstown Tribune, Saturday, February 9, 1856.

Last Updated: 30 Mar 2008
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