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Fergus Moorhead - An Adventure

It was May 1772, and Captain Fergus Moorhead was just twenty-nine years old. He along with his two brothers Samuel and Joseph, James Kelly, James Thompson and a few others left their homes in the southern part of what was then Cumberland County (now Franklin County) and set forth on a journey west of the Alleghenies to what is now Indiana County.


The group reached their destination after four weeks of travel. However, this was not the first time Fergus had made this journey. He traveled in 1769 and selected a future settlement, but upon arrival in 1772, the group decided to settle about two miles further west where there appeared to be better soil. In a time when one had to grow their own food, it was important to ensure the best soil for one’s settlement.


Just three years prior, Fergus married Miss Jane White, who recently immigrated to America with her father, the Reverend Joseph White from Forfarshire, Scotland. It was Jane’s bravery and unwillingness that her husband should go alone on his journey, that she, along with their three children, accompanied Fergus on his journey.


The family was not together very long, as in the month of July 1776, Samuel, who was elected captain of a small company of Frontier Militia, was stationed at Kittanning, when he became infected with smallpox. Due to this illness, Samuel asked his brother Fergus to take command of the company, while Samuel remained with Fergus’ family until he recovered.


Once Samuel recovered, he returned to Kittanning, where he spent an evening with Fergus talking about their family and friends and planning how they would manage their business. The two decided that Fergus would return home the next morning, with the company of a soldier, named bearer of dispatches from the commander of the fort at Kittanning.


Unfortunately a party of Native Americans were lurking around the fort that evening, and overheard the Moorheads’ conversation and being acquainted with the road that Fergus and Andrew Simpson would take in the morning - known as the “Kittanning path” - hid themselves on a nearby hill - “Blanket Hill” - and awaited the approach of Moorhead and Simpson.


The two gentlemen, although on horseback and armed, did not expect an attack. The Native Americans fired, killing Simpson and the two horses, but before Moorhead could extricate himself, he was seized and made prisoner.


After scalping Simpson and stripping his clothing, they left him by the side of the path. One of the Native Americans wrote a letter, in English, and placed it against a tree - the purpose was to the effect that the affair was nothing compared to what the English settlers might expect.


When Fergus learned the Natives could speak English, he inquired as to why they did not shoot him as well. The reply was that they had shot and missed him three times and the Great Spirit would not allow them to shoot at any one person more than three times. The letter was soon found by a party that was sent out from the fort in search of Moorhead and Simpson and found the body of Simpson and the horses.


Moorhead was taken by his captors to Quebec. The party traveled very slowly, some days advancing only two or three miles. They relied entirely on their success in hunting for means of substance; Moorhead always got his share of what they had.


Once reaching Quebec, Moorhead was sold to the British, where he received worse treatment than he had at the hands of the Native Americans. His food was the coarsest and most unhealthy moundy and the meat was sour and at times almost putrid. From the second day of his captivity, his garments were never changed nor washed; nor was his hair cut nor combed nor his beard shaved.


After eleven months in captivity, he was exchanged and sent to New York. From there he set out, on foot, to his former home in Cumberland County. Through his ordeals, his appearance changed so greatly that none of his family knew him.


From the moment he was taken prisoner until his arrival to Cumberland County, he had not heard a word from his family, and his family did not know anything of his fate. Jane was left with three small children, and soon after her husband’s capture, she gave birth to a fourth. In the meantime, one of the children had died of smallpox. It was Jane’s duty, in the absence of any assistance, to make a coffin, prepare the grave, and bury the child.


Shortly thereafter, she was visited by her brother who assisted Jane in boxing up her provisions and effects and boarding up the home; and thinking her husband dead, she accompanied her brother back to her former home in Cumberland County.


Upon his return, Fergus again entered military service during the Revolutionary War, serving first as a private in Captain John Orbison’s Company, 4th company, Fourth Battalion, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania Militia of May 10, 1780; and second, as private in the same company of August 21, 1780.


At the end of the War, Fergus and Jane Moorhead, along with their children returned to their home in Indiana County, accompanied by his brothers, Samuel and Joseph, James Kelly, James Thompson, and their families.


The first order of business upon their return to Indiana County, was the erection of a blockhouse in the vicinity of the Moorhead cabin, large enough to contain all the families and their effects. It was in the blockhouse where they remained at night and during the winter, considering it unsafe to sleep in their cabins.

Fergus Moorhead House as it appeared c. 1913

The next stop was clearing out the farms; they worked alternately on each tract, so each individual would have an equal chance with the others to have his ground prepared for seeding in the fall. While the group was working at cutting trees and clearing the ground, two or three men would stand guard with loaded rifles, but the Natives did not attack them.


Over the course of a few years, the settlers became comfortably situated in their new home. They raised livestock and grain, engaged in domestic manufactures, erected mills, and soon became a community.


In just about twenty years since settling in the area, Indiana County was formed (1803) and Indiana was named as its county seat. Fergus died in 1822, at the age of 79, and his wife, Jane White passed away in 1824.


Rumor has it that Fergus (and possibly his wife) will be joining us at Blue Spruce Park on October 1 for our Pioneer 5K. We hope you come out to race, or just walk, and support the Indiana County Historical Society. Maybe Fergus will be willing to talk to you about his journeys and the settling of Indiana County. For more information, see our events page and stay tuned for more information for what is sure to be a great event.