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James Sagan: The Journey Forward Book Review

If you are researching the history of your own family or have grown up in Indiana County, this is a book that will interest you. James Sagan traces three early generations of his family as they travel from Ireland to British America and eventually “become American,” settling into life as part of western Pennsylvania. Along the way, they deal with death, danger, extreme conditions, and even the intricacies of owning land in a place just becoming a country.

This is the story of the Robinsons and, in places, their in-laws, the Weirs. As Sagan points out in a presentation given to the Historical and Genealogical Society many of those who came to British America in the 1770s and 1780s arrived in Philadelphia and then gradually, as families, made their way west. “Trailblazers,” usually a single family member, arrived first, made connections and set down some roots, and then returned to their home countries to bring back more family. In the case of Sagan’s ancestors, John Robinson, who was the youngest son of Robert Robinson Sr. and his wife, Isabella Harris Robinson, came first to British America to be with his fiancé, Margaret Jameson.

James Sagen presenting at the Historical Society.

Interestingly, in order to get free passage to British America, John had to be convicted of a petty crime. One option for criminals, even those convicted of the smallest of crimes, was to agree to be sent to British America rather than serve time in a jail. Britain wanted to colonize, and this was an effective way to do so. Two other ways to get free passage, Sagan notes, were by agreeing to be an indentured servant or an apprentice.

People who are researching their family backgrounds sometimes state with a mixture of amazement and maybe a bit of shame that they appear to have a large number of ancestors who are criminals. Sagan’s tidbit of history and immigration, one among many, might ease researchers’ concerns about their criminal lineage. Such tips about understanding the “evidence” of past family members’ lives are found throughout this book.

In 1770, John Robinson returned to his homeland, Ireland, to escort a large number of family members back to British America. This first group consisted of his older brother Robert Robinson Jr. and his wife; his youngest sister, Lavinia, along with her husband, Samuel Weir, and their children; and 18 other members of the Weir family. In fact, the Weirs made up 21 of the 85 paying passengers on the Phoenix.

In a stroke of luck, Sagan located the passenger list from the Phoenix in the Pennsylvania state archives, stored in a box tucked away and awaiting entry into public access. Most such lists have not survived, and many immigrants are not recorded. Sagan reminds researchers that if you were from Great Britain, you did not have to sign an oath of allegiance, and thus your passage and arrival might be “invisible” to later researchers.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, many of the Weirs split off from the Robinsons and wound up settling in Virginia. The rest followed the pattern of movement toward the western frontier, which, at that time, was Westmoreland County. Indiana County wasn’t a separate county until 1803; until then, it was part of Westmoreland County. This might be confusing to some readers, but Sagan’s use of maps is helpful.

Sagan traces the service of various members of the Robinson family in the Revolutionary War, then moves on to the Big Sewickley settlement. This was not Sewickley as we know it now, further west and north. Instead, it was located along Big Sewickley Creek in Westmoreland County, in Mt. Pleasant Township. It was a location where many settlers found themselves feeling safe among many others despite dangers from Native Americans. Sagan spends several pages describing life in the settlement, offering readers a feel for both the pleasant aspects and the difficulties of life at that time on the frontier. While not a well-established city with many amenities, it was still comfortable enough to feel like home. It was also a place to stay while preparing to move further west for more land, despite the lack of roads and “safe harbor.”

Members of the Robinson family and their spouses, like Samuel Weir, did continue to move away from the Big Sewickley settlement, but being only 20 miles away could make a big difference in how lives were organized and what dangers people faced. In a central portion of his book, Sagan provides sketches of the lives of many members of his ancestral family. Some of these are little more than dates and locations of birth and death. Others are fleshed out with information gleaned from tax records, wills, and other legal documents. Sometimes we learn how little livestock and how few possessions his ancestors had; it’s surprising to learn just how lean life was on a “plantation,” as farms were referred to at the time. Many died from accidents or at younger ages. Help was often far away.

Sagan does spend some extra time on Samuel Weir and his likely involvement with the Whiskey Rebellion. Given that his possessions at his death included a still and that his grandson asked to be paid from the estate for a barrel of whiskey he owned but which Samuel had sold and not paid him for, it’s highly likely that Samuel was an active member of those who fought against whiskey taxes. Here again, Sagan demonstrates how looking at many documents can help not just tell a story but actually find that story to tell.

In 1785, members of the Robinson family purchased land in Armstrong Township along the Kiskiminetas River (now called Conemaugh Township in Indiana County) and named their plantation “York.” The 210 acres was in the midst of, as Sagan writes, “a howling wilderness, full of bears, wild cats, wolves, etc. No roads had been opened there except bridle paths, and the cabins of the pioneers were usually two to three miles apart.”

Over the next two decades, the Robinson family endured, though land disputes took more than 20 years to resolve. Sagan spends some time sorting out how these disputes, with the tedious process of sorting out “warrants” and “patents” in a pioneer setting with limited court access and shifting land boundaries, shaped lives. In addition, with the death of land-owning patriarchs who leave behind widows and minor children, guardians must be appointed, as widows were not permitted to own property. In the Robinson family, guardianship was taken seriously and meant being closely involved with a child’s life. Thus guardians lived not at their own property but at the property they were now “guarding” for their new wards.

The book concludes with more recent facets of the Robinson family heritage. In 1786, Robert and William cleared land on the York property and built a small but sturdy house. This house, known as the Robinson Strong House, served as a fort of sorts. Later, it became the first school in southwest Indiana County. It became known as the Robinson #1 school. It burned in 1917, having stood for well over a century. Additionally, the Robinson River Hill Cemetery still exists, though there have been no burials there since 1841. Like other plots of land, this, too, passed through several owners, with the information that it included a burial ground having been neglected in the original sale. Finally, the portion of the larger parcel that was the cemetery was sold back to Samuel Robinson, Robert Robinson’s grandson. There are no “proper” gravestones, just field stone markers for head and feet. There is documentation that Robert Robinson is buried there, however, and Sagan commented in his presentation that, despite the arduous trek required to actually access the cemetery, he would like to get some ground-penetrating radar to the site and determine how many are actually buried in the hallowed ground.

This is not a story in a traditional sense. There’s not a familiar narrative structure where readers come to know deeply a main character, follow him or her through well-detailed tense moments that change and deepen the hero or heroine, and reach a climax where a life-changing moment and decision must be navigated. In fact, as noted, in many parts the “story” is only a set of dates and a location of burial. Those looking for a conventional story might find it difficult to create such deep involvement, as they must do much of the story-telling work on their own, attempting to create much of the feeling and change we know these people experienced in their lives. Those searching for information about their own ancestors will, however, be able to feel, as Sagan does, a little thrill (or a great thrill!) at the discovery of a tiny piece of a bigger story that is being created tenuously. They will also appreciate the tips and advice that are part of his recounting of knowledge gained. The book includes many maps, pictures of documentary evidence such as the passenger list on the Phoenix and wills and tax documents. These help readers feel more involved. Historians of Indiana County (many of whom are members of the Historical and Genealogical Society!) will enjoy learning more about those who shaped Indiana County and perhaps interacted with their own ancestral family members. But for Sagan, this research is very personal. It reinforces his belief that early settlers were successful because of courage, fortitude, work ethic, and love and connection to family. Put simply, they persevered.

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