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Heading West

Maybe we headed west in short bursts, stopping for a time when the weather got bad or the wagon broke down.

When I last wrote about my family, I was in the process of moving William Edward Collings, his wife Anne and their two young sons, Zebulon and Spencer, from New Jersey to southwestern Pennsylvania. The majority of actual “facts” I had turned up showed that the two boys were born in New Jersey in 1745 and 1750. The third Collings child, Elizabeth was recorded as born in Pennsylvania in 1752.

It seemed logical to me that since my family had spent a large part of their lives in southwestern Pennsylvania, they must have traveled there sometime between 1750 and 1752.

There were two important facts that I ignored by making that assumption:

  • Pennsylvania from east to west is a long state which would take weeks if not months to span, and
  • the area of southwestern Pennsylvania where they were headed was not necessarily Pennsylvania in 1752. Virginia was claiming the country around the headwaters of the Ohio River and therefore assuming it was called Pennsylvania at that time was a bit of a mistake. Oops.

I began working these problems out when I also discovered that my family’s ultimate goal, the area around what is today Pittsburgh, PA, was in the bullseye of the French and Indian War, officially dated 1756 to 1763 but fueled by territorial conflicts from the early 1750s. Why would William Edward set out to put his family in such a dangerous location?

A casual, friendly conversation with a co-worker provided some insight. Not realizing what I was starting, I asked my friend about the origin of his unique family name and he said he was of Armenian descent. My blank look triggered much more information. Michael told me that Armenia is the oldest Christian based country in the world, the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the late 3rd or early 4th century AD.

Armenia isn’t a country often mentioned or studied in geography/history class in school, so I went looking for some context. Armenia is located between the Caspian and the Black Seas, south of Russia, north of Iraq and Iran and east of Turkey. According to Wikipedia, during World War I, Armenians living in their ancestral lands in the Ottoman Empire were systematically exterminated during a time called the Armenian Genocide. This genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases—the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert and resulting in the systematic mass murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians between 1914 and 1923.

My friend told me that his grandparents seldom talked about their past, so he had little knowledge of how these events affected his family beyond the fact that they did flee the country. Shortly before his grandfather died, Michael did talk with him some about the family history and found that his was a family that was nomadic for several years. They would travel to a seemingly welcoming country, settle, learn the language begin to assimilate, then for one reason or another, move on seeking a better life. His family eventually arrived in the US, settling in Michigan, but Michael says he has a lot of relatives in France and some scattered throughout Europe.

Michael’s story got me thinking about my own family. Their move west didn’t have to be one great journey across the wide expanse of Pennsylvania. They may have moved in several short bursts, constantly seeking the perfect place. The New Jersey they left in the early 1750s was fairly civilized with laws and boundaries and commerce. Western Pennsylvania was wild and new and they may have moved into that wilderness just a few steps at a time, gradually moving on as they sought that perfect place to build a life.

What I do know is they eventually settled in an area of western Pennsylvania in a county called Yohogania County. I have read court records of the area for the 1770s and found familiar names: Isaac Cox, Nicholas Crist, George Crist, Henry Newkirk, Joseph & William Breshers, Paul Froman, and Hogland. This cast of players all continue to show up in future adventures of the Collings family.

In these court records, William Edward’s grown sons Zebulon and Spencer appear to have been landowners at this time in this place because I see them charged with maintaining roadways near their property. They may have been a little rowdy too, as court records show them posting bail and having bail posted for them for various suits (with no details as to what the alleged misdeeds were).

Those old court records, by the way, are full of fun stories and I may share some of them with you at a later date. Just an example to whet your appetite:

  • In one the court ordered that “…the Sheriff Imploy a Workman to build a Ducking Stool at the Confluence of the Ohio with the Monongohale and…”
  • and another ruled that “On the Motion of Saml’l Semple, It is Ord(ered) that his Mark be recorded a Crop of the right Ear and a Nick in the Edge.” One would hope that this is the recording of a brand or mark to be made on an animal…not on a slave.

William Edward and Ann Collings and their family lived in this area for over 20 years as the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania battled the British in the Revolutionary War and later as they wrangled over ownership of their territories in the west.

1 Comment

  1. Eve Cundiff

    Very interesting family history! I enjoy reading Historical fiction & family history stories.

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