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Derry Township

Derry Township municipal offices are located at 5321 Route 982, Derry PA 15627; phone: 724-694-8835.

Beginnings [1]

One of the largest and most important townships in Westmoreland County is the township of Derry. It was established and organized by the court of quarter sessions at April term of court, held in Hannastown in 1775. It was, moreover, the first township erected after the original ones erected when the county was formed. The original boundaries began at the Loyalhanna and ran thence along the Fairfield line to Blacklick Creek, thence to the Conemaugh River and down the river to the Kiskiminetas; and thence by the Loyalhanna to the place of beginning. It was therefore much larger originally than at the present time. It was cut down by the formation of Indiana County; and by the formation of Loyalhanna Township on the Westmoreland side. The township is now bounded on the north by the Conemaugh River, which separates Westmoreland from Indiana County; on the east by the townships of Fairfield and Ligonier, the dividing line being the crest of Chestnut Ridge: on the south by the townships of Unity and Salem, the natural boundary line being Loyalhanna Creek; and on the northwest by the township of Loyalhanna. The boroughs within the limits of the township are: Latrobe, New Alexandria, Livermore, Derry and Cokeville.

The first settlement made in Derry Township was almost as early as the earliest in the county. Some of the soldiers who came west with Forbes' army settled there as early as 1762, and were there as pioneers and citizens when Pontiac's war came in 1763. Among the very first, if not the first settlers, was John Pomroy. He had been a farmer in the Cumberland Valley, and was of Scotch-Irish descent. He had heard of the large quantity of land in this section from the soldiers that had returned with Forbes' army, and he made up his mind to leave the rich Cumberland Valley and come and locate west of the Alleghany Mountains. He came west on the Forbes Road and stopped at Fort Ligonier, where he had relatives living, and who were compelled to live under the shadow of the garrison because of the Indians. He did not remain in the valley, but crossed the Chestnut Ridge, selected a piece of land, and took possession of it. Upon it he built a rude log cabin. Not long after that another white man came to visit him and located on a tract of land nearby. His name was James Wilson. Both names are familiar to all who are conversant with our pioneer history. These two tracts of land were near the present site of New Derry. They assisted each other in improving them, and Pomroy assisted Wilson in building his cabin, which was about a mile from Pomroy's. During the first summer, which was probably the summer of 1762, they raised some corn and potatoes and cleared small pieces of ground upon which they sowed wheat and rye. They had brought the seed from the garrison of Fort Ligonier, it being one of the provisions of the English government while it held dominion in western Pennsylvania, that seeds of all kinds must be furnished to the settlers. Late in the fall they killed some game and stored it away that they might get it in the spring, and then they set out for a trip east of the mountains, where their friends lived. They passed the winter in the east, and when spring came they met by previous arrangement and started for their new homes west of the Alleghany Mountains, then known only as the extreme frontier of Cumberland County, for it was many years before the formation of Bedford County. On this second trip they were accompanied by an Irishman named Dunlap, who came for the purpose of buying skins and furs from the Indians. He had heard great stories about the love of the Indians for knives, beads and trinkets, and came well supplied with these, as well as with a stock of rum, all of which he brought west on horseback. The pioneers found their cabins undisturbed, though there were signs that the Indians had visited them. Word was soon sent abroad among the Indians, and a great many of them made their appearance at Pomroy's camp laden with furs and peltry of all kinds. The bartering went on very rapidly, for the anxiety of the Indians to obtain trinkets, brooches, knives, etc., that Dunlap had brought made them offer almost any valuable fur they had for them. Finally the rum was brought out, and this pleased the Indians still more. They had formerly learned the effects of this drink upon their race, and had established a system, which they exercised here; that is, before giving themselves entirely to its effects, they selected one of their number who should drink nothing, that he might watch the interests of the rest. All the skins which they had, which included the entire work of the winter before, were soon traded to Dunlap for trinkets and for a few canteens of rum. The latter was greatly relished by the Indians, who became very dangerous in the night. As the Indians drank more, Dunlap weakened the rum with water that its effects might be less upon the Indians' mind, for he feared these hostile men when they drank too much. Dunlap refused ever to go into the business again. Pomroy and Wilson escorted him part of the way home, that is to Ligonier, where he fell in with some others returning east from Fort Pitt. Then the two pioneers returned to their clearings and devoted themselves, like honest men, to the clearing away of the forest, and the breaking up of the soil. The second winter they again visited their old homes in the east, and when they came back each brought with him a wife. Pomroy's wife was Isabel Barr, the daughter of a neighbor in Cumberland Valley, who himself subsequently migrated to Derry Township. With him came his two sons, James and Alexander Barr, also William Guthrie and Richard Wallace, and others whose names are lost to us. These two women were the first to locate in western Pennsylvania. It is said that they often went out with the men when they were surveying land, being afraid to remain at home because of the treacherous Indians who were scouting around.

George Findley very early settled in this same community, being a near neighbor of Pomroy's and Wilson's. Both were there before the treaty of 1768, and therefore had no legal right to the land upon which they lived. About 1776 Findley brought his wife out from Hagerstown, Maryland, and they lived in a cabin which he had previously erected. They had to repeatedly seek shelter in Fort Palmer, in Fairfield Township, and in Fort Ligonier.

Samuel Craig was another settler of Derry Township. He removed from New Jersey to Westmoreland County about 1770, and purchased a large farm on the Loyalhanna, where the Crabtree run flows into it. He entered the Revolutionary War and was with Washington in a number of campaigns. His three sons, John, Alexander and Samuel, were also soldiers in the Revolution. After the father returned from the war he took an active part in the defense of the frontiers from the Indians, and filled several military offices among the Home Guards. The duties of one of these offices called him to Fort Ligonier, a place he had frequently visited. He started out one morning and was never heard of again. His horse was found on Chestnut Ridge, between his home and the fort, with eight bullet holes in it, but all efforts of the family to obtain any information about Captain Craig were fruitless. The Craig boys were active soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Alexander at one time had a lock of hair shot off his head by a bullet from the enemy. In 1793 he was commissioned a colonel in the militia, and was a brigadier in 1807 and again in 1811. He was, however, better known as Captain Craig, and with the Shields, Sloans, Wilsons and Wallaces, formed a strong band of fighting men who in an early day defended the settlers of Derry Township from the meandering Indians. He is buried in Congruity churchyard, about eight miles north of Greensburg. His brother John afterwards moved to a farm near Freeport, and earned the high respect of his neighbors in that community. He lived to be ninety-five years old.

Fort Barr and Fort Wallace were two early forts in Derry Township. They were used in Dunmore's war, but were built some years before that to protect the citizens against the Indians. Some claim that they were erected as early as 1764 or 1765, but there was no settlement in Derry Township at that time sufficiently strong to warrant the building of a fort. There were but few forts built in the county prior to 1770. Fort Barr was located on the farm of one of the Barrs, and was about a mile north of New Derry. By some it was called Fort Gilson. Fort Wallace was about five miles distant, and was erected on a farm belonging to a man named Wallace, on McGee's Run. Craig's Fort on the Loyalhanna, near New Alexandria, came later, as did the fort on the John Shields place, within four miles of Hannastown. Both of these forts were erected about 1774, as a protection against the Indians and against marauding armies in Dunmore's war.

All these, while called forts, were in reality only blockhouses. There was a signal which was agreed upon among the settlers, that when three rifle shots were fired in quick succession the men must flee to the blockhouses or forts. Colonel James Wilson used to relate that he stood rifle in hand watching for ambushing Indians while his wife went to the spring for water. Richard Wallace was taken a prisoner by the Indians and was taken to various points in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was finally sent to Montreal, where he was exchanged and came home after an absence of eighteen months. The last hostile demonstration about Fort Wallace was after the Revolutionary War, in 1783. At that time a half-breed, who had been in the British service, approached the fort with a flag which he used as a decoy. But the settlers had been frequently deceived in this manner, and they made short work of him by shooting him before he reached the fort. He was buried where he fell. It was Richard Wallace, who after he had put his farm in fine order, erected a mill with one set of stones. Before this the grain raised by the settlers was pounded in mortars with stones.

James Wilson was one of the foremost men in Derry Township. His farm near New Derry contained about eight hundred acres, and is now a very valuable piece of land, but in that day he had hard work to procure enough money from one year's end to another to pay the tax collector. He lived on this farm until 1820, the year in which he died. In appearance he was a typical pioneer, over six feet tall, and very straight and active. His remains and those of his wife and a married daughter, a Mrs. Knott, are buried on the farm near their home.

Colonel Wallace and James Pomroy remained close friends, and were only separated by death. Pomroy was never as much of a military leader as Wallace was, but was a more prominent leader in civil life. He, it will be remembered, was one of the five commissioners appointed by the Act of Assembly in 1785 to locate a county scat, which appointment resulted in the selection of Greensburg. When Alexander Allison was on the bench, Pomroy was an associate judge and served this county in that capacity for many years. He had a brother, Francis Pomroy, who lived near him, and who was likewise held in high esteem.

William Guthrie was another early settler of Derry Township. He made application for three hundred and fifty acres of land when the Land Office was opened in 1769, and it has been kept by his descendants almost continually since. He also took an active part in the border troubles, and was a militia officer in 1794. His son, James, served in the War of 1812. William Guthrie built a stone house on his farm in 1799.

Captain John Shields came from Adams County to Westmoreland County in 1766. He was a man of great physical strength, well suited to bear the hardships incident to pioneer life. The land he purchased was near the present town of New Alexandria. He was a captain in the Revolutionary War, and faithfully performed his duties. Mr. Shields was a man of mere than ordinary education. He was also a blacksmith, and had made pinchers and tools with which he could extract teeth, there being no dentists, and most of the time no physicians within reach. He could also reduce a fractured leg or arm. He was one of the five commissioners appointed in 1785 to purchase land in trust for the inhabitants of the county upon which to erect a court house. He was also a justice of the peace, and for many years a ruling elder in the Congruity Church, when Rev. Samuel Porter was pastor. He died November 3, 1821, aged eighty two years, and was buried in Congruity cemetery.

Other settlers in this township were Thomas Allison, George Trimble, Alexander Taylor, John Lytle, Daniel Elgin, Conrad Rice, Thomas Wilkins, Daniel McKisson, James Mitchell, Andrew Dixon, John Agey, Thomas McCree, Thomas Burns, William Lowry, John Wilson, Robert Pilson, John Thompson, Patrick Lydick, James Simpson, Christopher Stutchall, William Smith, Nathaniel, Jonathan and Zebulon Doty, Joseph Pounds and Alexander McCurdy and others.

Few townships have as many interesting incidents in their history as has Derry Township. It was peculiarly laid open to Indian incursions as they came down from the north. They were moreover annoyed a great deal because of wild animals. Bears in great numbers harbored within the limits of the ridge, and came down from the wilds north of the Conemaugh River. For many years in the early part of last century the farmers had to keep their hogs enclosed during most of the year, and sheep were continually carried off by the wolves. At night these animals made hideous sounds as they prowled around homesteads in search of domestic animals, so that the country was literally then nothing more than a "howling wilderness." There was no howl more dismal to an early settler and his family than the howl of a famished wolf, unless it was the blood-curdling war-cry of the Indian, which was frequently heard by the early inhabitants of Derry Township. Other wild animals, such as panthers, catamounts and foxes, were common in this region, and were for many years a great impediment to agriculture.

General Alexander Craig referred to above, was born November 20, 1755. He was married to Jane Clark, the second daughter of James Clark. The marriage ceremony was performed by the noted pioneer minister, Rev. James Power. The bride was arrayed in a home-grown and home-spun linen dress, bleached until it was perfectly white. General Craig was commissioned lieutenant-colonel of militia in 1793, and a brigadier-general in 1807 and again in 1811. When the War of 1812 broke out he was greatly excited, and at length said, "I have but one son, and he is too delicate to perform military duties, but if I can be of any use, though growing old, I am willing to enlist." The farm upon which he lived had been purchased in 1773 from Samuel Wallace, a merchant of Philadelphia, who had purchased it in 1769 from Loveday Allen. After the trouble with the Indians was over, General Craig often met with them, for he was a surveyor and did much outside work. He often visited camps, and displayed such skill in shooting at a mark that they thought there must be some charm or witchery about his gun. The whites in Derry Township, as elsewhere, were always prejudiced against the Indians, but General Craig sympathized with them as far as possible, and treated them kindly. He was for several years agent of Governor Mifflin for lands which he owned in this section, which was then called the backwoods. He did not have the advantage of as liberal an education as many of his day, but he had good judgment, was fond of reading, and had a retentive memory. In his old age therefore his mind was well stored with useful knowledge. He was about six feet tall, and very muscular. His death occurred on the 29th of October. 1832, aged seventy-seven years, and he was buried at Congruity cemetery.

Thomas Anderson, another Revolutionary leader, lived with Colonel Guthrie, the elder, and died in his home in 1827. Michael Churn, Sr., settled in Derry Township in 1782. John McGuire, a neighbor of Churn's, settled near him in 1778. Robert Armstrong was another early settler near Salem Church, and at his house were held the first itinerate services of the Methodist Church in that community. Lorenzo Dow, the noted and eloquent preacher, so famous in the Christian world a century ago, was frequently a guest at his house. Peter Knight settled near the village of St. Clair, and was one of the ancestors of the Saxman's and Schall's. Andrew Allison took up land on the banks of the Loyalhanna between Latrobe and Kingston, near the Kingston House. His daughter was married to Charles Mitchell. John Sloan was also a near neighbor, and of these in the Indian days. Thomas Culbertson settled in an early date north of Latrobe. To him is given the honor of building the first stone house in that part of the country. William Hugus was another of the early settlers. His oldest son was said to be the first male child born in Derry Township, but of this we are not certain. James Cummins settled near the Chestnut Ridge about the close of the Revolutionary War. Hugh Cannon was one of the first settlers on the land near Derry Station. He was a teamster, and brought flour and salt from the eastern side of the mountain, and lived until 1818. He had a son Alexander Cannon, who died in 1842 in the seventy-second year of his age, who often spoke of the hardships he had endured in the pioneer days.

A great natural curiosity of Derry Township is commonly called the "Bear Cave." It is a cavern among the rocks on Chestnut Ridge, and is closest to Hillside Station, on the Pennsylvania railroad. There have been many descriptions of it in newspapers and periodicals. It was first made known throughout the press in 1840, when it seems to have been thoroughly explored. In 1842 it was explored by a party of young men and women from Blairsville. After entering they divided into two parties, one going to the right hand and the other to the left. They passed over many deep fissures, and could hear water gurgling far below them, so far below that the light of their torches did not reveal it. In some places, when passing through the cave, one must crawl on his hands and knees, and at other times he must stoop slightly, but for the greater part of the distance the rocks above him are higher than his head. Writers have said that they have explored as high as forty-nine different rooms in the cave, all varying in size from eight to thirty or forty feet square. Large quantities of carbonate of lime are found on every hand. Among the names chiseled on the rocks is that of Norman McLeod. Many of the chambers are studded with stalactites, and inhabited by bats. There are many chasms and long dark halls reaching from one room to another. Rooms have been given high sounding names by the inhabitants and by those who frequently visit them, such as "Snake Chamber," the "Altar Room," and "Senate Chamber."

The early schools of Derry Township were all built of logs, as was the case throughout other townships, and until 1825 there was not a frame school house, within the limits of Derry Township nor were there any in the county. The desks were, as usual, fastened around the wall, and the seats, called "peg seats," without backs, were the best found in any school in the township. An early teacher was Tawny Hill. James McCallip taught the McClelland school about 1830. William Cochran taught the first free school at McClelland's after the adoption of the free school law. His teaching was notable because of its religious features. He opened school with prayer, had a Bible class twice a day, and read in the New Testament four times a day. The Shorter Catechism was the leading text-book. His mode of punishment was to compel the unruly pupils to commit part of the Catechism or verses of the Bible. He was succeeded by Mr. Wheeler, from one of the eastern states. It is worthy of mention in this connection that both John W. Geary, afterwards governor of Pennsylvania, and his father, Edward Geary, were at one time teachers in Derry Township.

The Salem Presbyterian Church made a call for a pastor to the Red Stone Presbytery in October, 1786, so that they must have been formed some time prior to that date. They were preached to by supplies for four or five years after 1786. They had no meeting house, but used a tent as a place of worship. Later they built a log house, put a stove in it, and called it a Session House, but this was used only in cold weather or on wet days, for they preferred holding services outside in mild weather. Before the close of last century they had built a much larger log church, certainly the largest then in the county. It was seventy by forty feet in the main, and in the center it was forty-six feet wide. The recess on the inside was utilized for the pulpit. There was a sounding board over the preacher's head, and his platform was about eight steps above the congregation. There was a door in each end of the old log church, and there were afterwards seventy-one long seats in it, and six or eight hundred people could be accommodated in the church at once. For many years there were no seats at all, and then after a while the communicants began to bring sawed planks for seats, and sometimes they used a wide rail which with four pins in it for legs, afforded a comparatively good seat. This church for a good many years did not have a stove in it, and the Session House, which stood close to it, was used in extremely cold weather for those who got very cold to warm up in. In 1832 the log church was sealed with boards and plastered on the side walls. In 1848 a boy in kindling the fire put shavings into the stove, and some of the sparks fell on the old wooden roof, and when the people assembled for prayer meeting, the time honored house, which they had cherished so long, and reverenced so deeply because of its early history, was rapidly being consumed by the flames. In 1790 this church (that is, Salem Church) with the Unity Church, called Rev. John McPherrin to minister to them. He was installed on the 20th of September, and preached there for thirteen years. In 1803 the two churches had some difficulty and he was released from further services at the Unity Church. From there he went to Butler County, where he spent the remainder of his life as a minister, dying there February 10, 1823, in the sixty-fifth year of his age. He was regarded by most of the Salem Church communicants as one of the ablest preachers of his day. Rev. Thomas Moore was called to preach there in 1804, but there is no record of his installation. He was dismissed in 1809, and the congregation was supplied with various pastors until 1813, when, on April 21st, Robert Lee was called and installed shortly afterwards. He was a tall slender man, with a thundering voice, and, it is said, would not allow a child to sleep in church. He was released by the Salem Church in 1819, and moved to Ohio. Thomas Davis, an Englishman, who had long been an elder in the Second Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, had been licensed to preach by the Red Stone Presbytery when over fifty years of age. He was sent to Salem and West Union as a supply, but they were so pleased with him that they retained him, and in October, 1822, he was installed as the regular pastor of Salem Church. He preached to them about nineteen years, although in the meantime he had been crippled for life by the fall of a limb from a tree, and his labors were attended with great difficulty. He died May 28, 1848, in the seventy-seventh year of his age. The old log church was burned down but a short time before he died. After the burning of the church they held services in a barn belonging to John Robinson. Rev. Davis was a plain, earnest and impressive talker, and with a bettor preliminary education might have ranked as one of the great pastors of his day. Rev. George Hill began to preach at Salem and Blairsville churches in 1840, following Rev. Davis. From March, 1841, he preached regularly until his death. After a vacancy Rev. Reuben Lewis was installed as pastor in 1851. He was released in January, 1855, and his successor, J. P. Fullerton, installed in 1857. Rev. William F. Hamilton began to preach there in 1868.

The New Alexandria Presbyterian Church was organized October 4, 1836. It consisted then of about seventy-one members. Rev. Adam Torrance was its first pastor, being installed June 13, 1838. The charge has always had a high standing in Presbyterianism in the county because of the high standing and character of its members.

The Livermore Presbyterian Church was organized in 1851, with Rev. George Morton as its pastor. He was released on April 1, 1853. During several succeeding years there were few supplies, and they were seldom ministered to. In May, 1861, Rev. J. B. Dickey was installed for half of the time. Rev. Dickey was released in June of 1863, and in October, 1865, Rev. David Harbison was called and supplied this church for half the time for eighteen months, after which he moved to New Salem Church. Rev. W. F. Hamilton was his successor, and divided his time between Livermore and Salem. He was installed on September 14. 1868. The first house of worship at Livermore was a frame structure, in which the Baptists had a share. I was a comfortable brick house, which was built in 1862.

As has been seen in the general history of the Roman Catholic Church in Westmoreland County, in an early day they had a small site in Derry Township. In 1844 Rev. J.J. Stillinger began to minister to the people between Blairsville and St. Vincent's, at a log church called Mt. Carmel. The church in Derry was erected in 1856, with Rev. Alto, of St. Vincent's, as pastor, until 1861, when Rev. T. Kearney, who had the charge at Latrobe, took charge of it at the same time. The line of public works, the first canal, the railroad, etc., running through the township, brought a large number of foreign laborers into it, a large proportion of whom were Catholics, and the erection of churches to accommodate them became a necessity. The number of Catholics who became permanent inhabitants of Derry Township increased correspondingly. They were supplied regularly from the monastery at St. Vincent's until 1856.

  1. Boucher, John N., History of Westmoreland County Pennsylvania, Volume I, The Lewis Publishing Company, New York, 1906.
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