Cambria County with land area of 458,880 acres, population over 200,000, more than half being within the limits of the greater Johnstown metropolitan area, was created by an act of the Legislature in 1804 from parts of Huntingdon, Somerset and Bedford Counties, the actual county organization coming in 1807. Its history dates back 40 years earlier.
The first record of a settlement is that of Solomon and Samuel Adams, who located a grist mill on Solomon Run a few years prior to 1770, the exact date being unknown. Between 1797 and 1808 four more villages were founded, within the territory now embraced in the county — Beulah, 1797; Conemaugh (now Johnstown), Loretto in 1800; Ebensburg in 1807; and Munster in 1808.
Beulah grew rapidly for a season, maintained a church, and had a weekly newspaper — The Western Sky — the parent of Cambria journalism. It died young, when Ebensburg was chosen as the county seat. Not a house or street of Beulah remains today.
To a priest of foreign lineage, the story of whose career sounds like a romance of the middle ages, Cambria County owed much of its early importance. Clergymen figured prominently at the outset of its existence, three establishing towns years before the county was organized. The Welsh adhered to the faith of their ancestors, the German element was principally Amish in belief, and it was reserved for one zealous missionary to plant the Catholic religion on a firm basis. A remarkable man was the Rev. Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin. The son of a Russian prince of the highest rank, who married the daughter of a field-marshal under Frederick the Great, from infancy he held a commission in the Russian army. Europe, ravaged by wars, and the French Revolution about to convulse the continent, his parents decided that young Prince de Gallitzin should visit America to gratify his desire to travel. With the Rev. Mr. Brosius he landed at Baltimore in August, 1782. A train of peculiar circumstances directed his mind to ecclesiastical study. Renouncing his brilliant heirship, he placed himself in the charge of the venerable Bishop Carroll, completed a theological course, was ordained and labored a year or two in Maryland. Hearing of the settlements near the Alleghenies, he turned his course thither late in 1789. Selecting a commanding location, he instituted Loretto and gathered around him thousands of faithful adherents. For forty-two years he exercised pastoral functions, toiling unremittingly and spending a princely fortune to further the cause for which he had sacrificed home, ease and luxury. Churches, schools, a seminary, a college, and a priestly order were literally created through his marvelous efforts. He died at Loretto on May 14, 1840.
In the Conemaugh Valley, sublimely grand in diversified scenery, small clearings began to appear while Prince Gallitzin labored. The closing years of the eighteenth century found the inhabitants, just annexed to the new county, Somerset, planning a separate judicial organization. The act of March 26, 1804, detached 670 square miles from Huntingdon and Somerset for this purpose. The new county was named Cambria, in honor of old Cambria, Wales.
April 3, 1769, will never be forgotten by Cambria County residents. General Charles Campbell of Philadelphia, then filed an application in the land office, at Harrisburg, for a lot that was to become the birthplace of a prosperous community. The tract lay at the junction of two streams, Little Conemaugh River and Stony Creek. United they formed the Big Conemaugh, though all three were once included in the comprehensive title of Kiskiminetas River, into which they emptied. The land was sold again and again until finally purchased by Joseph Schantz, or Johns, who is usually considered the first permanent settler in the vicinity. Born in Switzerland in 1750 he immigrated to America, worked in Lancaster County, Pa. Then he went to Berlin, Somerset County, removing to the Campbell tract in 1791. He built a log dwelling on the flats near Stony Creek.
There he lived with his wife and four children for about 16 years, and moved to a farm he had purchased in 1804 from John Stover, eight miles up the Stoyestown turnpike and a mile east of Davidsville. In 1810 he died and was buried on the farm. The graveyard is a fitting resting place for the founder of a city. It is a plot 30 feet square, on the hill summit, commanding a superb view. The German Family Bible, printed at Germantown in 1776, has one page written by Mr. Johns in 1779. The record gives the dates of the birth of his two sons, one of whom died in 1796, and three daughters. The descendants of one daughter live in Indiana County, those of another are in Canada, the family of the third live near the homestead. The original transfer of the Campbell property is recorded in Bedford County, from which Westmoreland was set off in 1773, Somerset in 1795, and Cambria in 1804. Tradition mentions several persons as actual residents of the neighborhood in 1777. If so, their sojourn was probably cut short by the cruelty of the Indians, and to Joseph Johns unquestionably belongs the honor due to the founder of Johnstown.