St Clair Cemetery, Mt Lebanon, Allegheny Co, PA

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Fearless Females: Grandma Massey Harbison, Surviving an Indian Kidnapping in 1792

Fearless and courageous are only two of the words used to describe Massey (Massa) White HARBISON.  Her story still makes me catch my breath every time I read it.

Massey WHITE,  a child of American Revolution patriot Edward WHITE, was born in 1770 and witnessed early American history firsthand.  She is believed to have witnessed battles close to her home in Somerset County, NJ.  Her father relocated the family to western Pennsylvania, and that is where her hair raising story really begins.

Massey married John HARBISON in 1787 and they became one of the first settlers on the headwaters of Chartier's Creek in the northwestern part of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.  They were accustomed to making mad dashes to nearby blockhouses when the Indians attacked and killed the locals.

John fought in St. Clair's army and was wounded when St. Clair and men suffered a huge defeat against the western Indian tribes in 1791.  After he had healed, he served as an Indian Scout in the Allegheny frontier.

In May of 1792, Indians attacked their home while John was away and dragged Massa and her children out of bed.  One of the small boys was crying such that the Indians dashed his head on the doorstep, before stabbing and scalping him.  To her horror, Massey and her remaining two children were taken hostage.

Many of her captives were known to her and could speak English.

As the band of Indians and their captives were crossing down a steep bank to the Allegheny River, Massey threw herself off the horse.  The horse that carried her son fell and injured her son.  The Indians then killed him.  She wrote, .."When I beheld this second scend of inhuman butchery, I fell to the ground senseless, with my infant in my arms..." (1).

When she awoke, she saw the scalp of her child on the ground and was beaten yet again. They later crossed into the Indian side of the country.  She thought death would be welcome at this point, and expected to die when she threw down the powder horn (not once, but three times) that the Indians forced her to carry (as she was carrying her infant.)

She passed the first night of her captivity with her arms pinioned to her back and with a savage to each side of her.  The next morning, Massey bravely tried to take a tomahawk before being detected.  Quick on her feet, she explained her infant was trying to play with it.

The Indians had been successful in losing the settlers and were vigilant in their lookout for pursuit.  The second night, Massey was moved to another station.  The next morning, some of the Indians went off again to see if the settlers could be seen.  Massey faked being asleep, and her one remaining guard did fall asleep.  She grabbed a pillowcase and hankerchief and made her escape.  She changed courses several times during her escape in order to deceive the Indians.  The Indians did search for her and came close to her hiding spot.  She stuffed the cloth in her infant's mouth to keep him quiet. For over two hours, the Indian stood still and close to her hiding spot.  He did not leave until his friends called for him.

She crossed the creek above Pittsburgh and found a path to follow. For a few days, she wandered trying to find help, while fearful of being detected by the Indians.  She despaired that both she and her infant would die.  Only the thought of her infant dying after her kept her determined to find help.

When she heard a cow bell and saw some settlers, she called out to them.  They asked her name, and checked to see if it was a trap.  When one of the men saw her condition, he asked her again who she was.  It was one of her neighbors who knew her but did not recognize her in the week since she had been gone.  Her appearance and voice had been altered.

Massey survived, although the events of the kidnapping altered her life forever.  Her story was told and retold after the event in newspapers of the time.  In 1825, she published a book on the ordeal.

You can call her brave.  I can call her grandma.  You see, her daughter, Margaret, is the third wife of my 4g grandfather.  While I don't share her blood, Massey was the only grandmother my 3g and 2g grandfathers knew.

There is a park named for Massey as well as a DAR chapter in Pennsylvania.

Ahh, genealogy.  Honoring the amazing women in my family history makes me so thankful for them and their sacrifices.


(1) Flood Tides Along the Allegheny by Francis R Harbison, 1941.;cc=pitttext;xc=1;idno=00z836437m;g=text-all;xg=1;q1=massey%20harbison;frm=frameset;view=image;seq=7;page=root;size=s

History of Butler County Pennsylvania, 1883


©2011 AS Eldredge


Doug DeLong said...

Massey Harbison was my great,great,great,great Grandmother. The infant with whom she escaped was my great, great, great Grandfather. I have just recently been researching this old family story that my aunts and uncles would tell every so often when I was a child. thank you for publishing it.

Anonymous said...

So, Doug, what can you add to the story? Guess we are kinda related thru 2nd marriage of Massey's daughter.