by Tom Headley
It would probably surprise many people to learn that today’s Forward Township and much of what we call Western Pennsylvania, was once considered part of Virginia. Here is the story behind this little-known fact.
In the 1700’s, Native Americans, mostly Delaware and Mingo, utilized our area as hunting grounds without permanent settlement. Beginning around 1740, French and later English began commerce with the Indians, exchanging furs and skins for trade goods. In 1747, influential Virginians formed the Ohio Company and were granted large tracts of land at the “Forks of the Ohio” by the British Crown, an area also claimed by France. In 1753, the French ignored a demand they leave the region issued by Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie. This dispute resulted in the French & Indian War, much of which was fought in this area by British troops and Virginia militia under the leadership of George Washington. The Penn Government, which was Quaker, provided no troops and little funding. At the war’s end in 1763, Virginia felt the region belonged to them.
A road, built by General Braddock in 1755 from Wills Creek (Cumberland, MD) to the Monongahela River provided a route for settlers to move into the region from the south. Whites could not legally register property prior to 1768; however, a few intrepid men braved Indian raids and staked claims in the rugged wilderness prior to that date. Among those were five Applegate and two Wall brothers. These seven, all related by marriage, came from Monmouth County (Princeton) New Jersey and located in Forward in 1766. They called this area “Jersey Settlement” after their previous home. In 1769 they were joined by their wives and children by which time the district had more than 25 settlers.
Registration of land was complicated. This area was claimed by both Virginia, by Royal Grant, and Pennsylvania, based on Indian purchase. The Mason-Dixon Line, surveyed between 1763 and 1768, only established the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland leaving the Virginia-Pennsylvania line unresolved. Administration of the region was in dispute since it was simultaneously Cumberland County, Pennsylvania and Yohogania County, Virginia with its county seat in Pittsburgh. This argument intensified in 1773 with the establishment of Westmoreland County, PA with a county seat at Hanna’s Town near today’s Greensburg. During Dunmore’s War (1774), Virginia militia based at Fort Pitt, and Pennsylvania forces from Hanna’s Town fought over which state had legal claim to the area. In 1777, Virginia moved the Yohogania Court House to the Andrew Heath farm (today’s Floreffe) across the river from Forward, where it remained until 1779. Some early properties in Forward have Virginia deeds. A few were registered in both states to be absolutely certain of ownership.
The statehood question was important. Land in this region was awarded as an inducement to those who served in the Virginia Militia during the French & Indian War. For this reason, many settlers were from Virginia and some of these owned slaves. After years of discussion, Pennsylvania, in 1780, began the gradual process to emancipate slaves held by its residents. In 1778 Allegheny County was split off from Westmoreland County and the entire area between the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers, including today’s Forward, became Elizabeth Township. Reflecting the Virginia influence, the 1790 census for Elizabeth Township showed a population of 1600 including 21 slaves. Due to the American Revolution, the border question was not finally resolved in Pennsylvania’s favor until 1786.
NOTE: Tom Headley is a Township Supervisor in Forward Township. There is a brief Bio of Tom on the Forward Township Webpage in the "Township Supervisors" section.
Click here to go to: Forward Township Webpage