An Early American Story of the Shenango

On July 26, 1756, an 8-year-old boy by the name of John McCullough and his 5-year-old brother were playing along a road not far from the family’s house on the Conococheague settlement in what is today Franklin, Pa., when a neighbor rode toward them.

The neighbor, John Allen, warned the boys that Native Americans had killed a White man that morning and their lives were in danger. The boys were alone because their parents and sister were tending to crops. The brothers made it for their home in an effort to alert the rest of their family.

Just 50 yards from their house, “All of a sudden the Indians came rushing out of a thicket upon us,” according to McCullough’s recollection. It was preserved in an account he had first written in 1801, called “A Narrative of the Captivity of John McCullough,” transcribed in 1833. “They were six in number, to wit, five Indians and one Frenchman.”

What ensued was an odyssey that would take McCullough from his home to Indian settlements along the Shenango and Mahoning River valleys. Here he would spend the next eight years among the Delaware Indians. All of it played against the backdrop of the French and Indian War – by then a global conflict between the most formidable European superpowers, Great Britain and France. 

Shortly after their capture, McCullough’s brother was given to a Frenchman, while McCullough found himself adopted by the Delaware at Shenango Town, a Native American community of about 100 along the Shenango River in what is today West Middlesex in Mercer County. He never saw his brother again.

“On the third or fourth night we arrived in Shenango, about an hour after dark,” he writes.  After a family to whom he was introduced “set up a lamentable cry for some time, [they] came to me one after the other and shook me by the hand – in token that they considered me to stand in the same relationship to them as the one in whose stead I was placed.”

It was customary for Native American families to use captives to replace those who had been killed in battle. McCullough personifies such an experience. Over time, he would lose his command of the English language and become complacent with life among the Delaware. 

Each morning in the beginning of winter, McCullough’s adoptive uncle would toughen the young boy by placing him in the cold waters of the Shenango up to his chin “until he thought I had been long enough in the water. He kept this up even after the river froze. He would then break the ice for me, and send me in as before.”

Two years earlier, hostilities between France and Great Britain detonated near modern day Pittsburgh, as both empires maneuvered for control of the Ohio Valley and its potential for strategic military value and lucrative trade. 

In 1754, the French had driven out a small British contingent without firing a shot and then commenced to build Fort Duquesne. A force led by George Washington to dislodge the French was repelled later that year. In 1755, a fully loaded British campaign to retake the region under the command of Gen. Edward Braddock also failed, igniting an all-out war for control of North America.

In the crossfire were Native Americans. The French, who had already established fortifications and trading networks along the Great Lakes, had skillfully recruited Indian tribes from as far away as the upper peninsula of modern day Michigan to join the fight against the English. In the early stages of the conflict, the British were less successful in securing such alliances, enabling the French and its Indian allies to control the Ohio Valley.

McCullough writes of accompanying Delaware Indians to Fort Presque Isle on Lake Erie during treaty negotiations with the French. While his uncle returned to Shenango, McCullough stayed with his “Indian mother whom I had never seen before.” He also met a stepfather and two brothers. McCullough returned to Shenango Town by late 1757.  It was here where he witnessed 30 Mingo warriors moving through the village – one of them wounded and being carried by a prisoner.

By 1758, however, French fortunes across the Ohio Valley had taken a turn for the worse. Gen. John Forbes launched a successful campaign to capture Fort Duquesne, renaming the site Fort Pitt. Other military successes followed, causing anxiety among Native American communities who threw their support with the French.

McCullough and his Native American family moved from Shenango Town in the aftermath of Forbes’ victory and settled along a “new town” on the banks of the Mahoning River. It was in “Mahoning” that McCullough’s natural father located him. However, McCullough writes, he refused to return home. The father’s second attempt to bring the boy back home resulted in McCullough escaping and returning to the Delaware.

As the conflict between the French and the British waned – Great Britain would take Quebec in 1759 and Montreal the following year – tensions between British settlers and frontier tribes escalated, culminating in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763. With the frontier thrown into turmoil once again – especially after an Indian defeat at Fort Pitt – McCullough and the Delaware fled north to the Cuyahoga River, where they would remain several months before returning. Meanwhile, a British force under the command of Col. Henry Bouquet was dispatched to the Ohio country for the purpose of retrieving White settlers taken captive.

McCullough, now approximately 16 years old, was then delivered to the army and taken to Pittsburgh along with 300 others.

“I got home about the middle of December 1764, being absent (as I heard my parents say) eight years, four months and sixteen days,” McCullough writes.

Pictured at top: Looking northward along the Shenango River from under the Valley Road bridge in Jefferson Township. This area is part of the Big Bend Historical Area, a historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.(Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)