Looking south across the Mahoning Valley.
The last two years have been difficult. I should correct that. The last seven years have been difficult. And so I pay attention to those times when I lose track of time because I am immersed in a task or experience in which I can lose myself completely. These are times when am I totally “in the zone.” I have tried to be intentional about creating these opportunities to lose myself as a way of finding the center of what gives me joy in the midst of stress. For some people this may involve going to an orchestra concert or cooking. For me it is always the puzzle of wondering about a place—searching, finding, and visiting it—and contemplating its place in a larger historical and geographical narrative. I can’t say why this is the case for me but from an early age I would look at maps and try to imagine what a place would be like or pack a lunch and follow the railroad tracks that ran through my back yard as far as I could.
I have been wondering about a particular place for several years. In an earlier blog (Water Gaps and Cultural Gaps) I wrote about my ancestors’ narrative about being captured by Native Americans in 1780. I have continued to wonder whether I could find the place where they lived at the time. And I have been feeling the impulse to search and find this place before I move away from the east coast. The opportunity to try to find it came with a visit to friends within several hours of the place that I wanted to explore.
My starting clues included the narrative which said that the Gilbert family settled on the far side of the Blue Mountain, six miles from Fort Allen on Mahoning Creek. They established a mill on the creek. My brother sent me a google map with a six-mile scale from central Lehighton, PA outward along the Mahoning Creek. Fort Allen was on the Lehigh River, or present-day Lehighton. And my brother sent a google satellite image of one small spot along that scale that looked like a one-lane road and marker at the end asked, “I wonder what that is?”
Mahoning Valley extends southwest from Lehighton, PA. The Lehigh River provided a route through the mountains to access the valley (USGS Map).
Before setting off to explore, I made sure I understood the possibilities in terms of directions from Lehighton. It became clear that the creek emptied into the Lehigh River at Lehighton so the only possible direction was west, going upstream. I then used the web to figure out the township and county of the area—presently Carbon County and Mahoning Township. I considered six miles to be the outside possibility because that was a straight line and I was certain they did not follow a route as the crow flies. Looking at present-day maps, I could see that branches of the creek converged at several places between 4 and 6 miles out from Lehighton.
An example of one of the sites where tributaries come together to form the main channel of Mahoning Creek
It seemed reasonable to assume that the stream flow for a mill would be better downstream from these sites. At about six miles out I found Mill Road which was at one point of stream consolidation. More stream branches came together to form the stream at four miles out at Seneca Road. Both were possibilities—but a place name like Mill Road could be a crucial clue.
Having identified several possible locations, I searched for the oldest township maps I could find in order to try to look for further clues. The earliest plat maps I could find were from 1860 and 1875. These maps were constructed long after the event that led me on the search. And I was not surprised that I could not find anything earlier. Yet echoes of the past still remained. The 1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon (HF Walling) showed a grist mill and a saw mill along the creek at the four-mile point where Seneca Road is presently found. The 1875 A Guide to the Property Owners had a SM (saw mill) noted at the same place and had a land owner nearby with the last name of Gilbert. I had identified a target location! And it made sense—this was closet location to Ft. Allen where all the branches of the stream came together, forming good flow for a mill. And Mill Road was just a bit far to be certain of its location as a possibility.
1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon
1875 A Guide to the Property Owners
Actually finding the place was quite easy. From the highway that followed the creek I turned north on Seneca Road and immediately crossed Mahoning Creek. A house sat on the north side of the creek. I parked and walked across the bridge to view the creek.
Afterward I started to drive up Seneca Road to get a better view of the Mahoning valley when I remembered my brother’s question: “I wonder what that is?”
I turned back and looked for a short road with something at the end and didn’t see anything. But then I saw a flat piece of granite, totally out of context, near a swing set in the middle of the yard of the house that sat along the creek. When I parked and walked over to it, I read: In memory of the Benjamin Gilbert Family and others who were taken captive by the Indians April 25, 1780…
As I drove back to my friends’ home, I retraced the route that my 6th great grandfather, Benjamin Gilbert, had taken to get to that place on Mahoning Creek through the Lehigh River water gap through the mountains. I lost myself that day in the exploration of the historical and cultural layers of a landscape. And I continue to contemplate its place in the historical and geographical narrative of my own life.