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This is an Historical Sketch of Richard “Graybeard” Wells

and His Pioneer Farm and Family


E. Elza Scott

Historian;, Radio Lecturer and Pres. of the Tri State Historical Society

The Tri-State Historical Society, in cooperation with Mr. Bert Wells, the present owner of the Wells farm, and a direct descendent ( the great-great grandson) of the original settler, Richard “Graybeard” Wells, is happy to present this informative sketch in appreciation of your attendance and interest in t his, our 3rd annual “Pioneer Sunday meeting”. We hope this information may add to your enjoyment and rekindle or quicken your interest in local history, and the various objectives and activities of our organization.

Aside from being one of the earliest homesteads in the Tri-State district, this place, or rather the Indian fort on this farm, which was located about 200 yards northwest of the historical old burial vault, was the seed-bed or starting place of two very important and far reaching social movements in this tri-state section.

One was the very early church services held here at Wells fort under the leadership of RICHARD MC CREADY, JOHN MORRISON, WILLIAM MC CANLESS, SAMUEL STRAIN and other Christian settlers of the neighborhood. As the attendance increased, together with similar meetings at Vance’s Fort near Cross Creek Village, Pa. he news of the religious activity reached the Presbytery at Philadelphia which sent REVEREND POWERS into the region to investigate. As a result he preached one of the first regular church sermons under an oak tree in front of Vance’s Fort, and later DR MC MILLAN came into the region to serve as regular pastor. He eventually established the academy at Canonsburg which later developed into Washington and Jefferson College. Wells Fort was the church, the School and also a place of retreat from Indian attack, and the Social Center of a wide community for at least 6 or 8 years.

The other historical social movement was the teaching of the first school in this whole region in the Wells Fort by ROBERT MC CREADY about 1777 or 1778.

Wells Fort also had its place in the military history of the district. It was the stopping place, in the summer of 1782, of a portion of COLONEL WILLIAM CRAWFORD’S army when he, with 480 men from the tri-state region came west, from what is now Fayette, West Moreland and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, to Mingo Bottom ( now Follansbee) on their way to attack the Indians at Sandusky. COL. MARSHALL, LIEUTENANT, of Washington County, Pa., in the summer of 1782, wrote as follows to GEN IRVINE, in command of the Western Department for protection of the settlements: “Tomorrow I intend marching whatever men may rendezvous in this quarter, to Richard Wells Fort, which is within five miles of Mingo Bottom, at which place I intend to stay, if circumstances will admit, until I hear from you” - Butterfield Crawford Expedition p 265. Among that group was MAJOR ROSE a Russian nobleman, and the only Russian who fought in the American Revolution. It was this same Major Rose, who after Col Crawford’s captive, gave valuable services in directing the retreat and bringing the defeated troops back to Mingo. Col. Crawford was a chum and very close friend of George Washington. He was a brave Revolutionary soldier who suffered most cruel torture for two hours, and death by burning at the stake. The retreating soldiers reached the Ohio River at what is now Mingo Junction, in the evening and recrossed the river to the Follansbee side to spend the night, feeling that they would be much safer on the Virginia side from the pursuing savages. The next day they disbanded and returned to their homes.

Richard Wells who settled this farm in 1772 was generally known as “Graybeard” to distinguish him from two others named Richard Wells who also settled claims only a few miles away. He was a native of Baltimore County, Maryland, being born there October 25, 1772, who he was 30 years of age he emigrated west and settled four hundred acres of land in what was the Youghiogheny county, later Ohio County, Virginia. It is now Brooke County, WV, this farm comprises 115 acres of the original 400. The balance of the original tract lies north and to the west of this farm. It is bounded on the east by the Pennsylvania state line.

Immediately after establishing his claim Richard Wells returned to Baltimore and brought back with him a party of men, some of whom he secured by buying their time of an emigrant vessel, his payment to the Master of the ship to go to paying the fares of the bondmen. It was the practice in those days for emigrant vessels to bring passengers from Ireland to America, who were unable to pay their fares, and sell their time to the settlers, who needed laborers and would pay their passage money for their labor. The emigrants entered into an indenture to work a certain length of time for the sum paid. It is said the conditions of these obligations were always faithfully complied with.

With his party of men, Mr. Wells brought horses, tools and such farming utensils as he could pack across the mountains, arriving at his destination early in the spring of 1773. The first thing they did was to build a stockade, or picket fort, to protect themselves and other settlers from attacks by the Indians, who were, at that time and for many years after, frequently committing murders among the frontier settlements. The fort was built by cutting white oak logs about twenty feet long, splitting them in two pieces, digging a ditch six or seven feet deep around a plat of ground sufficiently large to build their cabins inside and for other convenient room. These split logs were set on end in the ditch, two pieces facing inward and one set inside, facing out, to cover the joing, tamping them solid with earth or stone, thus surrounding the grounds, cutting a small door and a number of small port holes, from which to fire on Indians in case of attack.

Thus protected, Mr. Wells commenced clearing his lands for cultivation, and in a few years with his force of men, converted a large portion of the forest into fruitful lands. He soon became one of the leading and most prosperous farmers in the then frontier settlement. His fort was never molested, while others in the surrounding country were frequently attacked. He often related an incident which he believed was one of the causes of his fort and property not being injured by the savages. One day he was out some distance from the fort, with his only dog and gun, when he saw two Indians dodging through the woods. He prepared to attack, but they made signs of friendliness; he responded, and they together in a friendly manner. They then made signs of hunger; he invited them home with him, fed them bountifully, kept them over night, gave them breakfast the next morning and when they started gave them provisions enough to last them two or three days. When they left they expressed their gratitude by calling him “much good man”; “friend of Indian” and other demonstrations of gratitude. Mr. Wells always thought these two Indians reported to their tribes his kindness to them and true to their natural instinct, they remembered not to return evil for good.

As time passed he made frequent trips east, stopping in Bedford County, PA. where in 1776 he married EDITH COALE, born July 17, 1740. Believing it dangerous to bring his wife to the new settlement while the Indian troubles menaced, he allowed her to remain at her old home, where he went himself to spend the winters, returning to the farm in the spring times, till she died February 10, 1783, leaving a son, Jesse, who was born January 3, 1779 and a daughter, Jemima, born June 25, 1870. In 1783 he brought these two children to the fort. To bring them across the mountains he procured two large baskets, tied a rope to each handle and swung them across a horse, over what was then called a wooden pack-saddle, the baskets being well cushioned and lined with sufficient blankets for comfort; the children were put, one in each basket, and in this manner they made the trip across the Allegheny Mountains. They safely arrived at the fort, where with the aid of a negress servant and house-keeper, he remained, raised his children and settled for life.

After Mr. Wells became permanently located in his new residence, which he built about the year 1790, he went back to Baltimore and brought home with him his aged father and mother. JAMES AND HONORA WELLS. The exact ages of these pioneers are not recorded, but sufficient is known to say they were born early in the 17th century. Both lived to be nearly one hundred years old. Mrs. Wells died in the year 1796, and her husband James Died in 1804. Both are buried on the old homestead farm of their son Richard, now held by his direct descendants.

Up to the present time eight generations of Wells have lived on this farm. The present owner if the sixth generation, and his children and grand children constitute the seventh and eighth generations.

When Ohio County was organized by division of Youghiogheny County, it embraced the whole Panhandle of Virginia. Richard Wells, being one of the earliest and most prominent of the Pioneer settlers, was appointed by the Governor, one of the first board of Justices of Peace, who organized the first County Court to West Liberty who was selected as the County Seat.

In 1797 he purchased a tract of 217 acres of land in Brooke County on the banks of the Ohio River immediately opposite where Steubenville now stands. The price paid was small. The deed shows a sum of five shillings, but it is now believed it was five shillings an acre. Two years later, by legislative act, he established a ferry from this land to the Ohio shore, his friend and relative BAZALEEL WELLS, at that time owning land on the Ohio side, who had in conjunction with JAMES ROSS, laid out the town of Steubenville. The rapid growth of the new town, with the large emigration from the east into Ohio, made his ferry very profitable. It was continued as a ferry without intermission till about 1905 when a bridge was built for electric cars, vehicles and pedestrians.

A circumstance occurred with Mr. Wells, which may be worth of notice here. It was about the time the continental money became worthless, and it required many days for the news to reach the frontier settlements. Some sharpers in the east gathered large quantities of it and hastened to the west to purchase improved farms. Mr. Wells by this time had his land in a high state of cultivation, when one of these sharpers called on him, offered a high price for his premises, in contintental money, which he agreed to take. They were to meet the next day at the office of the notary public to close the contract, but that evening a friend arrived from the east and reported the depreciation of this paper. The next day, meeting the sharper, Wells exhibited such wrath hat the scamp fled the country. From that time to the day of his death, Mr. Wells would never receive any paper money in his business transactions, and it became understood by traders that whatever they bought of him must be paid in gold or silver.

He lived to the ripe old age of 89 years and was buried on this farm beside his father. In 1838 - 102 years ago, Jemima Wells, his daughter erected the burial vault to which she removed her father’s remains. In 1860 she died and her remains were also placed in the family burial vault which after more than a hundred years is in excellent state of preservation. The remains of Richard’s son Jesse, and his wife and one son James, and his wife are also buried in the stone walled enclosure around the vault.

Nathanial Wells, youngest son of Jesse and Susan Wells, before mentioned, was born in Brooke County, VA., June 19, 1809. At the age of twenty-seven he was married to MARY ATKINSON, daughter of WILLIAM ATKINSON, ESQ. of Brooke County, on the 28th day of February, 1836 and on he first day of April following, removed to and took charge of the ferry property and hotel opposite Steubenville. This property at that time belonged to his father, JESSE WELLS and Jesse’s sister Jemima, before mentioned. He immediately commenced improving it by removing the old stone building, replacing it with a large spacious brick hotel, and necessary outbuildings, doing a prosperous business until August 18, 1840 when his wife died, leaving one son LEWIS. Mr. Wells continued on in business, and on June 31, 1842, married REBECCA OWINGS, daughter of ASA AND MARY OWINGS of Brooke County.

In 1849 Nathaniel Wells was elected to represent Brooke and Hancock Counties in the Virginia Legislature, in which he served from 1849 to 1852. During his term in the legislature the people of his district were petitioning that body for a grant of the right of way for the Pittsburgh and Steubenville Railroad across Virginia , now West Virginia, along the Harmon’s creek valley. Mr. Wells labored hard to procure the necessary legislation for the road. The right of way for several miles across the territory of Virginia would connect two great lines of railroads in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the question which was beginning to boil at this time between the free and slave states had aroused a deep seated prejudice in the Virginia heart against the free or “Abolition States” as they chose to call them, and any legislation hat had for its o object the benefit of Ohio or Pennsylvania received a cold shoulder from the Virginia legislature. From this and other causes the right of way was rejected at every session from 1847 to 1853. The prospect of obtaining it from Virginia being hopeless, Mr. Wells in company with JESSE EDGINGTON, who was a man of large means, possessed the energy and public spirit, purchased from the owners along the route 100 feet from the Ohio River to the Pennsylvania line, received titles in fee, simple, put the road under contract and built it in private account, under the firm of EDGINGTON AND WELLS. The work was commenced in June 1853 and on July 4, 1854, a passenger train ran from the Ohio River across Virginia to the Pennsylvania line. When completed it became a part of the great Pan-handle road.

Virginia prejudice ran so high against the road that the governor ordered the attorney general to institute legal proceedings against the parties to stop the work. A suit was commenced by state authority against Edgington and Wells, in the circuit court of Ohio County. With able counsel they met the issue and the proceedings were quashed. Not satisfied with this repluse, the state commended a suit in the Brooke County circuit court, charging Edgington and Wells with conspiracy against the laws of the state. They again met the issue and were sustained. The enemies of the road, still unwilling to abandon their opposition to it, procured the introduction into the Legislature of a bill, declaring it a misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment in the penitentiary, for any person or persons to build a railroad in the state without first obtaining a charter from the legislature. Edgington and Wells hearing of this, proceeded to Richmond to look after their interest. The result was, the bill failed to become a law. Thus ended legal proceedings and matters stood as they were, until after the rebellion began when the state of West Virginia was established, and upon an application to its legislature in session in Wheeling, an act was passed legalizing the road and authorizing the building of a bridge over the Oho River at Steubenville.