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Exploring History

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 10:25 p.m.

Most western Pennsylvania residents are aware that at least one week in November features a stretch of warm, balmy weather which usually followed a spell of cold temperatures.

This mild interlude, known as Indian Summer, always is regarded as a delightful prospect. During the American Revolutionary War, however, the white population residing upon the frontier west of the Allegheny Mountains certainly did not welcome “Indian Summer.” In fact, they regarded it as a sinister prospect.

Throughout the Americana Revolution (1775-1783) hostile Indian attacks were regular events during the warmer months of the year. The main culprits for the bloody forays originating from the western “Ohio Country” were the various Native American tribes allied with the British, namely the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wynadot. Meanwhile, the warriors of the Iroquois Confederation came south in similar raids from western New York as well as Canada.

All of these war parties generally preferred to attack isolated small settlements and farmsteads. Those victims not killed outright during the raid were transported as captives to the raiders' distant frontier strongholds. All of the buildings at the attack site were burned, along with the personal properties that they deemed useless.

With the exception of a few sturdy horses, the livestock was slaughtered. Before departing the scene the last act was to torch the nearby crop fields. The warriors usually were long gone before any relief force put in an appearance.

These marauding bands, however, were known to seek out larger targets. For instance, in July 1782, Chief Guyasuta led a Seneca war party into Westmoreland County. Amid this incursion the war party burned down most of the town of Hannastown, the county seat. Moreover, rumors circulated periodically that a formidable force of Loyalist rangers and Mohawk warriors from Canada would be heading southward along the Allegheny River to attack Fort Pitt.

White settlers, therefore, welcomed the advent of autumn. They knew that the enemy soon would be returning to its respective villages for the winter. Raiding ceased primarily because tracks could be easily traced through the snow by vengeful pursuers. Consequently, by late October the threat of further raiding virtually ceased.

Nonetheless, warm weather fronts, in mid November, often drifted northward through the Ohio River Valley into western Pennsylvania. The region subsequently would be experiencing a fortnight of mild, fair weather. Accordingly, residents beyond the Allegheny Mountains made sure their weaponry was handy. Such precautions were prudent, especially when enemy warriors suddenly emerged from hiding within the surrounding forest.

As the historian, Richard T. Wiley, once remarked: “So the people of that day came to dread ‘Indian Summer' and to hope that it might be omitted when winter seemed to have settled in” The notion that “Indian Summer” was a pleasant prospect did not become prevalent in western Pennsylvania until decades after the frontier had moved far to the west.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.