Evidence gives support to tales of local history in South Hills area

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A wooden cross at the base of a more than 200-year-old oak tree in Bob Cranmer's front yard honors a woman and her three children likely killed by American Indians.

Their grave, probably from the late 1700s, is verified by tales from those knowledgeable about the area, letters between leaders of the Northwest Indian War and a radar scan of the tree's base, said Cranmer, 56, of Brentwood, a former Allegheny County commissioner whose 1909 house was featured in a television documentary chronicling an exorcism he requested there.

Cranmer believes the woman's husband planted the tree at the property's entrance along Brownsville Road as a memorial for his family. Cranmer is writing a book on the history of the house, set to be published by New York-based Berkley/Penguin Group next year.

“It's pretty compelling,” he said of the history he unearthed in his yard.

The Cranmers moved into their home nearly 25 years ago. It often attracts questions.

“People were always like, ‘Oh you live in that home?' ” said Cranmer, president of Cranmer Consultants. “If you're from the South Hills, you generally know something about this home.”

He was always curious about the tree. The home's former resident, Walter Wagner Jr., told him about a town legend that George Washington camped there.

Wagner, 78, of Bristol, Ind., who grew up in the home, said he is uncertain where he heard the tale.

“It just seems to be something that somebody once told me,” he said.

Then a woman told Cranmer about the possible murder of a woman and children on his lawn.

She heard that Indians “killed and scalped” family members living there during post-Revolutionary War years, before the current home was built. The father, who was away when they died, buried his family in the yard and transplanted the tree at their grave.

“I said, ‘Well, that's a pretty neat story,' ” Cranmer said.

To find out if it were true, he searched the Internet and the National Archives, reading war department documents. He came across a letter from Isaac Craig, the commander of Fort Pitt, to Secretary of War Henry Knox, dated March 31, 1792, during the Northwest Indian War. The letter referenced the wife of Deliverance Brown, killed with her three children.

“(The Indians) wanted to terrorize these people from trying to settle out here,” said Cranmer, a history buff. “Come 1791-92, this was a very dangerous place to be. I'm told this story and then I read this. How unique that in the same time period I find a record of three children and their mother being killed by the Indians.” Yet he wanted physical evidence.

While watching The History Channel's “Unearthing America,” he learned about a technique: holding two copper rods steady while walking above a grave will cause the wires to cross, he said.

Cranmer tried it on the grave of Pete, the family's cocker spaniel.

“It responded,” he said. “So with that, I took it out to the front yard and sure enough, when I got near the tree, these things just started going crazy. It's almost like it's mechanical.”

He hired Ground Penetrating Radar Systems Inc., a company The History Channel used to find a graveyard, to examine his yard. The results showed a man-made, 11-by-6-foot, disturbance at the base of the tree. The company's report said the findings are consistent with “an excavated grave site, with what appears to be the remains of objects four to five feet down from the surface.”

“The images that were depicted would have shown four people buried horizontally,” Cranmer said.

Cranmer's son, Bob Jr., 27, said he was “taken back” as he watched the radar experts in his childhood yard.

“Although, I'm not too surprised,” he said, because he, too, has heard stories about the property over the years. “Older people would be walking down the street and see us on the porch and would come up and share stories with us.”

A few week's ago, Cranmer called Wagner to tell him about his findings. This was the first time the man whose family lived in the home for more than 30 years had heard of a possible burial ground on the property, Wagner said.

“That's a little bit shocking. I could see it as being a possibility,” he said.

Cranmer said he has done what he can to determine the history of the tree and burial site. He doesn't want to disturb the grave.

Instead, this spring he plans to place a brass plaque there.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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