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Woman seeks to preserve story of Massey Harbison

| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006

Drenda Gostkowski is trying to ensure that the story of Massey Harbison lives on for younger generations of history enthusiasts.

Gostkowski, a retired elementary school teacher from Winfield, recently had reprinted the autobiographical account of Massey Harbison's escape from Native Americans in 1792.

Harbison was 22 years old and several months pregnant with her fourth child when she was taken hostage by American Indians from her home in what is now the River Forest area of Allegheny Township.

Two of her young sons were murdered and she clung to a third as she was forced across the Allegheny River toward an Indian encampment near present-day Butler.

There she was able to escape with her surviving son and slowly made her way, barefoot and wearing only nightclothes, to her eventual rescue along the Allegheny River near what would become the Fox Chapel Yacht Club.

Days after her escape she was taken to Pittsburgh to give a deposition of her ordeal to a judge.

Gostkowski said she isn't certain whether Harbison's autobiography, "A Narrative of the Sufferings of Massy Harbison, From Indian Barbarity," originally was published by Harbison or printed by an editor using a copy of her deposition.

The first known copies of the book were printed in 1825, right about the time Harbison would have needed an income, Gostkowski said.

Harbison divorced her frequently absent government scout husband after bearing 11 of his children and subsequently had no home of her own. She lived in the homes of her grown children until her death in the 1830s or 1840s, Gostkowski said.

"I suspect Massey needed money," Gostkowski said.

Gostkowski came across an older version of Harbison's account during her research for an audiotaped driving tour of Harbison's escape route, which Gostkowski produced several years ago along with Sue Przybylek of Buffalo Township.

The idea to reproduce the book came up about six years ago and Gostkowski worked with Clinton Township resident Doris Herceg to retype and edit the narrative exactly as it appeared - complete with misspellings, typos and grammar more familiar to a 19th century audience.

"It's been a long time coming," Gostkowski said. "I wanted it to be exact."

The small 81-page, 4-by-7 inch black book is printed simply with "Massy Harbison" in gold on the cover and spine. Gostkowski said the only major difference in appearance in her edition is that she didn't have it bound in leather, which would have doubled the cost.

Gostkowski paid more than $2,000 to have 200 copies of the book reprinted. The copy includes the original narrative plus an addendum of maps, photographs and illustrations from her research.

She is selling the book for $20 apiece through her Web site, which is dedicated to other local history projects including the 1918 mass grave of influenza victims in Winfield and the former U.S. Steel plant in what is now the Victory Road Business Park in Clinton.

As money from book sales comes in, Gostkowski said she'll have more copies reprinted. Any additional proceeds will be used for other historical projects, including having the Harbison driving tour recorded on compact disc.

She said she'll keep researching Harbison and sharing her findings, with hopes that Harbison's story will be taught in local history classes.

"I've become the Massey Harbison guru," Gostkowski said. "I'm so addicted to this woman."

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