James Seals Jr and Sarah (Brown) Seals: Struggles of a Pennsylvania Pioneer Family

November 25, 2017

“It’s usual to see some undaunted men boldly encounter the most frightful of deaths, both in battles and in dangerous voyages…Yet it’s to be acknowledg’d [sic] that if they took a serious view before hand, of the perils they’re about to encounter, and consider’d [sic] ’em in cold blood, they would perhaps find difficulty to persuade themselves into such resolute thoughts; at least, they would not form their designs after such a daring and fearless manner.”

Written by Louis Hennepin, A Roman Catholic Priest and early explorer of the North American Interior.

Culture is a cluster of intangible and tangible aspects of life passed down from generation to generation. Throughout history, the chasm between cultures has proven to be a spark for dramatic conflict. For European settlers, land ownership and wealth has endured as a cultural symbol of prestige and power. Many European settlers who could never afford their own property crossed the Atlantic because of the promise of land ownership and wealth in the New World. In contrast, the Native Americans believed in using only what they needed to survive. To them, the concept of owning land was as absurd as trying to own the air. These cultural difference would yield decades of deadly conflict during America’s formative years.

James Seals Jr

James Seals, Jr. was a pioneering settler of Waynesburg in Southwest Pennsylvania. His was one of several families from Maryland that settled the region in 1774, and he constructed one of the first stone houses in the area. As a respected local leader James was appointed as one of the original commissioners of Washington and Greene Counties. His great-grandfather William was the first in the Seals line to immigrate to the New World, arriving in 1688 in order to expand the iron business on behalf of his Birmingham, England employers.

Stone house built by James Seals Jr.
The homestead of James Seals Jr

After serving in the Revolutionary War James was promoted to Captain of a group of Minute Men/Wood Rangers, defending the Pennsylvania frontier against Indian attacks. In 1780 he served as an Indian spy in the Ohio River Valley. As a local politician, the records show James to be an advocate for Washington and Greene County defense funding.

James appointment as Washington County Commissioner in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette on Mar 22, 1794.
Sarah Elizabeth (Brown) Seals

James Seals married Sarah Elizabeth Brown in 1784 after she was left a teen orphan. The story of her father, William’s death and brother, Vincent’s heroic fight for life is told in the History of Franklin Township:

“William Brown and his son Vincent, then an athletic young man, had proceeded with a sled load of their household goods as far down as the site of the old graveyard at the new brick church in Morrisville, where, meeting some friends, they stopped to chat. Whilst thus engaged they were fired upon by Indians who were lying in ambush hard by. William Brown and two others fell dead on the spot, but Vincent, not being hurt, ran like a deer, hotly pursued by one or more of the fleetest savages. He was so hemmed in by the assailants as to be compelled to shape his course in the direction of a perpendicular precipice of about twenty feet on the brink of Ten Mile Creek, just in the rear of the village. There was no alternative but to fall into the hands of the infuriated savages or make the fearful plunge over the cliff into the waters below. It was no time for indecision, and without hesitation he took the flying leap and lit in the middle of the stream, many feet fro the base of the cliff. The Indians paused, awe stricken and overwhelmed with astonishment; and while they gazed with bewilderment and contemplated the wonderful feat, Brown emerged from the water unhurt and undaunted, and continued his flight across the bottom land beyond. Ere his pursuers recovered from their, amazement he had so lengthened the distance between him and them that they gave up the chase.”

Jackson’s Fort was built within 1/2 mile of Waynesburg to protect the local citizens. When an alarm went out that Indians were nearby, the community ran to the fort for refuge.

James and Sarah (Brown) Seals’ family members impacted by violence during their pioneer years.

James and Sarah Seals raised 11 children in their Waynesburg stone house. In 1794 they gave birth to Samuel, who we are descended from. Samuel married Sarah Gordon around 1813. Tragically, Sarah Gordon’s grandfather, Simon Rinehart, was killed in the same attack that took the life of her husband’s grandfather, William Brown:

“A short distance below the old saw mill on Laurel Run, between Morrisville and the Camp Ground, still stands a tree with its trunk inclined and peculiarly curved across the stream. By this the original pathway led. On this an Indian lay concealed, waiting for the approach of Simon Rinehart, who was known to be coining with some of his household effects, transferring them to his newly acquired home. The skulking assassin had not long to wait till his victim appeared, and taking deliberate aim he shattered his arm. Rinehart beat a hasty retreat and endeavored thus to escape; but becoming faint from loss of blood, was overtaken near his home, and tomahawked and scalped. In the meantime Matthew Brown, a lad of about seventeen years, who was riding along on horseback, carrying a load of stuff; and had fortunately loitered some distance behind his father’s sled, upon seeing the Indians attack the movers, dashed down his load and rode at the top of his speed to the fort; but was so overcome with fright and horror that he could give no intelligible information, and his mother. Molly Brown, bled him in the arm with a penknife, ‘to bring him to,’ as she said. It seems that all the women and children had Veen gathered into the fort, but most of the men were at their farms, preparing ground for corn and potatoes. All the men in the fort, except two old men, immediately armed and started for the scene of conflict; but when they arrived the Indians had departed with their scalps and plunder.”

Sarah’s cousin John T. Rinehart’s family faced a similarly horrific event:

“At a time when John T. was but a little babe, his father was lured away from his cabin by what he took to be the bawl of a calf, and was killed and scalped by prowling savages. At a time when an alarm of Indians sent the Rineharts with hurried feet flying towards the fort, one of them, a young man who lived on the Jenny Rinehart property, a little way above Mr. Buchanan’s, after proceeding some distance, remembered that his cattle were penned up in the cow yard. Reflecting that it might be some days before they could venture back to their homes, and considering that if the cattle should be fortunate enough to escape the rapine of the savages they would perish for lack of sustenance, he determined to return and let them out. He did so, but that young man never again was heard of by his friends. Blood stain’s and some locks of auburn hair corresponding to his, and other evidences of a death struggle were discovered near the site of the cattle pen, but no other vestiges of his remains could ever be found, though the most thorough search was instituted. The theory was that he was murdered and his body so effectually disposed of as to baffle all efforts to reclaim it.”

When we understand the traumatic events which impacted the settlers of Waynesburg, it is easy to understand why James dedicated his life to defending the settlement’s safety. Despite the dangers of pioneer life, James lived to the ripe age of 76. He was buried in the Seals Cemetery in Waynesburg in 1832. Before his passing James appeared before the Court of Common Pleas to obtain the benefits of the recent act of Congress, which granted a pension to surviving soldiers. (You can see his complete pension file by clicking on the pension photo below.) His wife Sarah lived an additional 15 years before joining him in the Seals Cemetery.

Sarah Seals’ military widow’s pension application.
Click to learn more about James Seales Jr.

Hennepin, Louis. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. Reprinted from the Second London Issue of 1698, with Facsimiles of Original Title-Pages, Maps, and Illustrations, and the Addition of Introduction, Notes, and Index by Reuben Gold Thwaites. In Two Volumes. (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903). Volume 1.

Bates, Samuel P. History of Greene County, Pennsylvania. Nelson, Ruchforth & Co., Chicago. 1888.

Seals, James Homestead 1792: Circa 1900. Photograph of the Captain James Seals homestead in West Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania. The stone house was built in 1792. Original, professional photograph, no photographer listed. Archived at the Greene County Historical Society (918 Rolling Meadows Road, P.O. Box 127; Waynesburg, Pennsylvania 15370). Researched and digitized for the Greene Connections: Greene County, Pennsylvania Photo Archives Project between 2005-2012.

Seals, James Homestead Wide: Circa 1870. Photograph of the Captain James Seals homestead in West Waynesburg, Greene County, Pennsylvania. The stone house was built in 1792. Original, professional photograph, no photographer listed. Archived at the Greene County Historical Society (918 Rolling Meadows Road, P.O. Box 127; Waynesburg, Pennsylvania 15370). Researched and digitized for the Greene Connections: Greene County, Pennsylvania Photo Archives Project between 2005-2012.

Click on the ancestry lineage photo above to connect to our family Ancestry.com tree which contains additional sources.

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