“Where are we headed to now?” Haylee asked as I turned onto Railroad Street, heading out of Jersey Shore.
“Pine Creek,” I answered as I turned onto Tiadaghton Avenue. Where the road ended, I turned left onto River – also known as Old River – Road. I could see the modern Bridge spanning Pine Creek and announced we had arrived at our destination.
I parked on the small gravel lot located on the western bank of Pine Creek at the junction of River Road and a private road that disappeared towards the West Branch of the Susquehanna. I got out of the vehicle and scanned the area. It had been a couple years since I had last visited this overlooked spot, but it appeared nothing had changed.
As we walked over to look at the stone markers, one had an old plaque for the Pine Creek Presbyterian Church. The plaque on the second stone was missing. It had been one of the original historical markers that existed before the modern blue signs. I knew it had marked the importance of the Tiadaghton Elm and the events that happened here. Yet sadly it was gone, taken by person or persons unknown for reasons unknown.
We crossed the grassy lot and paused to read the familiar blue Pennsylvania historical marker, which told the history of this place.
“Hey!” Haylee exclaimed as she read the title of the historical marker. “I learned about this in school!”
“You did?” I asked. “Tell me about it.”
“There was a group of settlers who declared their own independence on July 4, 1776.”
The group of men, known as the Fair Play Men, were illegal settlers who lived in the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna in the area between Lycoming and Pine Creeks. This piece of land was in dispute from 1763 until 1784, due to nobody knowing where the Tiadaghton Creek actually was located.
The Treaty of 1763 placed the border between the British and the Six Nations as the Tiadaghton – however the problem was the identity of the Tiadaghton Creek was vague. The Six Nations stated it was present-day Lycoming Creek while those pushing into the American frontier declared that present-day Pine Creek was the Tiadaghton – even the early journals of those exploring the region are unclear of which stream was the Tiadaghton. While the Six Nations might have signed the treaty not all of those living under their guidance agreed with it and Delaware and Shawnee raids into the region were common.
Pennsylvania’s provincial government did its best to keep peace on the frontier. They attempted to keep people from settling in this disputed region, but it did not stop squatters. The response by the Pennsylvania provincial government was to refuse protection to those living in these disputed lands. The closest official protection these settlers had was Fort Augusta at present-day Sunbury. This did not stop these settlers from erecting their own forts in West Branch Valley and soon squatters were settling on lands as far as the Great Island near Lock Haven.
The squatters in this region developed their own system of government that they called the “Fair Play System.” John Meginness records in his History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania how the Fair Play System worked. The settlers elected three commissioners each March for a one year term. These three men were responsible to resolve any issues among the settlers and see that everyone was dealt with fairly. Once they reached a decision it was final – there was no appealing their judgment on the cases they heard. How early this system of justice started is not definite, but it is known that it was used from 1773 until 1785.
Meginness records in History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania notes the three commissioners in 1776 were Bratton Caldwell, John Walker, and James Brandon. Meginness also adds in his other writings the following members of the Fair Play Society: Thomas, Francis, and John Clark, Alexander Donaldson, John Jackson, Adam Carson, Henry McCracken, Adam DeWitt, Robert Love, and Hugh Nichols. Other early settlers who have been connected to the Fair Play Men were: Alexander Hamilton, Hugh White, Peter Pence, James Crawford, Philip Quiggle, Samuel Horn, William Campbell, and Robert Covenhoven. Note: sources differ on who was and was not a part of this socuety. I’ve read everwhere from thirty families upward to eighty families were a part of this frontier government.
Most of the stories involving the Fair Play Society involve property disputes, but they also deal with any problems arising with the society, including theft and domestic abuse. One of the more interesting stories that comes out of the society is an attempt to explain the society was “fair” to everybody living in the region.
The story accredited to Joseph Antes, the son of Colonel Henry Antes, tells of the case against Francis Clark. Clark had a dog in his possession that belonged to a local Indian. The local Indian went to the Fair Play Men and reported the theft. The Fair Play Men ordered Clark’s arrest and a trial for the theft of the dog. Clark was found guilty and was sentenced to be lashed. To determine who had to deliver the lashing, a red grain of corn was placed into a bag containing yellow kernels for each man present. Philip Antes selected the red kernel. Before the punishment was inflicted on Clark, the Indian suggested that Clark be banished instead and the Fair Play Men agreed and Clark left for the Nippenose Valley.
The most notable event involving the Fair Play Men is their signing of the Tiadaghton Declaration. According to regional lore, on July 4, 1776 the Fair Play Men met under the Tiadaghton Elm and signed their own version of the Declaration of Independence. The story continues that it was then sent to Philadelphia with two messengers.
Then what happened to this declaration is a mystery. Various legends tell of their journey to Philadelphia only to find that the Continental Congress had already signed the United States Declaration of Independence. Local legend claims that the Fair Play Men buried their version of the Declaration in an iron box and buried it within sight of Fort Horn.
“Do you think the Tiadaghton Declaration existed?” Haylee asked.
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” I answered. “That’s a debate that has yet to have a definite answer.”
Note: continued in The Tiadaghton Declaration.