Note: More about the Fair Play Men, who according to legend signed the Tiadaghton Declaration under an elm along Pine Creek, can be found here: The Fair Play Men.
“Do you think the Tiadaghton Declaration existed?” Haylee asked as we walked across the grassy plot to stand in the shade provided by the trees growing on the bank of Pine Creek. The shade provided little comfort from the late afternoon heat.
“Do I think a group of men gathered under an elm tree on July 4, 1776 to sign their own Declaration of Independence?” I paused to watch a branch drift lazily on the waters of Pine Creek as I mentally debated my response. “The answer is no. However. do I think the Tiadaghton Declaration existed? It is possible.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question,” she responded.
“The problem is there are a lot of stories about the Tiadaghton Declaration. Growing up in the region, I first heard the story of the Tiadaghton Declaration as a lost treasure. I was always told the lost document was buried in a metal box near the place where Pine Creek empties into the West Branch of the Susquehanna.” The noise of a large truck passing noisily on the bridge spanning Pine Creek caused me to pause until it passed. “I spent too many years trying to track down a metal box that most likely never existed.
“If you peel back all the layers of the legend, here’s the basic story: The Fair Play Men signed a document somewhere in the West Branch Valley.”
“That’s not a very interesting story.”
“It wouldn’t be until 1858 that many of the elements were added to the story. It was that year the story was first recorded by Anna Jackson Hamilton in her widow’s pension application. Anna was the daughter-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, who was one of the Fair Play Men. In her application Anna recorded that the Tiadaghton Declaration was signed under a great elm along Pine Creek.”
“But wouldn’t that be a primary source to support the idea of the declaration?” Haylee asked.
“It should. My issue is she waited until eighty-two years after the events on Pine Creek before she decided to record it or even tell anybody about it. Almost all reports of the Tiadaghton Declaration being signed under the elm tree comes from her statement. I wish there was another early document to support this claim.”
“If you don’t think it was signed here, then where?” Haylee asked.
“There is a place nearby that makes more sense than under an elm tree,” I responded. “The problem is I’m not the first to believe the declaration was signed somewhere else.” I paused. “It was Henry Shoemaker’s idea.”
“Wait a second!” Haylee interrupted. “Didn’t you just tell me a couple stops ago to question anything he wrote?”
“I did,” I admitted. “But I find it interesting that he often refers to the document as the Fort Horn Declaration. Even though he spoke of the importance of the Tiadaghton Elm, he rarely called it the Tiadaghton Declaration.”
“Where’s Fort Horn from here?” she questioned.
“Fort Horn was on the southern bank of the West Branch a short distance upriver from here,” I paused long enough to point in the direction of Fort Horn. “The fort was erected by Samuel Horn near McElhattan. It would provide a safe place for the settlers to meet.
“Maybe they just met in somebody’s house,” Haylee offered.
“That’s a possibility,” I agreed.
“Do you think the Fair Play Men actually wrote it?”
“It is possible, there are numerous diaries and journals from this region that shows settlers in this region were very intelligent. It is possible they created a document stating their independence from Britain.”
“Here comes the however,” Haylee laughed.
“However, those same journals fail to mention a thing about the Tiadaghton Declaration.”
“But if they wrote it down, then it would be admitting to their attempt to separate from Britain.”
“You have a point,” I acknowledged. “But if they signed the document, then they were already in trouble.”
A long silence fell upon us as we stood there. I knew I had challenged the version of local history she had been taught in school. “You think it was all made up?” Haylee finally asked.
“No, I don’t. I believe all legends are based on truth. You just have to dig deep enough. In the aftermath of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, John Dunlap was commissioned to print copies of it. I believe one of these copies made its way up the Susquehanna River to the Fair Play Society. After reading it and agreeing to it, they signed it to show their support for independence from Britain.”
“So what happened to it?”
“Most legends state that it was buried for protection in 1778, during “The Great Runaway.” Depending on which version you believe, it was either buried near Pine Creek or near Fort Horn. The burial of the document seems to have been added in the late 1950s.
“There’s another version of the legend that claims the two messengers were either headed to or coming from Philadelphia when they were ambushed and robbed by a party of Tories and Delaware who destroyed the document.
“With this thought in mind, it may explain what actually happened to the declaration. During “The Great Runaway,” the document was destroyed by the raiding parties who pushed the settlers out of the West Branch Valley.”
“What if I tell you you’re wrong?” she asked in a serious tone. “I think it is buried in a box maybe right over there.” She pointed towards a nearby tree as she started laughing.
“Your theory is as good as mine. To be honest everyone I’ve talked to about the Tiadaghton Declaration has a different theory about what happened to it.
“But for now, the Tiadaghton Declaration is merely a legend involving those living on the Pennsylvania frontier.” With thought in mind, we left the location promising to one day to return and possibly solve the mystery of the Tiadaghton Declaration.