Joseph Barnett (February 11, 1754 - April 15, 1838)

Born February 11, 1754, Paxton Township, Pennsylvania

Died April 15, 1838 Port Barnett (Brookville) Pennsylvania

Married July 3, 1788


Elizabeth (Scott) Barnett

Born (?) 1773, Paxton Township (?)

Died August (?) 1838 Port Barnett (Brookville) Pennsylvania

Early Life

In sharp contrast to his "patriotic sire", the life of Joseph Barnett is well documented, remarkably so for an ordinary citizen of his time. This is due to the efforts of genealogists who have traced the land records and to Joseph’s status as the founder of Jefferson County (Pa.). Little is recorded about his wife Elizabeth Scott, though she and her brothers played a large role in settling the county.

A physical description of Joseph as an older man remains. He was a small man, being about five feet eight inches tall and weighing about 108 pounds. He had a " smooth shaved face and a frank and open countenance" and is also called a "rather homely man with prepossessing presence", which may have had something to do with the eye he lost in a fight while a young man. Other sources recall him as "a very eccentric, high-minded man (who) took a part in all the leading business transactions of the day", though this may refer to the settled patriarch rather than the pioneer.

In brief, Joseph and his brother Andrew were orphaned at an early age and raised by relatives. He participated in the Revolutionary War, crossing the Delaware with Washington. After the war, he settled near Jersey Shores (Pa.). He lost title to most of his land in a legal dispute, married and then at the turn of the century, moved his young family into the wilds of central Pennsylvania to found Port Barnett. He and his family are central to the early history of Jefferson county. He lived a long, eventful and well documented life.

Expect for his birth date, which he remembers seeing in his father’s family Bible, little is known of Joseph Barnett’s early life. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by unknown relatives in the Paxton Township area, just miles from present day Harrisburg. Born in the year that the French and Indian War broke out, his youth was doubtless full of the alarms and strife typical of the American frontier. At one point, the Conestoga Indians kidnapped a young Barnett from the area, who was later returned in a scene reminiscent of Richter’s "A Light in the Forest". The Scotch-Irish settlers felt exposed and abandoned by the British and colonial officials and were ready for action when revolution beckoned.

War Service

According to his Revolutionary War pension affidavit, Joseph enlisted in the 1st Company, 4th Bn., Northumberland County (Penn.) militia (commanded by Capt. John Clark) on September 26th, 1776. The company served in the Philadelphia area as Washington’s army resisted the British advance. Later the unit took part in the attack across the Delaware, where they saw action. They also fought off a British attack in the area of Perth Amboy (Ash Swamp). After going into winter quarters, where Barnett served as an orderly sergeant, the unit was discharged in April 1777.

In the fall of 1779, Joseph Barnett rejoined the Pennsylvania militia in a company commanded by William Allen. They marched north into the Wyoming Valley, where there were concerns about Indian attacks. They converted a house into a blockhouse near Bloomsburg and were billeted there for three months before again being discharged.

A 1782 roster of the Lancaster County militia, 2nd company, 10th Bn lists both Joseph and Andrew Barnett in Captain McMillan’s company. While it is not certain that these were "our" Barnetts, they listed their residence as Paxton Township, so it is likely.

Settler and Pioneer

Following the war, Pennsylvania granted 200 or more acres of the state’s wild land to veterans. In 1784 and 1785, Joseph and his brother Andrew exercised warrants for 400 acres of land in Pine Creek Township, near present day Jersey Shore. This land was located where the Pine Creek entered the Susquehanna River. This area was a legal nightmare, with conflicting claims, poorly done surveys, Crown grants, absentee landlords and Scotch-Irish settlers like Barnett calling for "Fair Play" for actual settlers.

By 1786, Joseph was serving as an election inspector. From 1786 to 1788, Joseph was listed as single and owner of a sawmill and 100 acres. Andrew, also single, owned 170 acres. It was during this time that Joseph apparently lost his left eye in fight at the sawmill. This was followed by a severe blow. In 1788, court ruled that the Barnett’s land warrant was invalid and a portion of his land was forfeit. This may have included his sawmill. For a single 34 year old veteran, this was a major setback.

Sometime during that disastrous year, Joseph Barnett married Elizabeth Scott, whose family was part of the Paxton area Scotch-Irish community. No record of the marriage exists. At that time, Elizabeth Scott would have been about 16 years old, less than half Joseph’s age. The 1790 census lists the family as three, with a male over 16, most likely Andrew, but possibly one of Elizabeth’s brothers. The year 1790 also saw the birth of the first two Barnett children, the twins Sarah and Thomas, on March 11th. Shortly after that, the family moved back to Paxton Township area, apparently to Linglestown, where both Joseph and Elizabeth had relatives. Joseph reportedly worked on contracting and building bridges.

A second son, John, was born June 16, 1795, probably in Linglestown. This was also about the time that Joseph sent his brother Andrew and brother-in-law Samuel Scott to explore the French Creek area, with an eye toward a sawmill and settlement. The two stopped at the junction of Little Mill Creek (later Red Bank Creek) and Sandy Lick Creek. Returning to Linglestown, the group arranged to purchase the land. This land would become Port Barnett.

The area had many natural advantages. It was on a trail blazed in 1788, which was significant when large areas were trackless. That trail became a state road, then a highway and is now Interstate 80. The Red Bank Creek flows into the Allegheny, which enters the Ohio at Pittsburgh. Just 10 miles away the creeks flow to the Susquehanna and the Atlantic. This location at the head of navigation justified naming the hilly area "Port" Barnett. The mountains were heavily forested, ready made for a sawmill. Later generations would mine coal in those mountains. The site is at the intersection of U.S. 322 and state 236, east of Brookville, just south of where I-80 reaches its highest point.

In the spring of 1797, Joseph and Andrew Barnett, Samuel Scott and Scott’s adopted son, Moses Knapp, returned to the site. Joseph, as leader of the party, expressed his satisfaction with the site and the party began building a cabin and sawmill.

There are two stories about the construction effort, both involving neighboring Seneca Indians. One account says that the Indians would not work until they had eaten all the available provisions, which took three days. Then they said "Me eat, me sleep; now me strong, now me work!" A different account says that Barnett invited the Indians to dinner during construction, hoping for their help. After dinner, one of the remarked "Dinner, Indian sleep an hour, then strong" and then disappeared into the woods. An hour later, they reappeared and helped in the construction. The first story is commemorated in an engraving and both are part of local legend.

Joseph returned to his pregnant wife, while Andrew and Samuel Scott remained to finish the work. Andrew soon fell sick with cholera and died. Scott and two Indians buried him at the junction of the creeks. The grave was apparently rediscovered in 1900 and 1975. Alone in the wilderness, Scott returned to Linglestown.

After Scott’s return, the Barnett’s fourth child arrived, on November 22, 1797. The baby was named Andrew after his recently deceased uncle. The project was put on hold until 1799, when Joseph Barnett, Samuel Scott and Moses Knapp returned to finish the mill and saw the first lumber. Barnett returned and brought his family to Port Barnett in November of 1799.

Their possessions for the journey included two cows and seven horses, five of which carried packs and only two of which were ridden by the family. The party consisted of Joseph’s family, Samuel Scott, Moses Knapp and probably John Scott, another brother-in-law. Thus the Eighteenth Century ended with the Barnetts established in the wilds of Central Pennsylvania.

Port Barnett was indeed wilderness when founded. The nearest neighbor was 33 miles to the east, on the other side of the divide. Within a few years, other settlers began to filter in. Food was often scarce and the settlers lived on green corn and boiled pumpkin seeds at times. Lumber brought in cash, with the wood being sawed at Port Barnett and then rafted down to Pittsburgh. The settlers would the canoe the supplies back up the river. Flour was a needed staple and Joseph Barnett once carried a 60 lbs. of flour from Pittsburgh on his back, a trip of about 100 miles.

Joseph Barnett added a gristmill in 1801, helping to alleviate the flour problem. The same year, he invited a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Isaac Greer, to visit the area, which visit was repeated the following year. He also welcomed the first permanent minister, Rev. Robert McGarrah in 1809. The family were stout Presbyterians and took their children 40 miles to Indiana (Pa.) to have them baptized.

The first white child born in what became Jefferson County was Joseph and Elizabeth’s fifth child, Rebecca, who was born August 6, 1802. The following year, the Barnetts and others started the first school. The Scotch-Irish were well known for their emphasis on education and Port Barnett had a school before it had a church, elections or a post office.

In 1804, the area was organized as Jefferson County, consisting of one township. Joseph Barnett named the township after his former home - Pine Creek. The first election were held in 1806 at the Barnett house. The first assessments were made in 1807, with Joseph Barnett’s holding including 100 acres of land, a distillery, one horse and five cows. Over time Barnett added mills (both saw and grist), expanded his house into an inn/tavern and started selling merchandise. He also introduced apple trees to the area. Among his other tasks, Joseph Barnett served as: Pine Creek Tax Collector (1813); Constable (1814) ; County Supervisor (1817).

The community continued to grow as the trail became a road and then a turnpike. The 1810 census showed 161 residents, of which nine were Barnett’s family. By 1826, daily stagecoaches were passing the Barnett Inn. When the county commissioners met for the first time in 1824, it was at the inn, where they rented a room to conduct business from. Andrew Barnett was one of the original commissioners. By 1826, Port Barnett merited a post officer and Joseph was named postmaster. The original Barnett-Scott store was purchased by Jared Evans (the source of the Evans name later used by the family) in 1826.

By 1830, Barnett was retired, then being over 75 years of age. In 1832, Congress passed an act providing a pension to the few remaining Revolutionary War veterans. He swore to a declaration of his active service and duly was awarded an annual pension of $26.66.

Joseph Barnett’s long and eventful life ended on April 15, 1838, at age 84. His wife lived another four months, dying at age 65. They are buried in the cemetery on Pickering Street in Brookville.

Barnetts and the Indians

The Barnetts had solid relationships with the local Indians, who were much reduced by warfare and disease. They used his grist mill and he acted as banker for them and the rest of the community. Once the Indians decided to withdraw their silver from his locked box and the account was counted out as 50 cents short. Joseph asked the Indians to recount the coins, but they came up short again. They then ordered him to come outside so they could shoot him. He complied but asked them to count again before killing him. They did and the missing coin was found. The Indians rejoiced that their banker was a true friend and not a thief. Joseph just rejoiced.

Another story told had to do with Indians camping near Barnett’s mill. They ate with the Barnetts and their leader became ill. The rest of the Indians told the family that if their leader died, they would kill the family. Everyone was thankful when the leader recovered.

The Indians also had a hidden source of lead, a valuable commodity on the frontier. They traded frequently with Barnett to their mutual benefit.

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