About The Series

Even for the pioneers of Western Pennsylvania who had fought in the American Revolution and experienced the atrocities of the Indian wars, the ax murder on a homestead near Cross Creek on Sept. 4, 1796, was horrifying. The crime remains Washington County's coldest case – its oldest unsolved murder. “A Sense of Evil” is a true story, written by Park Burroughs, retired executive editor of the O-R.

Isabel's new world unfolds

A Sense of Evil, Part 2

Image description
The outdoor chapel at North Buffalo Presbyterian Church in Buffalo Township was erected in 1965 to honor the Rev. Matthew Henderson, who led worship in a similar setting just east of the present church beginning in 1775.

The story so far: James Ridgeway marries the widow Mary Leman Stewart, and with Mary's daughter, Isabel, the new family moves in 1795 from Sugar Hill to a much larger farm in what is now Mt. Pleasant Township.

In the old place they had lived, Isabel Stewart had no shortage of playmates. Perhaps a dozen of her Brownlee cousins were within a few minutes' sprint across their families' fields, close to where the Washington County airport is now. But now, however, since they had moved to Cross Creek, the closest neighbor was nearly a mile away, and Isabel would have rarely seen other children. Even if she had new friends, they wouldn't be running to each other's houses, not with the danger that lurked in the woods. Most likely she had been told many times by her mother and stepfather not to stray beyond the barn, unless she was interested in losing her scalp or being kidnapped.

Most of the Indians had been pushed to the other side of the Ohio River and beyond years ago, and the attacks on white settlers now were rare. But they still happened. Wary parents like Mary Ridgeway, Isabel's mother, when doing chores outside the house, frequently stopped in their labor to stand and listen, as do deer, eyes scanning the fence line and the surrounding woods for any kind of movement. The man Isabel now called father, James Ridgeway, would have never left for work in the fields without a knife and his gun.

Isabel had no time for play, anyway. She was of an age now, almost 10, when she was expected to work nearly as much as any adult member of the family; their survival depended on it. It would have been her duty to feed the cows, horses, chickens and pigs, to help her mother with washing, cleaning and cooking, and work beside her stepfather and the men he hired, raking and stacking hay and rye, weeding the gardens and bringing in the harvest.

At the center of Isabel's new world was a two-story log house, seated on a sandstone foundation. Beneath the steps to the front door was the entrance to the root cellar with an earthen floor, and attached to the side of the house was a separate building, the kitchen. The log barn also sat on a stone foundation, and situated about the property were a hog pen, a chicken coop stable and an outhouse.

Ridgeway had purchased the property – Belmont, as it was called – from Andrew and Sarah Walker on Feb. 3, 1795. (It was then in Cross Creek Township; in 1805, township boundaries were redrawn, and the land is now in Mt. Pleasant Township.) The Walkers had acquired it from John Leiper, a Revolutionary War veteran who had served under Gen. Anthony Wayne and had fought in some of the most noted battles of the war. Leiper had purchased the land from Joseph Wells, one of a family who laid claim to several thousand acres of land in what would become Washington County but was once part of Virginia and once considered to be owned by the indigenous Americans.

The view from the house to the south and east could be breathtaking on a clear day: a vista of rolling hills like sea swells stretching to the horizon. And all around, when the wind was still, columns of smoke rose from cooking fires of their neighbors: the Pattersons, the Sloans, the Grahams, from the home of Col. John Marshel and their nearest neighbor, John Smiley.

Not long after the little family's arrival, the landscape transformed to a sea of green with patches of umber from newly plowed ground. But when summer came, so did great clouds of locusts that nearly destroyed their first crops. The year ahead would be a hard one, not just for the Ridgeways but for all those living on the frontier.

After autumn, when the hills were aflame in foliage, the region slipped into deep winter, the hills were white with snow, and frozen air gave the woods a lavender glow. Their second summer, in 1796, had no plague of locusts and produced a much better harvest. Prosperity and security now seemed not so distant. •

The Ridgeways' new farm was farther away from Mary's widowed mother and their family and friends, the Brownlees, but they were closer to the church they chose to attend.

The Ridgeways had been introduced to the congregation by their brother-in-law James Brownlee, who had become a ruling elder of the church in 1778. From their old home near Chartiers Creek, the trip to North Buffalo might take as much as three hours. From their new farm on Cross Creek, James and Mary could cover the five or six miles in almost half that time.

In an address in Cincinnati in 1875, the Rev. W. H. French described the early days of North Buffalo Presbyterian Church:

“A log house was erected for the accommodation of the worshipers, into which the congregation was crowded in very inclement weather; when the weather permitted they worshiped out of doors, a sort of coop of a pulpit having been erected east of the present house.”

Despite the fact that another congregation of Presbyterians – Upper Buffalo – was worshipping in Buffalo Village just three miles distant from their home, the Ridgeways kept to the associate church at North Buffalo. That might have been because some of their new neighbors were members there, or it might have been the brand of Presbyterianism they preferred. Just as social issues today have split that denomination, so did congregations separate themselves then on moral and theological grounds.

The pastor at North Buffalo was the Rev. Matthew Henderson, who had begun preaching to a handful of hearty settlers there in 1775. He was installed four years later. But in October 1795, when the Ridgeways had been on their new farm for less than a year, tragedy struck the congregation when Henderson was killed instantly by a tree he was felling. Shortly after his death, the church obtained the services of the Rev. Robert Laird, who had recently come to America from Scotland. And it was Laird, then 47, who would be delivering the sermon in the grove on the fateful morning of Sept. 4, 1796, around which this story revolves. •

The last week of August and first days of September would have been less lonely for Isabel because two of her cousins had come to visit: James and Jane Brownlee's child, Joseph, 5, and William and Margaret's boy, Ebenezer, 11. On Saturday, Sept. 3, Joseph was taken to the North Buffalo Church, where his parents retrieved him and took him home.

The next morning, preparations were made to travel again to North Buffalo for the Communion service. It was decided that the Ridgeways and Ebenezer would attend, and Isabel would stay behind to look after the house.

The three started on horseback, but not long after, when the riders were near Downey's blockhouse, once a defense against Indian raids, Ridgeway discovered that in changing his clothes he had neglected to move his tobacco from one pocket to the other. Mary and Ebenezer continued on their way, and Ridgeway, not wishing to sit through an hours-long service without the comfort of a chew, turned back toward the house. He would say later that Isabel had discovered his forgotten tobacco and anticipating his return, walked down toward the end of their lane to meet him and make the exchange. After retrieving his tobacco, Ridgeway hurried off and was able to catch up with the others before they had reached the Middletown road. At about that time, Mary felt the first ripples of anxiety about leaving her daughter at home alone.

The Rev. John T. Brownlee of West Middletown, whose father was the visiting cousin Joseph, recalling in 1885 the story about what occurred that day, wrote:

“Isabel returned to the house. But how she spent that fated day, what were the thoughts revolving in her mind, as the hours wore slowly on, what were all the scenes that transpired in the doomed house that day, are among the hidden things which only the revelations of the great day of days will bring forth into the light.”

Next segment: Murder at Belmont

Park Burroughs has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1972. He is the winner of numerous state and regional awards for feature, column and editorial writing. He is the author of two books, “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor,” and "Washington County Murder and Mayhem." He retired in September 2012 but continues to contribute to the O-R’s news pages.

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