Pittsburgh is now the major city in western Pennsylvania, located where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio River. When that area was settled following the Revolutionary War, however, the initial government centers were at Greensburg, in Westmoreland County, and at Washington, in Washington County. (Note 1.) Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, was created primarily from the territories of those two counties by an act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1788. (Note 2.)
In support of forming Allegheny County, dozens of residents of Washington and Westmoreland Counties signed and submitted a petition dated February 12, 1787. (Note 3.) The petitioners stated that
it will be much nigher and more convenient for every person living within the beforementioned bounds to go to Pittsburgh to courts or market than to Washington or Greensborough, having the advantage of the diffirent waters leading to Pittsburgh to transport ourselves and produce.
The petition also noted that Pittsburgh “seems intended by nature for a place of consequence from its situation at the confluence of two large Rivers that glide through an extensive and fertile Country.”
It is on that document that the name of William Chribbs first appears in historical records, with his signature on behalf of someone else: “Wm. CHRIBBS for P. Murphy.” It is not clear that he was residing in the vicinity of Pittsburgh at the time, but he was undoubtedly present. (Note 4.)
Researching William Chribbs is easy in one sense—he and his immediate family seem to have been the only people to use that surname spelling. Anywhere the word “Chribbs” appears is likely to refer to him, his wife or children, or a grandson who was given Chribbs as a middle name. The family may be related to those named Cribbs, Cribs, or Krebs that are widespread in Pennsylvania, but no direct connection has yet been found. What is beyond argument is that William Chribbs himself spelled his last name with an “h” as shown by multiple examples of his original signature on surviving documents.
Chribbs was probably too young to serve in the Revolutionary War. Certainly his name does not appear in military records from that time. (Note 5.) If he was a non-English-speaking immigrant, he managed to master English and write it better than most of his contemporaries. For what it may be worth, his daughter Hannah late in her life reported to the U.S. Federal Census that he had been born in England. (Note 6.)
Chribbs married Elizabeth Denny on May 1, 1789, in Pittsburgh. (Note 7.) The couple was still living in Pennsylvania in 1792 when their daughter Mary was born. (Note 8.) Having a family was not to keep Chribbs from traveling. In the spring of 1793, his presence elsewhere is recorded in documents connected with American military activities along the Ohio River.
In late 1792, a military encampment called Legionville had been established 20 miles northwest and downriver from Pittsburgh (near the current town of Baden). Legionville was the first formal basic training site for the U.S. military. It was set up by Major General Anthony Wayne to support American efforts in the conflict with Indian tribes for control of the Northwest Territory. In March 1793, Wayne met with Indian chiefs to discuss terms of peace.
Later that month, in a March 30, 1793 letter to Secretary at War Henry Knox, Wayne reported from Legionville on various matters. (Note 9.) Beginning on page 2 of the letter, he noted that
a W Chribbs who arrived at this place the night before last says that in coming up the river about the first Instant he saw eight large rafts about fifty miles below the great Kenhawa [Kanawha River] from which upwards of one hundred Indians from every appearance had but recently landed on the Virginia side of the river. This does not look much like peace.
The Kanawha River, which is formed by the joining of the New River and Gauley River near Charleston, West Virginia, flows into the Ohio River at Gallipolis. General Wayne’s letter places Chribbs 50 miles further down the Ohio River, approximately where West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky meet. When this letter was published in 1959 as part of General Wayne’s papers, Chribbs was described in a footnote by editor Richard C. Knopf as a “sometime trader.” From this mention, it is apparent that Knopf was aware of Chribbs’s identity and activities, but nothing further about him is included in that volume. (Note 10.)
General Wayne’s March 30 letter was forwarded by Secretary Knox to President Washington on April 8. (Note 11.) Both letters can be found in the papers of George Washington, which are available in digital format on the Library of Congress website. Wayne’s March 30 letter is probably a copy made by one of Knox’s clerks for forwarding to President Washington.
On April 23, 1793, the forces that had been assembled at Legionville, now called the “Legion of the United States,” set off down the Ohio River for Fort Washington, located within the boundaries of present-day Cincinnati. From there, the army would march north later that year and ultimately defeat the Indian forces in the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo.
This detail of the 1781 French map depicted on the William Chribbs introductory page shows this portion of the country. Legionville was at the spot shown as “Logs Town” just northwest of Fort Pitt. The Kanawha River is listed as the “Great Kanhawa River.” Fort Washington was just east of the junction of the Great Miami River with the Ohio.
Chribbs apparently traveled either with the U.S. forces or in tandem with them at least as far as Fort Washington. On May 23, 1793, he signed a military expenditure receipt as a witness. (Note 12.) The document describes boatman services provided by someone named William Power. It was advertised for public auction in 2007 and remains in an unknown collection.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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