Meriwether Lewis, descending the Ohio River to meet William Clark before heading west to discovery, fame, and eventual suicide, couldn’t quit writing of the multitude of squirrels. His journal, begun upon leaving Pittsburgh in early September 1803 mentioned them daily: “Observed a number of squirrels swimming the Ohio,” “the squirrels still continue to cross the river,” “saw and caught, by means of my dog, several squirrels, attempting to swim the river.” Lewis’s observations were only one of many accounts of a peculiar event quite common in the early 19th century: squirrel migrations.Keep Reading
The Pringle brothers were weary of the French & Indian War, nor did they care for the uneventful life of a soldier on garrison duty at Fort Pitt. Had they been born two centuries later, they could have watched a Pirates game, but in 1761 their options for excitement were limited. So they decided to desert the British army, heading upstream along the Monongahela River, avoiding wolves, bears, Indians, and the military until they found a ready-made hideout: the hollow of a giant American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). They lived inside the eleven foot-deep cavity for several years, hiding from the authorities, hunting and fishing for their sustenance, and obviously not terribly afraid of spiders.
In an age when most people prefer houses, living inside a tree seems rather crowded and uncomfortable, not to mention the difficulties that accompany arranging furniture in a round room, something to which Rapunzel could attest. But the early settlers of the Ohio valley didn’t expect to be comfortable. They were tough, rugged, hardened, and smelled bad enough to be oblivious to discomfort. Furthermore, it took time to clear land and build a cabin. They needed a place to live in the meantime. Sycamores, most of which become hollow as they age, were more than accommodating.
If it wasn’t for the multitude of accounts of monstrous sycamores one could easily dismiss the reports as exaggeration, tall tales having by then already
become an American tradition. There are numerous anecdotes of the hollow trees being used as smokehouses, granaries, living quarters, stables, and dining rooms. For example, in 1749 a Frenchman, Monseigneur Bonnecamps, and his party dined inside a sycamore tree. Sure, they could have had a picnic but eating outside wasn’t as much fun when there was no proper inside for contrast, so they entered the tree, said their blessing, and had their feast. This particular tree being so commodious, Bonnecamps would later write that 29 men were “ranged side by side” within the trunk, an unusual after-dinner diversion but illustrative of the size of the cavity. Unfortunately, as the camera had yet to be invented, he was unable to take a photo of the event. One rarely gets to see 29 Frenchmen inside a tree.
Pittsburgh printer and publisher Zadok Cramer, a Quaker with business interests on Little Beaver Creek, wrote the following in his Cramer’s Ohio & Mississippi Navigator, a popular 19th century travel guide:
“The Sycamore seems to be the king of the forest on the banks of the Ohio. Their monstrous growth, towering height, and extended branches really fill the beholder with awe and astonishment. Between Wheeling and Marietta I measured several from 10 to 16 feet over [diameter], four feet above ground, and this seems to be their common size…In the fall of the leaf, and when the year’s growth of bark begins to peel off these trees, the rays of the bright moon playing through their white branches, form a scene uncommonly brilliant, and quite cheering and amusing to the nightly traveller.”
And if a Jesuit priest and a Quaker are not convincing enough, George Washington, who as everyone knows was made of marble and incapable of telling a lie, was so impressed with the size of the sycamores that he took time to record the dimensions of several specimens near the mouth of the Kanawha river in present-day WV, on a Sunday no less, colonial Sabbath strictures obviously not applying to running up and down the riverbank measuring trees. Washington wrote in his diary:
“…we met with a Sycamore abt. 60 yards from the River of a most extraordinary size it measuring (3 feet from the Gd.) 45 feet round, lacking two Inches & not 50 yards from it was another 31 round…”
As the 19th century progressed and the upper Ohio Valley became more settled, rugged pioneers turned into sturdy farmers who no longer needed to share houses with owls and spiders and by the 1830s, sycamore living was a thing of the past.
The French & Indian war concluded in 1763 and the Pringle brothers, no longer wanted for desertion, left their tree in 1767 and returned to civilization. They never did get to see a Pirates game.
After various posts in Canada and France as a missionary and professor of mathematics, Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps became a précepteur des enfants (a cooler way to say private tutor) in France, where he died in 1790, presumably never again having dinner in a tree.
Soon after having returned from the Ohio valley to Mount Vernon, his estate in Virginia, George Washington was too busy founding a country to mess with measuring trees. He continued to tell the truth.
“[A tree]…in Scioto county, Ohio, on the land of Mr. Abraham Miller, into whose hollow thirteen men rode on horseback, June 6, 1808, the fourteenth did not enter, his horse being skittish, and too fearful to advance in so curious an apartment, but there was room enough for two more.” Cramer’s Navigator, 1821
In most of the world, sycamores are known as plane trees.
Due to the peculiar seed balls, it is often called a buttonball or buttonwood.
A sycamore tree can live for 500 years and reach heights of over 120 feet.
The largest known living specimen is in Jeromesville, Ohio; a monster measuring 129 feet high, nearly 49 feet in circumference, and with a crown spread of 105 feet.
The sycamore trees common on the streets of E. Liverpool and other towns are a hybrid known as the London Plane Tree, a cross between the American Sycamore and the Oriental Plane Tree. They are more tolerant of air pollution and may be distinguished by the presence of seed balls in pairs, not singly as in the American sycamore.
In the Bible, Zacchaeus climbed a tree known as the sycamore fig, unrelated to our sycamore trees.
At daybreak the fog lay heavily on the river as it had nearly every morning since Capt. Meriwether Lewis and his party of eleven soldiers and hired hands left Pittsburgh six days earlier. As he directed the morning activity of the camp at the northern tip of Virginia (present-day Chester, WV) and waited for the fog to disperse, Lewis may have reflected that for someone who hoped to traverse the continent, much of it terra incognito, the beginning of the voyage had been less than auspicious. He undoubtedly looked forward to reaching Wheeling, where the river would deepen, allowing Lewis and his men to spend more time in the boats and less of their day in the water dragging the boats over the numerous sandbars that awaited anyone traveling the shallow upper Ohio River. Though widely considered the most beautiful waterway in the fledgling United States, the Ohio upstream of Wheeling was notoriously difficult to navigate in low water and as Lewis would write in a letter to President Thomas Jefferson several days later, the water level in the autumn of 1803 was “lower than it has ever been known by the oldest settler in this country,” a scant six inches deep in some places. The pattern since leaving Pittsburgh had been thus: float several miles, get fast on a sandbar, drag the boat off, repeat.
Lewis had arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15th, anxious to disembark soon after and join his partner, Lt. William Clark, who awaited him further downstream in Kentucky. Lewis had expected to find a 55-foot keelboat finished and ready to descend the river; what awaited him was the frame of an unfinished craft and a drunken boat builder with corn whiskey on his breath and a ready supply of excuses and empty promises. Lewis sent some of his baggage overland to Wheeling and then attempted to oversee construction of the vessel while the boat builder continued to drink. On August 31st. , two weeks after his arrival, the keelboat was completed. He and his men loaded the craft and a large canoe that Lewis had also purchased, and left three hours later.
The first four days of travel had been nearly as frustrating as the wait. On the morning of the 4th, after having left their camp near present-day Beaver, PA they had traveled for only an hour when the “pirouge” (a canoe that speaks French)  sprang a leak and nearly sank, a mishap Lewis considered “truly distressing, as her load consisting of articles of hard-ware, intended for the Indians got wet and I fear are much damaged.” Having bailed out the water and jury-rigged the craft as best they could, they set off again and had floated only three miles further when the keelboat “got fast on a bar” just below Georgetown, PA.
Georgetown hadn’t exactly blossomed since it was founded by Maryland native, Benoni Dawson, a decade earlier. When Lewis arrived on that autumn day in 1803, it was still an insignificant village, described by traveler William Newton Mercer as “the last and among the least towns in Pennsylvania.” Christian Schultz, writing several years later, was more specific: “The character of Georgetown is not much esteemed by navigators of the Ohio; it is particularly pointed out as being inhabited by a set of quarrelsome fellows…” Meriwether Lewis, as it turned out, would not have disagreed. He and his men could not dislodge the keelboat from the “Georgetown Bar” without the aid of horses or oxen. Reluctantly, he sent to Georgetown for help. He had hired locals for the same purpose since leaving Pittsburgh and wasn’t pleased with the prospect, explaining that “The inhabitants who live near these riffles live much by the distresed situation of [the] traveller, are generally lazy, charge extravegantly when they are called on for assistance, and have no filantrophy or contience [sic].” Although it is not known how much was paid for the assistance, the additional help enabled them to dislodge the vessel, although still “with much difficulty.” Lewis also took advantage of the interruption to purchase another French-speaking canoe as well as to hire an additional hand by the name of Wilkinson to replace another he had dismissed at Beaver. Whether Lewis was overcharged for the help in getting the keelboat dislodged from the bar is unknown – that he was swindled by whomever sold him the canoe and two poles he purchased for $11 is certain, for they had hardly gotten underway once more when Lewis discovered that the new pirouge leaked as badly as the older one, dangerously so. Lewis had no choice: both canoes were unsafe and though it was still early evening, he determined to stop for the night. Finding a suitable location a couple of miles below Georgetwon “on the east short,”  Lewis set his men to work repairing both of the watercraft and laying out the soggy gifts to dry in the sun. By nightfall the items were dry and Lewis ordered them wrapped in oilcloth and repacked in wooden casks. He was pleased to note in his journal that the “articles were not as much injured as I had supposed.” Still, it hadn’t been the best day.
Although September 4th had been frustrating, Lewis probably found it difficult to be pessimistic the next morning as the rising sun chased away the fog. He stepped onto the keelboat, his Newfoundland dog, Seaman, at his side and directed the men to disembark. It was 8 a.m. as they set off. Although they “got fast” on several more occasions, he found it unnecessary to hire any more assistance from lazy, over-charging locals before reaching Wheeling two days later, having traveled 90 miles since leaving Pittsburgh. In Georgetown, someone may have been rather pleased with himself for selling the leaky canoe, little dreaming that he had bilked what would become one of our nation’s most celebrated journeys of discovery, the Lewis & Clark Expedition. It was a mere footnote to an enterprise that would take the men across the continent and back, but on the shallow upper Ohio in that autumn of 1803, Virginia native Capt. Meriwether Lewis may have earned an extra measure of the patience, fortitude, and perseverance for which he would be remembered.
A careful reading of the journal indicates that Lewis used the terms “pirogue” and “canoe” interchangeably.
The “hand by the name of Wilkinson” who Lewis had hired at Georgetown was dismissed in Marietta on September 13th.
It is interesting to speculate on Lewis’s use of “on the east shore” when referring to the party’s camp on the night of September 4th. A glance at the map will show that the Virginia shore would have been south and the Ohio shore north. Did Lewis mean Virginia, which would be the eastern shore once the group turned south soon after leaving the next morning or the eastern shore as it had been since they’d left Pittsburgh, in which case Lewis and his men would have camped for the night somewhere near Fawcettstown, now East Liverpool, in Ohio?
Once again my dad and I went looking for the Pennsylvania & Ohio paper mill. As we were looking, we found a well. I started to dig. Sadly, I found nothing but dirt. But I didn’t dig that far down. We did find a lot of pottery somewhere else.