Preface in Juniata, River of Sorrows

Juniata, River of Sorrows
Juniata, River of Sorrows: One Man’s Journey into a River’s Tragic Past
“A great historical book…colorful...stirring…moving…a fascinating blend of documentary and discovery by a master storyteller....”
—Josephine B. McMeen, Huntingdon Daily News


In the summer of the year 2001, I floated the 100-mile Juniata River in central Pennsylvania in a 14-foot jonboat, a simple, aluminum, flat-bottomed “fishing” boat. I made half the journey alone and half with friends, and the entire trip took 15 days. This book is the story of that experience, although the Juniata has been part of my life for 40 years.

In 1961 when I was 13, my grandfather took me fishing on the Juniata River for the first time. Pap and Granny had raised seven sons and a daughter in Bedford County near Hopewell, a village on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata, and their oldest son Paul was my father. My grandfather was an avid fisherman (and an equally enthusiastic drinker), and one summer Sunday when he had been drinking, he promised to take me fishing on the Juniata. Days later when I asked him when we were going, he had no idea what I was talking about. My mother, though, would not let him off the hook. “You promised to take this boy fishing,” she said, “and you’re going to do it.” Soon, Pap and I were on our way in the front seat of his 1955 Chevy, he reluctantly, I sensed, and I with enough sense to keep quiet. That afternoon I saw the Juniata for the first time, and to this day, I have never seen anything like it.

Since then, I have made many trips to the Juniata from my home in central Pennsylvania, but I had never floated the entire river in a single summer, something I had dreamed of doing since reading Huckleberry Finn as a boy. Colonial America had always interested me, but I knew little of Pennsylvania history and almost nothing of the history of the Juniata Valley. My goal for this book was to find the earliest stories of people and events on the Juniata River and to write a book that would be part-remembrance and part-research: a documentary of my trip down the river and a portrait of some of the Juniata’s most interesting people and important incidents.

Juniata, River of Sorrows tells the story of my Juniata journey in nine chapters organized by “legs,” major sections of the river between boat ramps or other landmarks. These chapters describe the mile-by-mile characteristics of the Juniata, including its pools and rapids, islands, adjacent lands and roads, boating troublespots, fishing “hotspots,” and my impressions of the sights and sounds of the “River of Shallows,” as the Lenni Lenape Indians of Pennsylvania called the Juniata.

The book’s stories of early people and events on the Juniata are told in eight vignettes, as historians sometimes call them. The vignettes are written for the reader of popular history who does not demand the extensive context of historical events required by professional historians. The vignettes focus on occurrences on the Juniata in the early 1700s, although the oldest document associated with the Juniata that I found dates to 1629.

During my research, I was surprised to discover the prominent role the Juniata played in Colonial Pennsylvania. The river was the scene of some of the bloodiest acts on the Pennsylvania frontier: murders, tortures, and kidnappings by both Indians and whites. The vignettes in the book describe:
• The travails of the Onojutta Haga Indians, the first known inhabitants of the Juniata Valley
• The defrauding of the Lenni Lenape Indians by the Pennsylvania Provincial government
• The founding of Pennsylvania by the visionary William Penn
• The kidnapping, torture, and murder of colonists in the Juniata Valley by the Indians
• The controversial murder of a fur trader on the Juniata and his brother’s determination to find the killer and avenge his murder
• The massacre at Fort Granville on the Juniata, one of four Provincial forts in the Juniata Valley
• The destruction of the Indian village of Kittanning by the Pennsylvania Regiment in retaliation for the massacre at Fort Granville
• The exploits of the legendary “Wild Hunter of the Juniata,” the Indian fighter named Captain Jack.

The information in the vignettes comes from first-person accounts in the Pennsylvania Archives, including the journals and maps of explorers and missionaries, the orderly books of military officers, and eyewitness descriptions by colonists of life on the Pennsylvania frontier. The vignettes also contain information from government documents such as the Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, cultural and archeological studies of Pennsylvania’s Indians, histories of Pennsylvania and the Juniata Valley, and biographies and autobiographies of prominent officials of Colonial Pennsylvania. The sources of information in the book are identified in the citations in the text and the Bibliography.

On its journey through the heart of central Pennsylvania, the Juniata River crosses Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, and Perry Counties and falls approximately 250 feet from its beginning at the village of Ardenheim near the town of Huntingdon to its confluence with the Susquehanna River at Clark’s Ferry. The Juniata watershed, which includes all the land rained by the river and its branches, encompasses 12 counties and 3,404 square miles. More than 400 streams flow into the Juniata, but its three largest tributaries are the Raystown Branch (124 miles long), the Frankstown Branch (45 miles long), and the Little Juniata (32 miles long).

In the past several years, the Juniata River has benefited from important conservation initiatives by public and private organizations. In the year 2000, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation created the Juniata Clean Water Partnership, a coalition of citizens, county planning offices, and non-profit organizations that produced the Juniata Watershed Management Plan, the first environmental protection plan for the river and the 200 townships and municipalities along it. The plan, endorsed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in February 2001, qualifies the Juniata for the Rivers Conservation Registry and enables organizations to receive federal and state grants for conservation projects for the river. In early 2001, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources named the Juniata its “River of the Year,” a distinction that recognized the waterway as a Pennsylvania treasure and launched a series of conservation measures on it. Later that year, the Juniata Clean Watershed Partnership received the first annual Governor’s Award for Watershed Stewardship as one of 25 Pennsylvania organizations, including four in the Juniata basin, recognized for watershed planning, protection, or restoration.

In many ways, the Juniata is a river of contradictions: as straight in places as the highways it parallels and as crooked in others as the ancient Indian paths it follows. The Juniata flows east, but in the 1700s was the gateway west for thousands of colonists. On a summer Sunday, the river can be almost unbearably crowded, yet on the very next day, utterly deserted. Both accessible and remote, the Juniata is in some places polluted and in others pristine. At times, the Juniata does not seem to know where it wants to go: at its midpoint near Lewistown, the river flows north, south, east, and west–all within three miles.

The Juniata cuts through mountains nearly 3,000 feet high and roams through valleys only 300 feet above sea level. The river borders railroad tracks and township roads, city streets and dirt lanes, walking paths and bicycle trails, and deer paths and cow crossings. The Juniata passes intersections where tractor-trailer drivers rev their diesel engines and meanders through farms where the Amish load their hay by hand on horse-drawn wagons. Cottages and campgrounds line the Juniata’s banks, of course, but so do airports, gas stations, diners, cemeteries, billboards, radio stations, churches, and convenience stores. The Juniata flows by places as different as factories and ice cream stands, quarries and picnic groves, sewage plants and swimming pools, golf courses and gun clubs, and race tracks and remnants of the Pennsylvania Canal. The Juniata is spanned by bridges, diverted by farmers, tapped by municipalities, drained by fire companies, protected by environmentalists, desecrated by litterers, enjoyed by some, and ignored by many.

The Juniata is the river I love.

Dennis P. McIlnay 

September 2002