Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania History

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I stumbled about and fell out of my tree and into another interesting one. For the past couple of days I have been doing research on the Speer family. Henry Speer and his four boys came to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania around 1773. One of his sons, Solomon, would be killed by Indians; another, Noah, would marry Nancy Virginia Frye and start a large family of thirteen.


After buying a tract of land in Westmoreland and Fayette counties, Noah would lay out the land for Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania. He would also develop a farm estate, and became a successful agriculturist and stock-grower.


The Speers were wealthy people of that time and owned slaves to work their farm estate. In The Courier newspaper August 2, 1895 from Connellsville, Pennsylvania I found an article on one of the slaves that had been owned by Noah Speer.

A Historic Colored Woman, Now a Patient at the Cottage State Hospital Tells the Story of Her Life.


Some Incidents that Happened During the National Pikes’ Balmy Days


At a Famous Old Brownsville Inn


Reminiscences of General Wm. H Harrison, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and Others.


Patients with interesting histories are often brought to the Cottage State Hospital here, but none have ever entered with as much lore stored up in their memory from events of actual life scenes as a bright old colored woman who is now under treatment as a private patient in the little room off the north ward. Her name is Frances Workman. About a month ago she fell over a stake driven into the ground at the residence of James L Bowman of Brownsville and had her leg badly lacerated by the fall. It was her first serious accident during an eventful life. The Bowman’s, to give their faithful old servant the best possible care, sent her to the Hospital here and she has interested doctors and nurses alike with her historical reminiscences.


She was born on June 2nd, 1815, at Columbia, PA. At that time Negro and slave were synonymous in the Union, and the little Frances and one other of five sisters were sold when mere infants to Noah Speer of Belle Vernon. Speer owned one-half the real estate of the present site of Belle Vernon and the quarters occupied by his Negro slaves stood on the spot where the Gibson distillery now stands. When nine years old, Frances and her sister were sold by their first master to Solomon Krepps of Brownsville, who, at that time, was a member of the Legislature. Krepps was not an advocate of the slave traffic, but he said that since everybody kept them and bartered in them he could not afford to support his establishment with other labor. He paid better prices than most of the slave dealers, giving $1,600 for Frances and her sister. “Our life,” said Frances to a COURIER reporter yesterday, “during the eight years which I served Krepps, had none of the terrors related of the slaves in the South. I was employed as a field girl, working with the harvesters, the gardeners or other outside laborers. We lived in a plantation house out in the fields near our work. Our food, however, was the same as that prepared for the master’s family and was brought from his kitchen each meal. There were two white masters over us, as Krepps was away from home most of the time. If either of the white masters treated us unjustly we appealed to Krepps for satisfaction and we always got it.”


When Frances was 17 years old the Brownsville Legislator died from eating too much honey and drinking buttermilk. She was then sold to James Workman, who was proprietor of an inn at Brownsville. Everybody traveled in those days by stage coach over the old National Pike, and the little Workman inn at Brownsville was the stopping place of nearly all the notable officers and government officials on their way from the Middle Atlantic and some of the Southern states to Washington.


Frances gives the following account of her first meeting with some of the distinguished guests of the inn: “One day, while I was yet young, there was a considerable stir at the Inn by the announcement that the Ex-President John Quincy Adams was going to stop there on a trip from the Capital, West. I think it was about in the year 1832. Adams was a Congressman at the time. I was greatly delighted when told that I was to bring the Ex-Presidents dinner to him on a tray and to attend him while he dined. He was a stout gentleman with a pleasant face and we all thought he was very handsome.


“General William Henry Harrison, while journeying from Hamilton county, Ohio, to be inaugurated at Washington in 1841, stopped at the Workman Inn and was compelled to remain there two weeks on account of sickness. Only a small party accompanied the President –elect, and it was whispered about the inn that the sturdy old Indian fighter was more a subject for a place in the grave than a seat at the Capitol, as he was pale and thin, and feebly walked about with bent shoulders. He took both, dying thirty-two days after his inauguration. General Winfield Scott was another guest at the inn whom I attended. He too was aged and feeble at the time, 1852. He was then the Whig candidate for President. He was detained at the inn about a week by sickness. During that time I became well known to the old veteran, waiting on him and serving his meals regularly to him.


“General Andrew Jackson also stopped at the Workman Inn in 1845. He was on his last journey to “The Hermitage,” near Nashville, Tenn. He was accompanied by his wife and nephew, a distinguished servant who had been George Washington’s sword case carrier, and several other parties. It was in the pleasant month of May, and the party remained at the inn a few days, during which time they were attended at the table by me. About two weeks after Jackson left Brownsville, word was received that he had died at “The Hermitage,” June 8th, 1845.”


“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay and other lights of the country’s most stirring times were personally known to the aged patient at the Hospital. There was a law in Pennsylvania during slavery times that after 28 years of service a Negro was free. Accordingly, about 1845 Frances Workman was freed, but she liked her master’s home and did not leave until several years after, when she and a number of other Negroes determined to take advantage of their freedom and see some of the county. They were traveling down the South Carolina coast, when Fort Sumter was fired upon and immediately started north. The heroine of this sketch then entered the homestead of Jacob Bowman, one of the most influential men of Brownsville. There she remained for eight years, nursing Mrs. Bowman till she died. She then went to live with Jacob Bowman’s son James L., where she now makes her home.


The old woman has snowy white hair and has lost her teeth, but there is not a wrinkle on her face. Like every person who has never suffered an accident, she is distressed over her present injury. The staff of physicians and hospital authorities is taking special care with her, and she will likely be able to return to historic Brownsville in two weeks.


1 comment

  1. Solomon Gillespie Krepps 1793-1833 mentioned above was Noah Speer/s Sr’s son in law who married his daughter Cassandra. Through this marriage we have a connection through the Gillespie’s by marriage to General William T. Sherman.. At one time in the late 1700’s, the Speers spelled their last name 3 ways – Speer, Spears, and Speers. A fourth way Spear was later added by one changing his last name from Speers to Spear in Pittsburgh.
    Noah Sr inherited his slaves from his mother Regina who died about 1797. In 1825 he is recorded as having 10 slaves. His cousin Nicholas Reasoner had 5.
    There are over 17 Noah’s in the family tree. Noah Wyle is one of them. There are, 20 or more Henry’s, 9 Solomons, and 5 Louis M Speer/s, some of these spell their last name Speers, Spear, Speer or Spears. We are not related to Britney, and this is a German line from the Alsace-Loraine area of northern France. They moved to PA from Hampshire County VA / WV and previously located on the South Shenandoah River by 1744. They settled as squatters in the area during the middle 1760’s along with the Swiss German Frey/Frye/Fry family, the French Froman family at Maple Creek and Monongahela PA, the Nicholas Crist Sr family at Columbia/Donora,and the Dutch Kuykendall family north of Monongahela before the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in April 1769 legally opened the area to settlement by William Penn. Not 1773.! Henry Spears was the first registered land owner in Bedford County in 1769 that split into Westmoreland County and others in/after 1773.
    Jacob Bowman mentioned above originally worked for David Furnier at the first Mid Monongahela River store at Gibsonton.
    The Belle Vernon Bicentennial will be in 2013/14. More interesting details will be available during the Bicentennial celebration in June 2013.

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