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Allegheny River History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Pennsylvania Wild and Scenic Allegheny River

Allegheny River and French Creek Originally Flowed North into Lake Erie

Before glaciation, rivers in the region flowed north to Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, conmmonly known as the “Ice Age”, great continental-scale masses of ice spread southward into Pennsylvania from Canada (average ice thickness estimate is 2300 feet). The ice never made it as far south as Pittsburgh, instead ending at Morraine State Park.

Among the most dramatic results of glaciation was reversing of the flow of river drainage systems in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The ice sheet blocked rivers and streams, causing changes in the patterns of river flow. What is now the Allegheny River formerly flowed  north into the Lake Erie basin. Originally rising near the mouth of today’s Clarion River, French Creek flowed northward on a course that took it near presentday Franklin and Meadville, and on into Lake Erie.╩

As the glacial ice dammed the river, creating Lake Monongahela. The lake eventually became deep enough to overtop higher areas to the south. The lake began to drain to the south, and erosion gradually reversed the slope of the river, so that it continued to flow south after the ice melted. 

Lake Monongahela -

(entire blue area above  is lake area) Around 900,000 years before present (BP) the Laurentide ice sheet reached southward into western Pennsylvania blocking the preexisting drainage that flowed northward. The ice dammed these rivers, creating large lakes, forcing the water to find a new drainage pattern, which exists to the present. Based on the map of John A. Harper;1997.

Origin of the Name - Allegheny

The name Allegheny probably comes from Lenape welhik hane or oolikhanna, which means ‘best flowing river of the hills’ or ‘beautiful stream’. There is a Lenape legend of a tribe called “Allegewi” who used to live along the river.The following account of the origin of the name Allegheny was given in 1780 by Moravian missionar David Zeisberger “All this land and region, stretching as far as the creeks and waters that flow into the Alleghene the Delawares called Alligewinenk, which means ‘a land into which they came from distant parts’. The river itself, however, is called Alligewi Sipo. The whites have made Alleghene out of this, the Six Nations called the river the Ohio.”

Indians, including the Lenni Lenape and Iroquois, considered the Allegheny and Ohio rivers as the same.  

Map of Rivers flowing north into lake Erie
Lake Monongehela
Origin of Allegheny River

The Allegheny River originates in North central Pennsylvania, on Cobb Hill, in central Potter County approximately 10 miles south of the New York ​border.

History of the Allegheny River

In the 16th century, control of the Allegheny river valley passed back-and-forth between Algonquian-speaking Shawnee and the Iroquois. By the time of the arrival of the French  in the early 18th century, the Shawnee were once again in control and formed an alliance with the French against the incursion of British  settlement across the Allegheny Mountains.


The conflict over the expansion of British settlement into the Allegheny Valley and the surrounding Ohio Country was a primary cause of the French and Indian War in the 1750s. During the war, the village of Kittanning ą the principal Shawnee settlement on the river ą was completely destroyed by British reprisal raids from Central Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, the British, after gaining control of the area in the 1763 Treaty of Paris kept the area closed to white settlement, in part to repair and maintain relations with the Native Americans. The pressure to open the river valley and the surrounding area to settlement is considered by historians to be one of the root causes of the American Revolutionary War in the following decade. After the war, the entire river valley became part of the United States of America.

During the 19th century, the river became a principal means of navigation in the upper Ohio valley, especially for the transport of coal. 

Native American Heritage in the Allegheny Valley Towns & Villages

The Iroquois Nations

At the time the first European traders and settlers appeared in the region around the fork of the Ohio, the primary occupants of the land were the confederation of the Five Nations, called the Iroquois. The other Indian nations in Ohio Country were the Delaware and the Shawnee.

The Five Nations were comprised of the Mohawks,  the Oneidas, the Onondagas,  the Cayugas, and the Senecas, In 1712, the Tuscaroras, were admitted to the tribal union, and henceforth the confederacy of the Iroquois has been known as the Six Nations. The home of the Iroquois was in New York, but they were a very warlike people and their conquests extended from New York to the Carolinas, and from New England to the Mississippi.

Seneca Nation

Of the Six Nations, the Senecas were the most western in geographical position, with villages extending from the head waters of the Allegheny River some distance down the Ohio.  To this nation belonged Queen Aliquippa, Tanacharison, Guyasuta and Chief Cornplanter (of Kinzua country).

In 1778, Seneca fought on the side of the British in the revolutionary war and participated in well planned raids in Northern Pennsylvania.   As a result of raids like the Wyoming Massacre, General George Washington, in 1779, began a campaign against the Native American allies of the British, particularly the Iroquois Confederation.╩ Colonel Daniel Brodhead  lead the 8th Pennsylvania regiment north from Fort Pitt (modern-day Pittsburgh) destroying Native American villages in their path. The battle of Thompson’s Island on the Allegheny River in Venango county was one of the battles fought during this campaign.

On November 11, 1794, the Seneca signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States, agreeing to peaceful relations. On September 15, 1797 at the

Iriquois territory map

Seneca Chief Cornplanter

Treaty of Big Tree, the Seneca sold their lands west of the Genesee River, retaining ten reservations for themselves.

The sale opened up the rest of Western New York for settlement by European Americans. On January 15, 1838, the US and some Seneca leaders signed the Treaty of Buffalo Creek, by which the Seneca were to relocate to a tract of land west of the state of Missouri,  but most refused to go. The majority of the Seneca in New York formed a modern elected government, the Seneca Nation of Indians, in 1848. 

Seneca Chief Cornplnter

The Battle of Thompson Island - 1779

As we all know, the American Revolution was a war between soldiers of the British Empire and soldiers, both regular (Continentals) and militia, of the 13 American colonies. A lesser known aspect of the war was that it included raids on Colonial frontier settlements by British forces, along with Tory forces loyal to the British Crown and their Native American allies, including members of the Iroquois Confederation. These raids reached a fever pitch in 1778. Probably the best known of these raids in Pennsylvania was the Battle of Wyoming, also known as the “Wyoming Massacre,” which took place on July 3, 1778.  During the battle, a force of about 400 militiamen took on a force of British Regulars, Tories, and Native Americans. Of the 400 militiamen who took part in the battle, only 60 would survive.


As a result of raids like the Wyoming Massacre, General George Washington, in 1779, began a campaign against the Native American allies of the British, particularly the Iroquois Confederation. 


Colonel Daniel Brodhead  lead the 8th Pennsylvania regiment north from Fort Pitt (modern-day Pittsburgh) destroying everything in their path. On August 11, 1779, Brodhead and his men left from Fort Pitt and headed north, mostly following the Allegheny River. Around August 18, an advance guard of Brodhead’s men came upon 30 to 40 Allegany Seneca (members of the Iroquois Confederation) and a battle ensued, resulting in 3 American wounded and 5 Seneca killed; the rest retreated. The battle was the only Revolutionary War battle in northwestern Pennsylvania and is popularly referred to as the Battle of Thompson’s Island. After the battle, Brodhead continued north, burning Native American villages. After this, Brodhead’s men returned to Fort Pitt, arriving there on September 14.╩ The campaign lessened the raids, but they would continue throughout the Revolution.

General George Washington

Upper Allegheny Logging Era


No finer forests of pine were ever found in North America than those of the upper Allegheny Valley.  Forests of pine were on the Conewango, the Brokenstraw, the Kinzua, and the Tionesta valleys.  There were noble trees, measuring from three feet to five feet in diameter and remarkably tall and straight, and without limbs nearly to the top.


It was recorded in 1832 there  were trees in the area rivaling the great trees in existance in Yosemite Park. There was one pine tree that measured 6 feet in diamter and 23 feet in circumference in Sheffield township, Warren County.


Towering masts of pine, cut in the virgin forests of Warren County, have held the sails of the largest sailing vessels, traveling across the sea and into every port of the world. 


Lumber from the Upper Allegheny helped build  many of the towns and cities along the Allegheny, Ohio, and Lower Mississippi Rivers as far south as New Orleans. 

Lumber BArge

Photo courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society

Oil Transport on  the

Allegheny River

Prior to 1862, the railroad did not service Pennsylvania’s Oil Region. As a result, the region’s waterways became the primary mode of transporting oil to market. Teamsters hauled oil from the well site to flatboats on Oil Creek. The flatboats were loaded with oil barrels and then floated down  the very shallow creek to the Allegheny River via a pond freshet or artificial flood. A pond freshet was created by damming water on the principal branches of Oil Creek. When a sufficient quantity of water had been held back, the dams were released on schedule, causing a significant rise in the creek’s water level. 


When the freshet waters arrived, boatmen would cut loose their lines and be swept away on a wild and dangerous ride. The uncontrolled waters often caused the flatboats to crash into each other or bridge abutments, jamming the creek. A great deal of oil  and lives were lost to accidents. 


Once at the Allegheny River, the oil was loaded onto barges that took it to refineries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The majority of oil produced in Pennsylvania’s Oil Region was transported via water until 1867 when sufficient railroad capacity was built to service the area.  

Flatboat picture

Buckaloons Historic Area 

The whole area was once the site of a huge Seneca Indian Village and previously a Hopewell culture village which has been documented to be at least 10,000 years old. Several archeology studies have taken place here.

 Sometimes referred to as “the Irvine Flats area” on the north side of the Allegheny River; it is managed for preservation and protection and contains some of the most significant archaeological resources in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The French explorer Celeron de Bainville, recorded the existence of an Indian village at this location in 1749 and held council with the Senecas. The village was recorded again in 1767 when David Zeisberger, a Moravian missionary, visited its inhabitants.

After the Revolutionary War, General William Irvine (who earned great fame on the national stage before, during and after the Revolution) acquired several warrants, including the present area.╩ His son and grandson expanded and developed the property between 1797 and 1840, erecting homes, tenant houses, barns, mills, and other structures. The Irvine family built the town’s church, raised money for the school, persuaded the railroad to come to Irvine, and influenced the building of a wagon road to Franklin.

Buckaloon histric marker

Archaeological and historic sites such as Buckaloons hold clues to America’s past. If disturbed, a part of our heritage may be lost forever. Sites and artifacts, such as those found at the Buckaloons Heritage Area, are protected by Federal law. If you discover such remains, leave them undisturbed.  Report your discoveries to Forest Service personnel.

Kinzua Dam - 1965

In 1965, the completion of the federally-sponsored Kinzua Dam for flood-control in northwestern Pennsylvania east of Warren created the long Allegheny Reservoir part of which is included in the Allegheny National Recreation Area. The dam flooded parts of lands deeded “forever” to the Seneca Nation of Indians by the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigus, and to lands given to Seneca Chief Cornplanter and his descendants. The treaty was signed by President George Washington.  The treaty was ultimately cast aside in favor of building the Kinzua Dam on Seneca Nation lands even though viable engineering alternatives were available.

The event was described in the Johnny Cash song “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” from the 1964 album Bitter Tears, which focused on the history of and problems facing Native Americans in the United States.

The construction of the dam and the filling of the Allegheny Reservoir also necessitated the elimination of the small village of Corydon, which was located at the confluence of Willow Creek with the Allegheny River; and the small village of Kinzua, which was located at the confluence of Kinzua Creek with the Allegheny River. All residents of both villages were forced to move.

Kinzua Dam photo
Native Americans Kinzua Dam

Wild and Scenic River Designation - 1992 - 86.6 Miles

In 1992, 86.6 miles (139.4km) of the Allegheny River (from Kinzua Dam to Emlenton) was designated Wild and Scenic.  This designation comprises three segments of the river located in Warren, Forest, and Venango counties.  

Rivers selected for preservation under this status are deemed to be of remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values. These rivers are preserved in their free-flowing condition and are not dammed or otherwise impeded. Outstanding values along the Allegheny include three basic features: 

Scenic Values 

narrow, sharply winding valley with 17 district focal landscapes and strong spatial enclosure in the lower reaches. 

River Islands

over 100 islands between Kinzua Dam and Oil City with significant ecological,  scenic and recreational features. Seven of these islands, totaling 368 acres, comprise the Allegheny Islands Wilderness, the smallest federally-designated Wilderness in the United States. 

Cultural Values

approximately 135 potentially significant historic and prehistoric sites, in addition to four sites already on the National Register.

Sign Allegheny National Forest
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