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French Creek History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Pennsylvania Wild and Scenic French Creek 




French Creek  source can be found in Chautauqua County, New York,  near the town of Sherman. It is joined by western and southern branches soon after it enters Pennsylvania east of Wattsburg. In Pennsylvania it is joined by Le Boeuf Creek. 


Numerous creeks join French Creek as it travels about 117 miles to join the Allegheny River at Franklin, 124.5 miles above Pittsburgh.  With the aid of these creeks and Conneaut Lake, the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania, the French Creek Watershed drains for 1,270 square miles (1,200 in Pennsylvania). Over all, the creek falls some 820 feet from an elevation of 1,865 feet above sea level in New York State. 



the Native Americans of the region relied on trails created by their own key prey, now extinct: the eastern bison. Only distantly related to the wood bison currently found in Athabaska, Canada, the eastern bison were larger and darker in color than their more westerly plains cousins. The bison provided the meat, blankets, and clothing that made survival in western Pennsylvania possible. The last bison in the commonwealth were killed or died in the first years of the nineteenth century. 


The woods also contained lynx, wildcats, wolves, and rattlesnakes. These were feared, but more troublesome were the biting insects, so thick that European settlers’ cattle were known to die from toxic reaction and loss of blood if not provided smudges or shelter.



French voyageurs, called the buffalo cattle or boeuf in French. So they named the stream so heavily traveled by bison Cattle River, or RiviÄre aux Boeufs. Englishmen hearing the French describe cattle in the streams as boeuf  l’eau (water cattle) corrupted the French pronunciation into “buffalo.” Hence the never-ending American confusion between buffalo and bison. For a while, the English used the term “Beef Creek” as a translation of the French name for the stream. But when George Washington first visited the area, a Frenchman controlled the trading post at the creek’s mouth, and the French presence led  Washington to dub the stream “French Creek.” 




Native Americans inhabited the French Creek Valley from Archaic to Late Woodland times, an era spanning the period from 1,000 years before the birth of Christ to 1,000 years after. Natives burned woodlands to create large meadows and prairies that supported the growth of natural grasses and plants suitable for food and fiber, and to attract and sustain wildlife, particularly deer.


Tribal affiliations of natives in the watershed were primarily Seneca, members of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Lenape, or Delaware Tribe, an Algonquian people who were displaced from eastern Pennsylvania in the 18th century by progressive European encroachment. The largest native settlement in the French Creek Valley was a Delaware village, Custaloga’s Town, located at the confluence of French Creek and North Deer Creek in Mercer County, PA.Another was located at the mouth of theCussewagoRiver.

French Creek
Bison in Pennsylvania

"Beef Creek"

Map of iriquois nations

During the seventeenth century many of the people in the watershed were dispersed by intertribal warfare and the region was only sparsely populated. With the arrival of Europeans, native tribes formed political and military alignments with the French or various English colonies, and were inevitably drawn into the conflict that culminated in the French and Indian, or Seven Years War, waged from 1754 to 1763.

Fort Machault - Franklin


One of four forts built by the French to control the Venango Path between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, Fort Machault was located in modern Franklin, Pennsylvania, at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River. It was named for Jean-Baptiste Machault d’Arnouville, the French Minister of the Marine at the time of its construction. It was also known as “Venango,” the name of the nearby Delaware Indian village. Fort Machault was the last stop on the supply route from Canada to Fort Duquesne.


Prior to the arrival of the French in 1753, Pennsylvania blacksmith and Indian trader John Fraser had set up shop on this site, supplying Indians in the region with trade goods and repairing their guns and other metal wares. His business was an example of the western expansion of Pennsylvania’s fur trade that prompted the French to fortify the Ohio Country, for fear of losing trade and influence among the Indians there. 


After abandoning Fort Duquesne in November 1758, the French fell back to Fort Machault, and the British expected them to launch a counterattack from there in the following campaign season. The fall of Fort Niagara in summer 1759, however, made the French presence in the Ohio Country untenable. They burned the post and retreated to Canada in anticipation of a British expedition north from the Forks of the Ohio. In 1760, the British built Fort Venango near this site.

Fort Venango - Franklin

About June 16, 1763, during Pontiac’s War, the fort was captured by Seneca and Mingo warriors. The 12 to 16 soldiers of the fort were killed outright, except for the commander, Lieutenant Francis Gordon, who was forced to write a letter detailing why the Indians had risen against the British. He transcribed two complaints: the scarcity of gunpowder for the past two years and the fact that the English, contrary to their promises, were keeping forts, and building new forts, in Indian territory. He was then slowly tortured and roasted to death at the stake, and the fort was burnt to the ground

The fort was named after the nearby Delaware/Munsee Indian village, Venango.

Fort Machault map location
Fort Machault Historic Sign Marker

Native American Heritage in the French Creek

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

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. 

French Creek flowed North in Lake Erie
Lak Monongehella

French Creek and Allegheny River 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.

Iriquois Nation territory map
Chief Cornplanter

Seneca Chief Cornplanter

The French Creek Feeder Canal - 1827 - 1870


It was constructed in 1827 and added to the transportation system that would eventually connect the lake port at Erie to inland areas and the Allegheny River at Franklin. The French Creek Feeder, as it was called, ran from a dam built for the purpose on the Bemus farm, north of Meadville.  

It ran 25 miles east - west and fed additional water into Conneaut Lake where it connected to the Beaver and Erie canal. At the same time, it provided a transportation corridor  running 22 miles along French Creek to Franklin at the Allegheny River


The canal operated from 1827 to 1870. Beginning north of Meadville, the canal traveled down the eastward bank of French Creek and reached Shaw’s Landing just north of Cochranton. It crossed French Creek by aqueduct at Shaw’s Landing, where locks enabled boats to transfer between the canal and the creek. Remnants of the canal can be seen in many places along French Creek reminding visitors of the Creek’s historical past.



The village of Cambridge was settled in 1822 and was named for the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts.It was incorporated into the borough of Cambridge boro on April 3, 1866. In the late nineteenth century, Cambridge boro was known for its mineral springs. The discovery of the springs eventually led to renaming the borough to Cambridge Springs on April 1, 1897.



The popularity of mineral water therapy changed the rural community into a bustling resort center patronized by visitors from all over the world.  By 1903, more than 40 hotels, spring houses, and rooming houses welcomed visitors. The mineral water was the foundation of an industry which offered everything from baths to bottling works. 


By the early 1900s, eight trains per day brought guests to the now-famous resort. The mineral water  was so much in demand that a railline was built between New York City and Chicago...with Cambridge Springs as it’s halfway point.


In 1912 United States President William Howard Taft traveled to Cambridge Springs for the dedication of the college that is now occupied by State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs, a minimum-security prison.


In the early twentieth century, the town became a “veritable ‘Mecca’ to chronic hoboes” who were interested in meeting Leon Ray Livingston, the famed hobo and author who had established Cambridge Springs as his home base while not traveling.



The Riverside Inn was a hotel and dinner theater in Cambridge Springs, Crawford County in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Built in the late-1880s at the height of the mineral springs craze in the United States, it was operated as a resort for vacationers heading to the nearby springs that gave Cambridge Springs its name. The Riverside Inn was the first of many resorts to be built during that period. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Riverside Inn was destroyed by fire in the early morning of May 2, 2017.



John Chapman, an actual person as well as a folk hero, lived nearby along French Creek between 1797 and 1804. Records indicate he had a nursery there and one near Warren, Pa., before moving on to Ohio. 


Born 1774 in Massachusetts, he died in Indiana, 1845. Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman (September 26, 1774ąFebruary 18, 1845), was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced the apple to large parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He became an American legend while still alive, largely because of his kind and generous ways, his great leadership in conservation, and the symbolic importance of apples.


The popular image is of Johnny Appleseed spreading apple seeds randomly everywhere he went. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who sold trees on shares, and returned every year or two to tend the nursery. His first nursery was planted on the bank of Brokenstraw Creek, south of Warren, Pennsylvania. Next, he seems to have moved to Venango County along the shore of French Creek, but many of these nurseries were in the Mohican area of north-central Ohio

Howe's Historical Collection

The French Creek watershed -
Pennsylvania’s Most Biologically Diverse Body of Water

French Creek, which could accurately be described as an old-growth river because of the low level of manmade disturbance it has seen, may hold the key to restoring rare populations of animals into other parts of the Ohio river system.

Along its 117 miles, from western New York across northwestern Pennsylvania, the river is home to 66 species of fish and  more than 28 freshwater mussel species, including 13 that are listed as endangered in Pennsylvania and the federally endangered northern riffleshell and clubshell. These two species are critically imperiled, having lost more than 95 percent of their historic range.


Freshwater mussels are vulnerable to changes in their surroundings. But their habitats in French Creek ą still occupied by individuals of varying ages, some 60- to 70-years-old ą may have gone largely undisturbed for thousands of years.

Mussels were once common throughout the eastern United States but have decreased in numbers due to their sensitivity to pollution and destruction of habitat. French Creek is home to four federally endangered mussel species. These species have lost 95% of their historic range but fortunately healthy populations

can still be found in French Creek.

Other parts of the Ohio river system, where the same mussels once were abundant, have not fared  well. French Creek, as well as parts of the Allegheny River, are now seen as a conservation refuge for species that could be reintroduced in other parts of the river system. Reintroduced mussels would benefit the river by cleansing the water as they filter it to feed themselves.

French Creek also supports rare fish found in only a handful of other rivers, including Longhead Darter and Spotted Darter. The hellbender, Pennsylvania ’s largest salamander, inhabits French Creek as well, feasting on crayfish, yet another pollution-sensitive family of animals.

HELLBENDER - French Creek’s Signature Salamander

Eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)čgiant aquatic salamanders that can reach 29 inches in length and weigh over 5 poundsčare one of the most unique creatures in the French Creek Watershed.

The salamander requires cool, clear, rock-laden streams for its habitat where it preys on crawfish, fish, insects and worms. Although it has lungs, a hellbender breathes by absorbing oxygen from the water through thousands of capillaries located in the folds of its skin. French Creek supports a stable population of eastern hellbenders, however their numbers have been reduced in many eastern streams due to acid mine drainage, siltation and industrial pollution.

Freshwater Mussels
Freshwater Mussels
Longhead Darter
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