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The Mike Fink Saga: A Beaver Countian or Not?

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 33 No. 3


"That's definitely it," Joel Chalupiak of Economy Borough explained as he placed a finger of one hand on an old map and pointed with the other to a deep-forested thicket hiding a small stream. Younger brother Jerry and Ted Broniszewski nodded their heads in agreement.

The subject: "Mike Fink's Run."

That, according to a map in The Bicentennial Atlas of Beaver County, is, "where he hid briefly from his adversaries." Either nature has reclaimed the caves, or this trio had another theory. "Maybe", Ted said, "they got confused and thought this was part of Crow's Run." Joel replied, "Yes, that's in a straight line about two or three miles away 'as the crow flies'."

It's a small tributary that meanders alongside the home of Gretchen Covert Steinmetz a descendent of the Pfaff family, another grand old name of the area. She said, "It originates out of Shively's Pond. Yeh, You can see it from the Conway-Walrose Road." Joel added, "It's probably about one to one and a half acres wide." The Chalupiak brothers grew up in the valley below Ted's farm. Joel continues, "It goes into the North-Fork Branch of the Big Sewickley Creek. That, in turn, flows into the Ohio."

I suppose you're wondering what is the significance of where this Mike Fink's Run is anyway.

Mike Fink, the most famous of all keelboat men, was very colorful, controversial and unique. He was comical at times, quite often violent. One thing about folklore and legends, there's no telling where the myth ends and truth begins. Writer Eric Sloane calls him the "Paul Bunyan" of boatmen. Another historian said he was the "William Tell" of his day. All books document that his private hobby was shooting tin cups off his companion's head.

And Beaver County legend has this Mike Fink living in the County or at lest hiding here as sort of a keelman/river bandit.

But, could this striking man, with flowing red hair, shoot a fly on a fence? Doubtful. Pick the golden earrings out of a pirate's ear? Maybe. Shoot the combs out of ladies' locks without messing up the curl? That too has been well documented. Rev. Bausman's 1904, History of Beaver County, tells of the time, "He made a wager with a passenger, that he could, from mid-stream, shoot the tails off five pigs that were feeding on the bank. He won the bet."

In Fink's defense, however, working on a keelboat was tough business. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters cites that, "The workers were the wildest and toughest men on the frontier, at first Indian fighters." (As was Fink.) They were usually tall, gaunt, and big boned, walked with a long stride, daring, restless and bellicose. Pittsburgh the Story of a City said, "many were pirates and con men."

Keelboats hit their peak in 1817 as 150, one authority reported, were engaged with moving supplies in the upper Ohio Valley. Steamboats then came into the picture and keelboats were forced to navigate the smaller waters where their rival couldn't go. Fink, it was revealed, had, "expressed the desire that the country was getting too civilized."

It was between 1818 and 1820 that he met Davy Crockett.

Before we proceed with that story, it was Economy Police secretary, Kathy Anderson, who fired an unsuspecting curve ball right down the middle. And in doing so, discovered a mystery that may never be solved. She looked at her 1876 Caldwell Beaver County Atlas and alerted me to this previously unknown fact. Less than an inch south of Mike Fink's Run (page 67) a "Mike Fink's Farm" is listed.

Was this the same "Mike Fink"? Did he abandon it when he went west? With the enemies he had, why would be advertise where he lived? Oh, this was in 1876. A son? Sorry, it's written that he had only one child, a daughter. And, she was born after he moved to Yellowstone in the early 1820's. This writer is at a brick wall. Ted, Jerry, and Joel all agree that it has to be in the valley in back of the old Pfaff Farm. Economy Borough's assistant code officer Ray Tomaszewski agrees but amends, "that the 'Mike Fink Run' has been unnamed since I moved here in the sixties."

Making it all even more puzzling is that upon checking the United States Federal Census at the Beaver Falls Research Center, a Mike Fink did not "officially" live in Beaver County. This writer poured through all lists from 1790 until 1870.

Meanwhile back to Mike Fink Stories..

He took his .45 caliber rifle out west where he met the Crocketts. Both Fink and the latter were known for their bragging. And, it's easy to visualize Fink's banter. "So you're Davy Crockett? You've met your match now. I'm Mike Fink, the greatest keeler that ever pushed a pole on the river. I'm a saltwater roarer! I'm a ring-tailed screamer! I love the wimmin and I'm shock full of fight. I'm half horse and half alligator. And, the rest of me is crooked jags. I'm a red-hot snappin' turtle. Whoop. Cockle doodle do!"

Fink was proud of his reputation and, as a sort of badge, wore a long red feather in his coonskin or felt hat to warn the pirates, and any others, who they were dealing with. On the Ohio River, he was called "the Snapping Turtle". Later, he became known as "the Snag" on the roaring Mississippi.

He did meet his match at least once. We'll let American Folklore and Legend describe the story: "To throw an innocent scare into Mrs. Davy Crockett, he dressed in an alligator skin and pounced. Undaunted, she pulled out her Bowie knife, swirled around and ripped the disguise in one swipe. Finding Mike inside, she went on to trounce him with her bare hands."

John Fink, a close relative, recited that he, "had a humorous side too. He told jokes on purpose to be laughed at and be the center of attraction." John then warned, "The others better laugh. No man should make light of them. Everyone learned to laugh or pay the penalty."

Mike was shot and killed in 1822 or 1823. It seems he was having an argument over a squaw that both he and a friend had been living with.

Later, they agreed to shoot a tin cup full of whiskey off each other's head. It's fitting that this mysterious man would go out another riddle. Remember, Mike's a dead shot. This time he wasn't. He shot low. Bausman says the deceased man's brother picked up a gun and, knowing the situation, had an idea it was intentional and shot Mike on the spot. Several other stories have a man who was a friend of the victim, kill Mike later over a coonskin cap.

In closing, keelboat men stand beside pioneers and the American cowboy in the early American genre painting. Mike Fink fit that mold. Yours truly is confident that his 1822 death stopped him from standing beside his buddy Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie if he'd still been living in 1836 at the Siege of the Alamo.


American Folklore and Legends, Reader's Digest; Atlas of Beaver County,

J.A. Caldwell; Bicentennial Atlas of Beaver County, D.L. Walton; Davy

Crockett- His Younger Days, Lawrence Santrey; History Western

Pennsylvania, Louis Mulkean and Edwin V. Pugh; History of Beaver

County ­ 1904, Rev. J. Bausman; Mike Fink Tales, Carl Carmer;

Pittsburgh - The Story of a City, Leland B. Baldwin; The Almanac of Davy

Crockett. Unknown; The History of Pittsburgh, Sarah H. Killikelly; The World Almanac,