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Who Was John McKee?

Milestones Vol 31 No. 4


By Roger Applegate;
Based on the Research of Ron Ciani

This is an effort on our part to clear up the errors and misconceptions concerning the life of John McKee, gentleman farmer from Crow's Run in New Sewickley Township. Although he was an interesting man in his own right, several works concerning his life have been written, the first by C.S. Dean and another by Joseph Harold Thompson that seem to confuse this John McKee with some more famous namesakes. We felt that it was important to attempt to correct the confusion surrounding him. Before we begin unraveling the true history of John McKee, gentleman farmer, let's take a look at what we know about both he and some of the more famous McKees that he has apparently been confused with:

John McKee - Farmer in Crow's Run, New Sewickley Twp.

Most of what is really known about John McKee, gentleman farmer, comes from his tombstone that was found at his burial place on Ruckert's farm in New Sewickley Township. The stone was inscribed as follows:
"In memory of John McKee, who departed this life Dec. 14, 1834, aged 94 years. Emigrated to this, his adopted country in the year A.D. 1765; was in the destroying of the tea at Boston, present at the Declaration of Independence, served two years in the Revolutionary War, or took his share in the glorious struggle of gaining our independence."

It is hard to verify the truth of the memorial inscription. We do know that his service record is listed in the Veterans Affairs office in the Beaver County courthouse, but it contains no more information than a year of birth (1740), death date and the fact that he served in the Revolutionary Army as a scout. We don't know what unit he served in or even what state he was living in at the time. According to John Jordan's Genealogical and Personal History of Beaver County, we do know that he arrived in Beaver County from the eastern part of the state with his wife Margaret and son Thomas sometime after 1800 and very possibly closer to 1820 when he purchased 122 acres of farm land from Robert Leebody on November 27, 1820 for $611.25. Based on research at the Beaver County Recorder of Deeds Office, this was the only land in Beaver County that he ever owned here, and he lived on that same land until his death in 1834. We also know that his tombstone was moved to Oak Grove cemetery in 1949, but his body still remains on what is now the Ruckert farm. Henceforth, I will refer to him as "Farmer John McKee".
Now let's take a closer look at two of his more famous namesakes.

John McKee - Founder of McKeesport

No known relation to farmer John McKee of Crow's Run, this particular John McKee was born in Ireland in 1746 and left there to settle in Philadelphia about 1755. At some point prior to 1769 the family relocated to the site of present day McKeesport on the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers, where his father, David McKee was granted the right to run a ferry across the river and also patented 306 acres of land there. In 1791, according to the History of Allegheny County, John McKee married Sarah Redick, daughter of Judge David Redick of Washington and sister of Judge John Redick of Beaver Falls. As a young man hardened by frontier life, John McKee learned the method of claiming and purchasing land and became one of the largest landholders in Allegheny County. His purchases and claims were in Beaver County, Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, Beaver and other towns in this area. In fact, he was one of the earliest settlers to improve his land in Fallston, Beaver County, which he later sold to David Townsend in 1799. Four examples of his properties in Beaver County were two out lots nos. 71 & 74, which is now in Rochester and two lots, no. 25 and 26, in the town of Beaver that he purchased for 5 1/2 dollars, on a patent from the Commonwealth on May 7, 1794.
John McKee was nearly ruined when he agreed to use his land as surety for his brother-in-law, Judge John Redick's business venture to supply General Anthony Wayne's army in 1793. Judge Redick is probably best known here in Beaver County for his unusual burial request. Redick asked to be buried on the top of a hill overlooking King's Creek on the boundary between Pennsylvania and West Virginia in such a way that his head was in West Virginia and his feet were in Pennsylvania so that the devil couldn't find him. Sometime later Redick's plan was foiled, when the state boundary line was adjusted and Redick's remains ended up in Pennsylvania.
In any event, Redick failed to live up to his obligations to supply the army and McKee was forced to assume liabilities amounting to thousands of dollars. As a result, much of his property was seized by United States Marshals and put up for sale. In order to reclaim his losses, McKee partitioned off his remaining land at the mouth of the Youghioghany River and laid it into plots to form a town. This town became known as McKeesport. John McKee died in McKeesport on January 11, 1807 and was laid to rest in the family burial ground. In 1872, his remains and those of his family were moved to Versailles Cemetery where they rest today.

Colonel Alexander McKee - Indian Agent & Revolutionary Renegade

Alexander McKee, who is also apparently no relation to our New Sewickley farmer, was a trader and Deputy Indian Agent for the colony of Pennsylvania, as well as the gentleman for whom the present town of McKees Rocks is named. According to Bausman's History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, prior to 1769, this McKee owned 300 acres of land opposite Logstown and opened a trading post for the Indians, thus making him one of the earliest non-permanent residents of what is now Beaver County. Alexander McKee is probably best known for his defection from the patriot cause to the British and their Indian allies during the American Revolution. As a result of his defection, all of his lands were confiscated by the Americans. McKee went on to gain a villainous reputation among the settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier for organizing and instigating deadly Indian attacks against them. Sometime following the end of the war, Colonel Alexander McKee moved to Canada where he died and was buried on his farm on the Thames River, Ontario, Canada in 1799.


Now that we have examined the protagonists in this historical muddle, let us turn to some of the suppositions and historical guesswork that were put forward by both Mr. Dean and Mr. Thompson as well as some other stories that have been circulated about John McKee over the years:

Supposition 1: An article, written by Mr. C.S. Dean, located in the surname files in the Beaver County History Center states that John McKee, gentleman farmer from New Sewickley Township, was a general in the Revolution under George Washington. There is no record that we can find that even mentions a general officer named John McKee who served in the Revolution, so when you couple that with the fact that Mckee's veterans' office record lists him as a "scout", that strongly indicates that he was never a general. Is it possible that farmer McKee was confused with Colonel Alexander McKee, on the British side, who was promoted by the King for his service?

Supposition 2: John McKee arrived in Beaver County in 1787 to become the first permanent white settler in Crow's Run Valley. The Genealogical and Personal History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania tells us that farmer McKee moved to Beaver County from eastern Pennsylvania around 1800 and settled on a farm about four miles from Freedom, New Sewickley Township where he cleared and cultivated his land. This was most likely the 122 acres of land that he purchased from Robert Leebody in 1820. Although the date is about 20 years off, it is possible that he first rented the land from Leebody prior to purchasing it or he may have even lived somewhere else in the county for a while. It also tells us that McKee was NOT the earliest settler in Crow's Run valley. Most likely the confusion comes from the fact that another John McKee, the founder of Mckeesport, is credited by Dr. Bausman with being one of the earliest settlers to own and improve some pieces of land where Fallston is now located.
Also, as mentioned above, Bausman's History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania claims that Alexander McKee owned 300 acres of land opposite Logstown and opened a trading post for the Indians, thus making him one of the earliest non-permanent residents of what is now Beaver County. Of course, we must remember that this area didn't become Beaver County until 1800, prior to which it was Allegheny County and before that, Westmoreland County.

Supposition 3: According to C.S. Dean, McKee kept a store of goods and traded with the Indians. If farmer McKee ever traded with the Indians, it did not happen when he moved to Beaver County. Most likely this is confused again with Colonel Alexander McKee's trading post located opposite Logstown prior to 1769.

Supposition 4: The funds from John McKee's sale of lands were later used to finance the construction of the railroad from Pittsburgh to Beaver County. C.S. Dean never states where he got this information, and without any citations or other explanations as to where this information came from, this claim is impossible to verify. However, we may deduce certain things from the available evidence. Firstly, in checking the deed transactions in the courthouse, we discover that farmer John McKee, only owned the 122 acres that he originally purchased from Robert Leebody and never sold any of it during his lifetime. The only sales related to his land occurred after his death when his son Thomas sold 90 acres of the original 122 to George and John McCracken for $1,548. Thomas's sale is recorded in Deed book "0" page 264 and entered on November 11, 1836.
As far as financing the construction of a railroad from Pittsburgh to Beaver County, the first railroad from Pittsburgh, known as the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago railway came through the county in 1851. Since farmer McKee died in 1834, it is impossible to believe that any of his funds were used to build it.

Supposition 5: Joseph Harold Thompson, in his book titled: The History of Crows Run, dated Nov. 1, 1970 states that farmer John McKee received 800 acres of land in New Sewickley Township beginning on the Ohio River and extending back over the hills for a distance of two miles for his service in the Revolution. One look at the original Depreciation Lands map shows that there were no parcels of land located in New Sewickley Township or anywhere else in this county that were ever granted or otherwise conveyed to any John McKee for service in the Revolution. In fact, from Thompson's description of the parcels, the lots are numbers 31 & 32, which were originally owned by Isaac Melcher who had purchased them from the State of Pennsylvania in 1786.

Supposition 6: John McKee of New Sewickley Township sold 238 acres of land to Michael Conway in 1825 to establish the town of Conway. The problem with all of this is that farmer McKee neither owned nor sold this piece of land to Michael Conway. A simple examination of the deeds tells us that Michael Conway's brother-in-law, John J. O'Brien and his wife Eleanor from the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, sold the land to Michael Conway on April 13, 1829 for $3,800 containing 215 acres and 84 perches. O'Brien had inherited this land from Thomas Jones in an Apr. 16, 1826 court decision in Beaver County that recognized him as one of the legitimate heirs of Thomas Jones.
If we continue to trace the deeds for this land back to their origin, we find that Thomas Jones, in turn purchased the land, Depreciation lots no 31 & 32 from Maria Hasenelever, Jacob Melcher and Jacob and Elizabeth Shallus on January 26, 1791 and the deed was recorded in Allegheny County in deed book "D" pages 286. Tracing it even further back, the very first owner of this land was Isaac Melcher who purchased Depreciation lots nos. 31 & 32, containing 200 and 204 acres respectively, on Jan. 9, 1786 from the State of Pennsylvania. That deed is recorded in Beaver County deed book "I" page 86.


We believe that much of the confusion surrounding farmer McKee was caused by the fact that there were several different persons named McKee in our county's history whose stories became mixed together and attributed to the wrong man. If everything on his tombstone is true, the story of John McKee of New Sewickley Township is certainly interesting and important when one sees through all of the fairy tales that have been told about him. Apparently satisfied with the misinformation and half-truths, no one has tried to trace his tantalizing inscription to its root and find out the truth about farmer John McKee - this would certainly be a case where the truth is a much better story than fiction could ever be. Someday, we will learn the truth, but until then, we can only hope that this essay will help to clear up this misunderstanding and allow us to recognize and value his true, albeit modest contribution to the history of Beaver County.