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Juniata County

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For twenty years the residents living in the eastern half of Mifflin County campaigned for their own county. Geographic isolation generated solidarity among the inhabitants who resented the treacherous journey along the Juniata River and through the gorge known as the Lewistown Narrows to conduct their legal and political affairs at Lewistown. In 1819 the pro–Juniata County lobbyists argued that “Nature has fixed a boundary, which ought, at least, to separate counties.” Not until 1831 was their appeal granted and the new county was named “Juniata,” an English variant of the Iroquois word for “people of standing stone,” referring to the Oneida, who erected ceremonial monoliths in their villages. The name Juniata had been ascribed to the river after the proprietary had purchased the territory at the Albany Treaty of 1754.

As the British colonies expanded their territory westward, indigenous peoples displaced from the east and the south migrated into the valleys of the Juniata watershed. In 1713, the Tuscarora sought refuge in the Juniata Valley. Related to the Iroquois by language, they petitioned the Five Nations for sanctuary in their dominions in New York. The Iroquois offered them shelter in their political longhouse as “cradleboard brothers,” thereby increasing the Five Nations to six in 1722. Their trail through Juniata County, known as the Tuscarora Path, follows today's PA 75 to Port Royal and McAlisterville before entering Snyder County. Their name was given to the Tuscarora Mountains, an immense mountain ridge that forms the boundary between Juniata and Perry counties, as well as to a state forest, valley, creek, village, and township.

In the 1740s, pioneers had provoked violent confrontations with the Delaware and Shawnee by building on their hunting grounds. Samuel Bigham's blockhouse about twelve miles from Mifflintown was destroyed in an Indian raid in 1756. James Patterson erected a fort at his settlement after General Edward Braddock's defeat in 1755, but it did not survive the wars that followed for twenty years. The site of Patterson's fort is commemorated with a stone pillar in the village of Mexico and Fort Bigham's location is marked by a standing stone six miles south of Spruce Hill.

By the 1770s colonists had returned and soon were building iron forges, foundries, tanneries, and distilleries, though none have survived. The Juniata branch of the Pennsylvania Canal (1827–1829) and the county's first canal boat, the Juniata, built in Mifflintown, stimulated trade. Packet boat travel attracted European and American tourists alike, including Charles Dickens, who described his journey in American Notes (1842) and Harriet Beecher Stowe hers in Godey's Lady's Book (1841). In 1849, the newly chartered Pennsylvania Railroad completed its first line along the Juniata River, creating the new town of Patterson (now Mifflin) as the center of its repair shops on the Main Line to Pittsburgh. The narrow-gauge Tuscarora Valley Railroad, built to transport phosphate from Reed's Gap, provided freight and passenger service along the north–south corridor between Port Royal and Blair Mills until 1934.

Three institutions of higher education were established in the nineteenth century, all founded by Scots Presbyterians, including Tuscarora Academy and a Female Seminary ( JU9). In 1855 the Lost Creek Valley Academy in McAlisterville was founded to train teachers and was reorganized after the Civil War as the McAlisterville Soldier's Orphan School (1866–1869). Its three-story building is now reduced to two and significantly altered. The county's architecture consists mostly of brick and wooden buildings and some traditional stone and frame bank barns survive.

Nearly half the present population (23,000 in the year 2000) is of German ancestry, some Amish and Mennonite, who raise livestock, fruits, and vegetables on family farms. In the 1960s, Empire Kosher Poultry Company relocated from New York to Mifflintown and is the county's largest employer. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission established the Van Dyke Research Station and shad hatchery near Thompsontown to restore native fish to the river.

The unspoiled environment and fall foliage attract a growing number of anglers, hunters, and tourists, just as they did when novelist and sometime historian U. J. Jones observed in his History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley (1856) that “the Juniata country has been made a summer resort by a portion of the denizens of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh…. The romantic scenery, the invigorating air, the pure water of the mountains, are attractions.”

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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