Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who Was Jane Lea Nixon?

I'm quite sure it's the lighting, but check out the blur at the
top right of the picture. 
The area, like most the hills and open space in Pittsburgh, is lushly green. I walked quietly through the red doors of the old building feeling a need to be silent and reverent. There is little air circulating within the stone edifice. The walls are thick with hand-cut stone. Up front there is a stained glass window and to the left, an old pipe organ from 1823 that was said to be carried over the Allegheny hills by cart.

I am standing inside Old St. Luke’s Episcopal church, a building whose roots go back to 1765. The current building isn’t quite that old, probably rebuilt in the 1800s. The land surrounding the church originally belonged to Major William Lea, as a grant for his service in the King’s army during the French Indian War. Major Lea was born in 1749 and later served in various forts during the Revolutionary War. He was married to Jane Welch, but as is typical of that time period, there is little mention of Jane’s life.

In the male-dominated history of Old St Luke’s one person stands out, not for her unique contributions, but because of her unusual birth circumstances. At the back of the church is a steep set of narrow steps. I negotiate my way down the dark, stone cellar, wondering if I will be confronted by the ghosts of people who once piled coal into a furnace or a bride in the wedding room waiting for her signal to go upstairs. Indeed, as I turn the corner into a room carefully reconstructed with time-period pieces, I am confronted by a faceless ghost wearing a cloak and bonnet. I stare at the eerie mannequin dressed in its bleak costume and read the small plaque: Jane Lea Nixon, first white child born in the Chartiers Valley.
The startling apparition of Jane Lea Nixon.

Outside in the historic graveyard, bodies are said to have been buried sometimes four-layers deep. On the far side of the small cemetery sits an old stone that reads: Jane Lea Nixon, Born 1774, Died 1859, the first white child born in Chartiers Valley.
Some of these stones are so old a special laser
process was used on them to determine the names and dates.

Other than her cloak and bonnet and the apparent point of her unique birth, very little is known about Jane. We know she was 16 when the church was initially reconstructed in 1790.  Upon her father’s death in 1827, her three brothers were left equal division of the land surrounding the church and the two daughters received 25 pounds sterling. And we know the church was a part of her life, as evidenced by the Book of Common Prayer that is still part of the possession of her descendants who remain in Pittsburgh.

Most likely she lived the life that most women lived, participating in quilting bees, gardening, sewing, but one wonders if she was allowed the company of other little girls who didn’t share her skin color. Did she have a lonely existence or one that centered on her family and siblings? We can assume there was a sometimes peaceful and sometimes tenuous relationship with the indigenous people of the area. One story tells of an Indian raid that occurred during church services. Apparently guns were immediately drawn and poked out of portholes.

Jane Lea eventually married Thomas Nixon at an unknown date, and they had three children. Thomas died at the young age of 45 and Jane remained an unmarried widow until her death at age 85.

Who was Jane Lea Nixon? What contributions did her unique birth mean for the area? Her birth may have very well signified a change in the population that inhabited the rolling hills and rushing creeks in the area. The life of the Indians soon faded from Pittsburgh as more and more white children were born, no longer significant enough to make note of, staking claim in land for farms, townships and counties. In a dubious remembrance of history, a single female “the first white child in the Chartiers Valley” became a part of the history of Old St. Luke’s church.

13 comments:

  1. Oh how I love this! I'm dying to know what her life was like.

    Thank you for sharing :)

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    1. Surely she'd make a great character to fictionalize for one of my fiction writing friends! By the way, you do stay up late!

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  2. A wonderful story. I like your idea to use her as a fictional character. This is what I love most about historic sites --- they give us knowledge, yes, but they also inspire us in unique ways.

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    1. I love little facts and stories like this and love pondering the impact of people who have lived and died and been forgotten. But they had lives, cares, dreams, hardships.. for some reason, they "haunt" my thoughts.

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  3. One of the things that first stood out to me when I made my first trips across Pennsylvania was that it is a wonder (naturally-speaking, of course) that much of the state was settled as early as it was. For Pennsylvania has more than its share of really rough terrain, and I would think that the much more easily accessible land would have drawn most away until there was none left. Of course, the same can be said of the middle of New York, western New Jersey, western Massachusetts and Connecticut, along with most of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Maybe many of our forefathers really weren't all that bright? (LOL?)

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    1. I think about that when I drive through the Colorado mountains to our home town. How did those early people do it without roads? When I look at the terrain, I admire their fortitude.

      The same goes for some of the railroads built. One of my favorite little hiking trails is through Black Canyon National Park, along what used to be a railroad bed. Good heavens! I can't imagine how treacherous that work was.

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  4. First of all, I love history. Love, love, love. And I love old cemeteries. I've gone through many times and have imagined what life was like for them...who they were and what they did. We used to play a game in college. Well, actually, more of a scavenger hunt. No grave robbing involved. We were given a birthdate and deathdate and had to find the name of the person they belonged to. Hard to do when you're a bunch of drunk frat boys.

    Such an interesting post!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

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    1. Oh what we do for entertainment in college. I have those stories too. I'll save them for another post. Or not.

      I actually like cemeteries too. First, they're peaceful. Second, I like to read the inscriptions, see what, if any, sentiment is expressed. What stories they tell. Like with our dear Jane. The first white child in the area. What a fact to follow you for centuries.

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  5. Ah! I totally freak out about little historical tidbits. The pictures got me. I was like, "Brrr? Must read more..." This does not help my wanderlust, you know.

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    1. Crystal--- we are soul sisters in this. I don't know why, but I love little facts of history, especially when they surround a person who has passed through life, leaving traces and glimpses. I always want to know more.

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  6. To be inspired by the mysteries of history...so incredible.

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    1. Hi Jay-- thanks for stopping by. I am fascinated by these lesser known tidbits.

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  7. What an interesting story! And the those pictures are stunning. I'm a history buff too. Very cool.

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