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Free Genealogy Biography of James McGhee,
Pennsylvania Volunteer of the Civil War

James McGhee

The father of the subject of this sketch, John McGhee, was born in New York, and his father dying when he was quite young, his mother removed, to Trenton, New Jersey. At the age of sixteen he left home to learn the trade of a millwright, and after that lost all trace of his mother and her family, and never again met any of his kindred, so that Mr. James McGhee has no relatives by the name of McGhee, except two nephews residing in California, of whom he has any knowledge. After learning his trade he went to the Clarion River and built a number of mills on that stream. In 1822 he was married to Nancy Smith and in 1825 removed to the Beech Woods to build a mill for Alexander Osborn, the first mill erected in that neighborhood. He was the first settler to locate east of the "beaver dam," or what is now Fall’s Creek. His nearest neighbor was three miles distant, and a dense forest, infested with wild animals, surrounded his dwelling. Mr. McGhee was necessarily absent the greater part of the time, which left his wife alone with her little family. One morning she heard their only pig squealing lustily, and ran out of the house to see what was the matter, and found to her astonishment that a large bear was carrying the pig off. She picked up an axe that was lying on the wood-pile near by, and struck a blow at the bear, which sank deep into its head, killing it instantly, and releasing the pig.

Mrs. McGhee was obliged to work hard to help make the new home in the woods, and this added to the care of the family, was too much for her strength, and at last her health gave way, and, in 1835, she died. At that time her husband was too fond of the glass which intoxicates, and though a kind husband and father when sober, at times he became crazed by the demon that lurks in the wine cup and takes all manhood away. When his wife felt death approaching she called him to her bedside and asked him to give up strong drink. He promised, and from that day never tasted strong drink.

James McGhee was born in the Beech Woods, March 20, 1835, his mother dying when he was nine months old. Mrs. McIntosh, a neighbor, took charge of him for a short time, and then his aunt, Mrs. Osburn, took him to her home in Clarion county, and cared for him until he was four years old, when he was brought back to the Beech Woods to live with his father. Mr. McGhee says:
"When my uncle brought me home he put a stone in one end of his saddle-bags and me in the other, and in this way carried me forty miles. I can remember, the night after I came home, that my father, who was lying on the floor alongside of my bed, would rise up quite often through the night and look at me. The ladies of the neighborhood were very kind to me, treating me as though I was one of their own children, calling me their ‘little Jimmie,’ and sending me cakes to school. In my childhood days I never went into one of their houses that I did not receive something to eat, and this practice has been kept up, for let me go where I will, I must eat with them before I leave. I shall always remember and respect these good people for the many kindnesses I have received at their hands."
At the age of fourteen James McGhee began rafting and running lumber on the creek, being, as was said, "a good worker," and those who employed him were always careful to give him all he could do. In those days the raftmen were half the time on the raft and the balance in the water. They always walked home in the night or camped in the woods among the laurel. Mr. McGhee says of this first trip down the creek:
"We had a gorge at Rocky Bend, and night coming on we started for the pike, but got lost on the way and had to stay in the woods all night. We had no dinner or supper, and I thought if that was the way rafting went I would stay at home. The next morning we came to the pike where Levi Schuckers now lives, where a man by the name of Houpt kept a hotel, and where we got a good breakfast, which we all enjoyed."

Mr. McGhee remained in the Beech Woods, working on the farm, and running on the creek when there was rafting, until he was eighteen; but being of a roving disposition, in 1853, he started to the west with three other young men of the neighborhood — Welsh, Groves and Lewis. At that time Jefferson county had no railroads, and as the Allegheny River was too low for steamboats, the travelers had to walk to Pittsburgh, where they took the cars. At that time the farthest west that trains ran was to within sixteen miles east of Galena, Illinois, where our travelers took the stage, arriving in Galena October 24, 1853, and the next day started for the Wisconsin lumber camps. Janesville, through which they passed, had only one house, and a very poor one at that. On the 29th they reached the mouth of Yellowstone River, and at the hotel there were informed that they could get work at Williams’s mill, a distance of fourteen miles. They reached this place about dark, and were promised work by Mr. Williams, who directed them to a shanty, where there were about forty rough-looking men, with hair hanging over their shoulders, and having the appearance of not having been shaved for at least five years, and whose every word was an oath. When supper was ready each man took down from a wooden peg on the wall a wooden bowl and spoon, and the new-corners being furnished with the same articles, followed the others into the next room, where on tables made of rough boards were placed large wooden bowls, such as are used for mixing bread, filled with pork and beans. This was all the food the men got, but all seemed strong and in good health. Mr. McGhee stayed here three days, but as the weather was very cold, and he had no blankets or bedding of any kind, and none could be had, he determined to return home, and dividing his money with his companions, he turned his steps homeward.

After this journey he worked on the farm at home until he was twenty years of age, when, having accumulated about four hundred dollars, he again started westward. This time he was able to buy a ticket from Pittsburgh to Galena, from where he struck out for St. Paul. Near Portage, Wisconsin, he found Mr. Lewis, his companion of two years before. After spending the night with him, he proceeded on his journey, and just after crossing the Wisconsin River, found himself surrounded by a tribe of Indians, who seemed to be quarreling. He was considerably alarmed, and was greatly relieved when one of them, in English, inquired what day of the week it was. On being told that it was Sunday, he seemed much pleased, and informed Mr. McGhee that was what they were disputing about, some of the rest asserting that it was not. Finding they could talk English, he inquired the way to Black River Falls. They told him there was an Indian trail through the woods, but that the white man went by Devil’s Lake, which was nearer, but Indians dare not go that way. Not being afraid of the evil spirits of the Indians, Mr. McGhee chose this route, and that night encamped on the banks of the lake, whose beauty and grandeur repaid him for the trip. There is a railroad built to the place and a summer resort upon the spot where, on the eve of July 4, 1855, Mr. McGhee spent a lonely night.

At Black River he fell in with a young man who was going to Chippewa Falls to work at the millwright trade. Having worked at this with his father, Mr. McGhee concluded to join him. On reaching the Eau Claire River the settler with whom they spent the night advised them to go no further, as the Indians were on the war-path. But, after exchanging some of their coffee and hard bread with him for dried venison and fish, they decided to push on. After going some distance they met a party of whites, who informed them that the Winnebago and Chippewa Indians were fighting at the falls. They turned back with them, and that night, for the first time, he saw a picket guard thrown out. The next day the party, forty in number, went down the river to Eau Claire, where Mr. McGhee remained until the 16th of July, when he again set out for St. Paul, a distance of two hundred miles. There was no road save an Indian trail, and the traveler did not see a human face for three days, except a party of Indians, whom he was terribly frightened to meet, in war paint; but the leader assured him that he need not be afraid, as they were on their way to "fight bad injun at Chippewa Falls," and with a war-whoop they left him.

He reached St. Paul without further adventure, and found but a small village, containing a few dwellings, a small frame hotel, the dock, warehouse, and three stores. While there a German wanted to sell him forty acres of land for forty dollars, which covered the ground now occupied by the union depot, and taking in a large portion of the city; but after looking about for a week he concluded that the place would not amount to much, as there would never be a market for the grain raised in Minnesota. From there he went to Minneapolis, St. Anthony’s, and visited the beautiful falls of Minnehaha. He then retraced his steps to Iowa, through which State he made a very pleasant pedestrian tour. Though there were roads to guide the traveler, there were no bridges, and he frequently had to wade streams where the water was waist-deep. The country was beginning to be settled, and Mr. McGhee could generally find shelter for the night. One night he stopped for the night at a sod house, and soon after two men rode up who he thought acted rather suspiciously. Mr. McGhee at once decided they were robbers, who had obtained knowledge of several hundred dollars he carried on his person, and had followed him to rob him; but his fears were all allayed when one of them asked a blessing at the supper-table.

After looking over Iowa, Mr. McGhee again turned his face homeward, thinking, as he says, "that there was too much good land in the west, and it would produce so much grain that there would be no market for it."

He reached home August 26, and had not been there very long until there was a "flood in the creek," and in company with David McGeary and Samuel Sloan started a raft from Brookville. The water was low when they started, but the rain soon fell in torrents, and when they reached Troy the water was rising rapidly. When they came in sight of Hess’s dam they could see the breakers rising up some ten feet. Mr. McGhee says:
"It made my hair stand up on my head at sight of the peril that was before us. I secured a good hold on one of the grubs and concluded I would go to the bottom with the raft. It was soon over, as the raft was in the current of the dam, and as soon as the front end had struck the breaker it went down. We were afraid we would strike the pier below the dam, but McGeary being a good pilot, we escaped. We soon found ourselves out of danger, but without coats or hats. Our oar was on the back of the raft; we soon secured it, and after some hard work succeeded in landing at New Bethlehem. I give this as one of the many adventures of a lumberman."
In 1858 Mr. McGhee formed a co-partnership in the lumber business with David McGeary, to whom he sold his interest in 1860 and purchased some timber land, in which he invested all the money he had, thinking to sell his timber in Pittsburgh in the spring. But when on his way "down the river" with his first rafts in the spring of 1861 he was met with the news that the rebels had fired upon Fort Sumter. On reaching Pittsburgh all was found to be excitement, and no sale could be made. Leaving his timber in charge of James Cathers, he returned home.

He was out of money and discouraged, but he soon imbibed the war fever that was rousing up the North, and as the ranks of the first three months’ companies were full, he enlisted under the next call in Captain Evans R. Brady’s company, and accompanied it to Pittsburgh, but having some business to attend to, he returned home, where he fell sick, and before he was able to rejoin his company Captain Brady wrote to him that his place was filled. He then enlisted in Captain A.H. Tracy’s company, which became Company H of the One Hundred and Fifth Regiment, 105th Regiment. He served almost three years in this brave old regiment, and participated in forty-two battles and skirmishes, until he was wounded at the battle of the Wilderness. Mr. McGhee says of his army experience:
"After I was wounded I never saw the good old flag again until I saw it at the reunion of Jefferson county soldiers at Brookville, September 22, thought of what Colonel Craig said at the battle of Gettysburg, when the rebels were among us as thick as bees, and the color bearers were being shot down: ‘Boys, stand by the flag until the last man is killed, and then I will take it out.’ When the Sixty-third was driven back to Randolph’s battery, and we had rescued them, I heard one of the regiment say: ‘God bless the old One Hundred and Fifth, she is always on hand.’

At the battle of the Wilderness we were marching along a road, when the rebels poured into our ranks a deadly fire. The men fell in great numbers, and as soon as we could load we returned the fire. We could not hear the report of their guns for the noise of our own firing. The only way we knew they were firing at us was seeing our men fall. The enemy occupied higher ground than we did, and suffered more. Each man fired one hundred and twenty rounds before we were relieved. We then retired a short distance and lay down to rest. I was lying behind a small tree, upon which the rebels opened fire and shot away at it until it fell."
In the fight of the next day Mr. McGhee was wounded severely in the arm. The rebel who shot him was not fifty rods distant. After receiving the wound Mr. McGhee was sent to Belle Plain, and it was four days before he reached there, and during that time his wound did not receive proper attention. At Belle Plain he was put on a boat, where his wound received proper care. He was taken to the hospital at Washington, and a few days after he arrived there an order was received to furlough the soldiers and send them home. The surgeon thought he was not able to go, but he had received intelligence of his father’s serious illness, and his nurse interceded for him, and he was allowed to go home, reaching there the day before his father’s death, which occurred May 23, 1864. He remained at home until July 1, when he returned to the hospital and was transferred to Satterly hospital, where he remained until his term of service expired.

When he came out of the army Mr. McGhee had about three hundred dollars. With this he bought five hundred acres of timber land in Forest county, at Orphan’s court sale, at fifty cents per acre, and in a few days sold it for five dollars per acre. This gave him money enough to carry on business, and he took out timber that winters and in the spring had fifteen rafts which he run to Pittsburgh and sold for twenty-five cents per foot.

Having money enough to go into some business, he concluded to go to California, and was ready to start, when R.S. Cathers persuaded him to purchase a mill property. During the winter of 1865 he took out timber on Little Toby, which he run to Pittsburgh in the spring and sold for twenty-three cents per foot. In the spring of 1866 he sold, at a good profit, his interest in the lands on Little Toby, and purchased four thousand acres of timber land in Michigan, from Ira C. Filler. After visiting and locating this land he returned home, and in the summer of 1866 bought one-fourth interest in the mill at Sandy Valley, in Winslow township. While taking out timber after the mill froze up, about March 1, 1867, one of the scorers’ axes came off the handle and struck Mr. McGhee on the wrist, severing an artery. He took cold in the sore after it was partially healed, and says:
"Had it not been for Dr. Heichhold’s watchful care, I would have lost my arm."

Since then he has made several trips to Michigan, where he has extensive lumber interests. He owns an interest in the large steam mill at McGhee Station (Sandy Valley), which was built in 1869 and saws four million feet of boards per annum. Mr. McGhee resides in his large and commodious residence at this place.

On the 8th of August, 1865, Mr. McGhee was married to Elizabeth S. Boner, daughter of Charles Boner, of Rose township. Six children have blessed this union, four of whom, Anna M., Mattie, Charles P., and James W. — survive, and are all at home with their parents; Carrie S. died November 25, 1875, and John W., December 13, 1875.

Very few of Jefferson county’s citizens have lived a more eventful or busier life than Mr. McGhee, and his adventures in the far west and in the army would fill a volume.

Source: History of Jefferson County with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers; Edited by Kate M. Scott; Syracuse, N.Y.; D. Mason & Co. 1888

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