Peter Niswonger: Indian fighter, hunter, squatter, brandy maker

Last Friday, the Chester-Shade Historical Association held their annual benefit dinner with different speakers giving presentations on all 12 of Meigs County’s townships, which I had the privilege of speaking on Lebanon and Scipio Townships. The talks each speaker gave were brief, but a lot of local history was shared. For this week’s article, I’d like to focus a little more in depth on a man who settled in Lebanon Township near Portland; Pete Niswonger. You may remember his name from the Pioneer Hunting Stories of John Warth from early March. 

Peter Niswonger and his brothers Jacob and John were all born in Fredrick County, Virginia, near Fredericksburg and are of German heritage. The Niswonger brothers came over the mountains to Wheeling during the Revolutionary War 1773. While in Wheeling, the brothers made a name for themselves as Indian fighters and hunters. The brothers were Rangers in the Virginia militia under Capt. Peter Helphenstine. Jacob died in 1775. John was killed by Indians in 1783 on a hunting expedition down the Ohio River, near Little Grave Creek. His partner, Joseph Heffler, escaped as their canoe floated off down river. John was found some months later near Captiva Island, still in his canoe.

In 1788, Peter left Wheeling, coming down the Ohio and settling in Marietta as part of the second wave of settlers to arrive at the first settlement of the Northwest Territory. If you look into the early history of Marietta, you will see that Peter Niswonger’s prowess as an Indian fighter and hunter are found there as well. Peter was said to be a huge swarthy, muscular and daring man standing over six feet tall, with a Roman nose which had been knocked to the side in a fist fight with an Indian.  Peter’s attire was typically that of an Indian. When he was in the woods, he always wore face paint like that of the Indians as well. 

While living in Wheeling, the Indians made a large attack on Fort Henry where they managed to knock down one section on a side of the fort. Peter Niswonger volunteered to raise this part of the palisade through which the Indians were firing. Amidst bullets and arrows firing in all directions, the settlers inside Fort Henry secured the logs Niswonger had raised with chains. Niswonger remained unwounded throughout the whole ordeal. At the completion of the fort’s repairs, and with cheers of settlers, he dashed through the sally gate of Fort Henry, along with the howls of the Indians. This proved to be the Indians final attack on the Fort. 

While in Marietta, Peter married Jane Kerr, who was a sister of Meigs County’s Hamilton Kerr, who was also an Indian fighter, came to what would be Meigs County in 1792. Hamilton Kerr eventually killed the Indian that killed Peter’s brother John. Hamilton Kerr met and married Susan Niswonger, daughter of Col. John Niswonger, who was Peter’s cousin. Joseph Barker’s Recollections of the first settlement of Ohio erroneously recorded their relationship. He did though, to his credit, document a priceless history of Ranger life at “The Point” and Fort Harmar. After establishing the settlement in Marietta, the relative safety of the region prompted a rapid immigration of greenhorns seeking new land. This also marked the exodus of many of the Ranger families downriver to Gallia and Meigs Counties.

Peter and Jane Niswonger, with their children lived together at “The Point” in Marietta in a blockhouse as late as 1792. It was here that Peter served as a scout on the Fort Harmar side of the Muskingum River. It was here he was paired with John Warth, who was also an Indian fighter of note. Warth went on to marry a member of the Fleehart family and settled in what is now Jackson County, West Virginia where he had several slaves and was the owner of large land holdings. 

Once the Indian wars concluded in Marietta, Niswonger grew tired of the lack of hostility and yearning for a more adventurous life, put his family on a flatboat and started down the Ohio River. He landed at what is now Portland. It in what is known as the “Old Town Bottoms” that Niswonger built a cabin just below Buffington Island.  He is considered the first person to settle in Lebanon Township. It was also here that Niswonger over 200 peach trees, built a distillery, and began making peach brandy. The Kerr and Warth families then settled nearby, as did Col. John Niswonger. 

It is noted in Larkin’s Pioneer History of Meigs County that “Mr. Niswonger had a still-house for making whisky and peach brandy, built by a spring of excellent water, on Lot 182, Ohio Company’s purchase, afterward owned by Nehemiah Bicknell. The spring was always called the “still-house spring.” His name, in connection with that of Elias Nesselrode, is used in an account of an elk discovered crossing the Ohio river below Sandy creek, by Andrew Anderson, who, being on the Ohio side of the river, saw Niswonger and Nesselrode pushing a canoe laden with salt upstream to whom he called “to head off the elk,” which had reached their side so near that they threw a log chain at his horns, which so enraged him that he capsized their canoe with the men and the salt and escaped to the woods of Virginia.

Soon after, other settlers began to settle in Lebanon Township in 1793. After several years of residence in what would become Meigs County, Peter Niswonger found life to be too crowded. So,fed up with the rapid influx of civilization, he built a flatboat, loaded up his family, a few meager possessions, and assumingly a decent amount of his peach brandy and headed down the Ohio once again. This time he found himself in Southern Illinois there near Shawneetown. It was here that Peter lived out the remainder of his life, living until the ripe old age of 79.

As the old Ohio flows….