Retracing the Past: The Walking Purchase of 1737

Retracing the Past: The Walking Purchase of 1737

By Melanie Gold

In 1737, a historic marathon was run through the Lehigh Valley. It was a colonial race that consisted of only three runners, and though it opened up the area to more European settlement and commerce, it was an amazing feat of human endurance. It was called the Walking Purchase, and I’m observing its 276th anniversary by retracing this historic event… but I’m cheating a little bit. I’m not walking at all; I’m driving it in my open-air Jeep.

On September 19, 1737, three men – Solomon Jennings, James Yates and Edward Marshall, all Pennsylvania residents – took off at dawn from the Wrightstown Friends Meeting House in Bucks County, accompanied by a number of provincial government observers, time keepers, and curiosity seekers, and a few Lenape Indian overseers. They were fulfilling a somewhat dubious treaty that had been negotiated 50 years earlier.

Eastern Pennsylvania was the western frontier then, and Wrightstown is where my journey begins too. After exploring the Quaker cemetery next to the meeting house, I head northwest in my car on the Durham Road, also known as PA Route 413, and follow it for about 15 miles. A few miles into the drive, I pass the Gardenville Hotel, which would have been open for business in 1737. The “walking” party would have breezed past this place, eager to put as much distance between them and Wrightstown as possible. A reward of 500 acres of land was at stake.

Almost immediately, the Lenape Indians questioned the speed and direction of the participants. They had already protested the authenticity of the Treaty of 1686 that allowed the Penns to gobble up all the land that could be walked in a day and a half. They expected to lose some farmlands along the Delaware River, but the runners blew past the western border stipulated in the treaty, heading west into the Indians’ prime hunting lands. The Indians’ protests fell on deaf ears.

In the rural village of Pipersville, where PA 413 meets PA 611, the first of the three runners, Solomon Jennings, fell out of the race, exhausted. I follow 611 north toward Lake Nockamixon, speedily passing over streams with names such as Deep Run and Tohickon Creek, and I’m reminded that the runners didn’t have the convenience of bridges. Running up hilly terrain, they would have been sweating in their linen garments, and at each low spot, by crossing these many streams, they would have been soaking their heavy, leather shoes and feet. And yet, by most accounts, they maintained a brisk pace of 4.5 miles per hour on primitive trails and narrow roads. No wonder Jennings had fallen out.

By noon, six hours into the race, Marshall and Yates had reached the junction of PA routes 412 and 212 near Springtown, stopping for only 15 minutes to eat and rest, then continuing up Route 412 through Hellertown and Southside Bethlehem. After crossing the Lehigh River at Bethlehem, they followed a northwesterly route roughly parallel to PA 145, pressing for another four hours through increasingly rugged and hilly terrain. They stopped for the night near the Indian town of Hokendauqua, where a sign marks the general location where Marshall and Yates crossed the Hokendauqua Creek to rest, despite the threat of potential violence.

The next morning, Yates and Marshall went off in the rain, continuing up the Nescopeck Path, an Indian trail that paralleled the east side of the Lehigh River, heading into unknown territory. I’m driving a similar route, PA 145 to PA 248, and I have to pause at the rugged, mountainous country that suddenly appears at Palmerton, about 10 miles north of the morning’s starting point. We’re heading into the Pocono Mountains.

Pressing farther northwest despite their exhaustion, the men crossed the Pohopoco Creek in waist-deep water near the Indian town of Pokopogchunk (modern town of Parryville). At this spot, the laboring Yates fell facedown into the swirling water. Marshall, who led the race, turned back to rescue the thrashing man while the observers on foot and on horseback lagged behind. As Marshall dragged the Yates to shore, the injured man scrubbed at his eyes, exclaiming that he couldn’t see. (His vision returned three days later, but Yates died within a year.) Without Yates, Marshall continued on, though he too was spent from the endeavor of scaling a mountain at a 45-degree incline at 1,700 feet. My car lumbers up the mountain too, past Penn’s Peak entertainment venue to a flat clearing at the top, an oasis.

Then, at 2 p.m. on September 20, 1737, Sheriff Timothy Smith of Bucks County pronounced the end of the “walk” for Edward Marshall, the lone finisher, at roughly the intersection between Maury Road and Route 903, a couple miles north of the Jim Thorpe memorial in Jim Thorpe, PA.

All told, the Walking Purchase won for the Penn heirs approximately 1,200 square miles of lands rich in game, arable land, and other natural resources. Marshall never did receive his reward of 500 acres of land in the new territory; and when he presented himself to Thomas Penn, he was offered a payoff of five British pounds instead.

At the same time, the Indians never forgot the fleet-footed political pawn who had cost them their prime hunting lands. By the time Marshall settled near the Delaware Water Gap in 1752 with his family, most of the Lenape Indians had been forced to the Ohio River Valley, near Pittsburgh. During the French and Indian War, when the Lenape returned to their homelands to avenge their mass eviction, Marshall’s wife paid the ultimate price for wrongs done to the Indians.

As I’m driving back down the mountain, heading for home, traffic signs indicate this is a prime spot for falling rock and runaway 18-wheelers. Frankly, I’m exhausted from driving the route in a rugged Jeep, and I can only marvel at Marshall’s fitness, perseverance, and the brute strength and sheer fortitude he had to pause a moment to save his competitor’s life before claiming victory for himself. Far from a “walker,” Marshall was surely a colonial Olympian.

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