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700 College Pl
Williamsport, PA, 17701
United States

Biography

Robert Covenhoven was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, December 7, 1755 [1} to Albert Covenhoven.{2} However, at the start of the eighteenth century, many in New Jersey began migrating to Pennsylvania because of the abundance of land. After the French and Indian War, settlers and soldiers began to seek land up the Susquehanna River Valley in Northumberland County. The county’s inhabitants, most of whom were Native Americans, dominated the area of the Wyoming and Susquehanna Valleys. Northumberland County, created in 1772, stretched from the Lehigh River in the East to the Allegheny River in the West, covering much of the northern portion of Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River dictated settlement within Northumberland County as it served as a valuable transportation method. Native Americans also established elaborate trail routes that connected much of the county and later, those trail routes were replaced with bridle paths created by new settlers. Many diverse cultures seeking to settle in Northumberland County looked towards the Wyoming Valley. Nevertheless, the Wyoming Valley provided prosperity to some and absolute disaster to most.{3} Robert and his family experienced this hard reality first hand as they moved to the valley in 1772.


The Wyoming Valley, a new frontier, full of affluence, attracted settlers from Connecticut and other portions of the middle colonies. However, because of the location, the Wyoming Valley secluded its’ people from colonial communities, thus creating problems in the political realm as members of the county were sometimes over 100 miles away from the county seat.{4] As new settlers continued to move to Northumberland County, the demand for local governments increased. Sunbury, the county seat, created problems for settlers located in the western and northern portions of the county. Settlers pushed for a new county seat that was a reasonable distance from their homes, yet the leaders in the colonial government, ever mindful of guarding their own power, refused these requests.


From 1763 to 1784, animosity between new settlers and Native Americans caused significant problems, such as land disputes and war. White settlers saw the Wyoming Valley as the key to their prosperity. However, the Indians did not see the Wyoming Valley as merely a potential, but rather integral to their lives.{5} For the next 15 years, settlers and native peoples struggled over the land and their homes. Not only did Indian and colonial claimants fight each other, but the colonists fought amongst themselves. Due to conflicting royal patents, the colonial governments of Pennsylvania and Connecticut claimed title to the land. This jurisdictional quagmire, lasting over a decade, embroiled the Wyoming Valley in civil war known as the Pennamite-Yankee wars.[6]


Robert Covenhoven’s life was molded out of these political, social, and cultural circumstances within the Wyoming Valley. Covenhoven arrived in Northumberland County as a distinguished hunter and axman.{7]Throughout the early 1770’s, hunters were classified as wandering “white Indians.”  Amidst the land disputes between colonial governments as well as the settlers and the Indians, another land dispute between hunters and farmers occupied the backcountry. Inhabitants with titles to the land and the many land speculators looking to make easy profits despised the peripatetic “white Indians” who cut down their timber and squatted on the land.{8]


To make matters worse, Covenhoven lived in an area that could not legally arbitrate these disputes. He squatted on “Indian lands” outside the western jurisdiction of Pennsylvania and thus beyond the boundaries of the law.{9]  Without local government, Covenhoven and several other members of the area banded together and created their own self-government known as the “Fair-Play System.”[10]  Through this system, the Fair Play Men settled land disputes, adjudicated the guilt or innocence of suspected criminals, and meted out their own brand of punishment.  It was a crucial experience with popular sovereignty that shaped their understanding of the empire, and eventually, the American Revolution.


Already existing independent of the empire, and harboring a great deal of animosity toward the colonial government, many of the Fair Play Men including Covenhoven joined the revolutionary cause. In 1776, at the age of twenty-one, Covenhoven volunteered in the Rifle Company commanded by Colonel James Murray and marched to the state of New Jersey under the command of General George Washington to fight the Hessian soldiers in the Battle of Trenton.[11] After the battle, Covenhoven distinguished himself by saving a young woman who the Hessians robbed, stripped her of her clothing, and tied to a tree.{12}  Later that year, under the command of General George Washington, Covenhoven participated in the Battle of Princeton where he and his troops captured 300 Hessians and made them prisoners of war.{13]After fighting in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, Robert Covenhoven’s enlistment expired and he returned to the Wyoming Valley.[14}


Just because his enlistment expired did not mean that the war was over for Covenhoven. For most of his adult life, he helped protect his community from Native American threats, Connecticut claimants, and even local criminals. The Revolutionary War for Covenhoven was no different. It was a fight to preserve his family, friends, and neighbors and he used whatever skills he had to do that. Once home, Robert Covenhoven volunteered in the company of William Hepburn for the purpose of protecting his community from Indian raids.{15} With a solid background in the county’s surroundings and location, William Hepburn appointed Robert Covenhoven leader of the scouting and spying parties.[16]

  Covenhoven’s skills proved useful on June 10, 1778, the bloodiest day in Lycoming County history. That morning, British allied Native Americans and Loyalists attacked small villages on the Northern and Western Branches of the Susquehanna.[17} In what became known as the “Big Runaway,” Colonel Samuel Hunter, member of the Committees of Safety, County Lieutenant, and commander of Fort Augusta,{18} ordered a mass evacuation of the West Branch of the Susquehanna Valley due to low ammunition and a shortage of men.[19] In fear of the Indians, the panicked settlers gathered their belongings and sent them down the river. Women and children were evacuated on rafts while the men protected them alongside the riverbanks.[20] The evacuation brought fear and confusion as most settlers expected to be captured and scalped by the Indians.[21] Meanwhile, Hepburn had no way of informing the rest of the countryside of these imminent Indian attacks.[22] Robert Covenhoven and a young millwright volunteered to carry orders to Fort Antes and then to Sunbury.[23] After Covenhoven delivered messages to Sunbury, he returned to Fort Muncy to remove his family to Fort Augusta.[24] In regards to his family’s evacuation Covenhoven stated,

"I took my own family safely to Sunbury and came back in the keelboat to secure my furniture. Just as I rounded a point above Derrstown [now Lewisburg, Union County], I met the whole convoy from all the forts above. Such a sight I nll my life. Boats, canoes, hog-troughs, rafts, hastily made of dry sticks, every sort of floating article had been put in requisition and was crowded with women, children, and plunder. Whenever an obstruction occurred at any shoal or ripple, the woman would leap out into the water, put their shoulders to the boat or raft, and launch it again into deep water. The men of the settlement came down in single file on each side of the river to guard the woman and children. The whole convoy arrived safely at Sunbury, leaving the entire range of farms along the West Branch to the ravages of the Indians."[25]

  For his actions, Robert Covenhoven became known as the “Paul Revere” of the West Branch.[26] Following the “Big Runaway,” Colonel Daniel Broadhead commissioned Robert Covenhoven as the head guide to all the scouting parties.[27] Covenhoven often guided scouting parties to Fort Jenkins located near present day Bloomsburg.[28] Under the command of Colonel Thomas Hartley, Robert Covenhoven guided the troops to Tioga Point to defend the area from John Butler,[29] a Loyalist who served as a Captain in the British Army.[30] Colonel Hartley stated,

"We were told that young Butler had been at Tioga a few hours before we came—that he had 300 men with him, the most of them were Tories, dressed in green—that they were returned towards Chemung, 12 miles off and they determined to give us battle in some of the Defiles near it."[31] 

According to Colonel Hartley, Covenhoven was a “sensible” and “intelligent young man who was well acquainted with the area of Tioga.”[32] When the troops arrived at Tioga Point, located in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, Covenhoven and the troops captured the enemy’s stores.[33]  Covenhoven also set fire to the palace of Queen Esther, leader of the Munsee Indians[34] Hartley stated, “We burnt Tioga Queen Hester’s Palace or town, and all the settlements on this side; several canoes were taken and some plunder, part of which was destroyed.”[35] Soon after the burning of Queen Esther’s palace, Colonel Hartley and Covenhoven made their way to the Wyoming Valley and was welcomed by a party of Indian warriors who gathered near Fort Muncy.[36] After this engagement, Colonel Hartley left Fort Muncy to join the Sullivan Expedition, and Captain Hepburn and Covenhoven remained at Fort Muncy to protect the inhabitants from the Native Americans who Covenhoven viewed, like most frontier settlers, as “savages.”[37]


Although Covenhoven, the “Paul Revere” of the West Branch, served in the war for more than two years and was integral to the protection of the Wyoming Valleys, it did little for him economically. After the war, he returned to his home, renting a small cottage and working as a landless laborer to support not only himself, but also his wife.  According to the 1785 tax lists of Muncy Township, Northumberland County, Robert Covenhoven only had enough personal property to be taxed six shillings, well below the average tax of the town.[38]


Robert Covenhoven attended the Pine Creek Church located near Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania until late in his life. The church’s congregation met under a large tree on the west bank of the Pine Creek River.[39] Towards the end of their lives, Covenhoven and his wife changed their names from “Covenhoven” to “Crownover.”[40] Robert’s wife died on November 27, 1843 leaving behind her husband and eight children.[41] Having lived in Northumberland County, now present day Lycoming County for the duration of his life, Robert at the age 76 appeared in the Court of Common Pleas to apply for a pension for his service in the Revolutionary War.[42] Robert received the approval of his pension and lived to be 90 years of age passing away 14 years after he filed for a pension for his service.[43] According to a nineteenth century historian, John F. Meginness, the writer of Otzinhachson: History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna, Robert Covenhoven “was one of those men who had always put forward when danger and hard work were to be encountered, but forgotten when honors and emoluments were distributed.”[44] Robert Covenhoven died on October 29, 1846 and was buried at the old Presbyterian Church located in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.[45]


Maggie Slawson                           

Lycoming College




END NOTES


[1]Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[2] William Henry Egle, Pennsylvania Women in the American Revolution (Cottonport, Louisiana: Polyanthos, 1972), 55.

[3] John B. Frantz and William Pencak, “Wyoming Valley,” Beyond Philadelphia (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 134.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sherman Day, Historical Collections of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: G.W. Gorton, 1843), 437.

[7] Beach Nichols, Atlas of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, 1975), 111.

[8] Rachel N. Klein, “Ordering the Back Country,” The William and Mary Quarterly (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998), 668-678.

[9] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[10]  John F. Menginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania (Chicago, Illinois: Brown, Rink and Company, 1892), 193.

[11] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[12] Egle, Pennsylvania Women in the American Revolution, 55.

[13] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[14] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[15] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[16] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[17] Meginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 122.

[18] Meginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 188-189.

[19] Meginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 135.

[20] Meginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 134.

[21] Ibid., 135.

[22] Ibid., 134.

[23] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[24] Egle, Pennsylvania Women in the American Revolution, 56.

[25] Day, Historical Collections of the State of Pennsylvania, 451-452.

[26] Robert Van Auken, Williamsport: Boomtown on the Susquehanna (Charlestown, South Carolina: Arcadia, 2003), 23.

[27] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[28] F. C. Johnson, the Historical Record: The Early History of the Wyoming Valley (Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania: Press of the Wilkes Barre Record, 1893), 26.

[29] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[30] Richard Merritt, “On Common Ground: The ongoing Story of the Commons in Niagara-on-the-lake,” The First Butler’s Rangers’ Barracks (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012), 49-55.

[31] John F. Meginness, Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna (Williamsport, Pennsylvania: Gazette and Bulletin Printing House, 1889), 554.

[32] Associators and Militia, 1743-1787, in Pennsylvania Archives ed. Thomas Lynch Montgomery (Harrisburg: State Printer, 1906), 632.

[33] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[34] Meginness, History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, 674-675.

[35] Meginness, Otzinachson, 554-555.

[36] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[37] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[38] Tax Records, Northumberland County, 1785, in Pennsylvania Archives ed. William Henry Egle (Harrisburg: State printer, 1897), 19:623.

[39] Joseph Stevens, History of the Presbytery of Northumberland: from its Organizations in 1811 to May 1888 (Williamsport, Pennsylvania: Gazette and Bulletin Printing House, 1888), 37.

[40] Egle, Pennsylvania Women in the American Revolution, 57.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Robert Covenhoven, June 7, 1832, Revolutionary War Pension Application, S12547.

[43] Egle, Pennsylvania Women in the American Revolution, 57.

[44] Meginness, Otzinachson, 615.


 


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