Matamoras Minute: The Leith family

Photo provided. Sarah Lowery Leith’s tombstone in Center Valley Cemetery proclaims her first capture by natives in 1763 and her marriage to John Leith in 1779 as the first recorded white marriage in the original Northwest Territory. She was buried here over 220 years ago.

In last week’s article I mentioned John and Sarah Leith as neighbors to John Burris. This couple’s story is one which reveals how wild and woolly situations could become on the frontier. Their adventures before finally settling in the Matamoras area are indeed things that develop into legend.

We start with the story of John’s future wife, Sarah Lowery. Born circa 1760 at Big Cove in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, she was captured by natives at the age of three during Pontiac’s War. Shortly thereafter three of her sisters were carried away as well.

In 1764 with the defeat of the natives at the Battle of Bushy Run, the military demanded the return of all white prisoners who had been captured. The three other Lowry girls were returned but Sarah was not among them. Thus her family thought she was dead.

Meanwhile John Leith was living in York, Pennsylvania. He was born in South Carolina to a mother who would die when he was five years old and a father who had not lived to see his birth. With his mother’s passing he moved to live with an uncle in Columbia until the age of twelve when he arrived in York. He moved again to Fort Pitt and then on to Lancaster, Ohio.

At this point in his life he too was captured by natives of the Delaware tribe. They adopted him into their tribe and the chief, Captain Pipe, became his foster father. At the proper age Captain Pipe urged him to marry one of the girls among the Delaware but John was reluctant.

Out with a group of native hunters, John’s eye fell upon Sarah, a white girl among a passing tribe. When Captain Pipe heard of this encounter he felt she would be a match for the young man. Since Sarah, now called Sally, knew only the native customs of marriage, they were performed in a manner familiar to her. John killed a deer and left it at the door of where she lived. Upon his return the following day Sally had built an outdoor fire to cook the venison. The fire signified her acceptance and constituted marriage.

And so in March 1779 they wed, according to white standards, outside of the natives’ territory, in Coshocton, Ohio. It is said that this was the first all white couple to be married in the entire Northwest Territory.

After their marriage the couple moved to Gnadenhutten where their son, Samuel, was born in 1780. However their involvement with the natives was far from over.

John Miller is president of the Matamoras Area Historical Society. Membership dues are $15 per year single/couple. Life membership is $150. Contact the society at P.O. Box 1846, New Matamoras, Ohio 45767. Much of this column is built on the work of Matamoras’ historian, the late Diana McMahan.


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