Merchant, Judge, Colonel
By NELSON WELLES MOOERS, 1932
for the Chemung Canal Bank
Copyright © 2011
Matthias Hollenback of Wilkes-Barre, though never a resident of Newtown (Elmira), through his ownership of the first store and the first grist mill in Newtown and because of the splendid men, whom he sent here as his representatives, may well be included in the list of "key" men who influenced the early life of the Chemung Valley Settlement.
From records collected by my mother, May Sayre Welles, we find that Matthias Hollenback was born in or near Jonestown, Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Feb. 15, 1752, the son of Eleanor Jones and John Hollenback. Matthias was of the third generation from [Edelfingen] Germany while his mother's people came from Wales.
Boys of Colonial times matured early. 1770 found Matthias, a young man of 18, equipped with a horse, a saddle, six-weeks education and $50, arriving in the beautiful Wyoming Valley to seek his fortune. At Wilkes-Barre he opened his first store. The Revolution found him an Ensign in the Militia called out with the other frontier militia-men to fight the British.
On the dry, wooden-backed frame of an original silhouette belonging to my father, in the hand-writing of Grandfather Matthias Hollenback Welles are these words, "Matthias Hollenback - died 1829, was in battle of Brandywine, Valley Forge, Trenton, Germantown, Wyoming."
1778 opened with practically all the able-bodied men in the Continental Army. For months it was common knowledge among the Indians that now was the ripe time to destroy piece-meal the unprotected white settlements in the Wyoming Valley. Outlying cabins were repeatedly attacked and burned, the inmates murdered or carried off.
Pleading letters seeped through to the soldiers down with General Washington to come home to protect their families and their property. Some men were relieved to return to Wyoming. Among these was Hollenback, who arrived a few days before the attack., Two other fore-fathers of the writer, Lieutenants Ross and James Welles reached home the day before the battle, only to fall on "the fateful third". Too late a company had been dispatched; they were within
forty miles when the battle began. On July 3, 1778, an ill-equipped though valiant force, 230 enrolled men, seventy grandfathers, magistrates and boys in their early teens marched out from "Forty Fort" to meet 600 blood-thirsty Indians and 200 well-trained Tories and British.
In the awful conflict and terrible massacre about 150 of “the Connecticut people" were killed, and 140 escaped. Hollenback, then 26, saved his life by swimming the river. It was his good fortune to escape the shots fired at him in the water. Arriving at the Wilkes-Barre Fort, Hollenback reported the issue of the day, then mounted and hastened to meet Captain Spalding with his hard-pushed company.
From the army commissariat, his horse's back was loaded with supplies, then he hurried to succor the fugitives. Survivors said he came "like an angel of mercy." Words cannot describe the desolation which foIlowed the massacre. Decimated families fled eastward toward safety.
Among these refugees was Sarah Burritt Hibberd, "widowed at Wyoming," escaping with her two small children. According to family tradition, it took this little party three weeks to reach the mother's former Connecticut home. In heir flight they subsisted on herbs and berries. Some years later she returned to Wyoming as Matthias Hollenback's
wife. On the back of her silhouette her grandson had written her name, the loss of her first husband in battle and the names of the four Hollenback children, Mary Ann H. Lanning, Ellen H. Welles, George M. Hollenback and Sarah H. Butler. This brave woman lived until 1830, fifty-two years after that fateful July day.
The story of General Sullivan's march to avenge the attacks on Cherry Valley, Minnisink, and Wyoming, is well-known to everyone in the Chemung Valley. When the Susquehanna Valley became as safe as any frontier can be, many settlers returned to rebuild their homes.
At the conclusion of hostilities, Hollenback gathered a drove of beef cattle and went from Wyoming to Niagara to sell them to the British garrison there. News traveled more slowly to the outposts than slow-moving cattle. In consequence Hollenback was kept prisoner at Niagara several weeks before official news reached the British
that the war had ended, then he was freed and after selling his cattle, returned home.
By 1783, the indefatigable merchant had established outposts at Tioga Point and Newtown. At Tioga Point, Mr. Daniel McDowell, (survivor of two Indian ordeals and in consequence called "The Iron Man"), was agent, a capacity later filled by Mr. John Shepard.
For years the mailing address of this settlement was simply '"Hollenback's Store.” It was Matthias Hollenback's custom to erect a mill near every store he owned. This enabled the settlers- to purchase provisions and have their flour ground at the same time. The Hollenback mill at Newtown was later sold to Stephen Tuttle, who in turn sold it to his son-in-law, the first John Arnot. The familiar name of this mill is now "Arnot's Mill.”
At Wyalusing Matthias Hollenback set up his nephew, John Hollenback in a store, and built a grist mill near by, on the site of the present Welles grist mill. At Owego there was another Hollenback store, as well as at Union Springs above Aurora. Before her marriage, Ellen Hollenback sometimes accompanied her father on his tours of inspection to his various stores and mills. They traveled on 'horseback and oftentimes were away six weeks. What a lark for a girl at the close of the eighteenth century.
In 1791 Newtown was selected as the site for the final treaty with the Six Nations. Colonel Hollenback was given the contract for supplying food to the large number of Indians expected at the council meeting. The Council began July 4, 1791, and lasted ten days. According to Towner, about 1000 Indians of all ages came, exceeding the number
looked for, making it difficult to feed them.
At one time Hollenback acted as agent for John Jacob Astor. The story goes that in fording a stream Hollenback saved the New Yorker's life. Later on, to show his gratitude, Astor offered to take Hollenback's only son into his business, but Hollenback preferred to keep the young man with him.
Civil honors came to Hollenback. His first commission in civil life was as justice of the Peace, signed by Benjamin Franklin, May 11, 1787, and under the state constitution, he was commissioned by Gov. Mifflin as Associate judge, August 17, 1791; a position which he filled with honor and esteem for 38 years. The military title of "Colonel" came from his rank in the peace-time Militia.
By 1793, Col. Hollenback was agent to the French settlement at Asylum. Mr. Hollenback took large sums of money to Philadelphia to be banked. He was in great danger from both white and Indian robbers. So, to make these arduous trips unnecessary Hollenback opened a bank in Wilkes-Barre.
In Louise Welles Murray's "Old Tioga Point and Early Athens" is this quotation, "Though never in the least a politician, judge Hollenback generally acted with the Democratic party; his last vote being cast for President Jackson in November, 1828, three months before his own death. The ballot was taken from his hands as he sat in his carriage, the election board coming to the door for the purpose. He died February 18, 1829, aged 77 years and one day."
There are. many descendents of Matthias Hollenback in the Susquehanna Valley. In Chemung County Nelson A. Welles, his family, and the family of the late George M. Welles are his only descendants. Matthias Hollenback Arnot, former President of the Chemung Canal Bank, was named after Col. Hollenback.