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Womens’ History Month: Our own local hero Dorcas Buchanan

By presidential proclamation, the month of March has been designated as Women’s History Month, a time to stop and reflect on the contributions women have made in our American history.

I recently discovered a wonderful book series by Marie Benedict (found at our local bookstore, The Crooked Shelf), that focuses on just that. Each book tells the story of a strong, intelligent woman who worked silently behind men, often in the shadows, but even from that vantage point still managed to change history.

So many courageous warriors ignored public opinion and social norms marching for the right to vote, fought bravely beside their male counterparts, and demanded equal rights. For their bravery and tenacity, I am forever grateful.

While thinking about these examples of pure grit, I am reminded of someone who lived and died right here in our Juniata River Valley. She is a marvelous example of a woman who refused to play the part of a victim when times were tough. She is a wonderful picture of strength and courage.

Dorcas Buchanan was the first European woman to settle in Mifflin County, but her story began in Ireland around 1711.

To quote from the book “Mifflin County, A Collection of Local History Stories for Young People,” published by the Mifflin County Historical Society, “her life was filled with romance, danger and adventure.” Sounds like a made-for-TV movie plot!

When she was a young woman, she found forbidden love when she met a nobleman named Henry and fell in love. The two planned to marry, but since they were of different social classes, when Henry’s parents found out about their plan, they proceeded to kidnap Dorcas and put her on ship heading for America.

Thankfully, the story does not end there, and love prevailed! Henry boarded the next America-bound ship, and somehow fate intervened and against all odds he found Dorcas. They married and had three sons, but tragically, Henry mysteriously disappeared without a trace!

Life was not easy for Dorcas. For three years she struggled on her own, doing what she had to do to provide for her sons. Eventually remarrying, she moved with her new husband to an unsettled piece of wilderness which is now Mifflin County.

Regretfully, Dorcas once again experienced great loss with the death of her husband and was left alone to fend for herself and her sons. She never remarried but worked hard and went on to become a very successful businesswoman. She bought and sold land and kept and managed 300 acres which eventually became Lewistown.

Becoming the first female entrepreneur in the area, she ran a very successful trading post. She lived a long life full of tragedy and triumphs and died at age 93. You can visit her final resting place at the old town cemetery on South Brown Street in Lewistown.

Too important in our local history to be forgotten, Dorcas Buchanan is indeed someone to be remembered and admired.

May we as women aspire to build those same qualities in our lives and commit to encouraging those around us to do the same.

President Jimmy Carter said it this way, “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions were unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”

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Rhonda Moore is executive director of the Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce.

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