Three sons of John Steel settled in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, beginning as early as the 18th century, while their brother David Steel remained in Ireland. When David's own sons began to emigrate, they first made their way to Huntingdon, where they stayed with their uncles until they could get on their feet and live independently. The youngest of these, The Rev. David Steele, recalled, "Two of my father's brothers, William and Samuel, were among the early settlers of Huntingdon, and were merchants in that county-seat for half a century or more. I spent nine months with the former as storekeeper, meanwhile prosecuting my pleasant classical studies." In addition to William and Samuel, a younger brother, Alexander Steel (1770-1859, emigrated 1820) was a farmer in West Township.
Sketches of William Steel, and of his son James Steel, may be found in the History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties; these sketches also mention other relatives.
William Steel. – This gentleman was another of the prominent and fortunate men of the county. He was appointed an associate judge on the 2d of April, 1804, by Governon McKean. Of course he was not "learned in the law," – few of the associate judges are, and Huntingdon Country has never had any who were law judges. He was an Irish gentleman of the Covenanter faith. A great portion of his time he kept a public-house and a store, and withal did a considerable amount of surveying, and by reason of these various occupations and his social disposition he became extensively acquainted with the people of the county. His political aspirations did not begin or end with his appointment to the bench. In 1796 he was elected a county commissioner by three hundred and thirty-six votes, there being only four election districts in the county at that time. In 1800 he was a candidate for the lower branch of the Legislature, and made a respectable poll, but was defeated by James Kerr. In 1802 he was a candidate for the same office and elected, with John Blair, over Arthur Moore and Richard Smith, Mr. Steel, having the highest vote of the four candidates. In 1824 he was a candidate for sheriff, and received eleven hundred and fifty-seven votes against eleven hundred and ninety-four cast for William Spear. In 1828 he was again a candidate, this time for State senator, and carried the county by a handsome majority, but Thomas Jackson was elected in the district. Mr. Steel's popularity was continually increasing.
In 1809 (Feb. 28th) he was appointed prothonotary, register and recorder, and clerk of the courts by Governor Snyder, and continued to hold these offices until 1821....
Judge Steel also had a high military title, that of general, he having been chosen major-general of the militia. Certain it is, however, that while on the bench as an associate judge, and afterwards while acting as prothonotary, he often used a military term of definite meaning. When witnesses had been subpoenaed and did not attend court, he would say, with considerable emphasis, "Send a detachment for them," or "bring them in by a detachment." This was often related by his son, the late Maj. James Steel, as a joke upon his father, and the major would laugh heartily over it....
Mr. Steel was a man of medium height, heavy and erect frame, communicated freely and intelligently, was kind and courteous to all, and to young men in particular, and ... lived to an advanced age. He left surviving him two brothers, namely, Samuel Steel, who had been county treasurer several times and was well known in the county, and Alexander Steel, of West township, a farmer, and two sons, James, who became a prominent member of the bar,... and William, and six or seven daughters, all of whom are now deceased. Gen. Steel lived in the house now owned and occupied by C.C. North, on the north side of Penn Street, between Third and Fourth Streets, and died at his residence on the 12th of May, 1840, in the eighty-sixth year of his age.
Africa, J.S. History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1883, pp. 70-71.
James Steel was born on the 13th of January, 1796. After he grew to a proper age he was sent to the school under the tutorship of Rev. John Johnston, where he learned to read Latin, – how little or how much is not known, nor is it now material to know. He was a smart boy, such as in common parlance at this day would be called "fast," and was full of mischievous but not malicious tricks. His father, William Steel, held the offices of prothonotary and clerk of the courts, and James, while yet a lad, was put in as a clerk and afterwards as deputy, and did good service in the office. His father also kept a store and a tavern, and the boy, or young man, as they would now say, had fine opportunities of extending his acquaintance and developing his character, and he improved them.
At times the father would become impatient with the son and rebuke him for his waywardness, and threaten to "bind him out to a trade," and upon one occasion actually took him by the arm and was leading him to the shop of David Snyder, a hatter, to bind him as an apprentice to learn that art and trade. But while on the way by the merest accident they met Robert Allison, a gentleman who knew James and liked him. Upon being made acquainted with the mission on which they had started, Mr. Allison interposed and said, "Gen. Steel, let me have the boy, and I will make a lawyer of him." The father thought it hardly worth while, – the boy would not have application enough, – but finally consented to let him try it. After the usual course of study he was duly examined and admitted, on motion of his preceptor, on the 18th of August, 1818....
By some means he acquired the name of major, and was better known by that title than by his Christian name. In fact, almost every prominent citizen of the town and county at that time was the happy possessor of some military title, but many of them could not show a commission conferring that distinction.
Maj. Steel had all the elements of popularity within himself. He was generous to a fault, frank, truthful, warm-hearted, easily accessible, and confiding. He was, moreover, full of good nature, wit, and humor, fond of cracking jokes, and he told anecdotes with a great deal of vim and zest....
He was more than six feet high, thin in flesh, his eyes were gray and searching, his face always clean shaved, without whiskers, and his hair well set, but gray, and his general demeanor was gentlemanly, polite, and affable.
In his early years he manifested some wildness, but in the flower of his manhood he was converted and joined the Methodist Episcopal communion, and became an exemplary Christian. In or about the year 1834 he married Miss Eliza Rothrock, of Bellefonte, a Methodist lady, whom he met at a camp-meeting some time before. Their home soon became the headquarters of the circuit preachers, and the major and his good lady were noted for their generous hospitality. Many amusing stories could be told about Maj. Steel, but space will not permit. However, one little pious anecdote of which he was the subject must be mentioned. The old Steel family were "Covenanters," and were not pleased that the major had left the faith of his fathers and joined the Methodist Church. Soon after he joined the church he visited his uncle, Alexander Steel, in the country, who asked him to conduct the family worship, which was accordingly done. The next morning his uncle said to him, "Well, Jeems, you made a pretty good prayer, but it was wonderfully scattered."
He never practiced outside of his own county, never traveled much except to camp-meetings and conferences. He was domestic in his habits and tastes and of high social qualities, and took great interest in the cause of temperance and moral reform. He died at his residence in Huntingdon on the 26th day of December, 1868, aged seventy-two years, "retiring in the hope of a glorious resurrection."
Africa, J.S. History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1883, pp. 78-79.
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