Pittsburgh, History to 1800/Draft

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The Fort Pitt Blockhouse, dating to 1764, is the oldest structure in Pittsburgh.[1]

The site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, is at the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River that forms the Ohio River. The history of Pittsburgh began with a struggle between Native Americans, the French and the British over the control of this strategic juncture. Native Americans had populated this region for more than 10,000 years.[2] In 1754, to enforce their territorial claims, the French built Fort Duquesne at the Ohio's head. This triggered the French and Indian War.[3] After British General John Forbes occupied Fort Duquesne, he ordered the construction of Fort Pitt. He named the settlement between the rivers "Pittsborough." During Pontiac's Rebellion, Ohio Valley and Great Lakes tribes besieged Fort Pitt for two months, but their siege was lifted.

Following the American Revolution, the village around the fort continued to grow. One of its earliest industries was building boats for settlers to enter the Ohio Country. The year 1794 saw the short-lived Whiskey Rebellion, when farmers rebelled against federal taxes on whiskey. See Pittsburgh, History Since 1800

Native American era

Native Americans lived near the forks of the Ohio for thousands of years. These are some important villages, most circa 1750s.

For thousands of years, Native Americans inhabited the region where the Allegheny and the Monongahela join to form the Ohio. Paleo-Indians conducted a hunter-gatherer lifestyle perhaps as early as 19,000 years ago.[2] Meadowcroft Rockshelter, west of Pittsburgh, provides evidence that these first Americans occupied the region from that early date.

During the Adena culture, Mound Builders erected a large Indian Mound at McKees Rocks, about three miles from the head of the Ohio. The Indian Mound, a burial site, was augmented in later years by members of the Hopewell culture.[4]

European diseases, such as smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria, preceded European explorers to western Pennsylvania, devastating the populations of the Native Americans living there.[5]

In the early 18th century, the Iroquois held dominion over the upper Ohio valley from their homelands in present-day New York State. Other Native American tribes in the upper Ohio valley included the Lenape, or Delawares, who had been displaced from eastern Pennsylvania by European settlement, and the Shawnees, who had migrated up from the south.[6]

In 1748, when Conrad Weiser visited Logstown, he counted 789 warriors from ten different tribes:[7]

Shannopin's Town, a Seneca tribe village on the east bank of the Allegheny, was the home village of Queen Aliquippa, but was gone after 1749. Chartier's Town was a Shawnee town. Sawcunk, on the mouth of the Beaver River, was a Lenape (Delaware) settlement and the principal residence of Shingas, a chief of the Lenapes.[8] Kittanning was a Lenape and Shawnee village on the Allegheny with an estimated 300–400 residents.[9]

Struggle for Control of the Forks of the Ohio (1747–1763)

This string of French Forts, built in 1753 and 1754, contributed to the start of the Seven Year's War

In 1748, the first Ohio Company won a grant of 200,000 acres in the upper Ohio valley. From a post at present-day Cumberland, Maryland, the company began to construct an 80-mile wagon road to the Monongahela River.[10]

The French had built Logstown for the Native Americans as a trade and council center, in order to increase their influence in the Ohio valley. In 1749, to bolster the French claim to the region, an expedition headed by Celeron de Bienville traveled down the Allegheny and Ohio. De Bienville warned away English traders and posted markers claiming the territory.[11]

In 1753, Marquis Duquesne, the Governor of New France, sent another, larger expedition. At present-day Erie, Pennsylvania, an advance party built Fort Presque Isle. They also cut a road through the woods and built Fort Le Boeuf on French Creek, from which it was possible at high water to float to the Allegheny. By summer, an expedition of 1,500 French and Native American men descended the Allegheny. Some wintered at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny, where, the following year, they built Fort Machault.[12]

Alarmed at these French incursions in the Ohio valley, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia sent Major George Washington to warn the French to withdraw. Accompanied by Christopher Gist, Washington arrived at the Forks of the Ohio in Nov. 1753, recording his impressions in his journal:[13]

"As I got down before the Canoe, I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, & the Land in the Fork, which I think extremely well situated for a Fort; as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. The Land at the Point is 20 or 25 feet above the common Surface of the Water; & a considerable Bottom of flat well timber'd Land all around it, very convenient for Building."

Proceeding up the Allegheny, Washington presented Dinwiddie's letter to the French commanders first at Venango, and then Fort Le Boeuf. The French officers received Washington with wine and courtesy, but did not withdraw.

Governor Dinwiddie then sent Captain William Trent to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio. In 1754 Trent began construction of the fort, the first European habitation[14] at the site of present-day Pittsburgh. The fort, named Fort Prince George, was only half-built by April 1754, when over 500 French forces arrived and ordered the 40-some colonials back to Virginia. The French then tore down the British effort and built Fort Duquesne.

Governor Dinwiddie launched another expedition. Colonel Joshua Fry commanded the regiment. His second-in-command, George Washington, led an advance column. Washington's unit clashed with the French in the Battle of Jumonville Glen. After the battle, Washington's ally, Seneca chief Tanaghrisson, tomahawked a prisoner, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. On July 3, Washington surrendered following the Battle of Fort Necessity. These actions sparked the French and Indian War (1754–1763) (called the Seven Years' War in Europe), an imperial confrontation between England and France fought in both hemispheres.

British and French Forts, 1753–1758, and the routes of the two British campaigns to take the forks of the Ohio

In 1755, Washington accompanied British General Braddock's expedition. Two regiments marched from Fort Cumberland. Following a path Washington surveyed, over 3,000 men built a wagon road 12-feet wide. When complete, Braddock's Road was the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountains. It blazed the way for the future National Road. The expedition crossed the Monongahela River on July 9, 1755. French troops from Fort Duquesne ambushed Braddock's expedition at Braddock's Field, nine miles from Fort Duquesne. In the Battle of the Monongahela, the French inflicted heavy losses on the British. Braddock was mortally wounded. The surviving British and colonial forces retreated. This left the French and their Native American allies with dominion over the upper Ohio valley.

In September, 1756, an expedition of 300 militiamen destroyed the Shawnee and Lenape village of Kittanning. In the summer of 1758, British General John Forbes began a campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. At the head of 7,000 regular and colonial troops, Forbes built Fort Ligonier and Fort Bedford, from where he cut a wagon road over the Allegheny Mountains, later known as Forbes’ Road. On the night of Sept. 13–14, 1758, an advance column under Major James Grant was massacred in the Battle of Fort Duquesne. The battleground, the high hill east of the Point, was named Grant's Hill in the memory of Major Grant. With this defeat, Forbes decided to wait until spring. But when he heard that the French had lost Fort Frontenac and largely evacuated Fort Duquesne, he planned an immediate attack. Now hopelessly outnumbered, the French abandoned and razed Fort Duquesne. Forbes occupied the burned fort and ordered the construction of Fort Pitt, named after British Secretary of State William Pitt the Elder. He also named the settlement between the rivers, "Pittsborough." The British garrison at Fort Pitt made substantial improvements to its fortification. The French never attacked Fort Pitt. The French and Indian War ended with the Treaty of Paris (1763).

Gateway to the West (1763–1799)

Fort Pitt, 1795

In 1760, the first considerable settlement around Fort Pitt began to grow. Traders and settlers built two groups of houses and cabins, the "lower town," near the fort's ramparts, and the "upper town," along the Monongahela as far as present-day Market Street. In April 1761, a census ordered by Colonel Henry Bouquet counted 332 people and 104 houses.

In a final attempt to drive out the British, Pontiac's Rebellion began with an assault on British forts in May 1763. Ohio Valley and Great Lakes tribes overran many forts; one of their most important targets was Fort Pitt. Receiving warning of the coming attack, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss officer in command of the garrison, prepared for a siege. He leveled the houses outside the ramparts and ordered all settlers into the fort: 330 men, 104 women and 196 children sought refuge inside its ramparts. Captain Ecuyer also gathered stores, to include hundreds of barrels of pork and beef. Pontiac's forces attacked the fort on 22 June, 1763. The siege of Fort Pitt lasted for two months. Pontiac's warriors kept up a continuous, though ineffective, fire on it. Then they drew off to meet the relieving party under Colonel Bouquet, which defeated the Indians in the Battle of Bushy Run. This victory sealed British dominion over the forks of the Ohio, if not the entire Ohio valley. In 1764 Colonel Bouquet added a redoubt, the "Block House," which still stands, the sole remaining structure from Fort Pitt and the oldest authenticated building west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The Iroquois signed the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768, ceding the lands south of the Ohio to the British. European expansion into the upper Ohio valley increased. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 families settled in western Pennsylvania between 1768 and 1770.Of these settlers, about a third were English, a third were Scotch-Irish and the rest were Welsh, German and others. These groups tended to settle together in small farming communities, but often their households were not within hailing distance. The life of a settler family was one of relentless hard work: clearing the forest, stumping the fields, building cabins and barns, planting, weeding and harvesting. In addition, almost everything had to be manufactured by hand, including furniture, tools, candles, buttons and needles. Settlers had to deal with harsh winters, and with snakes, black bears, mountain lions and timber wolves. Because of the fear of raids by Native Americans, the settlers often built their cabins near, or even on top of, springs. They also built blockhouses, where neighbors would rally during conflicts.[15]

Increasing violence with the Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot tribes lead to Dunmore's War in 1774, and conflict with Native Americans continued throughout the American Revolution. In 1777, Fort Pitt became a United States fort, when Brigadier General Edward Hand took command. In 1779, Colonel Daniel Brodhead led 600 men from Fort Pitt to destroy Seneca villages along the upper Allegheny.

In 1780 Virginia and Pennsylvania came to an agreement on their mutual borders, creating the state lines known today and determining finally that the Pittsburgh region was Pennsylvanian. In 1783, the Revolutionary War ended, which also brought at least a temporary cessation of border warfare. In the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Iroquois ceded the land north of the Purchase Line to Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh in 1790. The hill east of the village is Grant's Hill, which was cut in 1836, 1847 and 1913–14.[16]
Map of Pittsburgh in 1795

After the Revolution, the village of Pittsburgh continued to grow. One of its earliest industries was boat building. With its strategic location at the mouth of the Ohio, and plentiful timber close by, Pittsburgh was well-situated for the building of flatboats, used by settlers to reach the Ohio country, and for farmers to send their products down river, sometimes as far as New Orleans. Often these boats would be broken up at their destination and used for construction materials. Prior to steam power, the up-river journey, by poling, rowing and pulling, was slow and expensive, but long, narrow keelboats were built for the purpose.

The village began to develop vital institutions. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Pittsburgh resident and state legislator, introduced a bill that resulted in a gift deed of land and a charter for the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787. The Academy later became the University of Western Pennsylvania (1819) and the University of Pittsburgh (1908). [17]

Many farmers distilled their corn harvest into whiskey, increasing its value while lowering its transportation costs. When the federal government imposed an excise tax on whiskey, farmers felt victimized, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Farmers from the region rallied at Braddock's Field and marched on Pittsburgh. The short-lived rebellion was put down, however, when President George Washington sent in militias from several states.

The town continued to grow in manufacturing capability. In 1792, the boatyards in Pittsburgh built a sloop, Western Experiment.[18] During the next decades, the yards produced other large boats. By the 1800s, they were building ocean-going vessels that shipped goods as far as Europe. In 1794, the town's first courthouse, a wooden structure on Market Square, was built. In 1797, the manufacture of glass began.

Year City Population
1761 332
1796 1,300
1800 1,565


  1. "A History of the Point," Fort Pitt Museum
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The Greatest Journey," James Shreeve, National Geographic, March 2006, pg. 64. Shows dates for Rockshelter 19,000 to 12,000 years ago.
  3. Anderson, Crucible of War (2000)
  4. See Burial Mound to Get Historical Marker, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2001-05-13
  5. Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650, (1998)
  6. C. Hale Sipe, The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania, (1831)
  7. Daniel Agnew, Logstown, on the Ohio: a historical sketch (1894 Historic Pittsburgh, pg. 7.
  8. Solon J. Buck, The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania, (1939) pp. 30. Historic Pittsburgh.
  9. "Course of study in geographic, biographic and historic Pittsburgh," The Board of Public Education, Pittsburgh, 1921. Historic Pittsburgh
  10. Lorant, Pittsburgh
  11. Boyd Crumrine, History of Washington County, Pennsylvania (1882) pg. 26.
  12. "The Frontier Forts of Western Pennsylvania," Albert, George Dallas, C. M. Busch, state printer, Harrisburg, 1896. Historic Pittsburgh
  13. "The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 1," Library of Congress American Memory site
  14. Erasmus Wilson, Standard History of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, 1898, pg. 58. Available at Historic Pittsburgh.
  15. Virginia K. Bartlett, Keeping House, Women's Lives in Western Pennsylvania,(1994).
  16. "The Story of Grant's Hill," The Union Savings Bank, Pittsburgh, PA, c1934
  17. Agnes Lynch Starrett, Through one hundred and fifty years: the University of Pittsburgh, (1937)
  18. Richard Taylor Wiley, "Monongahela, the river and its region, (1937)

Further reading

for a detailed guide see the Bibliography above.

  • Baldwin, Leland D. Pittsburgh: The Story of a City University of Pittsburgh Press, 1937 online edition, popular history by leading scholar
  • Baldwin, Leland D. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. 1939. online edition
  • Harper, R. Eugene. The Transformation of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1800. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1991. 273 pp.
  • Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, (5th ed 1999), well written, heavily illustrated popular history
  • Lubove, Roy, ed. Pittsburgh 1976. 294 pp. short excerpts from primary sources
  • Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. (1988) online edition
  • Smith, Arthur G. Pittsburgh: Then and Now. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. 336 pp. excerpt and text search

External links