Fort Pitt was a British fortification constructed during the French and Indian War, meant to augment Britain's land claims in the Ohio River Valley. The fort succeeded in doing so--bringing security and prosperity to western Pennsylvania--and contributed to the founding of Pittsburgh. Fort Pitt experienced many of the trials and tribulations other frontier-based military outposts endured, but the history of the land it once sat upon is much less conventional.
Great Britain and France had a tumultuous relationship in the mid-18th century. The two international superpowers frequently and violently disputed over ownership of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. France had the advantage entering the 1750s. Their diplomatic and economic relationships with the regional Indian nations allowed them to settle land with very little resistance. As for the British, let’s just say (for brevity’s sake) they didn’t have a great track record when it came to interacting with Indians, which made their expeditions to establish frontier settlements particularly difficult.
In an effort to establish territorial outposts and reinforce Britain’s land claims, the Colony of Virginia dispatched Captain William Trent—a tradesman for the Ohio Land Company—and a squadron of provisional troops to the frontier in 1753. Trent and his men marched through the Allegheny Mountains until they reached the confluence of three major rivers (the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela), an area known as ‘The Point.’ This strategic location offered settlers unbridled access to three separate waterways, important for trade and further exploration west. Recognizing the area’s significance, Trent ordered his troops to construct Fort Prince George to solidify Britain’s land claim.
While the fort established Britain’s presence in the Ohio River Valley, it did little to preserve it. In April 1754, just four months into its construction, Fort Prince George was seized by an army of French troops under the command of Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur. The fort was subsequently destroyed and replaced by Fort Duquesne.
The hostile takeover of British property prompted military action. General Edward Braddock and a column of 2,100 regulars were sent to reclaim the land in 1755. When Braddock’s army was within a few miles of Fort Duquesne, they were ambushed by French and Indian troops at the Battle of the Monongahela. The British suffered nearly 1,000 casualties in this slaughter (Braddock, himself, was mortally wounded), compared to less than 100 sustained by the French. While this was a disastrous attempt by the British to dislodge the French from the Point, it wasn’t the last.
On September 14, 1758, with the French and Indian War in full-swing, General John Forbes dispatched Major James Grant and the 1st Highland Regiment (around 850 men) on a reconnaissance mission to The Point. When Grant arrived at Fort Duquesne, he misguidedly decided to attack, believing there were only 200 men defending it. In reality, there were nearly 800. Upon attack, his army was ambushed by Franco-Indian troops and out-flanked by the regular French force commanded by Francois-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery. Grant’s army was promptly decimated in the Battle of Fort Duquesne and himself taken prisoner. The British had, once again, been defeated by the French forces at Fort Duquesne, this time at the tune of 300 casualties, compared to just 16 casualties for the French.
Marchand de Lignery knew that while his troops had swiftly beaten the British recon force, they could not withstand Forbes’ 6,000-man army. France’s situation was made more portentous when the Treaty of Easton was signed that following October. The Treaty of Easton was an agreement made between the British colonial government and Indian nations of the Ohio Territory. According to the treaty, the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee nations would receive exclusive hunting rights to the Ohio Territory and the British would refrain from forming new settlements west of the Appalachians, barring the immediate termination of Indian military alliances with France. Anglo-Indian ally Tamaqua (also known as King Beaver), a spokesperson for the Delaware nation, was the main negotiator who established this neutrality. With the loss of his Indian allies and Forbes’ army closing in, Marchand de Lignery ordered Ft. Duquesne to be burned on November 26, 1758.
Great Britain quickly reestablished its dominance in the Ohio River Valley after the fall of Fort Duquesne. British troops constructed Fort Pitt in place of Fort Duquesne to maintain their military prowess in the region. The fort was designed by engineer Captain Harry Gordon and took two years to build. Once completed, Fort Pitt was one of the most elaborate British forts in the western territories. It was also the most heavily-armed, with an arsenal of 40 cannon, 16,000 rounds of ammunition, and two tons of gunpowder.
Unsurprisingly, the British went back on their word with the Treaty of Easton. A massive influx of Anglican settlers migrated westward following the French and Indian War, violating both the Treaty of Easton and Proclamation of 1763. Countless Indian tribes were infuriated. Ottawa chieftain Pontiac organized a council of tribes from the Ohio, Illinois, and Great Lakes regions and formed a wartime confederation against the British. A string of attacks on forts and frontier settlements were conducted by leaders of this confederation across the western territories, collectively known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.
The rebellion reached the steps of Fort Pitt during the summer of 1763. Small raiding parties attacked the farms and villages surrounding Fort Pitt, forcing over 200 settlers to seek refuge behind its walls. On June 22, the attackers reached the fort and the Siege of Fort Pitt began. Initially repulsed by superior artillery, the Indians decided to try diplomacy to compel the British to abandon the fort. During these negotiations, Captain Simeon Ecuyer gave Delaware emissaries smallpox-infested blankets, intent on causing an epidemic among the tribespeople. While the severity of infection is unknown, this was one of the earliest instances of biological warfare on record.
After numerous failed attempts at negotiation, the Indian attackers went back on the offensive. On August 1, 1763, Colonel Henry Bouquet and his army of 500 men were dispatched as a relief force to Fort Pitt. Upon receiving word of incoming British troops, the Indian warriors around Fort Pitt mobilized to intercept the enemy forces. Bouquet and his men clashed with the Indians at the Battle of Bushy Run on August 5. Despite suffering heavy losses, Bouquet was able to claim victory. Fort Pitt was relieved from the siege on August 10, and was one of only three British frontier forts to survive Pontiac’s Rebellion.
The area around Fort Pitt saw considerable growth and prosperity following Pontiac’s Rebellion, eventually evolving into the city of Pittsburgh. The fort continued to be a key military, trade, and diplomatic center in the frontier region until it was finally abandoned by the British army in 1772, due to flood damage and disrepair.
In 1774, Virginia militiamen arrived at Pittsburgh and seized Fort Pitt for their own, renaming it Fort Dunmore (after Lord Dunmore, the Governor of Virginia at the time). This peculiar event was one of many in Lord Dunmore’s War. In short, the “war” was a military offensive conducted by Virginian leadership to obtain more land (and thus more power) from Indian tribes. Back in the late-18th century, Virginia’s territorial claims extended as far west as the Mississippi River and as far north as the Great Lakes. Fort Pitt was on disputed territory between Virginia and Pennsylvania, and this hostile takeover was a power play to secure Pittsburgh as a province of Virginia. The fort was eventually relinquished back to Pennsylvania’s control in October 1774.
During the Revolutionary War, Fort Pitt was the Continental Army’s main headquarters in the western theater. In 1778, it was the location of the first peace treaty between American Indians and the newly-formed United States. In 1792, Fort Pitt was sold to private investors and was promptly deconstructed, its contents sold as repurposed building material. The foundation of Fort Pitt was excavated by archaeologists during the 20th century and is presently outlined by brick in Point State Park. Today, the Fort Pitt Museum and Blockhouse (also located in the park) enlighten curious visitors to the enthralling history behind Fort Pitt and the founding of Pittsburgh.
The Blockhouse is a small, two-story defense structure built in 1764, originally used as a redoubt to protect the fort from attacks. Today, it is the oldest standing structure west of the Appalachian Mountains and serves as a small archaeological museum for Fort Pitt. The Fort Pitt Museum stands in a reconstructed bastion across from the Blockhouse. This two-story museum exhibits replica soldier barracks and casemates, and authentic weapons, artillery, powder horns, and other relics from the colonial area.
The legacy of Fort Pitt extends far beyond itself. It is representative of a more convoluted, complex historical picture. It symbolizes the ambition of frontiersmen who explored uncharted territory, the intense struggle for power during human history's first world war, the anguish of American Indians who had to forfeit their land, and the fighting spirit of those who chose to defend it. Fort Pitt didn't just influence the founding of Pittsburgh, it influenced the trajectory of colonial America.
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