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FYIFort Pitt

Frontier Military Outpost: 1750-1795

Because of its strategic site, The Forks of the Ohio became a key location in Britain and France's struggle for control of North America, and later in the new nation's plans for westward expansion and a strong federal government.

Western PA History

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By the 17th century, the land at the fork of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers was a wilderness crossroads were Native Americans traded furs with French and British frontiersman. It was well recognized as a strategic spot, however.

France and England were struggling to establish an empire in North America. France claimed the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and the rivers that flowed into it. The were extracting great profits from fur trade with the Indians. The British had settled the East Coast, but colonists were coveting the land and fur trade west of the daunting Allegheny Mountains. With a short over-land portage from Lake Erie to French Creek, the French had an all-water route through the continent. They established forts along their interior waterway -- the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers -- to keep British settlers from overrunning their land.

Meanwhile, Virginians had discovered the rich mineral resources west of the mountains and were preparing to settle and develop it. Conflict was inevitable, and it centered on the land that would become Pittsburgh. Whomever controlled this river post would control the people and the commerce that depended on it--the Mississippi Valley and all its tributaries; in other words, the entire middle of the continent.

The highly prized site that came to be Pittsburgh was chosen by one of the nation's greatest heroes. George Washington served his first military duty at the "Forks of the Ohio" in 1755, when he was just 23, while scouting for Virginia's Ohio Land Company. He declared the site "extremely well-situated for a fort, having command of both rivers" and left a tiny group of men to build Fort Prince George for the British. In 1755 the French descended on the fort by canoe and captured it without bloodshed (the small garrison could see they were clearly out-numbered!). They built a stronger Fort Duquesne, a title it held for three years. After several failed attempts to cross the mountains with a big enough army to recapture the Forks, the British finally took possession again in 1758. Again, no blood was shed: the treaty ending the French and Indian War was signed in Europe, so the French simply abandoned their Fort after setting it on fire. This time to firmly establish their control, the British built a then state-of-the-art fort, Fort Pitt, named in honor of William Pitt, the Prime Minister of England. The small village of "Pittsborough" soon grew around Fort Pitt.

Archaelogists at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter Dig
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Bouquet's Redoubt, more commonly known as the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, was added on to Fort Pitt in 1763. It is the only surviving piece of the fort and the oldest building still standing in Pittsburgh. Fort Pitt, which covered most of the area now known as Point State Park, was the third fort built at the Point during the French and Indian War.

 

In the late 1700's Western Pennsylvania's main business was agriculture. At first the farmers who first broke the land were limited to subsistence farming--in which farmers were only able to produce enough to feed their own families. Gradually they began to produce a surplus, which could be bartered for other goods. The population was well-distributed throughout the countryside. In 1796, Pittsburgh itself still only had a population of 300, many of them skilled craftsmen who took the raw materials produced by the region's farmers and turned them into new goods for Pittsburgh merchants to sell. Wool became cloth, livestock provided the materials for everything from meat to leather to lard, and grain was used to make alcohol.

Archaelogists at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter Dig
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Lithograph of Pittsburgh in 1796, commissioned by French General Victor Collot. French Minister to the U.S., as part of his report on the western part of the new nation.

In fact, that alcohol became the focal point of a conflict considered to be the first true test of the newly formed United States of America. President George Washington -- that same soldier who recognized the significance of the land at the Forks of Ohio when he was just 23 -- headed a new Federal government that had the power to levy taxes on its citizens. However, the first tax that was created was on whiskey, which didn't please Western Pennsylvania farmers at all, since producing whiskey was their most profitable way to ship grain. Tensions escalated due to the fact that farmers often traded their whiskey for other goods, a system known as "bartering." Payment for whiskey might take the shape of a new horse, a rifle, or farming equipment.

Taxes on cash profits were one thing, argued the farmers, but how could the government collect taxes on a percentage of bartered goods? The farmers marched to protest the tax that they didn't have the cash to pay, and George Washington – facing his first real challenge as President – responded by sending troops to Pittsburgh to enforce the tax laws. The episode became known as the Whiskey Rebellion, and is recorded throughout history books as the first major challenge to the Constitution of the United States.

Archaelogists at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter Dig
Collection of Susan Donley

This post card from the early 1900s shows an early log house that still standing on Penn Avenue. Until the 1800s, most of Pittsburgh's buildings were constructed of logs.

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