Book review

'A Colony Sprung From Hell': Tracing Western Pennsylvania's roots finds an area engulfed in turmoil

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We were so close to being Virginians. Until the American Revolution, the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania both insisted their lands included the Forks of the Ohio, the area now encompassing Pittsburgh and the surrounding region. These claims stemmed from their original colonial charters, which in Virginia's case modestly asserted ownership over all of the territory extending to the Pacific Ocean.


"A COLONY SPRUNG FROM HELL:
PITTSBURGH AND THE STRUGGLE FOR AUTHORITY
ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER, 1744-1794"
By Daniel P. Barr.
Kent State University Press ($65).

Throughout the colonial period the British Crown declined to definitively rule on the question and neither colony — or, eventually, state — relinquished its claim on the territory until the western boundary of Pennsylvania was finally surveyed in 1785.

The intricate back-and-forth between Pennsylvania and Virginia over the Forks of the Ohio is only one of the intriguing stories Robert Morris history professor Daniel Barr recounts in “A Colony Sprung From Hell: Pittsburgh and the Struggle for Authority on the Western Pennsylvania Frontier, 1744--1794.”

Mr. Barr's book traces the contentious, bloody early history of the Pittsburgh region and unearths the deep roots of the region's resistance to central authority that culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

Once settlers entered the area in the 1740s, Western Pennsylvania was rarely at peace. Mr. Barr opens with the British push to drive the French out of the region and turn Fort Duquesne into Fort Pitt. Once the British established control, they had to contend with the native tribes who were already living here (the Shawnee and Mingo) as well as those who had migrated west over the Alleghenies (the Delaware).

The early settlers of the area, enjoying little governmental protection, refused to submit to governmental authority. Neither the British Crown nor, later, the Continental Congress received much fealty. Tax collectors were threatened with violence, and militia conscriptions failed. Delinquent Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy might trace his spiritual ancestry to Western Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem was that by law, the area wasn't even open for settlement. Victory in the French and Indian War gave England possession of all the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. But in the Proclamation of 1763, King George III reserved this territory for Native Americans.

American settlers — including the young surveyor George Washington — interpreted this decree loosely, though, and soon tens of thousands of colonists and immigrants had cleared homesteads for themselves in what is now Western Pennsylvania. And when Indian war parties attacked, the distant British Army offered no help.

For this reason, Mr. Barr explains, the “squatter settlements harbored an acute distrust of provincial and imperial authorities.” Instead, they took matters into their own hands, executing brutal vigilante justice not just on hostile Indians but on any Native Americans they encountered.

Seeing that the settlers were atomized and isolated, Native American tribes effectively played the colonies — and, later, the British and Continentals — against each other.

Eventually, the Shawnee and Delaware sought and received assurances that the land south of the Ohio River would be theirs in perpetuity. With no force to prevent them, though, white settlers almost immediately entrenched themselves in that area as well.

Mr. Barr's book probably isn't for all readers. It is a scholarly work, and so detailed that the reader sometimes loses track of the story itself. But given the depth and intensity of anti-government sentiment today, Barr's prehistory of that strain of American political opinion is instructive.

The familiar names, as well, provide an appealing peg for a local Pittsburgh reader. Forbes, Braddock and Washington are, of course, present, but in this book a Pittsburgher can meet the eponyms of streets such as Dinwiddie, Gist, Joncaire, Bouquet, Smallman, McKee and Stanwix.


Greg Barnhisel is associate professor of English at Duquesne University.

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