Brian O'Neill: Here's to Hanna's Town, a happening historical site
March 3, 2016 12:00 AM
At the Hanna’s Town historic site in Westmoreland County, Joanna Moyar, David Matheny, Scott Henry and Augie Nicolai show how Western Pennsylvania was in the late 18th century.
At Hanna's Town, outside of Greensburg, Revolutionary War history was made. Roasted squab was served at a Jeffersonian dinner there.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hanna’s Town has a good story to tell, but who’s heard it or can even find it?
Eight of us were called Tuesday night to a table in a log tavern at a historic site north of Greensburg. Our only task was to talk. Folks there want to get their story out, but how can a tale of a frontier settlement that was too soon torched break through the cacophony of modern life?
I didn’t know the first thing about Hanna’s Town, but my mama didn’t raise any fools. When I was told I could get a ride to a table filled with food, wine and smart chatter on a Tuesday night, I kept my hand raised.
A barkeep in 18th century garb handed me a glass of whiskey first thing, and I cared not a whit when he plopped in ice from a 21st century plastic bag. On an unseasonably warm but windy night, we assembled outside the cabin and Lisa Hays, the Westmoreland County Historical Society executive director, explained where we were standing.
Robert Hanna bought 300 acres in the spring of 1769 because it was near ample water and the Forbes Road. In 1773, the first courthouse west of the Allegheny Mountains was established, for a county that stretched well past Fort Pitt. Back then, Ms. Hays said, “You weren’t anybody unless you were being sued by somebody.”
Suits began flying because Virginia and Pennsylvania each saw this slice of the wilderness as its own. The Virginians set up their court at Fort Pitt, which they called Fort Dunmore after Governor Lord Dunmore. (We’d later have an 18th century Virginian and a couple of Pennsylvanian militiamen arguing around our dinner table, but that squabble ended before the stuffed squab was served.)
Old story short: Hanna’s Town’s heyday didn’t last a decade. On July 13, 1782, in one of the last engagements of the Revolutionary War, Hanna’s Town was attacked and burned by Seneca Indians and their British allies. Peggy Shaw, only 13, was shot trying to help a younger child into the fort, and Isaac Steel was killed when he wouldn’t surrender his horses.
When the townspeople emerged from the fort — a rickety-looking thing of upright logs is restored at the site — the town was in ashes and all the livestock was stolen or killed.
“Most people left and Hanna’s Town never recovered,” Ms. Hays said. Five years later, the county seat moved to Greensburg.
The good news is the land was purchased by the Steel family in 1826, which kept it for more than 140 years before the county bought it with the help of a state grant in 1969. The land still looks much as it did centuries ago, but it’s now a 180-acre county park punctuated with trails. It’s much easier to envision the isolation of the frontier families there than it is at the Fort Pitt Museum, now hard by an interstate. But how do you get people to make the drive and connect with this story?
That’s what WQED’s Rick Sebak, Pittsburgh house historian Carol Peterson and a half-dozen more of us talked about in conversation led by Phil Koch, executive director of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. The model was Jeffersonian, a single conversation around a shared theme, the same way Thomas Jefferson liked the dinners to go at Monticello.
Mr. Jefferson might be surprised he helped launch a nation where people will drive a long way to see fictional outposts from the movies, like the baseball diamond carved from an Iowa cornfield in “Field of Dreams” or A Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, where that holiday movie was filmed. Connecting with our own national story is a tough sell if none of it has yet come through a tube into our living rooms.
We kicked around ideas that ranged from a Hanna’s Town Beer brand (good thinking, Mr. Sebak) to more programs that show the ancient conflicts from both the settlers’ and Native Americans’ points of view. The site has had Native American presenters talking about food and such, but that life-and-death struggle could get kicked up a notch.
No hard and sure answers followed the apricot pudding and madeira, but I’m glad I made it. Hanna’s Town is hard to find — check westmorelandhistory.org for more — but it’s ironic that so many asked us on our arrival if we had any trouble finding the place. Its own story seems at least part of the answer to how we all got here.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.
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