Young traveler's journal solves art show's Pittsburgh mystery

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In 1790, Lewis Brantz painted the earliest known image of Pittsburgh, then a cluster of log houses and stores outlying the fort at the forks of the Ohio. This wisp of a watercolor -- just 3 by 6 inches -- is one of the first works encountered in the Frick Art Museum's current exhibit, "A Panorama of Pittsburgh: Nineteenth-Century Printed Views."

Which raises the questions: Who was Lewis Brantz and why was he painting Pittsburgh? And how had this fragile image, which wasn't reproduced until six decades later, survived for almost 220 years?

Brantz was a Swiss-educated 16-year-old when he emigrated from his native Wurtemberg, Germany, to Baltimore with his good friend Christian Mayer in 1784. The following year, Brantz led a party of fellow Germans by land from Baltimore into the Western country, where they intended to settle on lands owned by Brantz's employer. At Pittsburgh they had boats built and Brantz led them down the Ohio and up the Cumberland to Nash's Station, now Nashville, returning with another group of travelers through the wilderness.

Rough inhabitants

In the journal he kept of this trip, Brantz noted the commerce, inhabitants, weather and natural and built features of places through which he passed.

"Almost all the fertile and well-watered valleys among these mountains [east of Pittsburgh] are inhabited; but the people, mostly Americans, are rougher and more uncultivated than those dwelling farther east," he wrote. And later: "The inhabitants of that lonely place [Fort Pitt] are quite similar in character to those I have just described."

Brantz reported that most of the inhabitants of Pittsburgh were engaged in merchandising or tavern keeping, but there couldn't have been many of them; in 1786 there were only six stores. By 1790, when he returned and made his painting, there were 376 inhabitants.

The Brantz watercolor "shows that the ground around Fort Pitt was quite low," wrote Charles Dahlinger in his book "Fort Pitt," first published in 1916. "The fort is seen, and surmounting the easterly side are two small stack-like projections, which are undoubtedly redoubts, one being on what was apparently intended to represent the north bastion and the other standing on what seems to be the east bastion."

Brantz Mayer, the heir and namesake of Lewis Brantz, who never married, translated from the German Brantz's "Memoranda of a Journey in the Western Parts of the United States of America, in 1785," which first appeared, along with a copy of Brantz's painting, in 1852 in the third volume of Henry R. Schoolcraft's "Indian Antiquities." It also included Mayer's biographical sketch of Brantz and Brantz's list of "Some words from the Language of the Choctaws."

Brantz's journal "displays the resources, and denotes the prospects of that magnificent region, as it then burst on the sight of an ardent, intelligent and well-educated youth of seventeen," Mayer wrote.

"Mr. Brantz came to this country in early life, with many other enterprising Europeans, to push his fortune. He was an accomplished linguist and being, like most German youths, thoroughly instructed in the branches needed for a practical life, he soon attracted the attention of persons anxious to open a wider commerce with the West than had yet been accomplished by the ordinary trading journeys of that day. In addition to this, his enterprising employers desired to colonize with Germans, certain lands they possessed in the wilderness; and accordingly Mr. Brantz was dispatched in the double trust of leading these foreigners to their home among the savages, and of examining the commercial resources of the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio. Hence his journeys and his Journal.

"His picture of Fort Pitt, or Pittsburg, in 1790, displays his remarkable accuracy. Every house at the fort is minutely delineated and colored, in the original sketch in my possession; and forty-five years afterwards, sitting together on the hill opposite the modern and flourishing Pittsburgh, I listened to his narratives of adventures in the woods, saw him point out every place of historical interest in a landscape which art and trade had so transformed, and learned the secret of his patient, just and firm intercourse with the Indians, which had enabled him, while yet a boy, to deal with them successfully and to pass unharmed through their romantic fastnesses."

Brantz was not, apparently, the big, strapping lad he seems, but he was not wanting in courage.

"Believing that the life of a seaman would strengthen his rather delicate constitution," Mayer continues, "and desirous to be independent of others, he soon commanded his own vessels, and sold his own cargoes, during many years, in an extensive commerce with Europe and the Eastern and Western Indies. He had bold adventures in the Mediterranean during the European wars, or when our vessels went forth armed against Algerine pirates, and once ... he narrowly escaped enslavement by the Moors, when wrecked near the town of Aran, in Africa."

Lawyer, author, historian and chief founder of the Maryland Historical Society, Brantz Mayer was the son of Christian Mayer, with whom Lewis Brantz had immigrated and later formed the Baltimore company Mayer & Brantz, which traded tobacco and other goods. The company's business papers, archived in the Maryland Historical Society, date from 1785 to 1833, but it seems to have been active only between 1802 and 1820. Lewis Brantz captained his own ships for 20 years, surveyed and mapped the waters around Baltimore, and authored a privately printed book of meteorological observations, based on the first connected series, made intermittently between 1817 and 1837, of such local observations in the country.

On the move

During the last 10 years of his life he traveled to South America, China and Mexico, residing several years in the latter. After returning to Baltimore, he became the first president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, which was completed just before his death in 1838.

The Brantz watercolor was a young businessman's documentary recording but it was done with the eye and hand of an artist familiar with pictorial conventions. The view of the town is framed by the winding Monongahela and what appear to be ailanthus trees on the river's south shore.

Brantz painted other scenes during his travels, including Nashville and the Chickasaw Bluff on the Mississippi.

His painting of Pittsburgh was in Brantz Mayer's possession in the early 1850s, when it was redrawn by Seth Eastman and made into a steel engraving printed with Brantz' journal. Today the engraving is more legible than the faded Brantz watercolor, which had been adhered to a board and had several stains before its conservation for this exhibit.

What happened to the painting after Mayer's death in 1879? Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh now owns it but doesn't know how or when it acquired it or who previously owned it. A Google Books search revealed it has been in the library's possession at least since the early 1900s, when it's mentioned in a catalog of book acquisitions made between 1907 and 1911.

Its conservation seems to have come in the nick of time. There's still a hole in the sky where the largest stain had eaten through the paper, but it's no longer threatening to open wider and swallow the image whole. And that's another reason to be grateful for an exhibit that has a lot to teach about Pittsburgh and how it grew.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.


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