Local Dispatch: The busy week of the new Pittsburgh, 250 years ago
Pittsburgh is no longer the smoke-filled place of its industrial heyday. But it was a smoky place from its inception, 250 years ago this week.
On the evening of Nov. 24, 1758, a Native American scout entered the British camp about 15 miles to the east to inform them that a "Cloud of Smoke" stood above the Point. Another scout arrived shortly to report that Fort Duquesne had been burnt and abandoned by the French. Henry Bouquet ordered cavalry to advance immediately in the hope of extinguishing the fires; the remainder of the army arrived at 6 p.m. on the evening of Nov. 25.
The smoke marked the end of a bastion of New France on the Ohio River.
The French had occupied this site on "la Belle Rivière" for more than four years. During that time, they had compelled George Washington to surrender his small force in the Great Meadows in the summer of 1754.
They had defeated two regiments of British regulars plus colonial militia under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock in the summer of 1755.
And in the fall of 1758, they had routed Highland Scottish and Virginia troops led by James Grant.
In 1754 and early 1755, the French erected Fort Duquesne near the tip of the Point, from which they coordinated and supplied Delaware, Shawnee and other Ohio Indian raiding parties that devastated the Pennsylvania frontier as far east as Berks and Northampton counties.
It had proven difficult to supply this fort so far from Canada, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. A January 1755 list of "Munitions de Guerre et de Bouche" (literally, "Munitions for War and Mouth") included powder, lead and bullets, but also wheat, lard, olive oil, cheese, raisins and plums, fresh and dried cod, nutmeg, cinnamon bark, rice, butter, wine and brandy. (One might argue that Fort Duquesne also represented the first French restaurant in Pittsburgh.)
They grew crops and obtained game from the Native Americans, with whom they shared some of the more exotic European goods. The British received a report in early 1758 of a meeting between the French and Native American groups, during which "a Barrel of Red Wine was presented and brought out to the young Men, in the Indian Cabbins, who rejoiced on it, beat out the head and fell to drinking."
By 1758, however, the duration of the war had strained French relations with the Native Americans, who hoped that both warring European nations would leave the Ohio lands that native groups had occupied for thousands of years. The British resolved to mount another expedition to capture the Forks of the Ohio.
Despite the setback encountered by Grant in September and the deteriorating late fall weather, John Forbes ordered Bouquet to advance from Loyal Hanna (Fort Ligonier) with most of the army in late November. The French commander, Francois-Marie de Lignery, decided that the French would destroy as much of Fort Duquesne as possible and abandon the Point.
Joseph Shippen, an aide-de-camp from Lancaster, recorded the daily British orders in his orderly book, which still survives at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Within one hour of the arrival of the main British force, a guard was mounted in the ruins of Fort Duquesne to put out the fires.
On Friday, Dec. 1, Shippen recorded that General Forbes had decided to name the British posts in Western Pennsylvania as follows:
• Loyal Hannon (another spelling of Loyal Hanna) became Fort Ligonier.
• Rays Town became Fort Bedford.
• Fort Duquesne was henceforth to be known as "Pitsburgh."
This was one of several spellings of the name. A letter dated Nov. 26, and probably written by Bouquet at the Point, used the term "Pittsburgh." Hugh Mercer spelled the name "Pittsburg" in a March 1759 description of the garrison of the small earthen fort that stood on the banks of the Monongahela River at a location currently occupied by the parking lot opposite the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building.
The fort had been hastily constructed during the winter and early spring of 1759 and represented the birthplace of the city that would become Pittsburgh.
It may be appropriate for citizens to gather in the parking lot or near the Fort Duquesne tracery to contemplate the events that led to their city being called Pittsburgh rather than "Louisbourg," but also to consider how different a place it was in 1758, 1858 and 1958.
In truth, there have been many Pittsburghs. The complex and fascinating prehistory and history of the Point is a fitting metaphor for this diversity. Let us hope that Pittsburgh will continue to have a less violent -- but equally interesting -- future.
First Published November 25, 2008 12:00 am