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Forts at the Forks: Frontier History Comes to Life at the Fort Pitt Museum

By Jane Ockershausen
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXII, Number 2 - Spring 1996

Original Blockhouse of Fort Pitt, Courtesy of the PHMC/BHSMAs the French moved south from Canada in the mid-eighteenth century, seeking new settlements in the vast Ohio Valley, Great Britain began to resist encroachment into regions its leaders long claimed. Taking action in 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie placed a letter into the hands of his young surveyor, George Washington, telling him to deliver it to the commander of Fort LeBoeuf (in present-day Waterford, Erie County).

"By whose authority," it read, "[have the French] invaded the King of Great Britain's territories? It becomes my duty to require your peaceable departure."

"As to the summons you send me to retire," the commander replied, "I do not think myself obliged to obey."

And so began the fight to control the crucial area surrounding the Forks of the Ohio River, where Pittsburgh stands today. So began the French and Indian War.

Some have characterized the French and Indian War as a rehearsal for the American War for Independence—as well as a contributing cause. During the first conflict, European colonial powers vied for control of the Forks of the Ohio, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converse. It was not inevitable that the fight for the Forks would take place at what is now the Point; that it did is largely due to the judgment of one man—George Washington.

At the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, Washington's words, "greatly inferior, either for Defense or Advantage" emblazon a wall, while exhibits, dioramas, and drawings chronicle the history and prehistory of the area, beginning about 3000 B.C. The site had once been occupied by the Adena and Hopewell Mound Builders, who erected a ceremonial burial mound atop McKee's Rocks.

Scale Model of Fort Pitt, Courtesy of the PHMC/BHSMIn 1500 A.D. the Monongahela People built a stockaded village on the hill. The ditches of that circular stockade were discernible as late as 1753. This and other indications of Native American occupation on the bluff may have influenced Washington's decision not to suggest building a fort on this site in the area now known as the Point. What he didn't realize from his perusal of the two possible locations was that the Point frequently flooded. The river itself was a consistent enemy of the forts at the Forks—every fort that stood on this ground was damaged by high water.

Just twenty-one years old, George Washington made his decision during the expedition he undertook on Dinwiddie's behalf. Governor Dinwiddie realized in early 1753 that the French had begun to build strategic forts along western waterways to secure control of the frontier and access to the country's central basin. From October 31, 1753, to January 16, 1754, Washington traveled hundreds of miles to deliver Dinwiddie's message to Fort LeBoeuf's commanding officer.

The Fort LeBoeuf incident may seem rather phlegmatic by today's standards, but the events that followed were not. Washington's return to Virginia was hazardous, today depicted by colorful drawings at the Fort Pitt Museum. On December 29, while crossing the ice-choked Allegheny River with Christopher Gist, an experienced trader, Washington tumbled into ten feet of bone-chilling water. He managed to grab onto the raft, but the pair was unable to reach either shore. Fortunately, their passage was near Herr's Island and they were able to reach its safety. By the following morning, the ice had grown sufficiently thick for Washington and Gist to walk to the opposite bank and continue their journey. Gist and Washington also had to contend with blizzards as they crossed the mountains. While fording the Connoquenessing Creek earlier in his mission, Washington was ambushed by an Indian whose gun misfired. Impressed with Washington's account of his adventures, Dinwiddie published it and sent it to Europe.

George Washington's Published Account, Courtesy of the PHMC/BAHUpon Washington's departure, the French did not behave as casually as their commander's response might have implied. Winter had halted the French efforts to fortify the river, but Dinwiddie's message prompted them to ignore the inhospitable weather and begin the arduous task of stockpiling supplies. On April 15, 1754, the French troops and their Indian allies arrived at the Forks of the Ohio in three hundred and sixty canoes and bateaux (light, flat-bottomed boats used especially in Canada). This combined force of fifteen hundred men encountered forty Virginia militiamen who had erected a fortified log storehouse they called Fort Prince George. The Virginians surrendered it "with great civility."

It was Washington's men who fired the shots that ignited the French and Indian War, which in Europe escalated into the Seven Years' War.

Dinwiddie had promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and dispatched him again to western Pennsylvania with one hundred and thirty-two "self-willed and ungovernable" men, to whom free land in the Ohio Valley was offered as an incentive to fight. King George II had refused to order British troops into a colonial struggle and instructed Virginia to seek assistance from neighboring colonies. Although the Carolinas agreed to send wagons, horses, and one thousand Cherokee and Catawba warriors, when Washington and his men arrived at Wills Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland) there was no sign of reinforcements or supplies. Colonel Joshua Fry, who initially commanded the force, died at Wills Creek, making Washington the ranking officer. After conferring with his officers, Washington decided to expand an Indian trail, blazed by Chief Nemacolin in 1752 for the Ohio Company, into a road suitable for transporting military supplies. He planned to travel with his men as far as the Monongahela River, where they would await additional troops and munitions before attacking Fort Duquesne, the French fort then being constructed at the Forks of the Ohio.

After traveling fifty miles in four weeks, Washington's forces arrived at Great Meadows, a mile-long clearing, where they established a temporary field camp. On May 27, Washington received word that a party of Frenchmen was nearby. Following the directions of his Indian scout, Washington led forty men through the dark, rainy night and at sunrise they attacked the French camp. His first military engagement ended in just fifteen minutes with only one Virginian killed. Of his enemies, ten Frenchmen died, including Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, and twenty-one were captured. One soldier escaped and walked forty-five miles to the Forks Ottawa Chief c. 1760, Courtesy of the National Trust Photographic Libraryof the Ohio to report the incident to his superiors at Fort Duquesne. The survivor claimed Washington had failed to cease fire after the French called out that they were on a diplomatic, and not a military, mission.

Jumonville's half-brother, Captain Louis Coulon de Villiers, commander of the French expedition at Fort Duquesne, despised Washington as an assassin who had "murdered" his brother. Washington's jubilance over his victory soon gave way to grave concern as he realized the French were likely to return in force. He built a circular palisade, or a "fort of necessity," as he called it. (The fort has since been reconstructed by the National Park Service as part of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Fayette County, which features a trail to Jumonville Glen, scene of the first encounter.) Although Washington was reinforced by four hundred men from Virginia and South Carolina, they were no match for the six hundred French troops and one hundred Indian warriors under Captain de Villiers.

Although he wrote to his brother that he was "hearing the sound of bullets whizzing past his ear and the sound was charming," Washington had little cause to celebrate this encounter. Conditions were horrendous; more than one hundred of his men had grown feverish, exhausted, and weak; heavy rains created murky pools of knee-deep mud; there was no protection from enemy fire; and rum had been discovered in the fort, further incapacitating the soldiers. After fighting through the day on July 3, the French called for a parley and offered to allow Washington and his forces to leave the fort with the honors of war, leaving behind only their heavy cannons and two hostages. The French offered such terms when they had the force overpowered because they feared their Indian allies would leave. There was a misunderstanding about the terms of surrender because Washington, on July 4, 1754, had signed a statement in which he admitted assassinating Jumonville. The surrender was used to discredit Washington in Europe. Greatly disturbed by the misunderstanding and the resulting criticism, he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon.

Meanwhile, one of the hostages detained by the French at Fort Duquesne, Major Robert Stobo, secretly drew a plan of the fort and persuaded a sympathetic Indian to smuggle it to Virginia. On the back of the map he described the log frontier fort and its armaments. This map was later discovered by the French among General Edward Braddock's effects after his defeat, and they tried Stobo as a spy. He escaped, however, to Canada and eventually returned to America.

The plan of Fort Duquesne proved useful to General Braddock in developing a plan for attacking it. Before marching toward western Pennsylvania, Braddock summoned four colonial governors to a meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, during which the suggestion was first made to tax colonists to pay for military expenses incurred by Great Britain in fighting the war. Washington reputedly remarked that "it would be easier to raise the dead than to raise taxes." (The plan for "taxation without representation" was not adopted until the British parliament passed the Stamp Acts ten years later. These 1765 acts were among the pivotal areas of dispute that lead the colonies into rebellion.)

By Captian Thomas Davies - Indian Encampment, Courtesy of the National Gallery of CanadaBenjamin Franklin, too, attempted to advise General Braddock on the most effective way to fight the Indians before he embarked on his campaign, and the Fort Pitt Museum exhibits a painting by Frederick James of the meeting between Braddock and Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin recorded Braddock's response: "These savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to you raw American militia, but upon the King's regular and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression."

Dismissing all counsel, General Braddock confronted the French and Indians on July 9, 1755 (see "Into the Valley of Death" by Iola B. Parker in the Winter 1988 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage). He had succeeded in marching an army of nearly fifteen hundred men—weighed heavily with equipment and provisions—more than one hundred and twenty-five miles and building a military road as they advanced. Braddock came within six miles of Fort Duquesne but lost everything to a force of two hundred French soldiers and four hundred Indians. Historians later called the British force a "red bulls eye" because retreating troops became entangled with advancing forces. In the heat of the battle, chaos reigned. Braddock's army became confused and nearly a thousand of his men were killed or wounded in less than three hours. He valiantly tried to regroup his men but was felled by an enemy bullet. Although Washington, his aide-de-camp, had two horses shot from under him, he emerged from battle defeated but unharmed. He was instrumental in helping the wounded Braddock from the field. Four days later Braddock died and Washington led a service at his burial place. General Braddock was buried in the middle of the military road, one mile west of Fort Necessity, so that the tread of marching soldiers would camouflage his grave, protecting it from plundering enemies.

The Indians who fought beside the French seized supplies and equipment abandoned by the British. They took captives to nearby Smoke Island and burned them at the stake. The Fort Pitt Museum exhibits artifacts recovered along Braddock's Road, including shoes, a lead pencil, gunflints, nails, a canister shot, scissors remnants, part of a knife, a shoe buckle, and pottery shards.

After Braddock's defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela, the Indians embarked on a reign of terror that brought them within twenty miles of Philadelphia. When word came that the Indians were in an area, settlers would "fort up," seeking safety behind the stockades of the nearest fort. However, the Indians ignored the settlements of Lancaster and York and attacked, instead, isolated frontier families. These warriors fought for whatever spoils they could take-both booty and captives. At Braddock's defeat, eighteen women accompanied the troops, of which nine were killed and the others captured and sold to Indians and to French settlers living in Canada.

Gen. John Forbes, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Western PennsylvaniaThe British had failed miserably in thwarting French interests in western Pennsylvania, but in 1757 the newly empowered British secretary of state, William Pitt, took charge of the war effort. He devised a four-pronged attack against the major French fortifications, assigning fifty-one-year-old Brigadier General John Forbes the task of taking Fort Duquesne. Forbes planned the campaign but, plagued with declining health, depended on Colonel Henry Bouquet, twelve years his junior, to execute his strategy. Forbes amassed an army of nearly sixty-eight hundred men, more than twice the number in Braddock's unsuccessful expedition. Forbes decided not to use Braddock's route, but instead cut a new road following the shorter Raystown Indian Path. Washington, then commanding the First Battalion of the Virginia Regiment, was appalled at this rerouting, most likely because his men had expended great energy and suffered much agony in hacking out General Braddock's road. "All is lost!" he wrote. "All is lost, by heavens! Our enterprise ruined!"

Forbes employed the practice of "protective advance," or erecting supporting forts at regular intervals along his route. The campaign began in spring and by the beginning of September, Forbes' army was fifty miles from Fort Duquesne where the troops stopped and built a fort a Loyalhanna (not long afterward renamed Fort Ligonier). When a reconnaissance mission to Fort Duquesne resulted in disaster and an offensive raid on the fort by a small French force came close to succeeding, Forbes decided to wait until spring to attack. No sooner had he made his decision than word was received from a British deserter that Fort Frontenac had fallen and all but three hundred men had been withdrawn from Fort Duquesne. With provisions for the army and forage for the horse dwindling, Forbes and his officers reversed their decision and decided to march on the fort. As the army reached Turtle Creek, not far from the scene of Braddock's defeat, they heard a huge explosion-Fort Duquesne had been blown up by the French before they abandoned it. The only artifact of this fort in the museum is a cannon ball emblazoned with a fleur-de-lis.

The British objective had been the location of Fort Duquesne, not the fortification itself, and it was a jubilant group which gave thanks on November 26, 1758, the day after arriving at the smoldering remains of the fort. In a letter the preceding day, Colonel Bouquet wrote of his enemy, "The men are greatly reduced, deficient of every necessity, half naked, without shoes, and without any means of getting any. We have neither tents nor baggage but are in good spirits." A museum diorama portrays the army's thanksgiving.

Within a week, General Forbes departed with the main body of his army, charging Colonel Hugh Mercer with the command of two hundred provincials to maintain British control of the Forks of the Ohio. They erected a temporary fort on the Monongahela River, about a thousand feet east of the ruins of Fort Duquesne, the construction of which Mercer described as "huddled up in a very hasty manner." For eight months Colonel Mercer and his men protected the British interest.

Uncertain whether the French would renew the fight for control of the Forks, the British carried supplies and tools over the mountains. Army artisans under the command of General John Stanwix began work on Fort Pitt—named in honor of Prime Minister William Pitt—in late 1759 and continued into 1761. Unlike frontier forts, this outpost was built of stone and bricks, which were fired on the site. Most wilderness forts were built to protect against Indian attacks and the use of logs sufficed, but Fort Pitt was designed to protect against French cannons. Three red brick sides were erected to repel artillery land attacks, while two earth and log bastions facing the river controlled access from the Ohio. The installation was large and it is estimated that seventeen forts the size of Fort Duquesne would easily fit on the parade ground of Fort Pitt.

Today, the focal point of the museum's entrance hall is a large model of Fort Pitt which explains its significance. On view is a copy of the official 1761 military plans for the fort, reproduced from the originals at the Public Record Office in London. Lieutenant Elias Meyer, an engineer assigned to the Royal American Regiment, not only drew plans but compiled an impressive topographical survey of the Point, a portion of which is also on exhibit. Pittsburgh's Hilton Hotel stands where the King's garden, deer park, bowling green, and vegetable garden were located. A bricked area of the moat is the only section of the first phase of the eighteen-acre fort complex that remains. A plaque informs visitors they are the "Lower remnants of original rampart walls of Music Bastion and the Curtain Wall in which the Drawbridge was located..."
Plan of Fort Pitt, Courtesy of Public Record Office of the United Kingdom

Reversals for the French in the New World continued after their abrupt departure from the Forks of the Ohio. Fort Niagara and Quebec were lost in 1759 and Montreal the following year. By the Treaty of Paris of 1763, all of New France was ceded to Britain. Spain, which fought with France in the waning days of the Seven Years' War, received Louisiana. According to Robert Trombetta, who has served as historic site administrator of Fort Pitt Museum for two decades, Pontiac's Rebellion was a continuation of the French and Indian War. "Even after the war officially ended in Europe," Trombetta explains, "nobody ordered the Indians to stop fighting and in fact the French encouraged the Indians to continue their attacks. The French manipulated the Indians after they lost the war. Also, intertribal rivalries that had influenced rivalries that had influenced which side the Indians fought on, continued after the European combatants stopped warring."

Pontiac, an Ottawa war chief, united the Great Lakes tribes and attacked Fort Detroit on May 8, 1763. In just two months during the "Native American war for independence"-as some historians interpret it-the French and Indian allies had captured nine British forts, two were under siege and one had been abandoned. Fort Pitt was under siege by about one thousand Indians from late May to early August. With six hundred settlers seeking protection of the fort, Captain Simeon Ecuyer encountered difficulty feeding and supplying his garrison of one hundred and twenty-five men and the extra settlers. In hopes of driving off the Indians who continued their assault on his fort, Ecuyer sent them hospital blankets and handkerchiefs infected with smallpox—a grim, early episode of germ warfare.

When General Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, failed to receive word from Fort Pitt, he directed Colonel Bouquet to travel to the fortification from New York, where the regiments were recovering from malaria which they had contracted while serving in the West Indies. The army, with wagons of supplies in tow, reached Fort Ligonier on August 2, ending the haphazard siege. Learning it had been more than a month since any work had been received from Fort Pitt, Bouquet lightened his caravan, loaded supplies onto nearly three hundred and fifty pack animals, and headed for the Forks of the Ohio on a route that passed Bushy Run, an abandoned outpost.

As they approached this post, Bouquet's emergency force-drawn from three separate regiments was assaulted by several hundred Indians, who had quit their siege of Fort Pitt so they could attack the reinforcements. Col. Henry Bouquet, Courtesy of the Historical Society of PennsylvaniaFighting continued through the afternoon, and Bouquet's troops sustained fifty casualties. When night fell, he improvised a fortification using flour bags and devised a surprise tactic to counteract the inevitable offensive. The following morning Bouquet's men feigned panic and appeared to retreat, but instead they encircled the Indians and scored a decisive victory. The Battle of Bushy Run was a turning point in Pontiac's Rebellion.

After the Indians fled the Bushy Run Battlefield (now administered and interpreted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), Bouquet's forces continued on to relieve Fort Pitt. Flooding in early spring had weakened the fort, and Bouquet added five blockhouses to provide additional support. One of these blockhouses—the oldest building in western Pennsylvania—still stands, offering visitors a rare first hand look at eighteenth-century construction techniques. Despite the victory at Bushy Run, a third British campaign, in October 1764, was necessary before the end of Pontiac's Rebellion. Colonel Henry Bouquet led an army of fifteen hundred from Carlisle, past Fort Pitt, and into Ohio. He met no resistance and the Indians sued for peace. All captured Europeans and Africans were returned—two hundred and six persons in all (with another one hundred returned the following May). Surprisingly, many of the captives did not want to return to their settlements. Robert Trombetta explains that the Native American way of life appealed to young farm boys whose existence was constant drudgery. Males had only two responsibilities in Native American culture: hunting and making war. For captured women, returning often meant being treated as outcasts. Over time many of the women had married Indians, and they did not want to leave their new families.

In 1772, thirteen years after it was built, Fort Pitt was sold for fifty pounds to a local contractor, and the fort was dismantled. Construction materials were recycled in the erection of some of Pittsburgh's earliest buildings. By 1777, the land on which the fort had stood became part of the new nation, and control of the Forks of the Ohio passed to yet a fourth power. The Forks had been controlled by Native Americans, the French, and the British-all of whom were briefly successful but ultimately lost control. The Forks passed to yet a fourth power and became a part of the new burgeoning nation, the United States of America.

Fort Pitt Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday year round. Visit the Web site for current hours of operation. Admission is charged. On selected Sunday evenings during summer, volunteer reenactors of the Royal American Regiment present living history encampments and parades at the museum. Additional information may be obtained by writing: Fort Pitt Museum, 101 Commonwealth Pl., Point State Park, Pittsburgh, PA 15222; or by telephoning (412) 281-9284. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the museum in advance to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.

Fort Pitt is part of the story of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Individuals desiring a broader perspective of the city’s history should visit the nearby Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. Administered by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, this interactive museum, located in a rehabilitated 1898 ice company warehouse, interprets the history and culture of ethnic groups who settled in and around Pittsburgh.

To put Fort Pitt and the city in a geographical perspective, visitors should ride the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington for a panoramic view of the Forks of the Ohio. "The view shows why this area had strategic importance, not only to settlers but later in the industrialization of the region," says Trombetta.

"Without the river, there would be no city." Trombetta also explains the waterway was the route to the West for tens of thousands of American settlers. For instance, a boat leaving from this location could travel to the Rocky Mountains or the Gulf of Mexico. This was the point of departure for the famous 1804–1806 expedition undertaken by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In fact, their keel boat was built a shipyard on the Monongahela River near Homestead.

Pittsburgh and surrounding communities boast dozens of historic sites, museums, historical organizations, and cultural institutions. Clayton, the magnificent residence of Henry Clay Frick, which has recently been restored, contains a glittering array of late Victorian period decorative arts and accessories, including fine porcelains and glass. The Carnegie Museum of Art features an extensive collection of international and American art, and includes gallery space devoted exclusively to works of art by western Pennsylvania artists. Founded in 1937, the Stephen C. Foster Memorial, located on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, supports research and education to promote understanding of music in American life. For nature lovers, the city offers the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the Phipps Conservatory, the Pittsburgh Aviary, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. For the young set, there's the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, a popular attraction since its founding in 1980.

Information about these and other attractions is availableby visiting the Web site of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau or by telephoning (412) 281-7711.

Jane Ockershausen of Oakmont is the author of nine travel books including the recently published The Pennsylvania One-Day Trip Book and the perennial favorite, One-Day Trips through History. Her articles have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Historic Preservation and Mid-Atlantic Country magazine. The author is a member of the board of directors of the Society of American Travel Writers. This is her third contribution to Pennsylvania Heritage.

For Further Reading

Hamilton, Charles. Braddock's Defeat. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.

James, Alfred Proctor. Decision at the Forks. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1958.

Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Kopperman, Paul E. Braddock at the Monongahela. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

O'Meara, Walter. Guns at the Forks. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965.

Peckham, Howard N. Pontiac and the Indian Uprising. Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Stevens, S.K., et al. The Papers of Henry Bouquet. 6 Vols. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1951-1994.

Stotz, Charles Morse. Defense in the Wilderness. Pittsburgh: The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 1958.

__________. Point of Empire: Conflict at the Forks of the Ohio. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1970.