A Brief History of ​18th-Century Pittsburgh

Ever wonder what Pittsburgh was like in its earliest years? George Washington and numerous other travelers left vivid descriptions of the bustling, multi-ethnic town, or rather towns, that grew up at the Point from the French and Indian War through the American Revolution. ​

Their words, combined with images and objects from the period, paint a picture of a diverse, and constantly changing, community with strong ties to both the British-Atlantic world and the vast western country controlled by the Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, Wyandotte, and other nations.

Archives & Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh​.
Archives & Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh​.
Courtesy of the Gerry Embleton/ North Wind Picture Archives.
Courtesy of the Gerry Embleton/ North Wind Picture Archives.

The modern history of Pittsburgh began on Nov. 25, 1758, at approximately 6 o’clock p.m. Having endured an arduous campaign that summer and fall, the army of General John Forbes arrived at the Forks of the Ohio to find the French Fort Duquesne in ruins. ​

Knowing they could not defend it against the British and provincial force, the French had evacuated Duquesne, detonating a stock of gunpowder in one of its magazines as they fled.​

Though he sent letters from “Pittsburgh”—named in honor of British Secretary of State, William Pitt—as early as the following day, evidence suggests that Forbes had the new name in mind long before he arrived at Fort Duquesne. ​

A Scot by birth, when it first left his lips, there is little doubt that Forbes pronounced the name “Pitts-burrah” as he would have the name of the largest city near his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland: Edinburgh.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Gift of the Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Gift of the Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum.

Powder Horn Owned by G. Biler, c. 1758​

Made from the hollow horn of a cow, this powder horn was likely made in Pennsylvania and used on the 1758 Forbes campaign. The carving shows Fort Duquesne at the Forks of the Ohio as it appeared at the moment of Forbes’ arrival. Currently on display in our Pittsburgh, Virginia exhibition, it is one of the oldest surviving objects to have been made—or at least decorated—in Pittsburgh. 

Slowly dying of an illness that may have been stomach cancer, Forbes departed Pittsburgh in December, leaving command of the Point to fellow Scot, Colonel Hugh Mercer, who quickly constructed a new fort just off present-day Commonwealth Avenue. It was in the shadow of Mercer’s little fort that the first town of Pittsburgh began.

Courtesy of the British Library.
Courtesy of the British Library.

Surveyor’s Compass, mid-18th century

Portable compasses such as this allowed 18th century surveyors to accurately measure distances and mark boundaries, large and small. This example was made in either Maryland or Pennsylvania by Benjamin Chandlee, Jr. 

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Though Mercer had just two hundred men to defend the Point that winter, the spring of 1759 saw a steady stream of civilians bringing pack horses laden with goods over the rough-hewn Forbes Road to Pittsburgh. Many returned east to resupply, but a significant number decided to stay, building small houses and huts on the relatively flat ground next to Mercer’s Fort.

Writing in 1761, Quaker merchant James Kenny observed “I have seen all ye houses that were without ye little fort they had then [Mercer’s Fort], thrown down” to make way for the construction of Fort Pitt, indicating that the first settlement at Pittsburgh, just a few months old at the time, had already come and gone by late 1759.

Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.
Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.

As Fort Pitt was laid out in the summer of 1759, not one, but two, new town sites sprang up at Pittsburgh. The first, or Lower Town, was directly adjacent to the fort on the Allegheny shore, while the second, or Upper Town, was located a few hundred yards up the Monongahela from the Point. In addition, a few scattered houses were constructed near the foot of Grant’s Hill, site of the disastrous defeat of a British force under James Grant in September 1758.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.

Grant’s Defeat, by Nat Youngblood​

Painted in 1968 for display in the soon-to-be-completed Fort Pitt Museum, Youngblood’s painting shows the disastrous defeat of Major James Grant’s force of Highlanders, Royal Americans, and Virginia provincial troops, which attempted a pre-dawn attack on Fort Duquesne on September 14, 1758. From its infamous beginnings, Grant’s Hill later provided a peaceful bird’s eye view of the Point and Fort Pitt. 

A “List of the Number of Men, Women, and Children Not Belonging to the Army,” made in July 1760, recorded 88 men, 29 women, 14 boys, and 18 girls by name. The list indicated the presence of multiple civilian families at Pittsburgh, many of whom were no doubt among the first migrants to the Point in the spring of 1759.

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.
Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

In addition to British, Scotch-Irish, and German civilians, the settlement at Pittsburgh attracted numerous American Indian hunters and their families, eager to do business with British traders. Delaware, Ottawa, Shawnee, Wyandotte, and Mingo hunters brought furs and skins from distant parts of the Ohio Country to exchange for a variety of consumer goods including “Bandanoe” handkerchiefs, “Taffity Ribbon,” brass kettles, gunpowder, and lead.

Courtesy of the Private Collection.
Courtesy of the Private Collection.

Smoothbore Gun, c. 1770​

Prior to the American Revolution a creative, if not highly-trained, gunsmith grafted parts from a British trade gun into a new stock with design elements drawn from Germanic rifles. Possibly the work of an American Indian smith, this lightweight gun features a sliding wood patch box and raised cheek piece on the opposite side of the stock. Curiously, a brass buttplate was originally installed on the broad end of the stock, but removed at some point during the gun’s working life. 

Courtesy of the Grisier Collection.
Courtesy of the Grisier Collection.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Absent from many records of the time, residents of African descent were also part of the growing community at Pittsburgh, though for most, the Ohio Country was no land of opportunity. ​

Kenny noted on Sept. 4, 1761 that an enslaved man owned by trader Levy Andrew Levy had “run away with ye Indians last night,” taking a calculated risk for the possibility of a better life in Indian Country.

Courtesy of the Learned T. Bulman ‘48 Historic Archives and Museum, Washington and Jefferson College.
Courtesy of the Learned T. Bulman ‘48 Historic Archives and Museum, Washington and Jefferson College.

Document Related to Slavery, c. 1781​

Beginning in 1780 with the passage of Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, the African American experience in Western Pennsylvania was greatly illuminated. The note at right, one of many reproduced in the Fort Pitt Museum’s Pittsburgh, Virginia exhibition, listed enslaved children owned by David Rankin and registered with Washington County Prothonotary, Thomas Scott, probably in 1781.

Though they lived under strict control by the British army, civilians living near Fort Pitt often fell short of the standards demanded by their military leaders. A series of regulations passed in the 1760s hint at the constant tension between military and civilian life in early Pittsburgh.

Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Rules to stop hogs from destroying the King’s Garden; cattle and horses from grazing in the “Ditch surrounding the Fort”; dogs from running wild through the town; and even to prevent a handful of entrepreneurial women from selling liquor at “dram Shops” were among the many attempts to balance civilian and military life at Pittsburgh. Among the creative punishments devised for offenders were shooting or selling their livestock “for the benefit of the Poor” and banishment from the settlement.

Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.
Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.

Life at Pittsburgh changed forever in the spring of 1763 when an uprising of American Indians against British forts and settlements—named for the Ottawa Chief, Pontiac—came to Fort Pitt. ​

In order to deny cover to the Indian force attacking the fort, both the Upper and Lower Towns were intentionally destroyed as residents piled into the fort for safety. This historical painting by artist Nat Youngblood shows the burned remnants of the Lower Town and Allegheny shore beyond the recently picketed “Ohio Bastion” of Fort Pitt.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Fort Pitt Museum.
Courtesy of the Public Record Office, London.
Courtesy of the Public Record Office, London.

After Pontiac’s War, most of the civilian residents of Pittsburgh were sent east for safety. The following year, in 1764, a new town was laid out by John Campbell in anticipation of the reopening of the fur trade at Fort Pitt in the spring of 1765. ​

Consisting of a handful of log houses on the Monongahela shore, it was situated in the approximate location of the old Upper Town. With the spring thaw, many past residents, and some newcomers, made the journey to Pittsburgh.

The promise of trade brought Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, and Seneca hunters, and their families, back to Pittsburgh in May 1765. ​

Constructed at the corner of Water and Ferry streets, the storehouse of the Philadelphia trading firm of Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan stocked a staggering array of consumer goods for sale or trade. In addition, Pittsburgh served as the firm’s base for a new trading venture in the Illinois country far to the west.

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.
From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.

Leather Breeches, c. 1770​

The end product of many of the hundreds of thousands of deer hides brought to Fort Pitt, leather breeches were the 18th century equivalent of blue jeans. Favored by rich and poor alike for their durability and long life span, they were difficult to wear out. This pair was patched and repaired multiple times before their owner finally retired them. 

Taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s excellent situation at the Forks of the Ohio, boat building was among its most important occupations. In a boatyard on the Monongahela shore, near present-day Second Avenue, workmen constructed flat-bottomed batteaux that drew little water and could be easily navigated up and down stream. ​

During and after the Revolution, hundreds of “Kentucky” boats, built in Pittsburgh, carried travelers and goods down the Ohio.

Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Having noted the military potential of the Point in 1753, and witnessed the birth of Pittsburgh in 1758, George Washington returned to the Forks of the Ohio in 1770, where he found about twenty houses “built of Logs, & rang’d into Streets…on the Monongahela.”​

While in town, he stayed at the tavern owned by Samuel Semple, which occupied the site of the recently defunct Baynton, Wharton, and Morgan storehouse, referring to it as a “very good House of Publick Entertainment.” The largest gathering spot in Pittsburgh, the tavern was noted by a variety of travelers prior to the American Revolution.

Bison Horn, 1775​

This silver-mounted bison horn was owned by Ohio Country traveler Nicholas Cresswell, who collected it on a trip down the Ohio River from Fort Pitt in 1775. While in Pittsburgh, Cresswell—a 25-year-old Englishman—lodged at Semple’s tavern where he received a cool reception from the owner who had taken up the Patriot cause. Fortunately, Semple’s wife, a Loyalist, took pity on him. Happily under her protection, he noted that Mrs. Semple wore “the breeches” in her household. 

From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.
From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.

While there appears to have been no shortage of drinking and carousing in early Pittsburgh, the town’s religious life was a bit more complicated. Home to no official church in its earliest years, the town was a frequent stop for itinerant preachers of different denominations and missionaries headed west to Indian communities on the Allegheny, Beaver, and Ohio Rivers. ​

Writing in 1772, Congregationalist minister David McClure noted, the “inhabitants of this place are very dissipated. They seem to feel themselves beyond the arm of government, & freed from the restraining influence of religion. It is the resort of Indian traders, & many here have escaped from Justice & from Creditors, in the old settlements…We found, however, a happy few who live in the fear of God, & maintain their integrity…”

Courtesy of the British Museum.
Courtesy of the British Museum.
Courtesy of the Darlington Library, University of Pittsburgh.
Courtesy of the Darlington Library, University of Pittsburgh.

Though the settlement at Pittsburgh predated the construction of Fort Pitt by several months, for most of the early years of its development, the colossal earthen fort stood watch over the Point. In 1772, on orders from General Thomas Gage, the British army evacuated Fort Pitt, selling the salvage rights to two local residents for £50 New York currency. Though it was left largely intact, just 11 years after its completion, the mighty Fort Pitt was abandoned.

In 1774, the town of Pittsburgh underwent its final transformation prior to the American Revolution. Hoping to capitalize on the power vacuum created by the British departure, Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, seized control through his agent Dr. John Connolly, a former fur trader and physician. ​

At Connolly’s encouragement, an influx of frontier Virginian settlers tipped the balance of power in Pittsburgh away from the Pennsylvanians, who the “Villainous doctor” now terrorized with abandon. As more settlers arrived, hostility to Indians increased, and in the fall of 1774, Pittsburgh became the launching point for a Virginian campaign against the Shawnee, known as Lord Dunmore’s War.

Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.
Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Land Grant, 1774​

This document, granting a tract  of land in southwestern Virginia, was signed by Royal Governor Lord Dunmore on Dec. 7, 1774, less than two months after his campaign against the Shawnee. With the outbreak of the American Revolution a few months later, he was forced to abandon the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, eventually relocating to the relative safety of a British warship in the York River. 

Courtesy of the Bryan Collection.
Courtesy of the Bryan Collection.

Though Dunmore won his war and the Virginians seized Shawnee hunting grounds south of the Ohio River, the heirs of William Penn ultimately maintained control of Pittsburgh. In 1784, they negotiated with Maj. Isaac Craig and Col. Stephen Bayard—both officers at Fort Pitt during the Revolution—to sell lots in the present-day downtown area. ​

Building on the grid laid out by John Campbell in 1764, Col. George Woods’ 1784 survey imagined a future far beyond Pittsburgh’s military and fur trading roots. With a few minor changes, the street grid he drew over two centuries ago could still be used to navigate downtown Pittsburgh today.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Embroidered Document Case, 1775. From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.
Embroidered Document Case, 1775. From the Heinz History Center Museum Collections.

Embroidered Document Case, c. 1775​

This floral-embroidered document case was reportedly carried by Major Isaac Craig throughout the Revolution, including during his time at Fort Pitt. Born in Ireland in 1741, Craig made his living as a house carpenter before becoming a soldier. After the Revolution, he owned much of the Point, including the Block House, onto which he built his own residence. 

Fort Pitt Museum

The community of Pittsburgh has faced (and survived) a lot in the past 260 years. ​

​For the latest and greatest in early Pittsburgh history, as well as up to date information on the Fort Pitt Museum, please follow us on Facebook, stay connected to our website, and be sure to visit us in person later this year.