Oyler: History of Fort Pitt
The final program in the Bridgeville Area Historical Society 2017-18 season was an interesting presentation on the Fort Pitt Museum, by education director Kathleen Lugarich. Her talk was entitled “Point of Empire: A Brief Overview of Fort Pitt.”
Ms. Lugarich began by explaining the significance of the Ohio River to three different cultures. A small number of Native Americans — Shawnee, Delaware and Mingo — made their home in the Ohio Country after being displaced by English settlers on the Eastern Seaboard. The French colonies in Canada and Louisiana needed the Ohio/Mississippi river network as a transportation link between them. And the English colonies needed western lands to support their rapidly expanding population. Conflict was inevitable.
The French staked their claim with a full-scale invasion in 1753. Alarmed, Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie dispatched Capt. William Trent to the Forks of the Ohio to construct a fort there.
Trent and a small force of men built the first fort there, a modest stockade enclosing a cabin, which was promptly named Fort Prince George. Finished in early 1754, it was the first of five forts to occupy that area in the late 18th century. When a massive armada of French bateaux and Indian canoes arrived down the Allegheny River, the Virginians quickly surrendered and returned home.
The French then built Fort Duquesne, a respectable four-sided stockade with bastions at each corner, large enough to house two hundred soldiers. Located very close to the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, it was frequently flooded. It survived until 1758 when Gen. John Forbes’ advance across Pennsylvania forced the smaller French contingent to evacuate, razing the fort before they left.
Being fatally ill, Forbes returned to Philadelphia, leaving Colonel Hugh Mercer in command. Mercer quickly constructed a modest temporary fortification, which posterity has named “Mercer’s Fort.” Its successor, the fourth fort at the Forks of the Ohio, was a masterpiece, named for the powerful English Secretary of State, William Pitt.
Constructed between 1759 and 1761, Fort Pitt was one of the largest and most elaborate fortifications in North America. It was a pentagram, with five equal sides, and bastions at each corner. The sides were earthen ramparts, made of the material excavated to form a moat encircling the fortification. The ramparts on the land side were reinforced with brick facing. In 1763 it successfully resisted a long siege during Pontiac’s War.
By 1792, the combination of deterioration and frequent floods on Fort Pitt prompted the federal government to build the fifth fort at the Forks, Fort Lafayette (sometimes called Fort Fayette). Located on the Allegheny shore roughly where Ninth and 10th streets exist today, it was a modest fortification intended to provide a supply link for Fort McIntosh, downstream on the Ohio River near the point where the Beaver River enters it.
The Fort Pitt Museum is full of interesting exhibits and is a resource that most of us fail to exploit. I strongly recommend a visit there. If you aren’t already a fan of colonial history in our region, you may well be converted.
John Oyler is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. You can contact John at 412-343-1652 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more from him at mywutb.blogspot.com.