Holidays in the ‘Burgh

Which Founding Fathers made trips to what’s now Pittsburgh?

“He is the father of the county. We could say he’s the father of Pittsburgh, too.”

George Washington is face-to-face with Seneca leader Guyasuta in this statue on Mount Washington

George Washington is face-to-face with Seneca leader Guyasuta in this statue on Mount Washington

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

On the original Independence Day in 1776, Pittsburgh wasn’t a city yet.

There had been a settlement here since the late 1750s, with most houses right outside the walls of Fort Pitt at the confluence. From there, it was fields and farm houses stretching east. Grant Street was a field with cows on it, and the Strip District was undeveloped land where people took their animals to graze, said Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

It wasn’t until 1817 that a sitting president would visit the area.

President James Monroe stopped in Pittsburgh during a 3.5-month-long trip across the country. Pittsburgh became a city the year before.

Just because Monroe was the first sitting president to visit doesn’t mean the Founding Fathers didn’t come to what’s now Pittsburgh. Well, some of them did.

“You won’t find John Adams or [Thomas] Jefferson coming here,” said Marilyn Holt, library services manager for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania department. She added that several of the Founding Fathers were Virginians more worried about their land than about coming to what’s now Western Pa.

But two Founding Fathers, did visit though their stories are very different. And a third also has an interesting tie to the area.

Here’s more about the Founding Fathers’ connections to Pittsburgh.

George Washington

George Washington

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Washington: Often disappointed, except that one time

Despite repeated defeats and misfortune, George Washington came to Pittsburgh over and over in the mid 1700s, Masich and Holt said.

The first time was in 1753, at 21. He tried to confront the French to tell them to stop building forts in the area but failed. He also nearly drowned in the Allegheny River. He tried again in 1754 to confront the French, but failed (in part because he didn’t speak French, Holt said). In 1755, he nearly died on the banks of the Monongahela River during an ambush that killed British General Edward Braddock.

But in 1758, Washington finally had success when he and British General John Forbes found the smoldering ruins of the French Fort Duquesne. They named it Pittsburgh, and since Forbes was Scottish, it was pronounced Pitts-borough, like Edinburgh.

“He is the father of the county. We could say he’s the father of Pittsburgh too,” Masich said.

Washington first came to what’s now Western Pa. because he wanted to make money, and the west was an opportunity to make a name for himself as a scout, Masich said. Since Washington didn’t inherit land from his father, he started buying it up in this area, eventually owning between 50,000 and 60,000 acres in the region.

But he had a problem with squatters, Holt said, adding that Washington met with them repeatedly in 1784 but had no luck. The Scots-Irish farmers who lived there wanted to buy the land, but said Washington’s prices and his offer for a lease were too stiff. So the farmers decided to just not recognize Washington’s land ownership.

This went on for two years until a court ruled in Washington’s favor.

Washington wanted to have what he had at Mount Vernon in this area, but he could never find a person he trusted to oversee it, Holt said. And it turned into argument after argument.

It proved very distracting during his presidency, which started in 1789, she added. In 1796 he attempted to sell the land, but the buyer defaulted on the mortgage, causing Washington to keep it.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

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Hamilton: Not as popular as he is now

When President Washington got word that tax collectors were being tarred and feathered, he sent Alexander Hamilton, then secretary of the treasury, to Pittsburgh. After all, it was Hamilton’s idea to add an excise tax that sparked the Whiskey Rebellion, in part because he figured it was a vice and not essential, Masich said.

What Hamilton didn’t know was that the Scots-Irish farmers living in Western. Pa relied on selling whiskey. They couldn’t keep their wheat for a long time without it going bad, so making whiskey was the best way to make money from their crops. They viewed the tax as unfair and started to rebel, including by harming tax collectors.

In fall of 1794, Washington, Hamilton and 13,000 troops headed to Pittsburgh to respond to the rebellion, but Washington turned back in Bedford, Pa. and Hamilton and the troops continued on, per Pittsburgh Magazine.

On November 13, 1794 a.k.a. the “Dreadful Night,” they rounded up hundreds of Pittsburgh men, and Hamilton interrogated some of them in what’s now Downtown Pittsburgh, Masich said.

Hamilton released most of the rebels, but per Pittsburgh Magazine, he marched 20 of them to Philadelphia to stand trial, but they were eventually pardoned by Washington.

Although Pittsburghers weren’t happy. Hamilton viewed this trip as a success. He was interested in the economy and these Pittsburghers were causing a problem for the federal government, Holt said.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

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Franklin: Not a visitor, but he spent a lot of money

During the French and Indian War, it was Benjamin Franklin’s job to protect the western edge of Pennsylvania.

And while it’s unclear how far west he visited to inspect forts, Masich said, Franklin doubted it was much farther than Bedford, and surely not to Pittsburgh.

Holt agreed, saying that Franklin’s interests were in Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh.

So when Braddock came to him in 1755 and said he needed a way to transport men and supplies, Franklin convinced 150 farmers to lease their wagons to the British Crown for military use, Masich said.

But the farmers didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, he added, and Franklin had to sign for all of them, saying he was personally responsible if something happened.

And it did.

All the wagons were blown up and burned on the banks of the Monongahela River when the French and their Native American allies ambushed Braddock, Washington and the troops near where Kennywood is now. Braddock died in the attack.

Franklin, however, had warned Braddock that an ambush could happen, but the general ignored him. So Franklin was on the hook for the wagons, and it nearly bankrupted him, Masich said.

Want more history for Independence Day? Check out this event:

Holidays in the ‘Burgh

Celebrate the Fourth at Fort Pitt

At 11 a.m., help lower a British flag and replace it with a 13-star American flag in the Fort Pitt Block House yard. The flag is the same size and pattern as the one that flew over the fort more than 200 years ago. It was designed to be spotted from up to five miles away. Then, from 1 to 4 p.m., learn about the fort's role in the American Revolution with demonstrations, reenactors and museum tours.

Where: Point State Park

When: July 4, 2018 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.


Want some more? Explore other Holidays in the ‘Burgh stories.