Fort Pitt and the French and Indian War

The city of Pittsburgh PA was once the center of the industrial world. But Pittsburgh was originally founded as a military fort, part of the struggle between two colonial powers to dominate the new world of North America.

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Blockhouse, Fort Pitt Museum

By 1750, the continent of North America was divided between three European empires. The Spanish had control of what is now Mexico and the southwestern United States, which was known as “New Spain”. The French claimed the entire Mississippi River drainage in the center of the continent, which they called “New France”. And in “New England”, the British had established a series of colonies in the northeast. On the European continent, these three countries had been vying with each other for hundreds of years and had fought nearly constant wars amongst themselves. Now, the New World colonies were also a source of friction between them.

One particular sore spot was the area where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers came together to form the Ohio River. It was a vitally strategic area: in an era where most travel and trade was done by river boats, whoever controlled this intersection controlled the entire Ohio River valley, which gave access to both the interior and to the coastal areas. The French claimed the area as part of their Ohio holdings; the British in turn claimed it as part of their colony in Pennsylvania.

In 1753, to reinforce their control of the disputed area, the French built three stockade forts in western Pennsylvania–Forts Presque-Isle, LeBoeuf and Machault. In early 1754 the British responded both diplomatically and militarily. The colonial government of Virginia sent a young militia officer named George Washington to meet with the French at Fort LeBeouf and present a formal demand that they abandon their forts and leave British territory. At the same time, a small force of Virginia militia was dispatched under Captain William Trent with the specific task of constructing a British fort to defend against the French. The chosen spot was known as “The Point”, the triangular bit of land right where the three rivers all met. But Trent never finished his fort. In April 1754, the French sent a larger force of their own to the spot which captured the British without a fight. Now it was the French who built a fort at the Point, which they named Fort Duquesne. It gave them firm control over the Ohio Valley.

These actions set the stage for yet another war between France and England. Known in Europe as the “Seven Years War”, it would be the first truly global war, with battles fought over control of colonies and trade routes in Asia, Africa and the Americas. But the primary focus of the struggle was in North America, where an alliance of regular French Army forces and local Native American tribes faced off against the British Army and colonial militias. The North American theater became known as the “French and Indian War”.

Although war was not formally declared until 1756, the French move into the Ohio Valley in 1754 provoked an immediate military response from England. Just as the French were finishing construction of Fort Duquesne in May 1754, the colonial Governor of Virginia dispatched a militia force, under George Washington, to attack and capture the fort. Washington’s troops were stopped by French forces in a skirmish near present-day Uniontown PA, and after holing up in a temporary refuge he called Fort Necessity, Washington and his militia were driven out of Pennsylvania. The next year, a large detachment of regular British Army troops under General Edward Braddock was sent to push the French out. Braddock’s force was accompanied by local militia, including a small force under George Washington. Just a few miles from Fort Duquesne, however, Braddock’s troops were ambushed in the woods by Native Americans allied to the French: Braddock was killed, his forces were devastated, and the survivors limped back to Virginia.

It wasn’t until 1758 that the British were able to move enough troops and supplies into Pennsylvania to plan a large-scale assault to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley once and for all. That summer, British General John Forbes left Philadelphia at the head of a large force. It took almost half a year for him to reach the Point. And when Forbes did finally reach the site of Fort Duquesne in November 1758, he found it empty: the French forces, knowing they were outnumbered, had burned the fort to the ground and retreated all the way back to Detroit. Although the Seven Years War would not officially end until 1763, the North American part of it was now essentially over: the French were forced to move out of all the territories claimed by England.

To solidify British control of the area, Forbes built a new fort of his own, right next to the burned ruins of Fort Duquesne. Named after the English Prime Minister, it was christened “Fort Pitt”. Built from wood and rammed earth in the shape of a pentagon with a projecting point at each corner for cannons, the landward areas of the defenses were faced with brick. Over the years, a number of “blockhouses” were added in front of the walls as redoubts for cannons and muskets. The location at the confluence of three major rivers made it a desirable place for trade, and soon a village of settlers grew up around the Fort, known as “Pitt’s Borough”. Over time it would grow into the city of Pittsburgh.

Fort Pitt only ever saw one battle. In 1763, there was a large-scale Native American uprising against British occupation that stretched from Detroit to Pittsburgh, known as “Pontiac’s War”. A group of native warriors surrounded Fort Pitt for two months, but had no way of penetrating its defensive walls. In 1775, during the American Revolution, the Fort became a headquarters and supply depot for the Continental Army.

After the Revolutionary War, Fort Pitt was abandoned, its brickwork was recycled for other buildings, and the earthworks disappeared. By the 1800’s all that still remained of the Fort was one of the blockhouses constructed in 1764, which was being used as a private residence. Today, the site of Fort Pitt is part of The Point State Park. A portion of the Fort was reconstructed and now houses a museum displaying artifacts found during archaeological digs in the area. The Blockhouse itself is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who open it for tours.

 

 

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