History of Pittsburgh Part 1: In the Beginning

History of Pittsburgh: In the Beginning

The dynamic Steel City had its auspicious beginnings thousands of years ago when the area was inhabited by Native Americans who enjoyed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the region. In fact, there is evidence that Paleo-Indians called this area home as early as 16,000 years ago, making it the oldest site of human habitation in all of North America.

Early Native American Cultures in Western PA

The area where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers come together and flow into the Ohio River undoubtedly provided fertile hunting grounds for these Native American civilizations. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, just west of Pittsburgh in Washington County, offers a rare glimpse into this bygone era, with nearly two million pieces of history in the form of ancient stone tools, evidence of ice age fire pits, and pottery fragments. In 2005, Meadowcroft Rockshelter was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Later in its history, western Pennsylvania served as home to the Mound Builders, who were part of the Adena culture prior to colonization of the country. Inhabiting an area from New York to as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as West Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland from around 1000 to 200 BC, this Early Woodland period marked a time when multiple tribes shared a burial and ceremonial complex. It was during this time that a huge Indian mound was constructed at the future site of McKees Rocks and it was augmented by the Hopewell culture in later years.

Ohio History Connection Archaeology Collection, Hopewell Mound Group, A 0283; A 283/000292.001

By 1700, the Iroquois Confederacy were occupying the majority of the upper Ohio River valley, using it for prime hunting grounds. In fact, by 1748, tribes represented in the area included the Iroquois tribes (Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga) as well as Lenape (known as Delaware), Shawnee, Wyandot, Mohican and Tisagechroami. A few Native American villages existed in this vicinity, including Shannopin’s Town, a Seneca tribe center; the Lenape tribe village of Sawcunk; and Chartier’s Town, established in 1734 as a Shawnee village on the Allegheny River.

The Granger Collection, New York

The arrival of European explorers meant the devastation of the Native American tribes in this area due to infectious diseases like smallpox, influenza, malaria and measles because they had never come into contact with them and had no immunity.

French and British Scramble for Control of Western PA

The first Europeans to arrive in this region came around 1710, and by 1717, they had established settlements and trading posts. In 1748, the Ohio Company, a British land speculation company, was given a grant of 200,000 acres, and settlement began in earnest. They constructed a wagon road from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Monongahela River with the assistance of a Lenape Indian chief Nemacolin. This road is now known as Nemacolin’s Trail.

General Braddock’s route along Nemacolin’s Trail

Logstown was a trade center built by the French to increase their influence in the Ohio Valley, and in 1749, Celeron de Bienville traveled the length of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, warning English traders to stay away. In 1753, Marquis Duquesne sent a larger expedition, and they built Fort LeBoeuf on French Creek, which had access to the Allegheny, and the following year, Fort Machault closer to the Allegheny River.  Because of the French penetration into the Ohio Valley, Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia was compelled to send Major George Washington to attempt to drive them from the area. While the French commanders met Washington courteously, they refused to withdraw. In 1754, the British colonists began construction of a fort at the site of present-day Pittsburgh named Fort Prince George. It was halfway to completion when additional French troops arrived and sent the colonists back to Virginia. The French tore it down and built Fort Duquesne in its place.

Fort Prince George Site at the Point

Clashes between the French and English escalated, with the Battle of Jumonville Glen marking a turning point when Washington’s ally, the Seneca tribe chief Tanaghrisson, executed the French commanding officer, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, sparking the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Ultimately, the British won out for control of the Ohio Valley, and France ceded control to all territory east of the Mississippi River, but the influence of both is felt in Pittsburgh today.

Continue with the History Of Pittsburgh, Part 2 right here!

Pittsburgh and the Whiskey Rebellion

Pittsburgh Growth in the 19th Century

17 thoughts on “History of Pittsburgh Part 1: In the Beginning”

  1. John Farrelly

    Who came up with the “oldest site of human habitation in North America”. That is certainly a little overreach. All the way from Alaska directly to Pittsburgh. That’s a little too much to assume.

    1. Previously the “oldest “ site was in the southwest ,“Clovis”.
      I’m sure there are older sites, but they remain to be found.
      If you know of any, I’m sure an archeologist would be thrilled to Know.

    2. Take a visit to Meadowcroft Rockshelter. They have uncovered settlement older than any previous known in the area.

    3. Why couldn’t they have come Scotland-Iceland-Greenland-East Coast North America, or even down along the St Lawrence Seaway then South? That would be similar to Northern Russia-Alaska- Washington/Oregon. There are Natives in Tierra Del Fuego

    4. Actually, I remember this Paleo-dig from
      An archeological dig while at Pitt many years ago…so there is a foundation for this claim.
      And…there is some additional evidence that not all evolution evolved from trekking here via the Alaskan route…but a route from
      South and Central America. Maybe the Pangea occurred earlier with human like
      Inhabitants in tow?

    1. pittsburghbeautiful

      Pittsburgh was named in 1758 by General John Forbes, in honor of British statesman William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham.

  2. LaVonne Hanlon

    Did you know that Pittsburgh was originally pronounced like Pittsboro? It was the Scottish pronounciation like Edinborough is pronounced.

    I grew up in the Fay-West area right on the border of Fayette & Westmoreland Counties and have been to Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity and the Part 1 article only confirms what I already knew. My father found Indian relics in his garden after Hurricane Agnes washed away about foot of the top soil in 1972. I sent photos of what he found to the PA State Archeologist and he verified they were made by the Delaware Indians who once occupied that area back in the 1700’s.

    1. John Rudzinskas

      Edinburgh and Pittsburgh are both pronouced as “Edinburra” and “Pittsburra”. That’s why there’s an “h” on the end.

      1. Pauline Donnelly

        Originally, I believe there was an “h” at the end of Pittsburgh. At some point, the “h” went away , then returned. There are many cities/towns in the US with the spelling of “Pittsburg”.

  3. The Allegheny and Monongehela do not “flow into” the Ohio River, they CREATE the Ohio River. Big difference, don’t you think???!!!

    1. Pauline Donnelly

      At first, I didn’t see the difference, but yes, “flowing into” could imply that they are tributaries. “Creating” or “forming” the Ohio R implies that 2 rivers meet, forming one.

    2. And don’t forget the huge underground aquifer that flows beneath all of those rivers.

    3. all three rivers were known as the Ohiiyo by native people of the region. its where Ohio gets its name. ” Beautiful river”

  4. Love this piece. I grew up in Woodville, part of the Whiskey Rebellion. Always call Pittburgh ” home” .

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