Imagine a world without Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates or Penguins. What if, instead, we were rooting for the Dunmore Mule Deer? Or the Dunmore Dragons?
Never heard of Dunmore? He was poised to take Pittsburgh by force back in the 1700s. And not on behalf of a European power, but for Virginia. Yes, Virginia. And Dunmore was one of at least two Virginians who set their sights on the the triangle long before it was known as “golden.”
As Pittsburgh takes note of its bicentennial as a city this weekend, the Fort Pitt Museum, across from its namesake Block House in Point State Park, is a treasure trove of the city’s earliest history, including the period when Pittsburgh was part of Washington County.
When European monarchs granted land to subjects establishing New World colonies, as King Charles II had granted Pennsylvania to William Penn, they were working with only the most rudimentary – and often inaccurate – maps. Neither did they regard the status of North America’s original inhabitants. It’s little wonder that territorial disputes arose.
One way to resolve boundary disputes, even today, is to conduct a survey. A famous surveyor who passed through the area as part of a diplomatic mission at the behest of Virginia officials was George Washington, who reported on a French threat at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers in about 1753.
France and Britain were wangling over supremacy in what they called the New World, a conflict that erupted in the French and Indian War from 1756 to 1763.
Robert Dinwiddie, lieutenant governor of Virginia, decided to build a fort on what’s now known as the point, said Darren Toth, a volunteer concierge at the Fort Pitt Museum. The French kicked out the Virginians and responded by constructing Fort Duquesne, naming it for the governor of New France.
During the French and Indian War, the British took Fort Duquesne in 1758 and named it for William Pitt, a Londoner also known as the first Earl of Chatham. Pitt, Britain’s prime minister, gets credit for Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War because of his strategic decisions. George Washington left British military service in 1758, but a plaque the Daughters of the American Revolution placed at the Block House states that he visited the site of Fort Pitt that year and in 1770, when, according to historian Boyd Crumrine, Washington “made a journey by way of Braddock’s road and Fort Pitt and down the Ohio River to the Kanawha and kept a diary of his observations.”
The tiny town around the fort was named Pittsburgh. Rhyming with Edinburgh, Scotland, Pittsburgh, with an “h” at the end would have been pronounced by its founders as “Pitts-boro.”
The end of hostilities between the English and French didn’t end the coveting of the forks of the Ohio.
An effort to remove the Fort Pitt vicinity from Pennsylvania was championed by none other than Philadelphia’s famous Benjamin Franklin while he was in Britain. According to the VirginiaPlaces.org website, Franklin and Samuel Wharton, a representative of Ohio Company traders who lost assets during Pontiac’s War, sought land as compensation. Wharton and Franklin wanted a charter for a new colony named “Vandalia.” It would have contained Pittsburgh, a majority of what is now known as West Virginia; eastern Kentucky; and what is now Washington County and western Greene County in Pennsylvania.
Franklin wasn’t the only person with influence in London.
“The (heirs of William Penn) were not going to let us go,” Toth said. “The Monongahela River was very valuable flowing north through all that coal country.”
Pennsylvania and Virginia were extremely large colonies compared with the square miles of Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut and several others in the original British 13. As a display in the Fort Pitt Museum points out, “Boundaries outlined in William Penn’s 1681 charter for Pennsylvania conflicted with those of Maryland, Connecticut and Virginia. These boundaries were not seriously contested until the colonies began to grow.”
John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, was a native of Scotland who became Virginia’s governor. He sent an emissary in 1774 to enforce Virginia’s claim to an area “west of Laurel Hill” known as West Augusta. Virginia’s charter, revised in 1609, said the colony’s border extended “from sea to sea, west and northwest.” Lord Dunmore used a liberal interpretation of this to justify Virginia’s claims to Southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1774, Fort Pitt was known as Fort Dunmore.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, considered the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers met to form the Ohio part of Westmoreland County. Virginia preferred to call the area West Augusta County or Yohogania.
Because of the Penns were Quakers and violence was against their religious beliefs, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania lacked a militia to muster against the Virginians, but some locals came to the rescue.
Arthur St. Clair – namesake of modern-day Upper St. Clair Township – was the justice of Westmoreland County, established in 1773, and he resisted the unfriendly takeover attempt.
Were it not for St. Clair, “Washington County would’ve been in Virginia,” Toth said. “The two parties nearly caused a civil war until the revolution against Britain became their primary focus,” the museum points out.
In the 1780s, the two states agreed to settle their conflicting claims. Washington County was formed from Westmoreland County in 1781, when it was a massive chunk of Western Pennsylvania wilderness that included modern-day Greene and Allegheny counties and part of Beaver County.
Washington was the county seat, not Pittsburgh, although Pittsburgh was an important trading post during the seven years that Pittsburgh was part of Washington County. In 1780, Pittsburgh’s population was 150. It had grown to 4,800 by 1810, the third-largest town in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia and Lancaster. Washington incorporated as a borough in 1810, but it did not become a thrid-class city until 1924.
A Fort Pitt Museum display tells visitors, “a great migration of people poured through Pittsburgh on their way west in the late 18th century. The Ohio River carried 18,000 settlers in the year 1788 alone. Craftsmen, sutlers, tradesmen, riverboat men, farmers, teachers, lawyers, traders, preachers, bankers, industrialists, free blacks and runaway slaves all found opportunities to forge a new life in the rough-and-ready village. With coal mining, glassmaking and boat building fueling expansion, Pittsburgh incorporated in 1816.”
Steel wasn’t yet part of the mix; that would take a few more decades.
Alas, Allegheny and Washington counties parted ways Sept. 24, 1788, by an act of the Legislature, and Pittsburgh joined Washington as a county seat for the newly-formed county, which would have its own courthouse in Pittsburgh.
And, in the words of a beer slogan which still rings true when locals want to wrap something up: “That’s it, Fort Pitt.”