ON THIS DAY: August 3, 1797, U.S. Army decommissions Fort Pitt

Fort Pitt Block House

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Built by British forces during the French and Indian War, Fort Pitt was named by General John Forbes after William Pitt the Elder, a British statesman. It was an association that would eventually give the city both its name and coat of arms. The fort was abandoned in 1792 and officially decommissioned by the U.S. Army on August 3, 1797.

The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers held great strategic importance from the moment it was discovered. Fort Prince George was the first attempt to militarize the point when construction began in January 1754. It was the brainchild of a young officer in the Virginia militia, George Washington, who had previously surveyed the area and nearly drowned crossing the Allegheny River. Construction of the British fort was interrupted when French forces seized the site and captured the force constructing it.

To bolster their claims to the Ohio Valley, French forces constructed a even larger fort at the point. They called it Fort Duquesne in honor of the Marquis de Duquesne, the new governor of New France. Fort Duquesne’s purported footprint remains marked in the lawn of Point State Park.

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The following March, Washington was sent by the governor of Virginia to warn the French to stay away from the area that would eventually become Pittsburgh. The French refused and in May, differing accounts suggest that Washington attacked a small French encampment in Fayette County, resulting in the death of a French ensign.

Washington ordered a hastily-constructed fort to fend off a French counterattack launched from Fort Duquesne. The Battle of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754, ended with Washington’s only surrender and the outbreak of a global war.

The French burned Fort Necessity and returned to Fort Duquesne.

Undeterred, the British sent a large army from England to reassert control over the Ohio River valley, commanded by General Edward Braddock. While his army was building a road adequate for their large wagons and artillery, General Braddock was killed in a massive ambush at the Battle of the Monongahela by French-aligned Native American forces. Defeated, Washington assumed Braddock’s command and organized their retreat back to the safety of eastern Pennsylvania.

Over in England, William Pitt was serving as Secretary of State as the Seven Years’ War consumed five continents. Known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies, the conflict between England and France had spread from Washington’s first battle to consume the globe as the first worldwide war.

Pitt mobilized the British people to rebuild their military and reorganize their navy. He saw control of British territories in India and America as the key to defeating the French and made the conquest of Canada a priority.

General John Forbes was dispatched to cut a road across Pennsylvania with Fort Duquesne as his prize. Washington again found himself commanding the Virginia militia, in his final service for the British Army, as they advanced the Forbes Expedition in the campaign westward. Despite his complaints about Forbes’ strategy, Washington was later credited with saving their forces from what could have been a devastating friendly-fire battle by riding his horse down the line and hitting the muskets of his men with his sword.

The Forbes Expedition succeeded in reaching Fort Duquesne in November 1758, but the French burned the fort and fled. Washington’s brigade and two others found the smoldering ruins the following day. Disappointed he was not offered a commission in the British Army, Washington resigned his command shortly thereafter.

With the confluence of the rivers in their possession, the British immediately began construction of a new fort nearby. Determined to never lose control of the Point again, Forbes ordered a large and virtually impregnable fort to be built as a permanent installation. In the meantime, the troops garrisoned in a smaller shelter over the winter called Mercer’s Fort, named for their commander.

Fort Pitt was completed in 1762 and at 20 acres (including two acres completely within the walls), it was the largest and most elaborate fortress the English constructed in America. Traders and settlers ventured into the region on the new roads started by Forbes and Braddock and the town of Pittsburgh grew.

The fort was tested in battle for the first time in 1763 during Pontiac’s Rebellion. Native Americans surrounded the fort in May and lay siege to the settlers and army within for three months. Though the details are disputed, many historians believe blankets from the fort’s smallpox hospital were deliberately traded to the besieging Native Americans in an attempted biological attack.

Colonel Henry Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary and veteran of the Forbes Expedition, was sent to break the siege. His forces defeated the Native Americans in the Battle of Bushy Run on August 5, 1763.

Seeking to avoid further conflict with Native Americans, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade the settling of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, including Pittsburgh. The hobbling of westward expansion by the decree contributed to a growing list of grievances that would push the colonies into rebellion in the following decade.

Before moving his army deep into Ohio, Bouquet ordered a number of redoubts constructed around the outer walls of Fort Pitt to reinforce it. Of these, only one remains, known as the Fort Pitt Block House. Built in 1764, the five-sided two-story structure is the oldest building in Pittsburgh and sole original structure of Fort Pitt.

The British abandoned Fort Pitt in 1772 in a move that, even at the time, seemed unusual given all that it took to build and secure it and the continuing threat of hostilities from nearby Native American tribes. Nonetheless, it was sold to two colonists for 50 pounds.

The Virginia militia, alerted to the newly vacated fort, arrived and claimed it for Virginia’s Governor Lord Dunmore. They renamed it Fort Dunmore and it became a staging ground for Dunmore’s War against the Native Americans.

Fort Pitt was soon again on the world stage as the Revolutionary War broke out. The loss of their Canadian colonies and international prestige following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the French and Indian War, had not sat well with the French and they sought their revenge by siding with American patriots fighting for independence from England. For their part, the British rallied Native American tribes enraged by the encroaching colonists and episodes like Dunmore’s War and pushed them to instigate attacks on the western border, where Fort Pitt became the western headquarters for the American Continental Army.

Though Fort Pitt saw no action during the revolution, it was a strategic staging area and armory for forces repelling Native American attacks along the frontier.

The Treaty of Fort Pitt was signed at the fort in 1778, which allowed American troops to travel through the Delaware Nation’s tribal lands in their war against the British. It was the first written treaty between the new United States of America and any Native Americans and like many that came after, its terms were not honored by the new federal government.

After the war, Fort Pitt fell into disrepair and was abandoned. Pittsburghers scrounged the grounds for materials to build their homes. On August 3, 1797, the U.S. Army decommissioned the site and held an auction for area residents to salvage its remains.

The Block House, which had been turned into a trading post, was already being used as a private home by 1785 and by virtue of its distance from the fort itself, it survived largely untouched.

In the early 1900s, the area was heavily industrialized, and Henry Clay Frick purchased the entirety of the Point from Mary Schenley, except for the Block House. Schenley had donated it to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1894 and the group refused Frick’s offer to move it to Schenley Park. The resulting court battle rose to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Block House remaining on its original site.

The Block House was again threatened with destruction in the 1950s when it was excluded from plans for a new state park at the Point. The Daughters of the American Revolution again defended the structure in court battles and in 1960 is was granted status as a National Historic Landmark.

Following extensive archaeological excavations of the Point during construction of the park, the Fort Pitt Museum opened in June 1969. The museum was built on the exact footprint of the Monongahela Bastion, part of the original foundations of Fort Pitt, to give visitors a sense of the size of the fort. Other bastions of the fort were filled in or traced with stone in the lawns of Point State Park.