Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mission to Fort LeBoeuf. April 26, 2018

Copyright © 2018                                      John F. Oyler

April 26, 2018

Mission to Fort LeBoeuf

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society interrupted its series of “Second Tuesday” workshops dealing with the history of Bridgeville High School this month and focused instead on significant events that occurred in this area over two and a half centuries ago.

The Society recently submitted a proposal to the Robert R. Banks Foundation for funding required for establishment of a significant permanent exhibit dedicated to George Washington’s seven visits to Western Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century and the impact they had on this area.

This is an extremely ambitious endeavor, but one that would be of great benefit to the local historical community, complementing Woodville Plantation, the Walker-Ewing Log House, Old St. Luke’s Church, and the Oliver Miller Homestead, among others.

It is anticipated as consisting of historical artifacts, maps, and prints of relevant paintings supplementing interactive narrated videos dedicated to each of the seven visits.

In support of this proposal we have decided to dedicate a series of the “Second Tuesdays” to the preparation of the aforementioned videos. Since Washington’s first visit, in 1753, was his well-known mission to Fort LeBoeuf, the April workshop was a discussion of it.

The facilitator began with a brief summary of the proposal and the purpose for this workshop. He explained that the exhibit would have about ten individual sub-exhibits, seven of which would be devoted to specific visits. Each sub-exhibit would have a four-minute video overviewing the visit and a thirty-minute video providing detail on it.

As an example, he had put together a four-minute video with voice-over recounting Washington’s brief (three years) career as a surveyor. He then showed a chronological series of slides depicting the mission to Fort LeBoeuf.

In the mid 1750s both France and England laid claim to the Ohio Country – the wilderness north and west of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. The French claim was based on an expedition by RenĂ©-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1669. LaSalle reached the headwaters of the Allegheny in what is now New York, followed it to its confluence with the Monongahela River, and then went down the Ohio as far as the falls at Louisville.

Eighty years later Celeron de Blainville led a small force of French soldiers along the same route, this time confirming France’s claim by burying lead plates and nailing sheet metal signs on trees at six different locations, including Warren and Franklin in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The French quickly followed up this expedition with a major invasion, involving 2200 soldiers and an equally large number of Indians. They established three major forts --- Presq Isle (Erie), Le Boeuf (Waterford), and Machault (Franklin). The fort (Du Quesne) at the forks of the Ohio was scheduled for construction and occupation in 1754.

Their move into Machault forced English trader John Frazier to leave his trading post there and re-locate to the spot where Turtle Creek enters the Monongahela River. His report on the French invasion prompted the English to react.

The reaction was headed by the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia gentry with ambitions for land acquisition in the Ohio country. Prominent among them was Laurence Washington, George’s beloved half-brother. They persuaded Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to send troops to the forks of the Ohio and build a fort there.

Dinwiddie initially dispatched twenty one year-old Major George Washington to the Ohio Country to deliver an ultimatum to the French advising them that England (Virginia) had sovereignty over that land.
Washington proceeded to Wills Creek (now Cumberland, Maryland) and engaged experienced scout and frontiersman Christopher Gist to accompany him.

Gist and Washington then travelled on horseback along the Nemacolin Trail through a gap in Laurel Ridge and then across Chestnut Ridge, eventually reaching Frazier’s cabin at Turtle Creek. This route would eventually be improved during Braddock’s ill-fated campaign and named for him.

Their immediate destination was Logstown (now Ambridge) where a major Indian village existed. En route they passed through two other Indian settlements – Shannopin’s Town (now Lawrenceville) and Shingiss’ (McKees Rocks). The latter location was the site where the Ohio Company planned to build its fort. Washington concluded that the area at what is now Pittsburgh’s Point would be a much preferable location.

They spent several days at Logstown, meeting Indian leaders and gathering information on the French and their presence in the region. One of the leaders was Tanarachison, also known as the Half-King, an extremely interesting character who would show up again in Washington’s second visit to this area.

The Half-King had the English convinced that he was the viceroy or governor of the Ohio Country on behalf of the Iroquois Nation who actually were the sovereigns of the region. He talked Washington into allowing him to accompany the expedition on to meet the French.

They eventually headed north, picking up the Venango Path, another well-established Indian trail. When they reached Fort Machault they met the French commander, Captain Joncaire, who promptly advised them that he was too insignificant to receive their message. He suggested they continue on to Fort LeBoeuf by following French Creek (and an extension of the Venango Path).

The trip to LeBoeuf was difficult; Washington’s Journal mentions swamps, rain and snow, and an impassable French Creek. At the fort they met the commandant, Legardeur de St. Pierre, an elderly gentleman who apparently impressed Washington because he was a Knight of the military Order of St. Lewis. At this point Washington seemed more like an English nobleman than a rough-and-ready American frontiersman.

Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie’s letter to St. Pierre, then waited three days before he got a formal reply. He spent the time profitably, generating a detailed report on the layout of the fort, the number and location of artillery pieces, and the disposition of the troops manning it. During this period the French made a serious effort to influence Half-King to transfer his loyalty (and that of the Iroquois) to their side.

Eventually the French presented their response, a courteous but arrogant statement that the combination of their might, La Salle’s original claim, and de Blainville’s recent expedition made it obvious that the Ohio Country was an inherent part of New France. They strongly advised the English to be satisfied to stay east of the Allegheny mountains.

Washington, Gist, and a reluctant Half-King then returned to Fort Machault by canoe, another difficult trip. At this point Half-King elected to leave the party, claiming he would return to the forks of the Ohio by canoe rather than travelling overland. Washington was skeptical and begged him to not defect to the French.

The trip down the Venango Path went very slowly. The horses were worn out and had great difficulty in the deep snow they were encountering. Because Washington recognized the urgency of getting back to Williamsburg with his report, he decided that he and Gist should continue on, on foot.

At a place called “Murthering-Town” (now Harmony) they encountered a party of “French” Indians, one of whom took a shot at them from about fifteen paces. Fortunately, he missed his mark and they were able to make their getaway in the darkness.

The next night found them on the north shore of the Allegheny, which was in flood and filled with ice floes. They spent a day constructing a raft of logs and set out to cross the river. The ice turned out to be a major deterrent.

When Washington tried to fend off a floe with his pole, he was thrown into the river. Fortunately, he was able to get back to the raft. They eventually washed up on an island, which has been immortalized as “Washington Crossing”.

The next morning the river had frozen over solid and they were able to get across safely and find their way to Frazier’s cabin. There they were able to thaw out and to acquire horses that made the return trip to Virginia much easier.

On the way back they encountered a pack train of horses “loaded with materials and stores to build a fort at the Forks”. One wonders who decided on that location rather than at McKees Rocks and when the decision was made.

Back in Williamsburg Washington was received as a hero, and the Virginians’ resolve to resist the French invasion was intensified. The stage was set for the young major to make his second trip to this area and to kick off the “first World War”.

This is indeed a remarkable story, reading like something out of J. R. R. Tolkein; its sequel will be investigated in June. The May “Second Tuesday” workshop will return to our review of the history of Bridgeville High School, this time focusing on the 1950 and 1951 classes. May 8, 2018 is its date.

Hiroshige's Tokaido Road. April 19, 2018

Copyright © 2018                                      John F. Oyler

April 19, 2018

Horoshige’s Tokaido Road

My enthusiasm about Japanese wood-block prints began in the mid-1950s when I spent sixteen months in Japan, in the service. The genre is unique, and the landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige are easily my favorite examples of it.

Recently my daughter Elizabeth and I attended a lecture sponsored by the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania celebrating the opening of a new exhibition of prints from Hiroshige’s most famous series, “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido”. It is an outstanding example of the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world).

Dr. Brenda Jordan, the Director of the University of Pittsburgh national coordinating site for the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (NCTA) and the Japan Studies Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center, gave an interesting lecture describing the social, economic, and cultural environment in pre-industrial Japan which produced this specialized art form.

During the Edo Period, 1603 to 1868, the most important highway in Japan was the Tokaido Road, linking Kyoto, the imperial capital, and Edo (known today as Tokyo), the shogun’s capital.

Three hundred and nineteen miles long, the trip could be made on foot in a little over a week, providing conditions were perfect. Fifty-three post stations were located along the route, somewhat like the stagecoach inns on early nineteenth century roads in this area, like the Washington Pike.

In 1832 Hiroshige made the trip from Edo to Kyoto as part of an official delegation from the Shogun to the Emperor, recording his impressions of the local scenes with sketches. He then produced the masterpiece that is the focus of this exhibit, fifty-five prints in all.

The prints in this exhibit are from the Hoeido edition, the initial issue. It is the first time the full set has been exhibited in Pittsburgh in twenty-five years. Several scenes are supplemented by prints of the same scene by other wood-block artists; others by versions of the same scene by Hiroshige. Another interesting display showed different prints from the same woodblock, to illustrate the effect of different inking techniques.

The exhibit is full of my personal favorites, beginning with “Nihonbashi” and the travelers beginning their journey in Edo. “Numazu” has a full moon partially hidden by trees. “Kanbara, Night Snow” depicts the muffled silence of a winter night perfectly. “Shono, Travellers Surprised by Sudden Rain” is so vivid one can feel the impact of the deluge. “Ejiri” is a busy harbor with a fleet of square-sailed vessels stretching to the horizon.

Hiroshige’s bridges are appealing; I copied the one in “Okasaki” for the illustration for February in this year’s calendar, and renamed it “Rush Hour” in recognition of the mob of travelers crossing it. The best view of Fuji is on “Satta Peak” with the stylized mountain framed by tiny travelers on a steep road on one side and square-sailed ships on the water on the other side.

“Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” was wildly successful; twenty thousand sets were eventually printed. Although it brought fame to the artist, it was not accompanied by fortune. A new print sold for about the same price as a pair of straw sandals or a bowl of soup.

The Tokaido Road also served as the main character of a popular comic novel of the early 1800s – “Tokaidochu Hizakurige” (Shank’s Mare) – the adventures of two misadventurers making the pilgrimage from Edo to Kyoto. Hiroshige did some of its illustrations when it was used as a travel guide.

An old board game, based on making the trip on the Tokaido Road was part of the exhibit; it had been illustrated by Hiroshige. Also displayed were two actual woodblocks. Examining them immediately leads the viewer to want to understand the wood-block printing process.

The starting point is the production of a run of prints is the preparation of a preliminary sketch by the artist, probably in color. A block-copyist would then produce a black and white drawing outlining the different areas and highlighting solid lines. This drawing was then pasted onto a block of white mountain cherry wood and used as a pattern for the block carver to gouge away wood, producing a “key block”.

The key block was used to print multiple copies of the outlines and solid lines, one for each color to be printed. These served as patterns for carving individual blocks, perhaps as many as fifteen. Printing was then done in multiple stages, one for each color, with great attention being paid to careful matching.

The development of this technology and the unique genre it produced appears to have been driven by a broad-based culture sensitive to art and demanding a cost-effective way to reproduce it for the masses, in pre-industrial Japan. The rest of the world, and posterity, has benefited greatly as a result.

The exhibit will be at the Museum of Art through July 8, 2018. Investing a couple of hours viewing it will give you an interesting look at life in Japan two centuries ago, as well as providing a very satisfying artistic experience.

Exploring History with a Metal Detector. April 12, 2018

Copyright © 2018                                      John F. Oyler

April 12, 2018

Exploring History with a Metal Detector

The March program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society nearly had to be cancelled when the scheduled speaker called in sick the day of the meeting. Fortunately, program chairperson Rosemary Kasper was able to come up with a last-minute substitute, the speaker scheduled for next month.

The person who came to the rescue was a young man named Rob Hilt. He and his partner had announced a subject, “History Hounds: Preserving and Saving Local History Through Metal Detecting”. The topic did not arouse much enthusiasm in me; my exposure to metal detectors had been limited to watching a pair of unusual young men in camouflage clothing prowling around our woods with a metal detector in one hand and a shovel in the other, and serious frowns on their faces. They looked all the world like a pair of sappers trying to defuse a mine field.

Instead Mr. Hilt turned out to be a very interesting gentleman with a sincere interest in things historical, coupled with the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poiroit. His electronic equipment is merely a tool that he uses very effectively to achieve his discoveries.

He brought an impressive collection of display cases, each organized around a specific theme. Artifacts he displayed ranged from eighteenth century treasures – old Spanish silver coins, Pilgrim-style knee buckles, and pewter tableware – to contemporary trivia – a cap pistol, pocket knives, and dog license tags. As Mr. Hilt reported, each artifact has two stories – the story of how he managed to find it and its own story which we can only imagine.

Someone in the audience asked the speaker to pick out his favorite of all the artifacts he has found; he pointed out a plate that was significant enough that it made the cover of the magazine “American Digger”.

He emphasized the fact that success in finding historical artifacts is based on extensive research. His stomping ground is western Washington County and Brooke County, West Virginia. He pores over old maps of that area, trying to locate long-abandoned homesites. When he believes he has found one, he approaches the current owner of the property and courteously requests permission for an exploration.

Although this isn’t always successful, cooperation of the owner is essential. Mr. Hilt also emphasized the importance of minimizing disruption to the landscape, especially when a lawn is involved. He explained how he carefully takes a plug – rolls back the sod and digs out the dirt, placing it on a piece of canvas so it can be returned to the hole once it has been examined. He remarked that the greatest treasures he has found have been friendships he has made with folks on whose property he explored.

Another key to Mr. Hilt’s success is his ability to quickly narrow down possibilities and find the best places to investigate. He looks for what he calls “travel corridors”. The path from a house to the location of the outhouse is a perfect example of a travel corridor. Another interesting story was of the time he was looking for an abandoned homesite in what is now a wooded area. While pondering where he should explore he noticed a patch of blooming daffodils and correctly concluded he had found his homesite.

Mr. Hilt has made a significant contribution to finding and preserving artifacts at the historic Isaac Manchester Farm near Avella. Originally built in 1815, its stately brick Georgian manor house and outbuildings is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its future is threatened by nearby longwall coal mining.

The speaker explained that Isaac Manchester came here from Rhode Island in 1797 and acquired the property from Captain Samuel Teeter. The property, originally warranted by Teeter in 1780 as “Plantation Plenty”, lies between Avella and West Middleton. Teeter was a prominent historical figure in this area, a veteran of Braddock’s Defeat, Major Grant’s Defeat, and Forbes’ successful campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. His two-story log house and a blockhouse, enclosed inside a stockade, were known as Teeter’s Fort during the years of Indian raids.

Mr. Hilt’s knowledge of this specific historic site and his enthusiasm about researching it was quite impressive. He was thrilled to talk about a watering trough there that has been running since 1818. We history buffs are fortunate to have artisans like him committed to finding and preserving artifacts.

The next Historical Society program meeting will be at the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street, at 7:30 pm, Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Mr. Brian Charlton will speak on “Cement City, Donora, Pa.” The public is cordially invited.