Saturday, September 8, 2018

Fort Necessity. June 28, 2018

Copyright © 2018                               John F. Oyler

June 28, 2018

Fort Necessity

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s June “Second Tuesday” workshop focused on George Washington’s adventures in western Pennsylvania in 1754. It was the second of a series of seven workshops dedicated to Washington’s seven visits to this area, in support of the Society’s proposed permanent exhibit on that subject.

As we get deeper into this project its potential as a resource opportunity becomes even more obvious. The history of this area in the latter half of the eighteenth century is as exciting as the Harry Potter or Stars Wars epics and in addition is based on things that actually occurred.

One of our challenges is to present this information in a multi-tiered format so that it can be attractive to the full spectrum of potential users, from elementary school students to adult history buffs. One concept proposed to meet this challenge is to subdivide the exhibit into a a series of seven individual exhibits, one for each of Washington’s visits.

To exemplify this approach the facilitator showed a four-minute video dealing with the first visit, the Mission to Fort LeBoeuf, the subject of our April workshop. It consisted of a series of relevant pictures, maps, and bulleted text, with a voice-over summarizing the adventure. It also set the scene for this month’s workshop.

When we ended our previous workshop, it was the middle of January, 1754, and Washington was back in Williamsburg reporting to Governor Dinwiddie. The governor had already dispatched Captain William Trent and a small force to the Forks of the Ohio to build Fort Prince George as a deterrent to further French aggression. Half King (Tanarichison) demonstrated his loyalty to the Virginians by laying the first log in the construction of the fort.

Governor Dinwiddie authorized the organization of the Virginia Regiment, about 750 men organized into eight companies, with Colonel Joshua Fry as its commander. Washington had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel as his second-in-command and instructed to return to the Ohio Country with two of the companies.

In April the long anticipated French invasion began. A force of about one thousand French, Canadian, and Indian warriors came down the Allegheny River in three hundred canoes and eighty bateaux. Captain Trent left Ensign Edward Ward in command at Fort Prince George and hurried back to Winchester to inform Washington.

When the French armada reached the Forks, Ensign Ward wisely surrendered and was allowed to retreat to Wills Creek (Cumberland, Maryland) with his three dozen troops. Led by Claude-Pierre Pecaudy de Contrecoeur, the French began the construction of a significant fortification which they named Fort DuQuesne in honor of the Governor of New France.

On April 19 Washington left Winchester with about 200 men and proceeded west, confident that the remainder of the regiment would soon reinforce him. From Wills Creek they followed the Nemacolin Trail, building a crude wagon road as they progressed. They found a good camp site at Great Meadows, close to the location where the village of Farmington is located today.

Learning of Washington’s advance, on May 23 Contrecoeur ordered Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville to take thirty French soldiers and locate the enemy, and (according to the French version) to deliver a summons to them to withdraw.  When Washington learned they were coming, he dispatched Christopher Gist with a small force to determine their whereabouts.

Shortly after Gist left, Tanarichison showed up and told Washington he knew where Jumonville’s troop was camped. Accompanied by forty Virginians and twelve Mingos, led by Tanarichison, Washington surprised them on the morning of May 28. After a short skirmish that left ten of the French contingent dead, including Jumonville, the remainder surrendered.

Washington’s journal merely reports that Jumonville was killed; the French version said that he was wounded and that Tanarichison tomahawked and scalped him while he was trying to give Washington the summons. Washington later told his brother, "I can with truth assure you, I heard bullets whistle and believe me, there was something charming in the sound”.

The French prisoners were taken back to Virginia. Washington returned to Great Meadows where he was pleased to find another company of soldiers had arrived. His forces continued to move westward, continuing their road-building mission. By the time they reached Gist’s Plantation (halfway between Uniontown and Connellsville) his small army had grown to nearly four hundred, thanks to the arrival of an independent company of British soldiers led by Captain James Mackay.

More significantly, Washington learned that Colonel Fry had died at Wills Creek, the result of a fall from a horse, and that he had been promoted to Colonel and commander of the full Virginia Regiment. In less than a year he had gone from private citizen applying for a job in the military to its highest rank.

He made a decision to fortify Gist’s Plantation, a decision that he reconsidered when he learned that Contrecoeur had sent a massive force of French, Canadians, and Indians east, to take revenge for the death of Jumonville. Their commander was Louis Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville’s half-brother. Washington’s scouts estimated the force to be one thousand men; it turned out to be about six hundred, still far too many for the poorly supplied Virginians.

After a council with his officers, Washington decided it would be judicious for his army to fall back to Wills Creek where they could be properly supplied. On July1 he learned that Villiers was at Redstone Creek (Brownsville) and moving so quickly his forces would soon overtake the Virginians. Washington determined to make a stand at Great Meadows, where he had erected a modest stockade which was dubbed “Fort Necessity”.

Two days later the French and Indians arrived. According to one account there was a conventional encounter in the open field. The Virginians fled back to the fort when the Indians came pouring out of the woods. Mackay’s regulars held their ground and allowed the entire contingent to retreat to their embattlements. When the enemy realized that the fort was within musket range of their position in the woods, they also fell back and maintained a heavy fire on Fort Necessity despite a heavy rainstorm in the afternoon.

The rain was disastrous to Washington’s troops. Their fortification became a swamp, their gunpowder became too damp to fire, and most of their remaining food supplies were destroyed. By evening thirty of them were dead and another seventy severely wounded.

Unbeknownst to them, Villiers also had problems. His Indian allies, easily his most effective warriors, announced that they were leaving in the morning. They greatly enjoyed a fight, but had no interest in a siege. There were rumors that a huge Virginian army was en route, sufficient to turn the tide of battle.

Villiers sent envoys under a flag of truce, offering conditions for surrender. Washington sent his translator, Captain Jacob van Braam, to meet with them. After several hours he decided to accept their terms. He and his troops could march out in the morning and return to Wills Creek without a battle. The Virginians would release the twenty one French captives from the battle with Jumonville; in return van Braam and Captain Robert Stobo would be held as French hostages until the exchange was made.

The surrender document was in French and Washington had to rely on van Braam to translate it. It acknowledged that the Virginians had been responsible for Jumonville’s death, as translated by van Braam. The word he translated as “death” was “assassinat”, which the French meant to mean “murder” or “assassination”. In effect Washington’s signature on the document amounted to a confession of responsibility for a totally dishonorable act.

The next morning the defeated Virginians staggered out of the fort and began the trek back to Wills Creek on foot, abandoning their baggage and carrying the wounded. The Indians scalped the dead soldiers and disappeared into the forest with all the loot they could carry. Villiers returned to Fort DuQuesne with proof he had avenged the death of Jumonville.

Washington’s return to Williamsburg was a stark contrast to his previous triumphal entry. Dinwiddie dissolved the Virginia Regiment and replaced it with ten independent companies. Washington was offered a commission as a Captain in command of one of them, an opportunity he turned down in favor of a resignation. The cycle was complete; he was back where he was a year earlier – an out-of-work surveyor.

During the presentation several members of the audience made constructive comments. Paul Katrincik reported that half breed Peter Chartier, the namesake for Chartiers Creek, was among the Indians fighting on the French side at Fort Necessity. He also said that McKees Rocks had been a potential site for what eventually became Fort Pitt. Our sources confirmed this and credited Gist with that suggestion.

Our next workshop, on August 14, 2018, will focus on an even more disastrous campaign, General Braddock’s Expedition in 1755, one that will give Washington an opportunity to redeem himself.

Bridgeville Nicknames. June 21, 2018

Copyright © 2018                               John F. Oyler

June 21, 2018

Bridgeville Nicknames

A recent message from Don Colton reminiscing about the “old days” resurrected the subject of nicknames and the perception we all have that this practice was especially prevalent in Bridgeville seventy years ago. To quote Don, “Of all the different places I have lived, Bridgeville stands out for seemingly having a huge penchant for nicknames. Why do you think this is?”

The first question of course is whether or not this was unique to Bridgeville or to that specific time period. Like many other octogenarians I scan the obituary notices (also known as “the Irish sports pages” by my Hibernian friends) each morning, hoping to get through them without finding the name of anyone I know (or my own!).  It is not unusual to see nicknames mentioned there, perhaps four or five a day. Today yielded “Giggles” and “Chief”. I can’t detect any correlation between them and hometown, age, or ethnic background.

Based on the large number of folks with the same perception as Don, I am inclined to agree that this practice was indeed unusually popular in Bridgeville in those days. The Facebook page entitled “You know you’re from Bridgeville when …” contains numerous posts associated with local nicknames. My favorite is from its Administrator, Josh Watson, “…  the cops call you by your nickname instead of your real name!”

Don’s message included seventeen examples that he remembered and suggested this phenomenon as a subject for one of my columns. I responded by sending him a copy of the list of Bridgeville nicknames compiled by Don Toney and his clique of Baldwin Street alumni a few years ago. It tabulates nearly 250 nicknames, including a number of duplicates – Moose Fagan, Moose Sam, and Moose Vosel, for example. How did they forget Moose Jones?

Don Colton’s list included Buzzy Fryer, Bumpy Petrick, Johann Maier, and Boone Rankin as candidates to be added to the Toney list. Rankin is a questionable addition; his full name was Paul Boone Rankin. We will leave that decision up to the official Nickname Tabulation Committee.

The practice does not seem to be limited to our era – the 1940s. John “Speedo” Capozzoli and Aldo “Buff” Donelli were Bridgeville High School football stars in the mid-1920s. I wonder though how prevalent it is today; it would be easy to convince me it peaked seventy years ago.

We are assuming that “Bob” for Robert, “Bill” for William, “Don” for Donald, etc., do not qualify as this type of nickname. Dale DeBlander reported that his mother deplored that practice and carefully selected names for her sons that had no such automatic alternatives. Her good intentions were thwarted when her youngest son, Wayne, was promptly christened “Pete” by his contemporaries.

The closest I came to having a real nickname was “Strap”. It evolved from John to Jack, Jack to Jock, Jock to Jockstrap, and finally Jockstrap to Strap. It never caught on, probably because the athletic connotation didn’t fit me at all.

Some of the nicknames were so embedded that the person’s real name was nearly forgotten; for example, Skip (Louis) Colussy, Tiny (Clyde) Carson, or Cutter (Frank) Cortazzo. My personal favorite on the Toney list is “Coal Shanty” – it’s hard to imagine how Frank Calabro acquired that sobriquet.

At any rate it does appear appropriate for us to formally revisit the topic and submit additions to Don Toney’s list. My contributions, from the Class of 1949, are “Jake” (Don) Schullek and “Crunch” Wilbur Oelschlager.

Upper St. Clair Township History June 14, 2018

Copyright © 2018                               John F. Oyler

June 14, 2018

Early Upper St. Clair Township History

The May program meeting of the Bridgeville Area Historical Society focused on the early history of Upper St. Clair Township with a presentation by Marjorie Stein entitled “Memory Lane”. She prefaced her talk with the statement that her information was based on family lore and was not necessarily historically correct.

She began by recounting the history of what is now Upper St. Clair Township. The original St. Clair Township, one of six in Allegheny County, was bounded by Chartiers Creek, the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, Streets Run, and the Washington County border. The first division was into Lower and Upper St. Clair Townships, with the Lower St. Clair Township including the portions of the City of Pittsburgh south of the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. Down through the years most of the South Hills communities, including Dormont, Mt. Lebanon, and Bridgeville were spun off as independent municipalities.

Mrs. Stein is a descendant of John Fife, the first permanent settler in what is Upper St. Clair today; much of her presentation was based on Fife family lore. The Fife family was living in Fifeshire, Scotland, in the early eighteenth century when William and John Fife were born. The brothers emigrated to Ireland and lived near Londonderry.

According to the speaker they served in the English army and were awarded grants of land in the colonies in North America. John Fife came to Winchester, Virginia, in 1756, where he earned his living as a tailor. At some point he settled in western Pennsylvania and acquired a significant amount of land in what is now Upper St. Clair. The Upper St. Clair Township website states that this occurred in 1762; this is probably incorrect; no settlement was permitted west of Allegheny Mountain until the Treaty of Fort Stanwix late in 1768.

John Fife probably came here in 1769, as did Christian Lesnett and his sons, Frederick and Frank. The speaker told a cute tale of John Fife being given instructions to the location of his new property – “take a boat up Chartiers Creek a certain distance (ten miles?) to a stand of white oak trees and look a certain direction (due north?) and spot the nearest hilltop”.

She also reported that he found an Indian village there and purchased his land from an Indian for a pair of buckskins and some firewater. This too is highly unlikely; there is certainly no record anywhere else of Indian habitation anywhere in this area. Confirmation of such a village would be a significant addition to our knowledge of the early history in this region.

John Fife’s brother William came to America in 1770 and settled in Philadelphia. In 1776 he relocated to western Pennsylvania and settled near his brother. By the time the Ohio Company and the colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia settled their boundary disputes, the Fifes had acquired significant holdings locally.

 The Allegheny County Warrantee Atlas shows a warrant of 397 acres for “Cremona” to John Fife in the area along Route 19 south of Upper St. Clair Country Club. South of it is “Fifers’ Delight, 386 acres warranted to William Fife. “Fife’s Utility”, 126 acres east of it was originally warranted to John Fife, but patented to Robert Gillespie in 1808.

Mrs. Stein showed a number of interesting photographs of the Fife farm in the early twentieth century, located in the Old Washington Pike/Johnson Road vicinity.

She also discussed Reverend John McMillan, another distant relative, and his involvement in the establishment of Bethel Church. She reported that the Bethel Church contains graves of fourteen Revolutionary War veterans, seven of whom are Fifes. McMillan was certainly one of the most significant citizens of this area in the late eighteenth century.

The speaker related a family story involving Reverend McMillan. According to it he and George Washington were friends and “every time Washington came here to collect rents from tenants on his farms, McMillan would entertain him lavishly to distract him from this task.” This too is unlikely. McMillan came here in 1774; the only visit Washington made after that was the well documented trip in 1784 to confront David Reed and the Seceders.

She ended her talk with a discussion of the first years of Upper St. Clair High School, a subject of great personal interest to a number of folks in the audience, including Lou DeLach and Karen and Larry Godwin. I was struck by the fact that this occurred after the final year of Bridgeville High School. When does history morph into current events?

This particular program highlighted the fact that we students of history are obligated to retain the distinction between well documented historical facts and hearsay. Every family has interesting tales which are fun to hear, but are unlikely candidates to be recorded as history.

The next Historical Society program meeting is scheduled for 7:30 pm, Tuesday, June 26, 2018, at the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Kathleen Lugarich, Director of Education at the Fort Pitt Museum will discuss “Point of Empire, A Brief Overview of Fort Pitt”. This presentation will of special interest to those of us participating in the “Second Tuesday” series of workshops on Washington in western Pennsylvania.