What was Fort Pitt?

An artistic rendition of how Fort Pitt would have appeared in the early 1760s before the construction of the Block House. Courtesy of Fort Pitt Museum, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

An artistic rendition of how Fort Pitt would have appeared in the early 1760s before the construction of the Block House. Courtesy of Fort Pitt Museum, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Fort Pitt was a key British fortification during the French and Indian War. The British had been trying for years to reclaim the Forks of the Ohio River from the French. As early as 1753 the French constructed three forts in the Western Pennsylvania area including Fort de la Presque Isle (present-day Erie) along the shore of Lake Erie, Fort LeBoeuf (present-day Waterford) near French Creek, and Fort Machault (present-day Franklin) at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River. A fourth fortification was planned for at the Forks of the Ohio River, the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the mighty Ohio.

The completion of the French fortifications led the governor of Virginia to send an emissary to Fort LeBoeuf to tell the French to stop their construction and leave the territory. This emissary, a young George Washington, left in the early winter of 1753, passing by the Forks of the Ohio (commonly called “the Point” due to the land pointing out toward the Ohio River) on his way up to Fort LeBoeuf. The mission ended in failure for the British as the French obviously refused to leave what they thought rightfully belonged to them. Virginia instantly responded to the French by sending a small army of provincial troops up to the Forks of the Ohio in January and February of 1754. Led by Captain William Trent, an agent of the Ohio Land Company, they were given the task of constructing a small fortification at the Point to be called Fort Prince George (also known as Trent’s Fort). Trent was unable to complete his fort due to the oncoming French army. Traveling down the Allegheny River, the French reached the Point in April 1754, forcing Trent and his small group of men into surrender.

Plan for the new British fort at Pittsburgh, later named Fort Pitt.  Construction began as early as 1759 with the completion of Fort Pitt in 1761.  The fort remained standing for over thirty years.

Plan for the new British fort at Pittsburgh, later named Fort Pitt. Construction began as early as 1759 with the completion of Fort Pitt in 1761. The fort remained standing for over thirty years.

The French now had control of the Forks, and to solidify this control, they built Fort Duquesne, named after the governor of New France. The British made two initial attempts to regain control of the Point. The first of these attempts was led by George Washington under the auspices of Virginia in May 1754. He and his men encountered a small group of French soldiers led by Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville near modern-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and fired upon them, killing Jumonville. This event is largely considered to be the first bloodshed of the French and Indian War although war was not formally declared until two years later. In the following months, Washington and his men were counterattacked at nearby Fort Necessity. Although he survived, Washington had to retreat back to Virginia in defeat. The second attempt by the British was the humiliating defeat of General Edward Braddock in 1755. Braddock, a British general, led a vast army of British regular troops and provincial troops up from Virginia toward the Forks of the Ohio only to be soundly defeated by the French and their Native American allies at the mouth of Turtle Creek on the Monongahela River, a few miles south of Fort Duquesne.  (Click here to learn more about Braddock’s defeat.)

War was officially declared between Britain and France by 1756; however, the British were not able to make another attempt to take over Fort Duquesne until 1758. At this time the British Secretary of State, William Pitt, began to plan a three-pronged attack upon the French in North America. One of the three plans involved the capture of Fort Duquesne. Led by General John Forbes, the British army began a lengthy campaign marching from Philadelphia to the Forks of the Ohio. The Forbes Campaign reached British Fort Ligonier, located less than fifty miles east of Fort Duquesne, in late summer 1758. Leaving Fort Ligonier in mid-November, Forbes and his men finally reached at the Point on November 24, 1758. The French, knowing they were outnumbered by Forbes’ army and fearing supply cut-offs from Canada, had burned their fort to the ground and fled the area only days before the British made it to the Forks.

Plan of Fort Pitt

Colorized copy of original 1761 plan of Fort Pitt. The original was drawn by Bernard Ratzer; it is now housed in the British Library. Another colorized copy made from the original in the early 20th century resides in the collections of the Fort Pitt Society.

Now that the British had a firm control over the Forks of the Ohio and its surrounding areas, they began to build one of the largest and most elaborate fortifications in North America, Fort Pitt. Fort Pitt was named for William Pitt by John Forbes, who called the Point and its environs “Pittsburgh.” The fort was constructed between 1759 and 1761, and it was located on the Point although it was not built directly upon the site of Fort Duquesne. Fort Pitt was pentagonal in shape with five bastions reaching out from its corners – the Monongahela Bastion and Flag Bastion facing the Monongahela River (west and south), the Ohio/Lower Bastion and Music Bastion facing the Allegheny River (north and northeast), and the Grenadier Bastion facing the land directly (southeast). The majority of its bastions, ramparts, and curtain walls were of earthen construction. Forts consisting of such construction proved resilient against most cannon fire, and, if well maintained, could stand for a considerable amount of time. Because the British feared an attack from the land more so than the water, Fort Pitt’s land-based walls were faced with a brick revetment which extended from the tip of the Flag Bastion, encompassing the Grenadier Bastion, to the tip of the Music Bastion. This revetment could especially protect the fort from cannon attacks.

During its lifetime, Fort Pitt witnessed only one major attack – the Siege of Fort Pitt. This attack, led by Native American Indians as part of Pontiac’s War, occurred for two months in the summer of 1763 during which time Indians from around the region laid siege to the fort as an attempt to oust the British and their colonists from the Ohio Territory. The British were ultimately able to end the attack by August of that year.

Fort Pitt in 1776.

Fort Pitt in 1776.

By 1772 the fort was no longer needed for the purpose for which it was originally built, and flood damages from over the years had left it in deplorable condition. To save money and to help strengthen Native American relations, the British decommissioned Fort Pitt in 1772, selling the garrison, its buildings, and its materials to private citizens Alexander Ross and William Thompson. Ross and Thompson initially tried to salvage and sell the bricks, iron, wood and other materials from the fort, but larger events were at play for by 1774 another conflict erupted – Dunmore’s War. This conflict was led by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, against the neighboring colony of Pennsylvania. Both colonies felt that they had jurisdiction over Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas. Due to the onset of the American War for Independence,

Dunmore’s War only lasted for a year.

During the American Revolution, Fort Pitt served as the western headquarters for the Continental Army. After the Revolution was over in 1783, the United States Army decided to maintain a small garrison at the fort but sell the actual fort property to private citizens. The new owner of the fort and the Point was the firm of Turnbull, Marmie & Company. One of its partners, Major Isaac Craig, began to live in one of the fort’s outbuildings, the redoubt now called The Fort Pitt Block House. Other structures belonging to the fort were either torn down and reused for newer buildings, or they were converted into residential or storage use.

The official end of Fort Pitt came in 1792 when it was replaced by a newer yet smaller fort named Fort Lafayette (also known as Fort Fayette). Fort Pitt was torn down and sold off piece by piece. By 1854 all that remained of the fort was The Fort Pitt Block House, which remains standing to this day. Fort Fayette was built further upstream along the Allegheny River. Although never witnessing any battles or attacks, Fort Fayette played a role in larger events such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the War of 1812. It was eventually torn down in the early 19th century.