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Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh: Aristocrats, educators soften the edges of a still-rowdy town

Third in a series

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

While Meriwether Lewis fussed and fumed at his foot-dragging boat builder in the summer of 1803, he may not have noticed that the ragged settlement town he was stuck in those six long weeks was on the brink of its future.

Daniel Marsula (Post-Gazette illustration)

More on the story

Pittsburgh 1803: Those yearning to learn found plenty of schools

Meiwether Lewis' Pittsburgh: An index page to the series

The pioneers, like Lewis, would miss Pittsburgh's steady growth into America's industrial giant, but the seeds were planted as the 19th century dawned.

The Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson's bold stroke of nation-building, would spur Pittsburgh's economic development through the War of 1812 as the city drew on both its primary natural resource, coal, and its sizable population of "mechanics" and entrepreneurs.

But life in 1803 in the city where the Ohio River began was rough-and-tumble, with vestiges from its early days on the edge of America. In the previous decade, Pittsburgh had its share of professional soldiers, woodsmen, guides and trappers and their presence could still be felt in the old-timers who lingered in the village.

"The town at present is inhabited with only some few exceptions by mortals who act as if they are possessed of a character of exclusive privilege to filch from, annoy and harass their fellow creatures," traveler John Pope complained in 1790.

Thirteen years later, with its permanent population nearing 2,000, Pittsburgh was becoming a more genteel place, yet its 30 taverns stocked with rye whisky, hard cider and cloudy ale from the Point Brewery (which used a building remaining from Fort Pitt), provided plenty of places where mischief could start among the gangs of the tough rivermen attracted to the busy river commerce.

Mike Fink, the legendary keelboater, was born near Fort Pitt in 1770, and while highly exaggerated in folklore -- he was the Paul Bunyan of the river -- his life was hard and fueled by alcohol.

Keelboats went upriver and were soon replaced by steam power after 1810, but flatboats were the favored vessel for heading down the Ohio loaded with goods from Pittsburgh.

These men "slept out in the open on furs and battled hordes of insects. They ate plain meals ... of salt pork, beans, coffee and whiskey. ...When they worked, they worked hard," writes historian Michael Allen.

Little is known of their lives because most of them were illiterate and, as Allen points out, they were not the kind to settle down in a town like Pittsburgh, but needed to follow the river traffic.

A touch of class

Because of the military nature of his mission, Lewis probably bunked during his stay here at Fort Fayette, 10 blocks east of the ruins of Fort Pitt and away from the seasonal floods, which regularly damaged the old British outpost.

Maj. Isaac Craig oversaw the building of the new fort in 1792 and manned it as a bulwark against Indian raids. It was the staging point for Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne's successful campaign to wipe out the Indian threat in that decade.

Wayne's troops filled the little town's streets and taverns in those years, a continuing reminder of Pittsburgh's original role as a military center.

By 1803, the city had a thriving merchant class as well, prosperous enough to build houses of brick, some of it salvaged from Fort Pitt, and stone to replace the log cabins.

The city's most substantial entrepreneur, James O'Hara, however, occupied a grand and well-furnished log home in King's Garden, named for the land near Fort Pitt used to grow vegetables for His Majesty's troops.

O'Hara was the patriarch of one of the city's first families, a Revolutionary War veteran who built his wealth supplying Army outposts near Canada. His teams would return to Pittsburgh via Syracuse, N.Y., site of a salt mine, and fill the empty barrels with the precious commodity, which he would sell in Pittsburgh.

Along with the former Maj. Craig, his partner in the town's first glass works, O'Hara was a member of the city's elite, a group of predominately English or Scotch-Irish, some educated in Europe, others, like lawyer and politician Hugh Henry Brackenridge, at America's earliest colleges.

Already a society based on class and wealth was taking shape here, and while these "first families" were not living in the relative luxury of their counterparts in Philadelphia, they were spared the hard physical labor of most Pittsburghers.

Really pulling his load was James Robinson, the ferryman who carried traffic back and forth across the Allegheny River. One of the first residents of Allegheny Town, Robinson and his wife, Martha, built the first brick home in the flood plain across from the Point.

Allegheny Town was initially considered by the state as the county seat, but lacking Pittsburgh's population, was bypassed in favor of its larger neighbor.

Ferry passengers faced a treacherous climb down the steep riverbanks to board Robinson's craft, but he was a generous fellow. Anyone returning from church services or a funeral in Pittsburgh rode free.

The ferry service was profitable, though. Robinson listed his holdings in 1801 as "two slaves, four horses, six cows and two oxen."

The Robinsons' son, William, born in 1785 and known as "the first white child" born north of the Allegheny, was the first of 10. He headed down the Ohio River in 1806 to take part in Aaron Burr's wild scheme to found a new nation, but managed to avoid any serious consequences.

If any of the Robinsons' children went to school, they needed to board their father's craft for the trip to Pittsburgh, where they had several choices, including instruction at night and a girls-only academy.

An E. Carr opened the city's first school for boys and girls in January 1803. Gaspard Arnold was offering French instruction at Zadock Cramer's bookstore that year as well.

For those seeking the traditional education in Latin and Greek, the Rev. Robert Steele, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, offered the classics at $4 a term.

The city's most venerable place of learning was the Pittsburgh Academy, charted by the state Legislature in 1787 and backed by its leading citizens, including Brackenridge.

It would become the University of Pittsburgh in the next century.

Folks and folklore

The schools, like the city's churches, stores and public buildings, were grouped from Wood Street toward the Point. East of Wood was Grant's Hill, a woody mound named for the British officer whose Fort Duquesne scouting foray in 1758 was repulsed with bloody results.

Children venturing there in the summer of 1803 might encounter a "wiry" man with "sharp black eyes and a beard that has never know the razor," said a history of regional folklore written by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

He was John Chapman, an emigrant from New England who worked on the city's waterfront and lived in a log cabin on the hill with a cow, a beehive and a welcome mat for travelers.

Before Chapman headed down the Ohio for good with a sack of apple seeds in 1806, he was the city's best-known eccentric and a future folk icon. Quitting the boats for his garden, Johnny Appleseed pronounced his philosophy:

"The bees work without wages. Why should I not do the same?"

Grant's Hill was the green backdrop for a settlement that was still very much a work in progress.

"Those who see Pittsburgh in its present, not very pleasant aspect," wrote Neville B. Craig in 1851, "can scarcely imagine its former ragged and broken appearance."

He went on to describe a battle between man and nature for the triangular patch subject to flooding and erosion along the riverbanks and a rough terrain dotted with ditches, ponds, drains and gullies, making wagon travel an adventure.

As the city grew, it tamed its rougher nature, removing Johnny Appleseed's Grant's Hill in the early 20th century.

And, after 1800, Pittsburgh did grow. As Craig noted in his "History of Pittsburgh," the town's population added a meager 170 souls from 1796 to 1800. By 1810, more than 3,000 new faces inhabited the city.

Typical of those families in search of land and opportunity in America were the Ledlies, Joseph and Margaret, who made the hazardous voyage with their three young children from Newry, Ireland, to the United States in 1803.

Surviving the arduous passage over the Allegheny Mountains, the Ledlies reached Pittsburgh in late August to join family and countrymen from Ireland.

They were Scotch-Irish -- Protestants from Scotland who moved under British approval to the predominately Roman Catholic Ireland.

Many of these, including the Mellon family, were then to leave Ireland for Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh.

The Tree of Liberty, one of two city newspapers in 1803, ran an announcement in early March calling for "Hiberians of Pittsburgh and its vicinity" to gather at William Irwin's house for "dinner and suitable entertainment" to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

The Ledlies would have six more children after moving to Western Pennsylvania, where Joseph eventually would become a teacher.

Pittsburgh had advanced a good way from 1790, when the traveler Pope found it full of disreputable characters. By 1803, its residents were a more accomplished and agreeable lot, believed Sarah Killikelly, who wrote a history of the city in 1916:

"Were it possible to go wandering back down Water Street, up Front Street, through First, Second and Third into Marbury, Hand and Irwin and tell the story of each man and woman who dwelt there, it would sum up into a catalog those sterling virtues of endurance and patience and foresight, of kindness and generosity, which lent foundations to a great city."

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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