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A family prospers for generations from early foothold

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

The story of the Ormsby family combines both British tradition and American opportunism, a mix that distinguished many of Pittsburgh's founding families.

Engravings of Oliver Ormsby, Esq., and his wife Sarah Mahon Ormsby.
Click photo for larger image.

The family name is sprinkled across the Monongahela from the South Side to Mount Oliver, which honors Dr. Oliver Ormsby, son of the second-generation businessman who got the clan's fortunes rolling in the 19th century.

His father, John, much like several of Pittsburgh's other first families from the O'Haras to the Craigs, came to the western wilderness with the British army in 1758 when he was 38.

Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Ormsby taught school in eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia before signing on as paymaster for the construction of Fort Pitt.

He also dabbled in supplying frontier settlers and land-buying, but his ventures were wiped out in Pontiac's War of 1763. Ormsby himself was forced behind the barricades at Fort Pitt for nearly three months of siege.

Ormsby's fortunes improved after the Indians were subdued. By the 1770s, he had acquired large parcels of land on the south side of the Monongahela. Later, this native of Great Britain was a vocal supporter of the cause for independence.

He needed access to his property from his Pittsburgh home and, not far from his front door on what would come to be called Ferry Street, opened the first ferry across the Mon by 1780.

Ormsby's British connections continued to pay off when he and three others, acting as trustees, accepted the deed from the Penn family for the land for the city's Trinity Episcopal Church in 1787.

His daughter, Jane, would marry another church trustee, Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, one of the city's first physicians and a native of Birmingham, England. She died not long after the wedding, her death making Bedford owner of a bit of Ormsby property on what is now the South Side.

In developing the land, Bedford named the area after his hometown and its main street, Carson, for a friend, a sea captain from Philadelphia.

John Ormsby died at son Oliver's Pittsburgh home on Water Street in 1805. By that year, his son was building a wide-ranging trading and factory business stretching from Niagara Falls to Cincinnati and a position of prominence in Pittsburgh.

He and his wife, Sarah, had nine daughters and one son, Oliver, a doctor whose hillside residence, Ormsby Manor, featured a private racetrack.

Below, his sisters Sidney, Josephine, Sarah and Mary, lived with their husbands on Ormsby land between 21st and 24th streets, where they "maintained beautiful well-kept gardens extending down to the river," wrote Leland Baldwin in his floridly written 1938 account, "Pittsburgh -- The Story of a City."

The Ormsby descendants married into other leading clans of the area from Roeblings to Thaws to Morgans. In the family's history can be found the origins and progress of Pittsburgh from a threatened frontier outpost to a major factor in America's industrial growth.

Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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