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Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh: Two counties growing, but frontier was dominant

Sunday, August 17, 2003

By Mark Roth, Post-Gazette Assistant Managing Editor

When Meriwether Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh in 1803, Western Pennsylvania was no longer the frontier.

But it wasn't exactly civilized, either.

At the start of the 1800s, Western Pennsylvania was the frontier, with growing towns in Washington and Allegheny counties, but still mostly dense forests. (Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette)
Click illustration for larger image.

Related story

Tecumseh falls short of dream of tribal unification, Indian purity

This is the sixth in a series of stories that will appear through the end of August as the Post-Gazette explores the Lewis and Clark expeditions and the Pittsburgh that existed when they launched their journey. An index to the series

In fact, Allegheny County wasn't even the biggest population center in this end of the state. That honor belonged to Washington County, which had about 28,000 residents, compared with Allegheny's 15,000. Washington County would remain larger than Allegheny for another 30 years, thanks to the National Road -- today's Route 40 -- running through the city of Washington and attracting settlers who served the migrants heading west toward Wheeling and the Northwest Territory.

Outside the population centers of Pittsburgh and Washington, the western end of the commonwealth was still a vast carpet of woodlands, laced with rivers and streams and interspersed with farms, some of them sumptuous, but many small and rude.

Even when the settled East Coast was included, the 1800 census showed that 95 percent of the 5.2 million people in the fledgling United States lived outside cities. A French naturalist who visited the country at the time wrote that the "most striking feature [of the country] is an almost universal forest, starting at the Atlantic and thickening and enlarging to the heart of the country ... . [I] scarcely passed for three miles together through a tract of unwooded or cleared land."

The Frenchman's observation was directly related to the effort it took to raze the forest for farming.

Even the healthiest pioneer man needed about one month to clear one acre of woodland for farming, writes federal forest official Douglas MacCleery. And then, because there weren't enough people to herd cattle, horses and pigs, they would be let loose in the forest to graze, and farmers would cut more wood to build fences to keep the animals out of their crops. A 40-acre field, MacCleery wrote, took 8,000 hand-split rails to make a common zigzag fence around the perimeter.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the woods around these early farmsteads were thick with birds, fish and other animals. Passenger pigeons, now extinct, would blot out the sun when their huge flocks passed overhead. Orange bellied brook trout packed the shadowed streams. Just a few decades before the Lewis & Clark expedition, herds of bison roamed through parts of Western Pennsylvania, and the forests in 1803 still contained mountain lions and wolves.

A scarcity of Indians

There was one thing, however, that was no longer plentiful in the region's woods.

The American Indians who had once lived and hunted here were largely gone, pushed westward by shrinking hunting grounds, defeats in battle and land-ceding treaties.

Despite the relative absence of Indians, though, many whites in the region still feared and hated them. Some historians say the revulsion may have been even worse by 1803, because there wasn't as much interaction between settlers and tribe members to soften prejudices with the leaven of individual relationships.

Richard White, a Stanford University historian who explored Indian-white relations in his 1991 book "The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815," said that in the 1600s and 1700s, many of the major Indian settlements in what is now Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia were actually mixed villages of various Indian tribal members, French traders, British pioneers and intermarried families.

While many of the murderous raids carried out by Indians and whites in those years seemed to be driven by ethnic hatred, White said, the reality was often more complicated.

In some cases, whites would raid Indian villages and kill whites who were living there, and the Indians would retaliate for the deaths of "their" whites. In other cases, white government officials demanded that Indians return white women and children they had kidnapped, but the kidnap victims would refuse to go back, considering themselves Indian.

By 1803, though, that kind of intimate contact between Indians and whites, both peaceful and violent, had greatly diminished in Western Pennsylvania.

Where once there had been a more common society, the "middle ground" of his book title, by 1803 "that world was breaking apart, and Indians were becoming aliens who were so hated we could no longer coexist with them," he said.

Not every historian agrees with White's thesis.

Allan W. Eckert, a novelist, biographer and historian, said he believed that many settlers in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1800s would have "treated the Indians as equals, but just of a different race. There was not the demeaning of the Indian tribes that was so strong later," after the federal government began setting up Indian reservations in the 1830s.

"There were some, of course, who always scorned the Indians," Eckert said, "but for the most part, people accepted them. They were welcomed as guests in their homes, welcome to come in their stores to purchase goods."

By 1803, though, such visits would have been much less frequent here, because the vast concentration of Indians had moved west, staying at the edge of the ever-advancing white frontier. In the year Lewis and Clark began their trip, that line had moved to western Ohio and eastern Indiana. In fact, historian Michael White noted, Indiana got its name because it was on the "Indian side" of the Ohio River.

Many of the Indians in that region belonged to the tribes that had once been prevalent in Western Pennsylvania. They included the Shawnee, who had been pushed upward from the South; the Delaware, who had started in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania; and the "Mingo," a colloquial term that referred to portions of the Seneca tribe from New York that made alliances with other tribe members.

More oak and pine

The forests that blanketed the landscape here in 1803 would have been noticeably different from today's, said Marc Abrams, a Penn State forest ecology professor.

The biggest contrast was the dominance of two species that are more scarce today -- the white oak and the white pine.

White pine, known as "the tree that built America," was nearly wiped out by clear-cutting during the later 1800s, and it had trouble growing back once it was decimated, in part because pine trees can't sprout from their own stumps as deciduous trees can.

White oak ruled the forests then because of two factors -- fire and predators that kept down the number of deer.

In the Colonial era, Indians and settlers, aided by lightning strikes, would regularly burn undergrowth in the forest. That tended to hold down the population of red maples, which are sensitive to fire damage. At the same time, the wolves and mountain lions that persisted in Pennsylvania well into the 1800s limited the deer population.

In this century, the lack of predators has caused deer to become much more abundant than they were in the early 1800s, and deer particularly like to munch on oak shoots and seedlings. The suppression of forest fires, meanwhile, has allowed red maples to come on strong, filling up spaces that oaks once occupied.

For Western Pennsylvanians living on woodland farms in 1803, though, the most important feature of the forests was not the types of trees, but the fact that they no longer hid the approach of hostile Indians.

Just 300 miles to the west, however, in the woods of Ohio and Indiana, new trouble between Indians and whites was brewing. The 1795 treaty of Fort Greenville, which had reserved the upper half of Ohio and all of Indiana as Indian territory, was being ignored as pioneers surged onto land north of the treaty boundary.

There would be new Indian leaders and new conflicts to try to stop that advance.

But the outcome was never in doubt, because by 1803, while there may have been 100,000 American Indians living east of the Mississippi, there were nearly 1 million white settlers who had moved west of the Appalachians.

And in another 20 years, the white population of the United States would nearly double.

Mark Roth can be reached at or 412-263-1130.

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