Fear of Attack Marred Area's 1st 4th

Article excerpt

A couple hundred people gathered July 4 on the North Shore, spread out under temporary canopies for shade. They were from out of town, though, with no plans to watch fireworks.

It was 1776 and the crowd consisted of men from local American Indian tribes who gathered to discuss the year-old war between the colonists and the British. Instead of traffic advisories, colonial Pittsburghers received special notice that week about the arriving Indians: Don't kill them, they've come in peace.

Pittsburgh is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, but it was the period of war starting in the summer of 1776 that forged the city's foundation. The early Pittsburgh frontiersmen liked to drink, tell stories and play games on what is now Grant Street, but their daily life was consumed with a fear of Indian attacks, which the British helped incite that summer.

"Once (the attacks) start happening, you don't know where they're going to hit next," said Doug MacGregor, head educator at the Fort Pitt Museum. "As a historian, you don't like to make connections to today, but Pittsburgh is almost like Baghdad back then."

July 4, 1776, likely was a warm day in Pittsburgh. Although the official records of the day were lost when the fort commander's notes were burned during the Whiskey Rebellion, Philadelphia recorded highs in the mid-70s, according to the National Weather Service.

War news from the east took almost a month to arrive in Pittsburgh, which left the first Independence Day celebration for the next year, MacGregor said. Instead, residents -- mostly Scotch- Irish numbering between 300 and 500 -- were tense over the visit by the Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois Confederacy and other tribes.

Settlers were so wary of Indian attacks and so prone to revenge killings, 100 Virginia militiamen would have been needed to keep settlers at bay, said Bruce Egli, the director of the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale and a military historian. There would be little intermingling between Indians and townsfolk.

"(The time) is very difficult because the vast majority of common people out there are anti-Indian," Egli said. "The Indians were aware that it was generally not safe to roll into town on their own and have a drink."

The drinking was left to the settlers. About 60 to 70 log cabins, held together by mud and stone, housed all the residents, MacGregor said. Drinking was so popular in town that between a third and half of those cabins were active taverns, Egli said.

"Well, it's not like the water's healthy," Egli said. "Water's for washing and liquor's for drinking."

Celebration came on court days. Once every four months, a local judge would hear cases at the fort -- often frivolous personal property lawsuits, MacGregor said. The days became festivals. In lieu of fireworks, they shot rifles -- one of the townsfolks' favorite sports.

Much of the fun occurred on the present-day site of Grant Street, at the foot of Grant's Hill, where a colonial sports complex hosted shooting contests, horse racing and wrestling on a simple, cleared field. …