Unbroken Threads: The History of the Indigenous Holocaust in the Pittsburgh region
PITTSBURGH, PA — For thousands of years, Native Americans inhabited the region where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River join to form the Ohio River. Paleo-Indians conducted a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the region perhaps as early as 19,000 years ago. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, an archaeological site west of Pittsburgh, provides evidence that these first Americans lived in the region from that date.
During the Adena culture that followed, Mound Builders erected a large Indian Mound at the future site of McKees Rocks, about three miles (5 km) from the head of the Ohio. The Indian Mound, a burial site, was augmented in later years by members of the Hopewell culture.
By 1700, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the Five Nations-based south of the Great Lakes in present-day New York, held dominion over the upper Ohio valley, reserving it for hunting grounds. Other tribes included the Lenape, who had been displaced from eastern Pennsylvania by European settlement, and the Shawnee, who had migrated up from the south.
During the arrival of European explorers, these tribes and others had been devastated by infectious diseases from Europe, such as smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria, to which they had no immunity. With the goal and hope of freedom for their peoples and the right to retain their native lands, many indigenous Native American tribes across the land engaged in trade, conflict, negotiations, and support for the European colonists. The British colonists were supported at various times by the Iroquois, Catawba, and Cherokee tribes while the French colonists were supported by Wabanaki Confederacy member tribes Abenaki and Mi’kmaq, and the Algonquin, Lenape, Ojibwa, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wyandot (Huron) tribes.
In the 1710s, the first European settlers arrived to the forks of the Ohio, what would later become the city of Pittsburgh, to establish posts for trade in the area. By 1754, Fort Duquesne was a fort established by the French, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. It was later taken over by the British, and later the Americans, and developed as Pittsburgh in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Fort Duquesne was destroyed by the French, prior to British conquest during the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War on the North American front.
Fighting took place primarily along the frontiers between New France and the British colonies, from the Province of Virginia in the south to Newfoundland in the north. It began with a dispute over control of the confluence of the Allegheny River and Monongahela River called the Forks of the Ohio, and the site of the French Fort Duquesne at the location that later became Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The dispute erupted into violence in the Battle of Jumonville Glen in May 1754, during which Virginia militiamen under the command of 22-year-old George Washington ambushed a French patrol.
The British replaced it, building Fort Pitt between 1759 and 1761. The site of both forts is now occupied by Point State Park, where the outlines of the two forts have been laid in brick. By 1760, the first considerable European settlement around Fort Pitt began to grow. Traders and settlers built two groups of houses and cabins, the “lower town,” near the fort’s ramparts, and the “upper town,” along the Monongahela as far as present-day Market Street. In April 1761, a census ordered by Colonel Henry Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary who rose to prominence in British service during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War, and conducted by William Clapham counted 332 people and 104 houses.
After Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, increasing dissatisfaction among Native Americans with British policies led to the outbreak of Pontiac’s War. The Odawa leader Pontiac launched an offensive against British forts in May 1763. Native American tribes from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes overran numerous British forts; one of their most important targets was Fort Pitt.
Receiving warning of the coming attack, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss officer in command of the garrison, prepared for a siege. He leveled the houses outside the ramparts and ordered all settlers into the fort: 330 men, 104 women, and 196 children sought refuge inside its ramparts. Captain Ecuyer also gathered stores, which included hundreds of barrels of pork and beef.
Pontiac’s forces attacked the fort on June 22, 1763, and the siege of Fort Pitt lasted for two months. Pontiac’s warriors kept up a continuous, though ineffective, fire on it from July 27 through August 1, 1763. They drew off to confront the relieving party under Colonel Bouquet, which defeated them in the Battle of Bushy Run. This “victory” ensured British dominion over the forks of the Ohio, if not the entire Ohio valley.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and Pontiac’s War (1763-1766), the British took retribution against Native American nations that fought on the side of the French by cutting off their supplies and then forcibly compelling the tribes to obey the rules of the new mother country.
Fast forward to present day, this holocaust continues to rage across the United States of America and other North American countries as indigenous women continue to go missing without justice, tribal lands are stolen and repurposed by federal and state forces, and Native Americans fight the thralls of being considered a minority against the colonialists who invaded and conquered their ancestral land. Today, in the city of Pittsburgh, many of the once thriving Native American tribes are dispersed and no longer living in the Pittsburgh region.
In an effort to educate the descendants of the colonialists, the Battle of Bushy Run Historical Society (BRBHS) commemorates the Battle of Bushy Run on the first Saturday and Sunday in August with a large-scale reenactment. Unfortunately, this event, the visitor center, memorial grounds, and the place markers across the historical site are equally catered to in favor of the British victors and their record-keeping. Visitors learn what caused Native American warriors and British soldiers to take up arms against each other during a two-day battle in August 1763 during Pontiac’s War. They will also discover what life was like on the frontier for European settlers and Native peoples alike in this historical reenactment.
Bushy Run Battlefield Park is the only historic site or museum that deals exclusively with Pontiac’s Rebellion. Outside of the museum, there is only ONE marker on the entire 218-acres grounds that honors of the Native American tribes and those who were lost, a beautiful sculpture of a British colonialist arm to arm against a Native American warrior.
The wars were known to have been a bloody, resulting in the deaths of at least 5,000 soldiers and Natives on both sides. Unfortunately, the focus of record keeping was biased in favor of the colonialists in their quest for victory, so there are very limited records existing on behalf of the indigenous peoples who lost far more beyond the human casualties of the war.
It is difficult to tally the untold losses in the greater regions of Pittsburgh alone as a result of colonialism without proper record keeping on behalf of the indigenous peoples, but that final tally far supersedes any other event that has ever occurred in the heart of the city of Pittsburgh.
We hope, in time, historical sites and government agencies across the continent will embrace the history of the indigenous peoples in America, and recognize the holocaust and genocide that occurred for generations, creating the foundation of these great United States of America.
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