American Historical Society George Thornton Fleming.

History of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 online

. (page 4 of 81)
Online LibraryAmerican Historical Society George Thornton FlemingHistory of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 → online text (page 4 of 81)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

within six miles of the town of Pittsburgh could look down upon and
enter the East Liberty Valley — almost all of the level portion of
Pittsburgh's East End, as that section is most commonly called.

We must admit Tourist Ashe has given us a fairly good account of
the forest wilderness of Western Pennsylvania, as he observed it and
its lights and shadows. There were variations from the woods he
traveled through — changes caused by man designedly. Callahan has
some account of these changes. He says:

During the Indian's occupancy he left his mark in the form of burned woods. He
burned much less in regions farther west, but there is no question that he was vigor-
ously applying the torch up to the time he took his departure. The clearings made by
the Indians for agricultural purposes were comparatively large, but they were small in
comparison with openings made by fires set accidentally, wantonly, or to the end that
more wild game might abound, with improved opporttmities for hunting. Though
white men are rated high as destroyers of forests, they are not in the same class with
the Indian. He used little wood, destroyed vastly more to make room for his fields,
but his real work of forest destroying was done by fire. He was wasteful and destruc-
tive as savages usually are, and the word economy had no place in his vocabulary. The
Indian is by nature an incendiary, and forest burning was his besetting sin. The few
poles and trees which he took for use, and the thousands he destroyed to make his
cornfields, were a small drain on the forests in comparison with the millions which his
woods fire consumed. It is not known how long before the white men came to Vir-
ginia, but the custom was general at the time of the first settlement, and was appar-
ently of long standing and evidently growing worse.

The same was also true of the country of Western Pennsylvania.
Callahan thinks the custom of destruction was learned from the west-
em Indians. He noted that swampland too damp to burn had escaped
repeated visitations by fire. Few if any other kinds of land escaped.
Throughout hundreds of square miles the undergrowth had been injured
or destroyed; in places the mature trees alone remained, so thin in
localities that the woods resembled parks rather than forests, and
these facts have been abundantly set forth in contemporaneous writ-
ings. When the first whites came,, the forests in Virginia had appar-
ently reached the last stage before their fall. No small wood was
coming on to take the place of the old trees, and the death of the mature
timber presaged that many regions would be treeless. Callahan quotes
Philip A. Bruce, ^uthor of the "Economic History of Virginia."^* Free-
dom from undergrowth was one of the most notable features of the
original woods of the State west of the mountains ; these conditions were
not so bad as in the eastern section. This may have been due to the

i8"Genealogical and Personal History of the Upper Monongahela Valley, W. Va.,
with an Account of the Resources and Industries of the Upper Monongahda Valley
and Tributory Region," by J. M. Callahan, with various historical articles by staff
writers under the Editorial Supervision of Bernard L. Butcher, Lewis His. Pub. Co.,
1912; VoL I, p. 208, et seq.

Digitized by



fact that the mountain section was almost unknown for eighty years
after the Indians departed. In that time, burnt woods will recuperate in
a damp climate and on a rich soil. In that section the first whites were
generally impressed with the burned or open tracts, and there were
instances where the savages were interrupted in the act of burning.
The Indians reasoned that the end justified the means. Their food
supply was directly increased by fires which facilitated hunting opera-
tions and, indirectly, by opening the way for the growth of grass, nuts,
fruits and berries, thereby inviting game to congregate in certain
localities. The cunning red man observed, too, that fruitbearing trees
multiply more rapidly and yield more abundantly when grown on the
edges of burned tracts than in the forest. The fall of millions of feet
of fine timber was nothing to the Indians if briers and grass followed,
for this brought together beasts and birds which furnished the Indians
more food than they could have procured in the standing timber before
the timber was destroyed.

There were burned tracts in many places in the western country.
Had Ashe been a pioneer, he would have noted the open spaces in the
woods to have been once burned over, if such had been the case. What
was true of burned-over woodland in the transmontane region of Western
Pennsylvania does not appear to have been observed in the Upper Ohio
Valley, for many travelers have noted the closely wooded shores of the
Ohio other than those quoted in this chapter. As late as 1847 this
forest growth was remarkable. It was observed by Dickens in descend-
ing the Ohio from Pittsburgh. He said :

A line broad river always, but in some parts much wider than others, and then
there is usually a green island covered with trees, dividing it into two streams. Occa-
sionally we stopped for a few minutes, maybe to take in wood, maybe for passengers
at some small town or village, (I ought to say city, for every place is a city here) ; but
the banks are for the most part deep solitude, overgrown with trees which hereabout
are already in leaf and very green. For miles and miles and miles, these solitudes are
unbroken by any sign of human life or a trace of human footsteps, nor is anything seen
to hover about them but the bluejay, whose color is so bright and yet so delicate that it
looks like a flying flower. At lengthened intervals a log cabin with its little space of
cleared land about it, nestles under a rising ground and sends its thread of blue smdce
curling up into the sky. It stands in the comer of the poor field of wheat, which is
full of great unsightly stumps like earthy butcher's blocks. Sometimes the ground is
only just now cleared, the felled trees lying upon the soil, and the log house only this
morning begun.

And still there is the same eternal foreground. The river has washed away its
banks and stately trees have fallen down into the stream. Som% have been there so
long that they are mere dry, grisly skeletons. Some have just toppled over and, having
earth yet about their roots, are bathing their green heads in the river and putting forth
new shoots and branches. Some are almost sliding down, as you lode at them, and some
were drowned so long ago that their bleached arms start out from the middle of the
current, and seem to try to grasp the boat and drag it under water.19

"What might be expected," asks Mr. Archibald Prentice, the Man-
chester editor, in comment, "after this description, but an unbroken

i»"American Notes;" Chap. XI

Digitized by



solitude and an eternal monotony relieved only by an occasional de-
formity?" Prentice criticizes his distinguished countryman, saying:
"Reading his description again, I am tempted to transcribe it as a
curious specimen of the author's utter indifference to the beautiful
scenery under which he remained sitting in 'the little stern gallery' of
the ladies' cabin, rather than mounting on the paddle box or on the
upper deck to see that which it is to be presumed he went to see."*<^

Mr. Prentice was in Pittsburgh in June, 1848. He followed Dickens'
route six years later than Dickens, and he has given us a charming
description of the "Belle Riviere of the French." His final shot at
Dickens was suggested when he arose one morning and found the boat
tied to the bank in a fog so dense he could not see ten yards on either
side — ^not much of a fog to a Pittsburgher. Prentice ventures the
assertion "that in such a mist, Charles Dickens might have come down
the river, only he does not say so."

Nevertheless, Dickens has described the forest wilderness on its
river boundaries quite accurately. The settlers' clearings were only
breaks in its monotony. His description, fifty years later than H. M.
Brackenridge's, differs from Brackenridge's only in this respect.

It was a wonderful wilderness — ^that of the Western Country before
the white man came. In it were traces of a people who lived in the
long, long-ago. These traces suggest a story, for they were to be seen
about Pittsburgh until quite recently, and their exploration was a matter
of moment. Then, too, when the white came to stay, the red man left
for good, and this fact, too, suggests a chapter on his departure, and
why he went and what happened as he took up "the trail of the setting
sun," as the orators used to put it.

2o"A Tour of the United States," Archibald Prentice, London; also Halifax Ed.,
1858, pp. 51-52.

Digitized by


Historic Mounds and Prehistoric Mound Builders.

The first wilderness was not altogether uninhabited by human beings
before the white man came. This we know, for the history of the
aboriginal inhabitants, the Indians, runs concurrently with the history
of our country from the first discoveries on the continent of North
America. There were people in the region about Pittsburgh for ages,
perhaps, before the invention of letters, perhaps before thie age of history
writing, certainly anterior to the discovery of America. To quote Dr.
Doddridge here is pertinent, for his thoughts as he has set them forth
in his "Notes" have given the inspiration to write this chapter, which
might have been suggested by the mention of the historic mounds in
and near Pittsburgh. Little has been said of these mounds in Pittsburgh
history ; their existence has been noted briefly, as will be seen. Everts*
artists thought well enough of the McKee's Rocks Mound to draw a
picture of it, a representation now most valuable, as the mound has been
destroyed.^ The history of its destruction is Pittsburgh history, as
will appear and which will follow in this chapter, and as part of the
history of the mound builders, if the word "history" may be permitted
in this connection.

The researches of archaeologists in other sections of the United States
as tending to show the builders of all mounds in the United States
were the same people, and that the local mounds were similar in struc-
ture, workmanship, design and contents, to other mounds, are judged
to be relevant, and the descriptions of many mounds by tourists, travel-
ers, authors and scientists, will naturally be included. While a new
and strange chapter in the "History of Pittsburgh and Its Environs,"
it is none the less interesting, and justification for its insertion can
be found in the long and frequent items in the newspapers when the
McKee's Rocks explorations were under way. Additional justification
can be found in Dr. Doddridge's "Notes." Doubtless the thoughts he
penned there were the thoughts of his neighbors also, for as one pro-
ceeds in the reading of this chapter it will be evident that the mounds
were objects of great curiosity to the early settlers, and that eminent
men explored them and wrote the results in book form. While these
may not be in consonance with the deductions of more modem archaeolo-
gists, they are none the less interesting. Among the early writers on
the work of the mound builders was the Pittsburgh "Author, Traveler
and Jurist," Henry Marie Brackenridge, who, bom in Pittsburgh in
1787, knew of the historic mounds in this region, and as a boy played

iScc "History of Allegheny County, Pa.;" (Everts ft Co.) 1876, p. ia6, for view
of Mound

Digitized by



about one, at least. Early tourists such as Ashe and Cuming, who
tarried in Pittsburgh while on their travels in North America, have
left us most readable stories of the impressions these mounds made upon
them, and some history of them as they obtained it in the localities under
their observation.

Dr. Doddridge's reflections resulting from the state of the wilderness
as he and other pioneers knew it, have been given in Chapter I. We
cannot doubt their truth and his sincerity. He recites this and its
influence and tendencies. He tells us:

Many circumstances concurred to awaken in the mind of the early adventurer into
this country the most serieus and even melancholy reflections. He saw everywhere
around him induhitable evidences of the former existence of a large population of bar-
barians which had long ago perished from the earth. Their arrowheads furnished him
with gunflints ; stone hatchets, pipes and fragments of earthenware were found in every
place. The remains of their rude fortifications were met with in many places; some
of them of considerable extent and magnitude. Seated on the summit of some sepul-
chral mound containing the ashes of tens of thousands of the dead, he said to himself :

"This is the grave, and this no doubt, the temple of worship of a long succession
of generations long since mouldered into dust; these surroundmg valleys were onee
animated by their labors, hunting and wars, their songs and dances; but oblivion has
drawn her impenetrable veil over their whole history; no lettered page, no sculptured
monument, informs who they were, from whence they came, the period of their exist-
ence, or by what dreadful catastrophe the iron hand of death has given so complete an
overthrown and made the whole of this country an immense Golgotha."

Dr. Doddridge writes truly. He had in mind such elaborate works
of this adjudged prehistoric race as remain evident today at Mounds-
ville. West Virginia, and at Marietta, Circleville, Fort Ancient, and
many other places in Ohio; though, as he states, ancient mounds were
once numerous in the whole region about Pittsburgh. He mentions
these relics and the mounds as aspects of the Western Country at the
coming of the first adventurers into the bosom of its forests. What
they saw and found pertained, he thought, to the story of the settle-
ments, and incidentally to the poor and hazardous lot of the settlers.

These evidences of a population in his time considered to have been
numerous and to have existed and perished long anterior to the period
of history, led Dr. Doddridge to insert in his "Notes" the chapter
headed "The Remains of an Extinct People," in which he describes
such of the antiquities of the region as came under his notice, with
much mention and history of similar mounds in all parts of the earth.
He had himself procured ten copper beads of sixty which were taken
from an ancient grave on Grave Creek Flat, in Marshall county, West
Virginia, near Moundsville, the county seat, once called Elizabeth.
This was not far from his home in Wellsburg, Brooke county. Naturally,
from his expressions above quoted, he was greatly interested in these
sepulchral mounds and the smaller graves of that region, and familiar
with the researches of Dr. Caleb Atwater, the historian of Ohio, and
those of Thomas JefFer$on, both of whom he mentions. Some of Dod-
dridge's speculations upon the extinct people are instructive, and what
he tells of the mounds as he knew them is real history now.

Digitized by



Dr. Doddridge regarded the sepulchral mounds as by far the greatest
figure among our country's antiquities. In point of magnitude, he said,
some of them are truly sublime and imposing monuments of human
labor for the burial of the dead. This is particularly true of the Grave
Creek Mound, and will apply also to that which once stood on the top
of McKee's Rocks. Most logically, Doddridge would first describe the
Grave Creek Mound. His figures are nearly accurate. Extravagant
dimensions have been published of this great mound. Thus, in Sears'
"Description of the State of Virginia :"*

EuzABETH — ^This town is twelve miles below Wheeling, on a plain once the habi-
tation of a large population whose remains are visible in numerous ancient tumuli scat-
tered over its surface. The largest is ii6 feet high, and surrounded by a ditch 400
yards in circuit.

Dr. Doddridge's descriptions and remarks fit in nicely with that of
other writers, as will be noted. He says in his chapter on "The Remains
of an Extinct People:" "The large grave on Grave Creek Flat is the
only large one in this section of the country. The diameter of its base
is said to be 100 yards, its altitude is at least 75 feet; some g^ve it as
90 feet. The diameter at the top is 15 yards. The sides and tops of
the mound are covered with trees of all sizes and ages, intermingled
with fallen and decaying timber like the surrounding woods. Supposing
this august pyramid to contain human bones in equal proportions with
the lesser mounds which have been opened from time to time, what
myriads of human beings must repose in its vast dimensions !"

Dr. Doddridge was writing prior to 1824, long before any investiga-
tion of the mound revealed its actual construction within. At this
point Dr. Doddridge appended the footnote pertaining to Jefferson's
exploration. The McKee's Rocks Mound was one of the smaller
kind, compared with this great hill, and was not over twenty (perhaps
eighteen) feet in height. Dr. Doddridge proceeds: "The present owner
of this mound, the author has been informed, has expressed his deter-
mination to preserve it in its original state during his life. He will not
suffer the axe to violate its timber, nor the mattocks its earth. May
the successors to the title of the estate forever feel the same pious regard
for this august mansion of the dead, and preserve the venerable monument
of antiquity from that destruction which has already annihilated or
defaced a large number of lesser depositories of the dead."

Dr. Doddridge does not agree with many writers of his time who
regarded these sepulchral mounds peculiar to America. He said if
such were the fact, they would be objects of greater curiosity, as
belonging exclusively to this quarter of the globe they would tend to
prove that the Aborigines of America were different from all other

2"A Pictorial Description of the United States, etc;" Robert Scars; New York,
1856; p. 337.

Digitized by



nations of the earth, at least in their manner of disposing of their dead.
He goes into the history of mounds in all sections of the globe, stating
that all of the sepuchral class that had been opened in Asia and America
contained, about the center of the bottom, a coffin or vault of stone which
contained but one skeleton. This was regarded as the sarcophagus of
the patriarch, or first monarch of the tribe or nation to which the
sepulchre belonged. Thenceforward all his people were deposited in
the grave of the founder of the nation. In process of time the daily
increasing mound became the national history. Its age was the age
of the nation, and its magnitude gave the census of the relative numbers
and military force with regard to other nations about them. "What
a sublime spectacle," exclaims Dr. Doddridge, "to the people to whom
it belonged, must one of those large sepulchres have been ! The remains
of the first chief of the nation, with his people and their successors
through many generations, reposing together in the same tomb."

How analagous the Doctor's observations are to the story of the
opening of the McKee's Rocks Mound, and the explanatory lectures of
Drs. Magee and Putnam, to be noted later, must strike one here as
worthy of remark. Dr. Doddridge next calls attention to the fact well
known in his day, that some of the North American Indians had been
in the habit, since the coming of the first Europeans, of collecting the
bones of their dead from every quarter for the purpose of depositing
them with those of their people at their chief towns. The Doctor thinks
this must have been the general practice during the time of the erection
of the large ancient graves exemplified in the Grave Creek Mound, for
the bones found in those which had been opened had been thrown pro-
miscuously together in large collections, as if emptied out of baskets
or bags. This is true of many since opened. Jefferson's researches
reveal this, and Tomlinson's also, and it was proven true of the McKee's
Rocks Mound.

Dr. Doddridge considered strong evidence of the great age of these
rude remains of antiquity was to be found in the fact that nowhere
there existed even a traditionary account of their origin. He asks : "After
what lapse of time does tradition degenerate into fable ? At what period
of time does fable itself wear out and consign all antiquity to a total
and acknowledged oblivion?" All this, he said, had happened with
regard to the antiquities of the ancient nations such as Greece, where
written history originated. It may be well to recur to some of Dr. Dod-
dridge's reflections, hence for a time we may leave him and proceed
to the story of the antiquities of Pittsburgh and environs.

The mound at McKee's Rocks was opened in July, 1896, and thor-
oughly explored. Many bones were found, and a number of skeletons
taken out, including several of extraordinary size, which are preserved
in the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh. Details of the exhumations
from this mound are presented further on in this chapter.

Digitized by



A similar mound once adorned the summit of Grant's Hill in Pitts-
burg, on the square bounded by Grant and Ross streets, Fifth avenue
and Diamond street, this plot now the site of the court house of Alle-
gheny county. By successive gradations this hill has been cut down
about forty feet. The celebrated Hugh Henry Brackenridge mentions
the Grant Hill Mound in his description of Pittsburgh as the rude town
about Fort Pitt existed when Brackenridge came to this place in the
summer of 1781. When John Scull and his first partner, Joseph Hall,
came five years later, Brackenridge proceeded to boom the town in the
"Pittsburgh Gazette," the paper still in existence, which Scull and Hall
then founded.

Brackenridge the elder, in distinction from his equally distinguished
son, Henry Marie Brackenridge, also an author and jurist, wrote a
series of articles which were printed in the "Pittsburgh Gazette" begin-
ning with the first number of the paper, July 29, 1786, and continued
through six numbers. These articles were headed "Observations on
the Country at the Head of the Ohio River, with Digressions on Various
Subjects." He mentioned the mound on Grant's Hill briefly: "On the
summit of the hill is a mound of earth supposed to be a catacomb. There
can be no doubt of this, as upon opening some of the like tumuli or
hills of earth, bones are found. The places where stones are plenty,
these mounds are raised of stones, and skeletons are found in them."
From Brackenridge's few words, the inference is readily drawn that
he gave no credence to the theory of a prehistoric race. To him and
his townsmen the mounds were ancient burial places of the savages,
nothing mere.

There were other mounds about Pittsburgh — sl small one in what
is MOW Burgwin Park, a playground and a grove of fine old oaks, five
acres in extent, at Second and Hazlewood avenues, Pittsburgh; but
the most celebrated and largest was on the summit of McKee's Rocks,
the "Written Rocks" mentioned by Celoron in his Journal of 1749. These
historic "Rocks" are on the Ohio river, at the mouth of Chartiers creek,
three miles below the confluence of the two rivers at Pittsburgh, the
"Forks of the Ohio" in colonial history, the acute angle there locally
called "the Point/' One can correctly say "the Rocks" are three miles
below the Point Bridge, for Pittsburgh on the south side extends to
Chartiers creek. The mound at McKee's Rocks was most likely a
smooth, grass-covered tumulus originally. In the sketch of Everts'
already mentioned, large trees are shown, estimated by botanists at
that date to have been over one hundred years old. These trees were
cut away when the mound was opened in 1896. To the knowledge of
the writer hereof, there was a small grove on the mound in 1888, when
last visited by him.'

«"History Allegheny County, Pa.;" p. 126.

Digitized by



Naturally the opening of the mound excited great curiosity in the
then village of McKee's Rocks, and called for daily and some extended
items of news in the Pittsburgh newspapers. The explorations were
conducted by Professor F. H. Gerrodette, who had for his chief assistant
Thomas Harper, of Pittsburgh. The work was done under the direction
of a sub-committee of the Committee on the Museum of the Board of

Online LibraryAmerican Historical Society George Thornton FlemingHistory of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the ..., Volume 1 → online text (page 4 of 81)