The French And Indian War In Pittsburgh: A Memoir

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Behind each tree and parked car, I saw Indians.

The wild and fatal whoops, the war whoops of the warriors, the red warriors whooping on a raid. It was a delirium. The tongue diddled the brain. I could dream it all whenever I wanted—and how often I wanted to dream it! Fiercely addicted, I dosed myself again and again with the drug of the dream. Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: they are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where one dwells, and goes to school, and eats, the body, the boring body that houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of children’s inner lives makes them immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

 

Throughout these long, wonderful wars I saw Indian braves behind every tree and parked car. They slunk around, fairly bursting with woodcraft. They led soldiers on miraculous escapes through deep woods and across lakes at night; they paddled their clever canoes noiselessly; they swam underwater without leaving bubbles; they called to each otherthey called to each other like owls. They nocked their arrows silently on the brow of the hill and snuck up in their soft moccasins to the camp where the enemy lay sleeping under heavy guard. They shrieked, drew their Osage bows, and never missed—all the while communing deeply with birds and deer.

I had been born too late. I would have made a dandy scout because I had taught myself to walk in the woods silently: without snapping a twig, which was easy, or stepping on a loud leaf, which was hard. Experience taught me a special rolling walk for skulking in silence: you step down with your weight on the ball of your foot and ease it to your heel.

The Indians who captured me would not torture me, but exclaim at my many abilities, and teach me more, all the while feeding me handsomely. Soon I would talk to animals, become invisible, ride a horse naked and shrieking, shoot things.

I practiced traveling through the woods in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park without leaving footprints. I practiced tracking people and animals, such as some pedigreed dachshunds that lived nearby, by following signs. I knew the mark of my boy hero’s blunt heel and the mark of my younger sister’s sharp one. I practiced sneaking up on Mother as she repotted a philodendron, Father as he waxed the car, saying, as I hoped but doubted the Indians said, “Boo.”

La Belle Rivière, the French called the Ohio and its tributary, the Allegheny. The Forks of the Ohio, the English rather ploddingly called these rivers’ juncture with the Monongahela at Pittsburgh. Both the French and the British needed to control the point where the rivers met in order to control the interior of the continent. The nation that held sway where Pittsburgh was to be built was the nation that would rule the land all the way from the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence downstream to New Orleans, and all the way from the Potomac in the east out west to the Missouri, the Platte, and the Yellowstone at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

In the early 1750s, when no one but a few Indian traders lived at the point where the rivers come together, and only the toughest of pioneers lived nearby on the rivers and creeks, the French and the English moved simultaneously to claim and seize it. The French idea was to build a chain of forts from Lake Erie to the head of the Ohio and on down to New Orleans. The British idea was not to let them.

So they had begun their war here at the site of Pittsburgh —the British war against the French and some of their mostly Canadian Indian allies. The British were stuck hacking twelve-foot-wide roads through the forest, from Wills Creek on the Potomac northwest or later from Shippensburg due west over the mountains—all to get armies and rolling artillery to that point Major Washington had pronounced “extremely well situated for a fort.…” In Europe the struggle was the Seven Years’ War.

When the fighting began at the Forks of the Ohio in 1754, the English greatly outnumbered the French in North America (1,225,000 to 80,000). Even the Great Lakes Indians preferred English trade goods to French ones. But the French controlled the interior waterways. The English condescended to the Indians; the French made them pretty speeches. Abroad the British controlled the seas.