The French And Indian War In Pittsburgh: A Memoir


One canny soldier, the story goes, devised a way to cut his captivity, and torture, short. He told his Indian captors that he knew a plant whose juices conferred invulnerability. They didn’t believe him. He picked up a few leaves and, with as much hocus-pocus as he could muster, squeezed their juices in a broad ring around his own bare neck. The Indians were having none of it. He laid his head and neck on a chopping block. The most disbelieving Indian seized a good ax and, sure enough, chopped off his head.

Before Braddock’s defeat the local Delawares and Shawnees threw in their lot with the French. Their own land east of the mountains had been ruined by immigrant farms. They joined the Canadian Indians around the fort. Other tribes moved in: Foxes from Wisconsin; Chickasaws from the lower Mississippi. Together, supplied by the French, they raided settlements, tomahawking or bashing infants, and killing or capturing men, women, and children. They crossed the mountains and killed settlers who had fled to the Juniata Valley. They moved down into Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina, killing, taking prisoners, and burning cabins, mills, fields, and barns. They almost never raped.

That year of Braddock’s defeat a German family carried one man’s Indian-mutilated body sixty miles and left it as a plea on the steps of the Assembly in Philadelphia. Belatedly the governor of Pennsylvania declared war on the Delawares and Shawnees, enabled to do so when four of the purest of the Quakers in the Assembly, fearing for their souls, stepped down.


In 1757 Gen. Louis de Montcalm forced the English to surrender Fort William Henry, in New York. After the terms of capitulation had been agreed upon, the Indians broke rank and attacked the departing soldiers and settler families. They killed more than one hundred on the spot; they dragged two hundred men, women, and children back to Montreal to torture; they stripped and beat many more and left them to die in the woods. (Montcalm was able to rescue more than four hundred of these.) They killed the sick and wounded left at the fort. In Montreal, French witnesses testified, the Indians boiled one captive in a public ceremony and “forced his wretched countrymen to eat of him.” And they “compelled mothers to eat the flesh of their children.” “What a scourge!” wrote the flowery French commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. “Humanity groans at being forced to use such monsters.”

We made quivers out of string and cigarette cartons.

After three years the British in London under the Great Commoner, William Pitt, determined to prosecute this war in earnest. Pitt raised the rank of colonial officers. To knock the French out of their North American base, he sent the English navy to the Great Lakes; there it broke the French fleet. The English army under Gen. Jeffery Amherst took major Great Lakes and St. Lawrence forts. The French had been supplying Fort Duquesne and points west from France via the St. Lawrence route and from Lake Erie via the Allegheny River. The English victories cut off the French chain of supplies to the interior. In November 1758 Gen. John Forbes and his mixed army took Fort Duquesne from the French. That winter the English began building Fort Pitt. To the north, Quebec fell. Except for some mopping up, it was all over for the French.

Seventeen years later, in 1776, Pontiac’s war on settlers had come and gone too—a war in which at least two thousand settlers died in raids. The Indian wars were virtually over in the Eastern woodlands. Scotch-Irish and German settlers crept back over Laurel Ridge, the last ridge in the Alleghenies, to farm and trade in peace at the Forks of the Ohio near Fort Pitt. In Philadelphia the Scotch-Irish controlled the new government; they had allied themselves with East Coast revolutionaries to throw the Indian-loving, monarch-loving Quakers out. They moved at once for another war, against England, for independence.

At the Ellis School in Pittsburgh we girls memorized a poem:

Where we live and work today Indian children used to play—All about our native land Where the shops and houses stand.

On a quiet dead-end street in our Pittsburgh neighborhood, among the still stone and brick houses under their old ash trees and oaks, we playing children paced out the ritual evenings. Capture the Flag was, essentially, the French and Indian Wars. The dead-end street (Europe) saw open combat at its fixed border. Brute strength could win. We disdained the street, although, of course, we had to guard its border. We fought the real war in the backyards (America)—a limitless wilderness of trees, garbage cans, thickets, back porches, and gardens, where no one knew where the two sides’ territories ended and where strategy required bold and original planning, private initiative, sneaky scouting, and courage.