The Archive Beneath the Eyesores

Logstown in relation to Ft. Pitt (Pittsburgh)

continued from the previous post…

Wandering between the mills and their enormous water tanks, I came to the edge of the industrial plain—a cliff overlooking a long stretch of the Ohio River. A hundred feet below, a swampy basin lay strewn with rusty barrels leaking iridescent toxins, tires, the broken shell of a truck bed, the junk left by those too careless to respect a wetland and too ignorant to know that in that muck lay the remains of another forgotten time—not just a day, but a century of prosperity, international commerce, and the seeds of the American frontier.

From this height, it was easy to see how trees and logs that had fallen into the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers back in the mid-1700s eddied into the wetland below. Indians gathered the logs to build shelters. Most of them had moved here as refugees, fleeing the Europeans who had invaded and occupied the coast. Only the Adenas – mound builders—had lived here earlier.

Because of the piles of timber and the longhouses, like those of the Iroquois and Algonquin, the place earned the name “Logstown.” With more than 80 such structures, it became a commercial center for traders from five Iroquois nations.

Young men like me had hacked their way through the forests to reach the spot where I stood that morning behind Armco. They were determined to press their agenda against the Indians. One of them was Major George Washington of the Virginia Militia.  In his journal, he marvels at the natural characteristics of the setting and takes note of the European style of the newest log shelters, evidence that the French were ensconced.

Washington meets Half King -- andrew knez, jr.

Washington came on orders from Governor Robert Dinwiddie, who held shares with Washington’s brother, in a land speculation firm known as The Ohio Company. Having promised King George II a map of western lands that could be sold to settlers, Dinwiddie sent Washington to do the surveying.  He also wanted him to sit down with the chief at Logstown, a Catawba named Tanaghrisson, who claimed the French had killed and eaten his father, and deliver a message to French generals at Ft. LeBoeuf.  Washington’s message – that the Marquis Duquesne should stop laying claims south of the Great Lakes – was unwelcome and he was nearly killed on his way home.

Chief Tanaghrisson -- a.k.a. Half King

Most communities make a big deal of Washington sleeping in their town, whether he had or not. But he came to Logstown more than once, and you would never know it by reading local markers or asking folks around Ambridge. You’re more likely to hear about President Kennedy’s drive-by or the time the Hall of Fame Steeler, Franco Harris, stopped into Police Station Pizza. But Washington?  Forget about it—too far in the past, his footprints too deeply buried under slag and the thirty-thousand gallon water tanks behind me.

Despite Tanaghrisson’s hatred of the French, he had been trading with them and they were well

A French priest visits Logstown

established at Logstown. In Ambridge, Logstown is best known—by the mostly Catholic locals, as the site of the first Catholic Mass west of the Appalachians. Now there’s an historic tidbit we Catholics took note of: a spot where a French missionary set up a table and attempted to work his magic on native Americans.

In his journals, Washington describes Logstown as a broad meadow atop a jutting hill overlooking the Ohio with a white watercourse tumbling from its brow that narrowed the valley. Beyond the mills that have replaced Logstown to the bluff where I stood, I can still see the advantage of the location. More than two hundred feet above the river, the meadow opens a view several miles to the east and to the west. Across the river, steep, protective hillsides made it hard to approach occupants of this meadow without being seen.

It was Chief Tanaghrisson who would meet Washington a few months after the Ft. LeBeouf fiasco, this time south of present-day Pittsburgh.  They had assembled a force to establish a toe-hold at the confluence of the three rivers, but were too late, the French had beaten them to it, and they had sent a contingent toward Washington’s militia.

Washington and Tanaghrisson hurried to attack, and fifteen minutes later, the French laid down their arms. Washington had his first military victory, but he would pay a price. Kneeling before the Virginian and his Indian ally, the captured Ensign Joseph Coulon Jumonville tried to explain that his intentions were purely diplomatic. The vengeful Tanaghrisson grabbed him split his head with an axe.

Assault of Ft. Necessity

Shortly thereafter, Tanaghrisson abandoned Washington as he retreated to Fort Necessity, where an overwhelming force of French and Indian pursuers assaulted his Virginians into surrender.  And here, Washington unwittingly took the rap for Tanaghrisson’s revenge, casting them both onto the world’s stage.

Washington, who could not read French, signed terms of capitulation, and thereby admitted to assassinating Ensign Jumonville. The document gave Louis XV justification for declaring war on Britain—The Seven Years War, which some historians see as the real first world war, killing millions in the French and British colonies across the globe.

When Washington returned to Logstown after the war, he found nothing but ashes. The strategic value of that stretch of riverbank remained lodged in his mind, though, and he would take advantage of it again, twenty years later, when it would play another pivotal role in American history.

more to come…

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9 thoughts on “The Archive Beneath the Eyesores

  1. I am loving this. Can’t wait to read more. My cousin lived near Toledo and when we were kids I was in love with the Indian lore as well as the giant factories. So I like the tough bar story and the history buff stuff. Its funny, I have always lived in California now but look back at the rustbelt as a romantic (and kind of ugly as you say) place but very atmospheric. I’ll keep watching if you keep writing and I hope you do!

    • Hi, Terri.

      So it’s been 5 years since you posted this. I regret not telling you then how much I appreciate your perspective. Very generous.

      The book from this blog will be available in May, and can be ordered on Amazon now. Please let me know what you think of it. Yes, it’s both ugly and romantic.

  2. Pingback: Three Pauls, Two Waynes, and a Pete « Rust Belt Boy

  3. Paul:
    My brother just directed me to your blog and I am delighted to have found it. We are originally from “Little Washington”, directly between Pittsburgh and Wheeling, and I have always been fascinated with this era of history because it is so close to home. Most people don’t realize that George Washington was once a bungling junior officer with the Virginia Militia who single-handedly started the French and Indian War! In the end, he must have been a man of destiny, because there were numerous times when he rightfully should have been killed, including at Fort Necessity, but he always escaped unscathed.
    I anxiously await your next installment!

    • Thank you, Jeff. I’m pleased to have met your brother; we’ve lived near each other for a couple of decades and hadn’t met. But that’s one of the lingering effects of the Rust Belt diaspora, which I’m sure you’ve experience yourself: how frequently we run into other baby-boomer emigres because millions of us left. And you’re right about Washington. “A man of destiny” for sure. Even the Virginia Militia, in my reading of history, was little more than a gang of entitled white men armed in pursuit of real estate development.

      I very much appreciate your comments and your interest. I wrote this for readers like you and it’s great to hear from you.

  4. Spent 40 years of research on Logstown and Legion Ville. A sad legacy and indictment of our county.

    Patrick Riley

    • Patrick, thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I loved having your research available and only wish I could have written in more detail about Legion Ville. Its present condition does, indeed, stand as sad reminder for what little regard local citizens and officials have for the past and how it shapes our lives. But your work will live on as testimony for researchers and writers like me. It will not be lost. And those of us who care are grateful for your dedication.

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