Who Lived Here First? A Look At Pittsburgh’s Native American History
Ohio, Aliquippa, Youghiogheny, are all Native American names. Their use in this region is emblematic of how profoundly the area was shaped by tribal communities.
The history of Native Americans living in Pittsburgh is common inquiry for WESA’s Good Question! series. It led us to Dorseyville, Pa., about 13 miles north of Pittsburgh, to an annual Pow Wow celebration. The event draws indigenous groups from around the region for traditional dance, food and ceremonies. This is where Native American people gather to remember their ancestors and pass down customs.
Long before Pittsburgh was a steel mecca or modern city, it was populated by native people. About 12,000 B.C. at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Washington County, archeologists discovered one of the oldest carbon-dated human settlements in North America. Director Dave Schofield said the formation, which sits beneath a cliff, was used by early people for shelter while hunting and gathering.
“It really was the ideal place to camp,” Schofield said. “People camped here anywhere from overnight to a couple of weeks at a time.”
The dwelling was never a permanent home, but rather a stopping place near plenty of natural resources. The rivers that flow through western Pennsylvania drew many native people. This was likely what brought the mound-building Adena tribe to the McKees Rocks area, where they constructed burial earthen mounds. The Hopewell tribe came next, followed by the Monongahela people, who lived here until the early 17th century, according to Fort Pitt Museum director Alan Gutchess.
“[The Monongahela people’s] fate is really kind of unknown,” Gutchess said. “They either came into contact with European diseases, but they may also have abandoned the area due to pressures from trade.”
At the turn of the 18th century, Gutchess said several groups in other parts of the country were forced off their land and headed toward what’s now Pittsburgh. The Delaware tribe came from eastern Pennsylvania, Shawnees arrived from the south and Iroquoian people migrated from New York state. Because the area wasn’t the ancestral homeland for any of these nations, their cultures mixed.
“You’re not really finding a Delaware town that’s 100 percent Delaware people living in it,” Gutchess said. “You might find Shawnee people and Mingo people and Wyandottes and even other tribes.”
British and French traders established posts along the Ohio and Allegheny rivers around the same time. As the mercantile economy took off, Native American communities exchanged pelts for brass and steel. Tribes formed alliances with the European settlers. Gutchess said it was common to see Native Americans walking through Fort Pitt, a major trading hub. The museum has a huge collection of trade receipts from that era.
This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
“At any given time we can say, ‘Oh, Captain Pipe was here and he bought so many yards of cloth and so many ribbons and a kettle and an ax.’” Gutchess said.
Pittsburgh’s rivers were a coveted trading location and everyone wanted the land. The French and Indian War began over it in 1754. Seneca leader Guyasuta rose to prominence around this time for his diplomatic skills with British and French armies. But Seneca Nation tribal historian Jay Toth said before Europeans fought over the rivers, they were vital to Seneca life.
“That was a cultural corridor between the tribal people in the north and south,” Toth said.
Significant battles took place in western Pennsylvania, including Pontiac’s War and the Battle of Bushy Run between British forces and a coalition of American Indian tribes. But Toth said Pittsburghers don’t know all the history of settlers and native people. Just as the rest of the country seized land from tribal communities, Pittsburgh was doing the same to Native American towns along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
More recently in the 1960s, one-third of Seneca’s tribal land was taken by the U.S. government to create the Kinzua Dam northeast of the city. Toth said the project was billed as a way to help towns along the Allegheny River deal with flooding, but little consideration was given to the native people living there. Nearly 600 Seneca were displaced and thousands of acres were flooded.
“People say, ‘yeah, there’s no Indian land,’” Toth said, “Yeah, there’s Indian land, it’s just all under water.”
Each year, the Seneca Nation holds a Remember the Removal gathering.
Down the Allegheny River at Point State Park, Jeremy Turner, an enrolled member of the Shawnee tribe, tells the history of the Treaty of Fort Pitt. Turner lives in Oklahoma, but returns to Pittsburgh regularly. This year marked the 240th anniversary of the first agreement between the new U.S. government and the Delaware Nation. Turner said he participates in reenactments because it’s a way to remember his ancestor’s connection to Pittsburgh.
"All the things that we learn about here is what led us to where we are today in Oklahoma, how we were forced out of our homelands here in the East,” Turner said. “All of the tribes that were from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, every one of us were made to leave.”
When he’s in Pittsburgh, Turner said he visits local museums and likes to show artifacts to members of his own tribe.
“This just reinforces how important our culture is and how proud we should be that our ancestors survived those things and contributed to this America,” Turner said.
The Fort Pitt Museum and Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village are part of the Senator John Heinz History Center museum system, which is an underwriter of WESA.
*This story was updated at 12:06 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 21 to correct the location of Dorseyville, Pa.