The road that helped make Pittsburgh possible
At the intersection of Franklin and South Trenton avenues in Regent Square, an unassuming blue marker commemorates the spot where President George Washington once camped.
Good Question! asker Taylor Stessney noticed the sign, which dates the campsite to November 24, 1758.
“I was just curious, considering how it looks now with all these buildings and everything, what did this area look like at that time?”
That marker commemorates Forbes Road, a historic military route across Pennsylvania built during the French and Indian War. And Pittsburgh was at the heart of the conflict.
“It was just an unbelievable series of events.”
Pittsburgh has been a desirable location dating back to the country’s earliest inhabitants. Dozens of Indigenous tribes laid claim to the region, ideal for its placement near the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. In the mid-1700s, French and British forces battled for control of the Ohio Valley, specifically where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet at the Point. Many Native American communities lived in the area and traded with the white settlers.
“There’s a tremendous amount of occupation in this region leading up to the 18th century,” said Erica Nuckles, director of history and collections at the Fort Ligonier Museum. “This complexity all comes into play during the French and Indian War.”
The French wanted to connect its colonies in New France, Canada and parts of the west. Great Britain, occupying the original 13 colonies and keen on expansion, had a different objective.
“Virginia wanted it because they wanted to promote white settlement here so they could try to prevent a safe haven for any runaways from their extremely large, enslaved Black population,” Nuckles said.
In 1754, Fort Duquesne was completed by the French at the Point. The next year, General Edward Braddock was badly beaten by the French militia and their 600-700 Native American warrior allies.
“It was really one of the greatest Native American victories of all time defeating a much larger British army who was trying to take Fort Duquesne,” Nuckles said.
Three years passed as the British reevaluated their strategy. They needed to bring a large, strong army with plenty of supplies across Pennsylvania. Previously, Braddock’s Road, which led from Fort Cumberland in Maryland to near McKeesport, was used by the military. But leadership determined that a new road across the commonwealth would better serve the current and future needs of the growing colonies. General John Forbes and his army of more than 6,000 men began construction on a road in Philadelphia that headed toward Pittsburgh. About every 50 miles, Nuckles said, they built or rebuilt fortifications designed to protect the supply line.
“This really was the Wild West out here,” Nuckles said. “You had to bring everyone and everything you needed to support that army.”
Forbes Road roughly follows the path of Native American game trails and trade routes in southern Pennsylvania. Soldiers had to cut through or around rough terrain, but by the fall of 1758, the army had reached Fort Ligioner. On November 11, Forbes had a decision to make: Attack the French now or hunker down for the winter.
“They literally make a pro con list and they say, well, you know, should we wait until spring or should we go now?” Nuckles said. “And they decide they’re going to wait.”
But Fort Ligioner was attacked the next day. Forbes, along with George Washington, fought the French and Native Americans at the fort and a dispatch was made to nearby Virginia provincials for help. The sky was dark and the battlefield was foggy and the two allied forces engaged in a “friendly-fire” incident.
Despite the confusion, the British captured three French soldiers. Justin Meinert with the Fort Pitt Museum says those prisoners gave good intel.
“The French prisoners tell them of the dire straits that the French were in at the Point,” Meinert said. “They were not going to be able to hold out much longer.”
This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
Armed with this knowledge and Forbes Road’s accessibility, the soldiers made their way toward the Point. As they closed in they heard an explosion -- Fort Duquesne had been demolished. Meinert said the French knew the British forces were coming and decided to abandon the Point.
“And November 25, this entire army begins to march into the Point and take over what’s now Pittsburgh,” Meinert said.
Fort Pitt, named for Prime Minister William Pitt, was constructed near the site of the former Fort Duquesne.
Modern-day Route 30 roughly follows the path of Forbes Road in Pennsylvania. There are historical markers throughout the state, including at the Point, commemorating the road, as well as a plaque in Mellon Park.