01 June 2012

Forgotten History: Albert Gallatin and Fort Lafayette

Connecting local figures and places with major players on a grander scale delights this historical dilettante's heart. I am intrigued, for example, by the stories of a forgotten fort in downtown Pittsburgh and a Swiss financier who lived in Western Pennsylvania. Both the man and the fort would have been well known in their era to today's far more recognizable historical luminaries Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis. 

Albert Gallatin was born in 1761 in Geneva and eventually settled in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Living to the ripe old age of 88, he had quite a lot of time and seemingly boundless energy and insight to contribute to the formative years of the early United States.  Gallatin served as Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and was instrumental in securing the purchase of the Louisiana Territory due to his financial acumen. It is not an exaggeration to say that we have Albert Gallatin to thank for the Louisiana Purchase and the incorporation of New Orleans into the Union (although this was not something the Creoles of the time appreciated).

Albert Gallatin. Or Maybe George C. Scott. You decide. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The website for Gallatin's Friendship Hill home states that Gallatin felt that acquiring Louisiana
....was good for the country, especially the area around Friendship Hill. It provided the United States and western Pennsylvania with an ocean port, New Orleans. Now, the residents of western Pennsylvania could easily ship their goods down river on keelboats to New Orleans. 
There is implied self-interest in this massive, nation-changing acquisition: Gallatin encouraged the purchase of the Louisiana territory so Western PA would have access to an ocean port. Granted, it wasn't easy access, but still. Such self-interest is usually at the heart of most nation-building decisions.

Anyway, Gallatin didn't stop with buying up Louisiana. He spearheaded the building of what was once called the National Road (now Route 40) which coincidentally started in Cumberland MD not far from his home. He thus granted himself easier access to Washington DC.

Self-interest, thy poster child may just be Albert Gallatin....

Gallatin's love of maps probably spurred him to instigate explorations of the new Louisiana territory such as the Louis and Clark expedition that departed from the shores of the Allegheny River near the mouth of the Ohio at Fort Lafayette (sometimes called Fort Fayette).

Lewis & Clark's Excellent Adventure: loading kegs and party supplies onto a longboat at Fort Lafayette. Painting by Robert Griffing.

Fort Lafayette was established to replace the deteriorating Fort Pitt and functioned from 1792–1814 to protect Pittsburgh from Native attacks and as a supply outpost for Fort McIntosh further up the Ohio River in Beaver County.

Meriwether Lewis was hung up at Fort Lafeyette for nearly six weeks due to "the unpardonable negligence of my boat builder," as he complained in a letter to Thomas Jefferson when explaining the delay in starting the secret expedition that Jefferson and Gallatin had charged him with. It seems that poor Meriwether had labor problems. Imagine, labor problems, in Pittsburgh.
....the positive assureances given me by the boat-builder that she should be ready on the last of the then ensuing week, (the 13th): however a few days after, according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed on to return: I threatened him with the penalty of his contract, and exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as he had his previous promises with regard to the boat, continuing to be constantly either drunk or sick. I spent most of my time with the workmen, alternately presuading and threatening, but neither threats, presuasion or any other means which I could devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work sooner than the 31st of August; by which time the water was so low that those who pretended to be acquainted with the navigation of the river declared it impracticable to descend it; however in conformity to my previous determination I set out.... (Letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 8, 1803, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress) 

Drunken ship-builders notwithstanding, Lewis eventually got his boat made and set off with William Clark to change the nation's destiny by exploring and mapping its newly expanded interior.

This map from 1796 shows the location of the Fort along the Allegheny River, and describes it thusly:
Fort Lafayette contains two Barracks, three hexagonal towers in wood, having artillery a power magazine. The inclosure is composed of large pointed stakes closed together 15 or 16 feet high, the fort is square, of weak defense, and even as nothing against cannon.

Even as nothing....and indeed, nothing remains to remind us of Fort Lafayette

Well, okay, almost nothing.

Fort Lafayette is at least recalled by means of an historical marker at Penn and Ninth Street in the downtown Cultural District, and is mentioned in another more recent marker at the edge of the Strip District which commemorates the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But these are the only physical remnants in Pittsburgh to mention this architectural witness to history.

Albert Gallatin fared a bit better. His country estate in Fayette County near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border is maintained by the National Park Service as the Friendship Hill National Historic Site; his personal papers are a treasure trove of early republic history; his interests in Native American cultures led him to found the American Ethnological Society (although his legacy related to Native cultures was firmly in favor of assimilation); he was interred at Trinity Churchyard in lower Manhattan; and he has been honored with many place-names.

Some images below from Friendship Hill, Gallatin's home outside of Port Marion, PA between the Monongahela River and Route 166 in Springhill Township.  The home was constructed in three phases over a 39 year period beginning in 1786. Gallatin never spent much time there and abandoned it entirely by 1825, selling it in 1832. The house endured subsequent additions and passed through several owners until its purchase by The National Park Service in 1979. The property was restored at a cost of  $10 million and opened to the public in 1992.

1 comment:

  1. Gallatin is an interesting story. I once knew someone in Fayette County who claimed to have used a millstone from the Friendship Hill property as the hearthstone in their home.