Around 19,000 years ago, Native Americans started building villages near the confluence of what we now call the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers in western Pennsylvania. European explorers arrived in the early 1700s, building trading posts as early as 1717. Actual European settlement in the area didn’t happen until the late 1740s, when an English outfit called the Ohio Company won a land grant and sent a large group to survey the area. But the French were there, too, having moved south from Quebec. From June 15 to November 10, 1749, a French expedition headed by Celeron de Bienville warned the English to stay out what they considered French territory.
It seemed inevitable that the French and British would clash over the matter, and that’s exactly what happened. The governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, sent Major George Washington of the Virginia militia to warn the French that the area was British, not French, thank you very much. Washington delivered the message to French commanders at a couple of forts, and was received with all the courtesy officers gave each other. But his message was ignored. Dinwiddie then sent Captain William Trent to build a fort at the confluence; thus, Fort Prince George became the first permanent European settlement in what we now call Pittsburgh. 500 French soldiers soon arrived, and they ran off the British, tore down the fort and built a new one – Fort Duquesne – in its place.
Of course, the British had to respond to this, so Dinwiddie sent a regiment under Colonel Joshua Fry to take the fort back. Fry ordered his second in command – Washington – to lead an advance column, and on May 28, 1754, that column clashed with French forces in what would become known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen. 13 French soldiers were killed, and 21 taken prisoner. It was all pretty routine stuff, at least until one of Washington’s Indian allies, the Seneca chief Tanacharison, executed the French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, with neither Washington’s knowledge nor permission.
The French were outraged, and sent a whole mess of troops to track down Washington and his men. Desperate, Washington asked Tanacharison to round up as many Indian allies as possible. A motley bunch of Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca Indians joined the group, as did the rest of Fry’s men (but not Fry himself: he’d fallen off his horse, and died of a broken neck two weeks earlier). With a French attack only a matter of time, the ragtag group exhausted itself building Fort Necessity. The French finally arrived, and Washington ordered his troops to attack. But the Virginia militia were terrified, so they fired a single shot then fled into the safety of the fort. Washington, on the battlefield with only a handful of British army regulars and Indian warriors of dubious loyalty, had little choice but to retreat as well. The British, tired, scared, and dreadfully low on supplies, surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. It was George Washington’s only surrender… but he had inadvertently set a chain of events in motion that are now called the Seven Years’ War, sometimes called the French and Indian War in the United States.
A lot happened during the war, but for this article all you need to know is that the British, under command of a Scotsman named John Forbes, built several forts in the area. The French attacked those forts, and the British attacked French forts. Back and forth it went until the French, finally outnumbered, left.
On November 25, 1758, Forbes occupied what was left of Fort Duquesne, the French having burnt it to the ground before leaving. Forbes began construction of Fort Pitt, so named for Secretary of State (and future Prime Minister) William Pitt the Elder. Here’s the important thing: Forbes was Scottish. He called the area around the fort “Pittsbourgh”, which is a misspelling of the English –borough, usually spelled as –burgh in Scottish English. So Forbes most likely pronounced the name like “Edinburgh”:
Of course, English spelling was all over the place back in the 18th century. By the time the city received its official charter on March 18, 1816 the spelling had been standardized to Pittsburgh. But since English and German immigrants greatly outnumbered Scots in the city, its name was pronounced as it was spelled: Pittsburgh, not Pittsburrah. And here’s something else: the official city charter – the fancy one on vellum with the official seal and everything – spelled the city as Pittsburgh. Copies of the charter were made, and due to a printing error, they spelled the city as Pittsburg. This will be important later.
As you may know, -burg is the German version of -borough or -burgh. There are hundreds of cities in Germany with names like Ahrensburg, Altenburg, Aschaffenburg, Brandenburg an der Havel, Boizenburg, Cloppenburg, Coburg, and Dillenburg. And in the US you have places like Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, Spartanburg, South Carolina, St. Petersburg, Florida and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. In fact, so many more Germans founded cities and towns in America that the German -burg is much more common in American place names than the Scottish -burgh.
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By the late 1800s, American place names had become something of a mess. There were states that had multiple cities with the same name, like two cities named “Greenville”. And there were some states that had city names that were spelled differently but pronounced the same, like Greensboro and Greensborough. Couldn’t someone just straighten this mess out?
Enter the United States Board on Geographic Names, a federal office dedicated to “establish[ing] and maintain[ing] uniform usage of geographic names throughout the U.S. government” (ironically, the body has changed its own name several times, and was known as the “Board on Geographical Names” in the 1890s).
The group adopted several principles that should apply to place names in the United States.
- For one thing, the British spelling of centre had to go, in favor of the American center. So if you lived in Centreville, congratulations: you now lived in Centerville.
- Cities with -borough in their names should be shorted to -boro. This has caused unending confusion as to whether the New England Patriots play football in Foxboro or Foxborough. When I was a kid, it was always Foxboro. Now it’s usually Foxborough.
- Hyphens in place names had to go too, as did any place name with a diacritical mark (like the e in café).
- If possible, cities or towns with names consisting of two words, like “Green Field”, should be combined into one word, like “Greenfield”.
- The word city or town should not be part of a place name. So Ocean City, Maryland should properly be called Ocean, Maryland.
- Most importantly for Pittsburgh, any town with the -burgh suffix should drop the -h. Thus, Pittsburg.
When the Board went looking for evidence to support that decision, they found the copies of the city charter – with the Pittsburg misspelling – and somewhat arrogantly told the people of Pittsburgh that they’d been spelling their name wrong this whole time. The final report on the matter read thusly:
The city was chartered in 1816, its name being spelled without the h, and its official form is still Pittsburg. The h appears to have been added by the Post-Office Department, and through that action local usage appears to have become divided. While the majority of local newspapers print it without the h, certain others use the final h.
Now, the Board wasn’t all-powerful. They couldn’t force people to change the spelling of their city, and many institutions refused: the City of Pittsburgh government, the Pittsburgh Gazette newspaper, the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange and the University of Pittsburgh all refused to change their names. However, all federal agencies – especially the post office – were forced to use the new spelling.
That doesn’t mean that some didn’t accept the new name. The local baseball team gladly became the Pittsburg Pirates. In fact, the most valuable baseball card in the world features the legendary Honus Wagner wearing a “Pittsburg” jersey:
Still, the move wasn’t popular, and the change even appeared to violate the Board’s own rules! Their second rule stated:
Where names have been changed or corrupted, and such changes or corruptions have become established by local usage, it is not in general advisable to attempt to restore the original form.
So they had the nerve to tell Pittsburghers that they’d been spelling their name incorrectly all this time, but their own rules said it shouldn’t have been changed? That’s the government for you!
The people and institutions of Pittsburgh kept ignoring the new spelling, and sending letters and telegrams to the United States Geographic Board (note the new name). Pennsylvania senator George T. Oliver – a Republican from Pittsburgh – kept up pressure on the board, too. Finally, on July 20, 1911, the Board sent the following reply to a letter from Oliver:
Hon. George T. Oliver, United States Senate:
Sir: At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911, the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without a final H was reconsidered and the form given below was adopted:
Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).
C. S. SLOAN,
It was a total victory for “Pittsburghers”. Oddly – or amusingly – many cities named after Pittsburgh that had changed the spelling because of the Board’s 1891 decision – places like Pittsburg, Kanasas and Pittsburg, California – have retained the reformed spelling. Confusingly, West Pittsburg, a small town 47 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, never changed its name back, and to this day is still known as West Pittsburg.