Fort Pitt Museum closure invites historical reconsideration
Historical considerationFort Pitt has early Jewish connections

Fort Pitt Museum closure invites historical reconsideration

Fort Pitt, built by British colonists between 1759 and 1761, attracted Jewish merchants and businessmen "almost immediately."

A museum staffer cleans the Fort Pitt diorama. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Pitt Museum)
A museum staffer cleans the Fort Pitt diorama. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Pitt Museum)

It may not be the shofar-blowing season, but several spectacular horns are in arrangement at the Fort Pitt Museum. Located near Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, the museum has been showcasing a host of 18th-century creations, called “powder horns,” in its exhibit titled, “From Maps to Mermaids: Carved Powder Horns in Early America.”

While the collection’s most intricately designed keratinized growths were designed for gunpowder storage during the French and Indian War and later the American Revolution, the pliability of a bovid horn enabled its earlier uses to include “cups, combs, boxes and other utilitarian goods,” explained museum materials.

Exhibit observers will notice that unlike the acuminating nature of High Holiday sound pieces, these horns are finely capped. Similarly, many of the artifacts displayed denote their place of crafting, as some even feature carvings of “Fort Pitt.”

Unfortunately, those wishing to see the exquisitely engraved powder carriers in person will have to wait, as the Fort Pitt Museum is temporarily closed for maintenance and upgrades through Jan. 26, said museum representatives.

In the interim, one may be reminded of Fort Pitt’s Jewish history.

Built by British colonists between 1759 and 1761, Fort Pitt was constructed near the former Fort Duquesne, a French colonial stronghold fashioned in 1754.

An early Jewish connection to Fort Pitt rests with Joseph Simon, a prominent Jewish merchant who, though a leader of the Lancaster Jewish community, maintained a trading post at the Fort Pitt site during the mid-18th century, explained Samuel Evans in his 19th-century “Sketch of Joseph Simon” for the Lancaster County Historical Society.

A portion of the Fort Pitt diorama. (Photo courtesy of the Fort Pitt Museum)
The link between people and place continued, wrote Jacob Feldman in his book, “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, A History: 1755-1945.”

“In 1760, David Franks of Philadelphia and his Christian partner, William Plumstead, became the supply contractors for Fort Pitt and Forts Ligonier and Bedford farther to the east. They wrote in a letter in 1761 that they would visit Pittsburgh but had to cancel their trip. They usually remained in the east to requisition horses, powder, flour, meat and other provisions for the frontier forts.”

Nearly a decade later, in 1772, the fort was decommissioned by the British. The decision was made due to flooding and the fact that the fort was “no longer needed for the purpose for which it was originally built,” explained the Fort Pitt Brick House.

Nonetheless, Fort Pitt maintained a critical role during the American Revolution, as it served as the Continental Army’s western headquarters.

Around that time, “Michael and Bernard Gratz of Philadelphia signed pledges to cease trading with the British and supplied gunpowder and firearms to George Washington’s troops. Along with Solomon Bush, they underwrote the soldiers’ rations at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania,” wrote David Bruce Smith in an article for The Chestertown Spy.

In 1792, Fort Pitt officially closed when, after it was “replaced by a newer yet smaller fort named Fort Lafayette,” it was “torn down and sold off piece by piece,” explained the museum.

Although it is unknown whether any Jewish purchasers acquired Fort Pitt’s slabs, “the Jewish history of Pittsburgh is as old as European settlement in the region,” said Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. “The opportunities of the newly conquered Point attracted Jewish businessmen almost immediately.

“But those traders left when their work was done. It would take [several decades] before Pittsburgh developed to the point where settlement became attractive to Jewish immigrants, launching the Jewish community that we know today.”

The Fort Pitt Museum will reopen to the public on Saturday, Jan. 27. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz

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