Middle Passage to
Early America

Music in the Middle Passage

During the Atlantic voyages, White boatswains and ship surgeons wrote in their journals about lamentations sung by the people in bondage. Although the oppressors couldn’t understand the lyrics sung in multiple languages, they knew that the music was filled with sorrow.

For the singers, the mournful music sustained them during the Middle Passage, and then in the sugarcane and cotton fields. Later, the songs served as a political instrument for the abolitionists. In an examination of the slave trade at the British House of Commons in 1791, a White surgeon who had learned some African languages testified about the meanings of the lamentations.

“The words of the songs used by them were Madda! Madda! Yiera! Bemini! Madda! Aufera!” he said. “That is to say, they were all sick, and by and by they should be no more; they also sung songs expressive of their fears of being beat, of their want of victuals, particularly the want of their native food, and of their never returning to their own country…”

In the United States, the slaves began singing lamentations in English, producing the Negro spirituals that still are sung today. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot …


In the 19th century, a slave named Caesar was bound by arms and legs to a naked stranger in the bowels of a Middle Passage vessel. The men were not linked sideways, but crosswise, so that any movement required careful coordination. The demeaning arrangement was further complicated by the fact that the men spoke different languages and could not synchronize their movements with words. Often, the clanking manacles and fetters bruised them when they twisted in opposite directions. Yet, as Caesar later told British abolitionist Reverend John Riland, he would experience an even greater horror with the manacles.

The word manacle derives its meaning from manus, the Latin term for hand, and means “a device for confining the hands.” The word originated in the 13th century, several centuries before the Atlantic slave trade began, but iron hand shackles have existed since the Iron Age. Manacles were used in ancient Greece, Rome, China, and other societies to restrain animals, prisoners, and slaves. Some manacles had locks and keys, while others could only be removed by breaking the iron. In North America and the Caribbean, slaveholders would etch their names into the iron bands so runaway slaves could be returned.

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Iron bondage was the most visceral exploitation of the slaves, a practice that jarred flesh against metal in uncompromising postures for months, even years, at a time. Slaves were often burdened with heavy iron manacles (medieval handcuffs), or fetters (leg shackles), or collars (neck restraints). The torturous devices jabbed into the slaves’ wrist veins, or Achilles tendons, or soft spots around their collarbones and chafed their skin into bloody sores, leaving terminal blemishes.

During the Atlantic slave trade, manacles transcended their visceral state and became symbols of slavery. Abolitionists distributed illustrations of the cruel hardware to enlist supporters in their cause to end slavery. Manacles also became symbols for the confinement of the mind that slavery induced. In 1792, British poet and abolitionist William Blake wrote of “mind-forg’d manacles” in his famous London poem. The metaphor questioned the shackles that the Britons had put on slaves and, ultimately, themselves.

Caesar, the slave, also knew the significance of Blake’s metaphor. Riland’s Memoirs of a West-India Planter records Caesar’s story of bondage. On the voyage, his partnerin- iron contracted a fever and began twitching violently, thus lacerating both him and Caesar with the manacles and fetters. In separate languages, they cursed in pain. Finally, the man stopped twitching and Caesar thought the fever had subsided. But when he touched the cold body of the man, he realized the man was dead. And so Caesar lay, manacled and fettered to a corpse. When Caesar told the story to Riland, he cried, “… the iron entered into our souls!”

Pittsburgh 1800: The Seat of Allegheny County

Pittsburgh 1800

Here is a picture of Pittsburgh in 1800 as Allegheny County’s first register and recorder, Samuel Jones, suggested a traveler might see the town:

The streets were filled with hogs, dogs, drays, and noisy children. At night the streets were unlighted except for a long lamp over the door of a tavern or on a signpost, whenever the moon was in its first or last quarter.

In daytime, one could see the 400 or so brick houses, mostly facing the north bank of the Monongahela River, close by a thriving commercial center. Already a few buildings loomed on the high hill above the town.

But the character of a place comes from its residents. Men were most prominent on the streets, scurrying to the piers for work in one of the shipbuilding operations or to the smith’s office, the print shop, or a grocery. Pittsburgh’s population was some 2,400 people; 64 of them were slaves. On the streets, one saw a few free Black men.

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Where was the real Pittsburgh in all this, the power brokers, the people of wealth and style? As usual, the “power” rested in the hands of a few successful men who had been friends from the start. In this case, the men had served together as officers in the Revolutionary Army. These included three of the biggest slaveholders in the region: Major Isaac Craig (eight slaves), involved in a local glassmaking plant, and General John Neville (18 slaves) and his son, Lt. Col. Presley Nevill, as he signed himself (nine slaves).

It was not just their war service, it was their fraternity that gave them power as one by one they returned to the frontier village that had helped to form their characters. A surprising number of officers in the Revolutionary Army returned to this area and formed a core group who became prominent in Pittsburgh. They became leaders of industry, religion, and education.

» Listing of Pittsburgh Slaveholders and Non-Slaveholders

Pennsylvania, the “Keystone” between North and South,
Slowly Eliminates Slavery

William Penn

In 1681, William Penn, a Quaker, received a royal grant from Charles II of England. This vast territory between Maryland and New York was named Pennsylvania. Penn vowed his commonwealth would be free from religious oppression.

His Framework of Government allowed for trial by jury, guaranteed the civil rights of dissenters, and limited the death penalty to those convicted of treason or murder. Penn was noted for his fair dealings with the Indians of the Delaware Valley, the Lenni-Lenape. Penn himself bought and sold slaves.

Others in Pennsylvania at the time were speaking out against slavery. In 1688, at a meeting in a Germantown home, four German immigrants protested strongly against an institution they believed was worse here than in Europe.

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They asked the mostly Quaker group, “Is there any that would be … handled at this manner? Viz. to be sold or made a slave for all the time of his life? … Ye Quackers doe here handel men as they handel there ye cattle.” The text is attributed to Francis Daniel Pastorious, a prolific writer and poet.

Pennsylvania’s boundaries were vigorously disputed; Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut all made claims. To resolve questions about the southern border, William Penn in concert with Lord Calvert of Maryland hired a team to survey the border between the two states. The surveying party was headed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two English astronomers. In 1799, to settle the border dispute between Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Mason-Dixon line was extended nearly to the Ohio border.

Although the line created by Mason and Dixon was meant to settle border issues, it came to signify the border between South and North. In the struggle against slavery, Pennsylvania was seen as a “free state” where escaping slaves might seek refuge.

Passage westward from Philadelphia to the forks of the Ohio was arduous. Without roads, travel was impeded by wide rivers, mountains, fields of boulders, and nearly impenetrable forests. But the French, with colonies in Canada and Louisiana, came to the west by river. For them the Ohio River valley was essential. They built a line of forts from Presque Isle to Fort Duquesne. The British, unsuccessfully, sent troops to seize the fort at the head of the Ohio. General John Forbes finally succeeded, mostly because the French, who had been alerted, torched the fort and ran. Forbes rebuilt the fortification, calling it Fort Pitt. Among the troops were 50 Black soldiers, both slaves and free men.

In 1780, when Pennsylvania passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 6,000 slaves were living in the Commonwealth. By 1810, just 795 slaves remained, and the 1850 census shows none.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Border Disputes Rage with Virginia

Map of Border Dispute

Eighteenth century disputes between Pennsylvania and Virginia over borders and territory had their genesis in vaguely worded 17th century charters crafted by people who had never set foot in the New World, a land that had not yet been surveyed.

Virginia claimed the land between the “Yawyawganey” and Monongahela rivers, including the headwaters of the Ohio—the area where Pittsburgh stood. Virginia was so sure of its ownership that the colony went to war to wrest the region from the invading French.

But in 1681, King Charles II had given William Penn, a Quaker, a wide swath of land in the same region, making him the world’s largest private landowner.

Penn resolved an early dispute with Lord Baltimore of Maryland over the colony’s southern border by contracting with surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who decided in Penn’s favor.

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By the 1770s, it was clear that Pennsylvania and Virginia had conflicting claims upon the western lands, encompassing Pittsburgh. In 1773, Pennsylvania designated the land west of the Alleghenies, including Pittsburgh, as Westmoreland County. In 1776, Virginia created what it called the District of West Augusta, which encompassed three counties: Monongalia, Ohio, and Yohogania, which also included Pittsburgh.

Many residents of the area were stymied. Those who favored Virginia tended to register their deeds and record their marriages and births with Virginia. Others registered transactions with Pennsylvania. Some even registered with both.

In 1779, the Mason-Dixon Line was extended to what is now the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, and the land that had been West Augusta became Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, and Washington counties in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh fell 50 miles north of the line and was determined to be in Westmoreland County, Pa.

This decision had important implications for slavery in the region. As the two states were approving the border deal in 1780, Pennsylvania was enacting its Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act. In contrast, slavery in Virginia continued to flourish until 1863.

Powerful Early Pittsburghers

The debate over slavery goes back to Pittsburgh’s earliest leaders. Many of the people who began commerce here, founded banks, preached in pulpits, ran for public office, and served as judges—and many whose names today adorn local streets and towns—owned slaves. But others, equally powerful, opposed the institution.

» Colonel Isaac Craig in a Garrison Town Tries His Hand at Business
Fort Pitt Image

Isaac Craig of the Revolutionary Army was sent to the frontier—that is Fort Pitt—to defend the area against the British and the Indians. But when the fort was secured, Craig’s job was over. As his son Neville Craig wrote of his father’s experience, “The army being abandoned,” it at once “became necessary for these officers … to embark in some businesses.”

Pittsburgh was a garrison town with a lot of ex-soldiers looking for work. Craig lined up a partner and some investors and entered the business world. In 1783, the Penn family, Pennsylvania’s first landlords, began to sell off their property. The first sale was made to Isaac Craig and his partner. According to an account of the history of Allegheny County, they bought the land that Fort Pitt sat upon plus “all land between Fort Pitt and the Allegheny River,” about three acres. Each lot, 60 feet by 240 feet, then was divided into six smaller lots.

Craig’s consortium also started a distillery, and Craig planned to put a windmill at the Point “rather than a horsemill … as there is almost always a breeze up and down the rivers.” The mill would “do all our grinding for the distillery, and at other time do work for the inhabitants … .” Craig and his associates sold bricks from the old fort, traded with the Indians, built a sawmill, and opened a salt works. Craig also joined forces with Colonel John O’Hara to start a glass plant on the south side of the Monongahela River.

The census of 1790 shows that Craig had eight slaves in his household. In 1800, the record shows only one slave, with five indentures.

» General James O’Hara: First Pittsburgh Capitalist
James O'Hara Image

James O’Hara was bold, fearless, and imaginative. He had the knack for making money, lots of it, in endeavors that nobody else would take on. Born in Ireland, he came to Fort Pitt in 1773 and began as an Indian trader buying “furs and peltries.” He joined the Revolutionary Army as a private, but through superior business acumen was elevated to captain, ninth Virginia regiment, quartermaster’s department.

After the war, O’Hara returned to Fort Pitt, gaining lucrative government contracts to supply the western armies. He often bought from Indian traders. When the town of Pittsburgh was laid out, a large area on the north bank of the Allegheny was set aside as a “reserve,” and O’Hara began purchasing tracts of land at low prices there, plus land in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He joined partners with Isaac Craig, his son-in-law, founding Pittsburgh’s first glassworks on the south side of the Monongahela River.

O’Hara built his own ships and shipped furs from the northwest for sale in England. He also sold flour in South America and in the West Indies. In 1792, he was appointed quartermaster- general in the U.S. Army. Is there anything this man didn’t put his hand to?

O’Hara made a name for himself by bringing salt from New York state when there were no local sources for this valuable commodity. The salt came from settlements on the Mohawk River. He transported it in barrels by a complex route involving Lake Erie, French Creek, and the Allegheny River. In Pittsburgh, it sold for $4 a bushel.

The ledgers of slavery-related transactions indicate that O'Hara purchased a former slave named Comfort Tunnel in 1795 to be indentured to him for $80. She was 15 at the time. He kept her for seven years, selling her again for $80. The 1800 census shows him as having no slaves, but five indentures in his household.

General O’Hara lived in the city on the banks of the Monongahela. He died in 1819, two years before his daughter Mary married William Croghan, the son of a Revolutionary War acquaintance.

O’Hara willed his money and land equally to his three children, though his daughter Mary became the major property holder after the death of her brother James.

» John Neville and Son Presley Replicate the Spirit of Slaveholding Virginia on Pennsylvania Soil
Image of the home of Presley Neville

General John Neville established himself in Winchester, Va., where he lived a gracious life in a grand plantation-style estate. His sumptuous style of living seemed to require the help of house slaves. In the Revolutionary War, Neville was charged with raising a company of soldiers to take control of Fort Pitt. Presley, his oldest son, played an active role in the Revolution, too, serving as aidede- camp to Lafayette in 1777. The Nevilles saw the potential of the western frontier and returned when the war was over. The general built a fine house on Chartiers Creek. Presley owned more than 1,800 acres of land in Washington County, in what is today Collier Township. The Nevilles tried to replicate the southern planter’s life, replete with lavish entertainments. The two had among the largest slaveholdings in the region.

The 1790 census shows John Neville owned 18 slaves, with 17 of their children born over the years. Presley owned nine slaves and recorded the births of 12 children of slaves, all of whom served him to maturity. Presley’s biographer, J. Bernard Hogg, calls Presley “a man of indolent nature” when it came to overseeing his property.

John Neville, a tax inspector, aroused the ire of local citizens in his role as revenue inspector during the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1794, an armed group threatened Neville at his Bower Hill home, looting and setting fire to the house. Hogg writes that the attackers were driven off by a surprise volley from the Negro quarters. After the fracas, Neville left his estate but found it difficult to find people to care for the property and his slaves. He relocated to an island in the Ohio River, now Neville Island.

Presley also moved—to Water Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Presley was so beset by creditors that he manumitted two slaves and petitioned the court against Milly, an indentured servant. Contrary to her indenture agreement, Milly bore four children, two still living. As it fell to Presley to feed and house the babies, he petitioned the court and added two years to Milly’s indenture.

» The Wilkins Family Makes its Mark and Starts a Suburban Trend
John Wilkins, Jr and William Wilkins Images

John Wilkins, Sr., a captain in the Revolutionary Army, came from Carlisle, Pa. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in July 1776. He believed in the young nation and its worth. In Allegheny County, he became a leading citizen, holding a number of top offices. Wilkins’ sons, William and John Jr., followed in his footsteps.

John Jr. joined the Continental Army at age 16 and became a surgeon’s mate, later achieving the rank of general and quartermaster. He moved to Pittsburgh after the Revolutionary War. He founded the first bank west of the Alleghenies, a branch of the Bank of Pennsylvania, and served as its president.

The general moved to McNairstown, some 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, far from the city’s smoke, dirt, and congestion. His new home was a fast-growing suburb; it became the fashionable place to live. By 1812, the name Wilkinsburg appeared on a deed. Historians still debate whether the town was named for General John Wilkins or his brother, William.

William, the younger brother, was known for his legal skills. He became a distinguished jurist at the statewide level, a U.S. senator, a minister to Russia, and secretary of war under President John Tyler.

There is no record of slaveholding among the Wilkinses. The 1800 census shows that John Wilkins Jr.’s household included eight free White men and five such females, with no others listed. When John Wilkins died suddenly at age 55, an obituary stated that Wilkins displayed “a character of pure integrity, unblemished honor, well directed energy and active beneficence with all his pursuits.”
» William Croghan Sr. and his son, William Jr., Who Marries James O’Hara’s Daughter, Meld Two Fortunes
William Croghan Image

William Croghan Sr., born in Ireland in 1752, came to Virginia when young, signing on as a soldier in Virginia’s revolutionary forces. In 1776, he was a captain in the fourth Virginia regiment under then-Colonel John Neville. They followed Gen. George Washington from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas. In 1780, Croghan and Neville were sent to Fort Pitt. There, Croghan wrote a letter to the Virginia secretary of state complaining of the murder of Moravian Indians by a party of White men from Washington County.

After the war, Croghan built a home in Louisville, Ky. His family included son William, Jr.

When William Jr. went north to visit his father’s old friend, General James O’Hara, he liked O’Hara’s daughter Mary so much he was determined to marry her. Moving to Pittsburgh was complicated by Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Bringing his 48-year-old Black slave with him was problematic; still he managed to take the man, Charles Gould, and a younger slave named Matilda with him as indentured servants.

No story of William and Mary Croghan would be complete without mention of their young daughter, also named Mary, who ran away from her boarding school when she was 15 to elope with the dashing 43-year-old Captain Edward Schenley. The couple fled to Great Britain. Mary Schenley inherited the family fortune, with landholdings covering most of today’s Oakland district. The heiress gave much of the land away during her lifetime. The ballroom of the former Croghan mansion has been preserved in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.  

» Conrad Winebiddle and his Family Settle east of the Point
Conrad Winebiddle Image

Thus begins the preamble to an Act for the Establishment of an Academy or Public School in the Town of Pittsburgh, February 28, 1787. By virtue of the act, the Pennsylvania legislature founded the Pittsburgh Academy—predecessor to the Western University of Pennsylvania and, ultimately, the University of Pittsburgh—for the declared purpose of educating youth in “useful arts, sciences, and literature.”

A large farm known as Rumbiddle in the early days of Pittsburgh encompassed many of the neighborhoods now knows as Bloomfield, Friendship, Garfield and parts of East Liberty. Owned by the prominent Winebiddle family, the 648-acre farm used slaves in its work, as was common of large farms. The 1790 Census shows that the family owned five slaves.

The family’s history in Pittsburgh began when German émigré Joseph Conrad Winebiddle cam to Fort Pitt in 1771. During the Revolutionary War, Winebiddle provided Continental troops with food and clothing and opened a tannery in present day Lawrenceville. Following the war, he used his profits to purchase land north east of Pittsburgh adjoining land his wife, Elizabeth, inherited from her father. Conrad and Elizabeth had two sons and two daughters. Their children became successful landowners and intermarried with affluent familes whose names still adorn East End streets: Baum, Negley, and Roup.

The family’s involvement with slavery took a dramatic turn for Conrad and Elizabeth’s oldest son, Philip. In 1816, 36-year-old Philip was tried for the murder of his unnamed slave in a trial replete with famous Pittsburgh names: assisting the prosecution was Alexander Brackenridge, son of Hugh Henry Brackenridge; and for the defense were Williams Wilkins and Henry Baldwin, who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. According to a brief in the Pittsburgh Gazette on November 19, 1816, Philip was “acquitted after a tedious trial of fifteen hours.”

» Slavery, Indentureship, and Two John McKees

The names of two John McKees—so far as is known unrelated to each other—appear in this exhibition. All that is known about one of these John McKees is that in 1825 he purchased the indenture of Sally, a 6-year-old slave from Virginia who had been manumitted by her owner, Thomas Woods. In conformity with Pennsylvania’s Law of Gradual Abolition, Sally was assigned to work 22 years for McKee as his personal servant, until she reached the age of 28.

There is a good deal more known about the second John McKee, who was one of the region’s most prominent citizens. Remembered today primarily as the man who settled McKeesport, this John McKee also was a Colonial era soldier and a wealthy real estate speculator. He appears first in our exhibition records in 1792, when he allowed his slave Peter Cosco to buy his own freedom for 100 pounds. He next appears in the exhibition a year later, in 1793, when he manumitted Suck, the 12-year-old daughter of his female slave Kut, and indentured her until she turned 28 in compliance with the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

This latter John McKee, of McKeesport fame, came from a Scots-Irish background, as did many of Pittsburgh’s early settlers. According to an historical account of Allegheny County, his father, David McKee, headed to Western Pennsylvania where, “by courtesy of Queen Aliquippa,” head of the Mingo Seneca tribe, established himself around 1755 on the spot where the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers meet. Later, David won the exclusive right to run a ferry at the confluence of the two rivers. This settlement was 18 miles east of Pittsburgh.

In 1769, when the colonial land office began selling lands acquired through treaties with the Indians, David McKee bought 306 acres, his two brothers buying like amounts. When David died in 1795, his son John received a portion of his estate. John McKee was now a rich man, owning large tracts throughout the western area, some rich with coal. As his biographer writes (in 1888), the value of his holdings would “aggregate millions at the present day.”

But from a good deed, McKee lost almost everything. He put up money for a lawsuit pursued by his brother-in-law, and the verdict went against him. McKee’s property was listed for sale by the U.S. marshal, and John received less than $30,000 for his large estates.

This pioneer was undaunted. In 1797, he ran advertisements in the Pittsburgh Gazette and throughout Western Pennsylvania offering to sell lots by a drawing in a “new town” at the confluence of the two north-flowing rivers: the Youghiogheny and the Monongahela. His town would be called McKeesport, and deeds would be prepared with dispatch.

» Hugh Henry Brackenridge Establishes Pittsburgh Gazette, Pittsburgh Academy, and a Legacy of Civic Leadership
Hugh Henry Brackenridge Image

When Hugh Henry Brackenridge set out from Philadelphia for Pittsburgh in 1781, he reportedly penned that his purpose in “offering myself to the place” was “to advance the country and thereby myself.” The city soon found Brackenridge was a man of his word.

In 1786, Brackenridge, along with printers John Scull and Joseph Hall, founded the Pittsburgh Gazette, now known as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 1787, Brackenridge founded the Pittsburgh Academy, securing a charter from the legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Historically, the Pittsburgh Academy, now the University of Pittsburgh, has the distinction of being “the oldest continuously chartered institution of learning in the United States west of the Allegheny Mountains.”

Brackenridge, born a Scotsman in Campbelltown, Scotland, in 1748, emigrated with his family to York County, Pa., at the age of 5. By age 15, Brackenridge already was the head of a free school in Maryland; at age 19 he enrolled in the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. While there, Brackenridge cultivated longlasting relationships with James Madison.

Brackenridge was a man of many interests and many talents. As a writer, his most well- known literary work, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, a satire on American manners, may well be the first known venture into fiction by an American author.

As a preacher and divinity graduate of Princeton, he was a chaplain and “deliverer of fiery sermons” in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War.

In 1780, at age 32, Brackenridge also secured a law degree and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia prior to establishing himself on Pittsburgh’s much smaller frontier.

True to his word, Brackenridge did advance himself. After practicing successfully in Pittsburgh and after a term in the legislature, he was appointed justice of the Supreme Court by Governor Thomas McKean.

Brackenridge eventually left Pittsburgh, settling in Carlisle, Pa. While there, Brackenridge completed his novel titled Modern Chivalry, recognized as one of the most significant fictional accounts of the American frontier. Brackenridge’s son, Hugh Marie Brackenridge, was an author and politician who went on to be elected to Congress. The borough in Allegheny County called Brackenridge, near the Allegheny Valley land where Hugh Marie built a home, is named for the Brackenridge family.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge died in 1816.

» John Scull: His Newspaper Chronicles Pittsburgh and Slavery
John Scull Image

To fulfill their part of a 1786 business deal with Pittsburgher Hugh Henry Brackenridge, John Scull and Joseph Hall, two young printers from Philadelphia, hauled their press equipment over the Allegheny Mountains. They set it up in a small office in the little hamlet of Pittsburgh, establishing the first printing press west of the Alleghenies.

Within weeks, the first newspaper in town—the Pittsburgh Gazette—rolled off the press. The weekly Gazette launched Scull’s 30-year career as a printer, publisher, and editor.

It was a tough job, and Scull endured many frustrations: subscribers were slow to pay; sources for articles and financing were limited; paper was scarce and expensive, since it had to be carried over the mountains. When his supplies did not arrive in time, Scull had to obtain cartridge paper from the nearby Fort Pitt military post.

During that time, however, an enterprising Scull managed to publish books and pamphlets as well as Pittsburgh’s first almanac. He became the area’s postmaster, using the position to help send newspapers to subscribers.

Scull was at the helm of the paper during many of Western Pennsylvania’s early controversies. Although a man with Quaker roots, he seemed to have no qualms about publishing runaway slave advertisements even at a time when some Quakers were beginning to question the slave trade. He refused to publish notices from a growing community of Roman Catholics, but didn’t hesitate to advise the Presbyterians to build a new church to better serve the fledgling community. In his editorials, he freely advocated for the Federalist cause, including the tax on spirits, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion.

As westward migration increased, so did the population of the city, and Scull’s printing office grew and prospered. After his retirement in 1816, the newspaper continued under the guidance of his son, John Irwin Scull, working with Morgan Neville. Scull died in 1828.

» Neville Craig is Saved by the Pittsburgh Gazette
Neville Craig Image

Neville Craig was a curiously "modern" youth. The son of Major Isaac Craig, young Craig was thrown out of Princeton College after a dustup with police. He married, but he could not support his wife. The couple moved to Ohio, where Craig worked in the family shop. He apprenticed with a lawyer and was admitted to the bar. But he got into a serious scrape with another lawyer, leading to his arrest and a heavy fine.

Craig was saved, it would seem, by the Pittsburgh Gazette, a newspaper struggling for solvency since its first edition on July 29, 1786. Craig bought the paper in 1822; he edited it for 12 years.

Craig took journalism seriously, selecting each item for publication, puzzling over delivery problems, and writing impassioned editorials with words sharp and even vitriolic. He turned the Gazette into a daily. Advertising was essential. Runaway slave advertisements were a reliable source of newspaper revenues.

During Craig’s editorship, opposition to slavery grew in the Pittsburgh area. In 1833, Pittsburgh’s first Antislavery Society was established in the home of John Vashon, a prominent Black leader and businessman, and in 1834, the Western Pennsylvania branch of the American Abolition Society was established in Washington County. Proponents divided into two camps. The first group, made up of antislavery activists and abolitionists, was for the freedom and manumission of all slaves nationwide. The second group, the Pittsburgh Colonization Society, was originally established in the 1820s and was revived in 1832. Craig favored the second group, believing the solution to slavery and the race problem lay in sending free Black people (but not slaves) to Africa. In 1836, Craig pledged $100 a year toward colonizing Liberia on the west coast of Africa so that freed Negroes could “return.”

Slavery grated on Craig. In 1834, he announced that the Gazette would no longer publish notices calling for return of runaway slaves: “We are finished with that sort of advertising,” he said.

Pittsburgh Gazette: Position on Slavery Evolves

Pittsburgh Gazette

In the summer of 1786, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, which today is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, rolled off a crude handpress in Pittsburgh, then no more than a village of log cabins and taverns clustered around Fort Pitt.

It was July 29, a Saturday, and the paper, three columns wide and nearly 16 inches deep, could only be printed one page at a time on the simple woodblock press, which had been ordered by Hugh Henry Brackenridge for use in Pittsburgh. Brackenridge had convinced John Scull and Joseph Hall to leave Philadelphia with their press and establish the publication.

Despite the horrible roads, the Pittsburgh Gazette reached across the mountains into Philadelphia and into areas as far south as Alexandria, Va. Because Pittsburgh was a gateway city to the expanding American West, the little paper had an influence that flowed along with the three rivers that nestled its hometown city.

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It shaped the attitudes of the public on the issues of the day. Wrote one writer who chronicled the paper’s history, in an age of slavery, it took “its color from the ideas of a great mass of its constituency.”

In the late 1790s, Pittsburgh Gazette printed the news of Europe, letters to the editor, and reports on the young, growing republic. Alongside its market prices, weddings, death notices, and poetry there were advertisements that announced rewards for runaway slaves.

This is one signal that the Gazette, while if not directly backing slavery, accommodated it. The ads mentioning enslaved African Americans could be meanspirited. One, from an 1807 Gazette, asked readers to “take notice” of a young Negro woman who ran away. She is described as a thief, liar and a “great monster in nature,” a “plague” for anyone to have in his/her family.

Although neither Scull, the paper’s first editor, nor Neville Craig, a successor, owned slaves, they were related to slaveholders. Scull’s father-in-law, John Irwin, in 1821 advertised in the Gazette about a runaway slave. Craig’s grandfather, John Neville, had as many as 18 slaves on his plantation west of Pittsburgh, and his father, Isaac, owned eight slaves.

Over time, Pittsburgh grew and changed. The paper grew, too. It changed editors and their shifting views on the politics of slavery were reflected in the pages of the Gazette.

By the late 1830s, Neville Craig, a descendant of one of the first families in Pittsburgh, was editor of the Gazette, and his antislavery feelings were blossoming. In 1838, there was a proposed Pennsylvania Constitutional amendment to be voted on by citizens that specifically mentions White freemen as the only Americans allowed to vote. It is believed the language piqued Neville’s consciousness. The night before the vote on the amendment, the Gazette carried an article opposing the constitutional alterations, which would expressly disenfranchise Blacks. The amendment passed, but the majority of Allegheny County citizens voted against it. Later that same year, Neville also published strong antislavery statements made by the Presbyterian church and voiced his belief that colonizing Blacks in Africa could be a solution to the race problem in America. By 1837, Craig refused to print notices advertising escaped slaves.

A shift in the political winds stirred changes in the paper’s views as well. Scull and successive editors were conservatives politically, which meant at successive times they backed the Federalist Party, then the Whig Party (which Craig helped found in Pennsylvania in the 1830s), and the Republican Party, which editor Russell Errett helped establish in the 1850s. These parties stood in opposition to the Democratic Party, which espoused states’ rights, partly because its Southern elements used that position as a way to stave off potential federal intervention on the slave issue.

It is worth noting that there were other social changes in Pittsburgh that may have swayed its politics and thus the paper’s editorial views. By the 1830s, Pittsburgh became known as a hotbed of antislavery activity. In Arthursville, a Hill District neighborhood in the 1800s, abolitionists both Black and White were so united that those hunting escaped slaves avoided the community.

Pittsburgh’s free Black population was active. Perhaps none more so than Martin R. Delany, a Black man who founded his own paper, The Mystery, and agitated for Black nationalism.

It is these forces, over a nearly 80-year period, that tugged at the Gazette and moved it from being a newspaper that made money from the institution of slavery to one that condemned it.

Pittsburgh Academy: Roots, Race, and Legacy

Pittsburgh Academy

Whereas the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government; And whereas any School or College yet established is greatly distant from the country west of the Allegheny mountain; And whereas the town of Pittsburgh is most central to that settlement, and accommodation for students can be most conveniently obtained in that town…

Thus begins the preamble to an Act for the Establishment of an Academy or Public School in the Town of Pittsburgh, February 28, 1787. By virtue of the act, the Pennsylvania legislature founded the Pittsburgh Academy—predecessor to the Western University of Pennsylvania and, ultimately, the University of Pittsburgh—for the declared purpose of educating youth in “useful arts, sciences, and literature.”

The individual whose efforts made Pittsburgh the home of the first chartered school of higher learning west of the Allegheny Mountains was Hugh Henry Brackenridge.

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Within four months of his admission to the Philadelphia bar in 1780, Brackenridge traveled 320 miles west and established his residence in Pittsburgh, a 400-inhabitant settlement located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. Recognizing its future as “a place of great manufactory,” Brackenridge set about improving Pittsburgh’s educational and cultural life.

Prior to his election to the Pennsylvania assembly in 1786, Brackenridge published an article in the newspaper he helped establish, the Pittsburgh Gazette, setting forth the reasons why the state should charter an academy of learning in Pittsburgh. His impassioned plea concluded with the following: “I should rejoice to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and statesmen, equal to any.”

Ten weeks before the opening of the 1787 convention, where delegates would write the U.S. Constitution, the charter of the Pittsburgh Academy was granted and included the names of 21 individuals deemed the academy’s founding trustees. Among the group were distinguished and well-educated men who also were judges, lawyers, ministers, doctors, and army officers.

Some founding trustees were slaveholders. Members of that group, according to the 1790 Census, included Colonel Presley Neville (nine slaves and one indentured servant); Thomas Parker, a medical doctor who served as secretary of the Board of Trustees (two slaves); Robert Galbraith, Allegheny County’s first deputy attorney general (two slaves); General John Gibson, who fought in the French and Indian War (three slaves); and lawyer David Bradford (one slave).

In 1829, 42 years after the Pittsburgh Academy was chartered, a young man achieved an important milestone in Pitt history. Although his name remains a mystery, his race does not. He was Black—the first African American student to enroll at the Western University of Pennsylvania.

In 1893, 106 years after its founding, the school graduated its first Black student. His name was William Hunter Dammond. Young, gifted, and Black, Dammond earned his civil engineering degree with honors. He began the 20th century as a Black college graduate, engineer, inventor, and college professor, a remarkable set of accomplishments at a time when many Americans could not read and had not graduated from high school or attended college.

In 1908, under Chancellor Samuel McCormick, Western University was renamed the University of Pittsburgh.

He has stated in the past he is very private, and interviews make him nervous because he knows he’s going to say something stupid and it get turned around.