Pittsburgh History: Forbes Road and Expedition

by on September 27th, 2014
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Part of what contributed to the growth of Pittsburgh was its connection to the cities and locations further east. Long before the Pennsylvania Turnpike carved through the area, General John Forbes cut one of the two major roads through the area. It was designed for both tactical and political purposes, and it contributed to the success of the Forbes expedition and the accessibility of Pittsburgh as the edge of the frontier.

Fort Duquesne and the Frontier

Fort Duquesne was the French outpost in the Canadian frontier. Providing access to the Ohio was important for their claims of supremacy over the region, and Pittsburgh, with its position at the beginning of the Ohio, was a perfect spot.

Unfortunately for the defenders of Fort Duquesne, the British colonists brought the Seven Years’ War to across the Atlantic to their doorstep. The first expedition to the area, mounted by General Braddock from the Virginia Colony, proved to be a disaster. A much larger force was routed by a few French and Indian fighters. On the other hand, the early expedition had created a major impact. Desiring to create a supply line into the area and begin the process of incorporating it into the colonies, Braddock cut a road into the wilderness, slowly and deliberately, so his army could advance and be supplied easily. It was during the disastrous encounter with the French that a minor officer, George Washington, first rose to prominence.

General Forbes’ Road

Forbes also wanted to take Fort Duquesne, and was intent on cutting a road into the area as well. In 1758, he set out from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to head west into the frontier.

Many of his officers from the Virginia Colony, such as George Washington, protested his decision to carve a new road, preferring to reuse the Braddock Road, but Forbes was on to their plan. Since the frontier was unclaimed by any colony, the colony with better road access would have a strong claim to the area. By carving from Pennsylvania, he reinforced the Pennsylvania claim to the Pittsburgh region. It would also be more direct.

He moved slowly, often at less than 3 miles per day, in order to make sure that the road was built correctly. He put up fortifications at intervals, allowing for reinforcement and supply lines to keep up with the progress of the army. Learning from Braddock’s mistakes, he was careful to control when and where he would meet up with the British.

An interesting moment on the road occurred at Washington’s Camp, where George Washington and his men were surprised to find their own troops firing on them. Leading a party to reinforce another detachment on November 12, he caught them already under fire. Reacting hastily to the surprise, the soldiers in the detachment began to fire on the incoming soldiers, not realizing them as friendly units. Washington rode his horse into the crossfire to order a ceasefire.

Forbes Road and Expedition Today

Today, the Forbes road still stands in some form. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was largely lain along the same lines. In other areas, just off the Turnpike, you can find parallel roads called Forbes Road, marking the line where Forbes’ forces cut into the forest to create a direct East-West route through the countryside. Today, the area is largely farmland, so it is hard to imagine it as dense forestland, but at the time, it was nearly impossible to lead an organized army through the area.

Today, we can cross in a matter of hours what took them months. Pittsburgh is part of Pennsylvania and not Virginia. We speak English, not French, within the city. All of this can be traced back to the war for dominance of the area, and the road which brought the British army successfully into the French frontier, Forbes Road.


ExplorePAHistory: Forbes Road (Washington Camp)

ExplorePAHistory: Forbes Road (General)

ExplorePAHistory: Braddock Road

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