If there’s an official history of Pittsburgh, it’s of great people doing heroic deeds — from the early military expeditions of George Washington to the world-changing inventions of George Westinghouse.
But there’s another narrative that Ed Simon — who grew up in Point Breeze and now lives in Northern Virginia — tells in his book, “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh.”
The Carnegies and Fricks are here, of course. But so are the lesser-known heroes and villains whose paths meld in this crucible at the forks of the Ohio, helping to forge the steel spine of this young country. It’s deftly told in brief essays in chronological order that gradually reveal a place at the literal and figurative crossroads of the vast interior of America.
It starts at the beginning.
Literally, the very beginning — with creatures emerging from the primordial muck in a tropical, prehistoric Pennsylvania. The local flora and fauna trended towards gigantism, with 3-foot-long scorpions and spiders with 2-foot-long legs. The dead trees and plants would “sink into the silty soil, like eternal, beautiful corpses, petrifying into statues.” There, vast millennia of compression turned them into bituminous coal that would power Pittsburgh for the next several hundred years.
“People call that the dinosaur chapter,” says Simon. “What happened 300 million years ago is in part why Pittsburgh is what Pittsburgh is.”
An argument emerged, Simon notes, that Pittsburgh’s history was impossible to disentangle from its geography, its topography, its geology — the rivers and mountains. The vast canopy of green that stretched in all directions along the Allegheny mountains concealed centuries of blood, revenge, even cannibalism.
Then something changed. A Mohawk chief named Hiawatha decided the bloodshed must end after an Onondaga chief killed his daughters. He was the first disciple of a shaman named Deganawidah, whose Code of Peace (fueled by Hiawatha’s forgiveness) led to the Iroquois Confederation — bringing five nations to coexist together in a consensus-driven rule of law that kept the peace for centuries.
The Code of Peace was “arguably more democratic than anything produced in ancient Athens,” says Simon. Its fundamental tenet (six centuries before the Declaration of Independence) was that “one’s as much Master as another and since Men are all made of the same Clay, there should be no Distinction or Superiority among them.”
Colonists arrived, of course, bringing with them guns, alcohol and smallpox-laden blankets, in an all-too-successful attempt at biological warfare aimed at reducing the native population.
The first, real, world war began in Western Pennsylvania, with the British General Braddock’s humiliation (in what is now Braddock). A smaller French force and their Native American allies showed that British units’ rigid rows of traditional European battle formations wouldn’t work in a forested wilderness, where every rock and tree could conceal a sniper.
The French and Indian War would eventually span the planet, from the Monongahela to Mumbai, setting the two great empires against each other. It was a global conflagration that would dislodge the French from most of North America and set the economic and political conditions that would result in the French and American revolutions.
Pennsylvania was, as it is now, a fairly incoherent place — divided deeply by the Allegheny Mountains, and the cultures of Philadelphia (Quaker, settled, orderly) and Pittsburgh (immigrant, individualist). Failed attempts at forming a separate Western Appalachian colony named Vandalia and Westsylvania illustrate this divide.
“The sibling rivalry between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, between East and West, goes back a lot further than the Flyers and the Pens,” says Simon.
The Whiskey Rebellion and the great Great Railroad Strike of 1877 sent Eastern Pennsylvania troops to conquer restive Western Pennsylvanians, a pattern that would play out again and again.
For the love of whiskey
One fascinating chapter is about an Iroquois named Handsome Lake, who crossed paths in Pittsburgh with a barrel of whiskey for which he sold everything he had. While deep in the delirium tremors of withdrawal, he had a religious vision. It became known as the Code of Handsome Lake or the Longhouse Religion.
It’s a novel religion that merges Christianity and Quakerism with an earlier Iroquois understanding of cosmology, says Simon. Handsome Lake preaches that alcohol is a tool of European colonialism, and to be avoided.