Much of the historical geography of Pennsylvania is marked by three major wars fought on North American soil – eastern Pennsylvania is known for the Revolutionary War, central Pennsylvania is the site of Gettysburg and other Civil War battles, while the history of the western part of the state was shaped by the French & Indian War, an 18th century conflict that’s much less familiar to most Americans. One of several important historic sites in our region related to that early period is Fort Ligonier, a reconstructed fort based on the original, which was in use from 1758-1766. A separate, modern museum facility tells the story of what happened there.
Sparked by a dispute over control over the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in 1754, the French & Indian War represents the North American theater of the global Seven Years’ War. In North America, Great Britain and France were the main combatants, fighting for control of the continent – Native Americans fought mostly, but not exclusively, on the French side.
Fort Ligonier was built by the British in 1758 as part of the effort to secure the backcountry and conquer Fort Duquesne, which the French had established near what is today Pittsburgh in order to secure the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. These rivers represented an important transportation corridor, a key to securing the vast interior of the continent.
Named for Sir John Ligonier, a British field marshal, Fort Ligonier served as a supply depot and staging area for a British army numbering about 5,000 at its peak. In fact, by 1758 it was the most populous place in Pennsylvania, second only to Philadelphia. The young General George Washington was here for about six weeks in late fall 1758, at the beginning of a distinguished military career that would culminate in being named commander of the Continental Army some two decades later.
The fort was never taken by the enemy during the French & Indian War, although it was attacked while still under construction in 1758. The French experience at Battle of Fort Ligonier, as that attack is known, was described as follows by the frontiersman James Smith: “…the [British] men were beginning to learn the art of war, and there were a great number of American riflemen along with the redcoats, who scattered out, took trees, and were good marks-men; therefore they found they could not accomplish their design, and were obliged to retreat.”
The defeat at Fort Ligonier was an important factor in the French decision to abandon Fort Duquesne, which gave control of the Ohio River forks to the British (who renamed the site “Pittsburgh” to honor Secretary of State William Pitt, who was a driving force behind the British strategy in North America). Fort Ligonier later survived a major attack by Native Americans during Pontiac’s War of 1763, a conflict between the Native Americans and the British over British policies toward the natives.
But peace came to the area at last, and the fort was decommissioned in 1766. The fort and surrounding area, which once housed up to 5,000 people, was largely abandoned — Ligonier wasn’t even incorporated until 1834, and the 1860 census lists the population at 350. In fact, the 2010 census lists the Borough of Ligonier’s population at just 1,573.
Time wiped away almost all visible traces of the fort. Archeological investigation of the site began in the 1940s, and reconstruction as early as 1947. The fort was opened to the public in 1953. Today, the eight-acre site’s reconstructed elements include the inner fort, artillery batteries and retrenchments, as well as several buildings.
Reconstruction is as historically accurate as possible, based on archeology, contemporary maps and accounts, and known forts from the period, while building hardware is hand-forged to match archeological finds.
“While exploring the Fort, which has been reconstructed on its original site, you ‘step into history’ as you discover an artillery park with cannons, wagons and carts, a blacksmith shop, beehive bake ovens, the original powder magazine, and ten buildings including the officer’s quarters,” explains Annie Urban, the site’s executive director. “And, most visitors are surprised at the extent of our museum collections.”
The museum orients visitors to the fort’s story with exhibits that display many of the recovered artifacts, which are unusually well-preserved for the period and are part of the most comprehensive collection of French & Indian War artifacts in existence. An art gallery displays 13 portraits of some of the major leaders of the 18th century, including a 1772 portrait of George Washington. The exhibit “The World Ablaze: An Introduction to the Seven Years’ War” gives a global overview of this long-ago conflict, and includes over 200 original artifacts from around the world.
In addition, the museum holds several important objects related to George Washington, including two pistols he was given by the Marquis de Lafayette, and his handwritten account of the six years he spent on the Pennsylvania frontier. A brief video based on this 11-page document orients visitors to this part of Washington’s career, well before before the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States of America.
The privately-held, not-for-profit site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, and has been an active attraction ever since. It opens for the 2015 visitor season on April 18, offering self-guided tours of the fort, its buildings and museums. Visitors are also invited to a slate of special events that includes living history demonstrations and special presentations.