(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The first European settlements came to the Erie area in 1753. That was more than 20 years before the Revolutionary War began, but still Erie’s contribution is basically nil when it comes to the war that led to the nation’s independence. Why?
It’s a timing thing. Almost by coincidence, Erie was empty of European settlers for basically the entirety of the Revolutionary War which was fought from 1775 through 1783.
“The battle of Newtown was fought in Elmira, New York — there were several things going on in New York State, but nothing here, and certainly nothing this far west,” said George Deutsch, the emeritus executive director of the Eire County Historical Society and the Hagen History Center.
The first European settlers to the area were the French who built settlements and forts on Presque Isle in present-day Erie and Fort Le Boeuf in present-day Waterford. Famously, a young George Washington (who eventually would become the first president of the United States) traveled to Fort Le Boeuf in 1753. Deutsch said the French were building forts along waterways that connected from Quebec to New Orleans. Their established route required only two portages, Deutsch said — one around Niagara Falls, and the other a 16-mile trek from Erie to Le Boeuf. At Fort Le Boeuf, the French would launch their boats into French Creek, travel to the Allegheny River, then to Pittsburgh where the Allegheny River meets the Ohio River. Both the French and the governor of Virginia had staked a claim in Pennsylvania. Washington was sent by the governor to tell the French it was time to leave.
“Washington was America’s first spymaster. His first foray into espionage was at Fort Le Boeuf — he told the French to get out, but he also made a detailed map on the fortifications, how many men there were, and how many boats they had,” Deutsch said. “It was a combination of diplomacy and espionage on his part.”
The French did not leave because of Washington’s ultimatum. (His visit to Waterford becomes locally famous, and presently there is a statue of Washington in Waterford. It’s the only statue in the U.S. featuring George Washington in a British uniform.) The French and Indian War began in 1754, and the Battle of Fort Niagara pushed the French out of the area in 1759. The British moved into the area.
First it was the French. Then it was the British. But all along, Native American tribes had lived in the area. The Seneca Tribe called the Erie area home (having defeated the Erie people in 1656, according to “A Town at Presque Isle: A Short History of Erie, Pennsylvania to 1980” by Mary Muller). And in 1763, several tribes combined to launch Pontiac’s War. Fort Le Boeuf, Fort Presque Isle and Fort Venango (in present-day Franklin) were three of the eight smaller forts that were sacked during the rebellion. The battles ended in bloodshed, more often than not, and the British were beaten back out of the area.
And at that point in time, there was a pause in European settlement activity.
“The British abandoned the area and it wasn’t resettled for close to 20 years,” Deutsch said. “There is some evidence of some scattered settlements up here — probably a trader- or merchant-style situation — but there was no substantial settlement at all.”
The Revolutionary War then got underway. The United States declared its independence on July 4, 1776. Still the battles raged on until 1783.
“During the revolution, it was really an unkempt wilderness and the only people around were the Senecas,” Deutsch said. Muller’s account notes that the Proclamation of 1763 specifically prohibited settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains.
But once the nation was independent and secure, and after the fighting had ceased, the Triangle Lands of Erie were purchased from the Iroquois Confederacy in 1789, and then from the Seneca Nation in 1791.
The next notable figure in Erie was Brigadier General Anthony Wayne during his expedition to Ohio country, Deutsch said. (Wayne later died in Erie, where he was buried and the infamous handling of his remains would become cemented in Erie history.) Wayne had ventured into Ohio country in 1792.
“That’s when you start to see a smattering of settlers finally coming to the town, and it’s primarily because Wayne had built a fort here to be a supply base for his expedition,” Deutsch said. “And that really is the beginning of a permanent American settlement… the French and British were military settlements that obviously didn’t last.”
The town was surveyed and named by the state Legislature in 1795, more than a decade after the Revolutionary War and more than 40 years after the French had established its first forts in the area.
Following publication of this piece, Michael Fuhrman reached out to JET 24/FOX 66 to offer additional perspective. Fuhrman is the chair of Three Forts of Presque Isle LLC, a group that aims to recreate the three forts that once were here.
Fuhrman noted that the history of Erie initially was written in the 1860s and 1870s as the city began establishing its own identity. An additional perspective was available in Canada, written by the British. Modern technology allows researchers and writers easy access to the additional perspective.
What that additional perspective shows, according to Fuhrman, is that the British had a presence in Erie (known then as Presque Isle) as late as 1788. Physical evidence showed the British had built over the French footprint in Erie.
The Proclamation of 1763 was intended to keep colonists from claiming land.
“That lasted maybe four or five years — maybe not even that long,” Fuhrman said.
The British forces that took over the forts weren’t nearly as large as the French occupation that came before, but the British were in Erie, Fuhrman said.
“It’s true that Erie was kind of a wilderness, but the British were occupying this area,” he said. “Erie’s contribution to the Revolutionary War was indeed nil since it did not exist until 1795… But there is a connection with this land (and water) we call Erie and the events that led to the American Revolution.
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“Learning about our past — warts and all — gives us a sense of identity and connection to the past so we can work together to form a better future. This is what the Three Forts concept is trying to do — If you have the three forts there, it could be a driver into knowing who we are as a people, give us a sense of civic pride, and hopefully pull us out of this — we need the support.”