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How Pittsburgh got its Name
by Bryan A. Scott

Pittsburgh as we know it today had its beginnings as a fur-trading post in the 17th century. The first written accounts of the area came from the French, English, and Dutch explorers who made contact with the Delaware, Shawnee, Seneca, and Iroquois Indian tribes who lived here. These explorers, and later George Washington, could not have explored Western Pennsylvania without the sophisticated network of trails left by the Indians, which are the basis for many of the important highways in the district today.

In 1754 a Virginia based Ohio Company attempted to establish Fort Prince George at The Point. Four months later, the French drove out the settlers, demolished the stockade, and replaced it with Fort Duquesne. The French intended to make its settlement the center of a territory which extended from Montreal in Canada to New Orleans on the Gulf. The dreams vanished when the English captured the fort in 1758 and rebuilt it, as well as renamed it Fort Pitt. This was the largest fortress constructed by the English in the New World. The fort and surrounding area was named in honor of England’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, and designated the garrison town of Pitts-borough, or Pittsburgh.

However, the name of Pittsburgh was not always spelled Pittsburgh. Over 100 years ago, Pittsburgh was divided into two hostile camps: those who wanted to spell Pittsburgh with an “h” — as it has been from the beginning — and those who wanted to drop the “h” and conform to a more uniform and common spelling.

In 1890, when industrial America was in love with conformity, the United States Board of Geographic Names was created to standardize spellings across the land. The board ruled that all American cities and towns pronounced “berg” would officially be spelled “burg.” The following year Pittsburgh was officially Pittsburg minus the “h.” Pittsburghers, who found the “h” needless were happy and found pride in saying “at least we have a name that’s 100 percent American.” The h-ers, who were in the majority, claimed their argument to be a matter of pride also. They reasoned, “without the h, how will our great city be distinguished from the 12 other Pittsburgs in the country in places such as Kansas, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, and Arkansas?”

The proponents of the “h” had history on their side. The fact is that Pittsburgh has officially had the “h” since its very birth. A letter, during the French and Indian War, from General John Forbes to the Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, is dated “Pittsbourgh, 27th November, 1758.” Also, in 1769 a survey by the Penn family referred to it as their “Manor of Pittsburgh.”

With more and more evidence, the h-ers, led by William H. Davis who was the real catalyst, arranged a special meeting with the U.S. Geographical Board. After hearing the wealth of evidence the h-ers had presented, on July 19, 1911, the board relented: Pittsburg would again be Pittsburgh.

But 20 year habits can be hard to break. In 1921, the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet, “How to Spell Pittsburgh,” that was sent to all major newspapers and institutions on the continent. Maybe they should have directed their efforts a little closer to home. Across town, the recently now defunct Pittsburgh Press remained staunchly non-h in its policy for nearly 20 years after the official restoration.

Yes, Pittsburgh lost the “h” in its spelling in 1891. Twenty years later, bowing to popular pressure, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved restoration of the “h”.


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