Virginia and Pennsylvania wrestle over western borders

Posted by | November 29, 2013

“[Virginia governor] Lord Dunmore concluded to settle the boundary line dispute with Pennsylvania by forcibly taking possession of Pittsburg, or Fort Pitt, and attaching it to the colony of Virginia.

“In 1771 the Colonial troops had been withdrawn from Pittsburg, and Fort Pitt was abandoned, so that in 1774 when John Connolly, sent by Lord Dunmore, reached the place, he was unopposed.

Lord John M. Dunmore, Virginia governor.

Lord John M. Dunmore, Virginia governor.

“Pennsylvania claimed that Pittsburg was in Westmoreland County and that the County seat was at Hanna’s Town.

“On January 1, 1774, Connolly, as Captain Commandant of militia, issued a call for the militia of Augusta County [VA] to meet him at Pittsburg, on January 25th, for the purpose of organizing a new county to include Pittsburg.

“Arthur St. Clair, who was then Justice of the Peace and Clerk of Westmoreland County, arrested Connolly on January 24th for disobeying the laws of Pennsylvania, and confined him in jail at Hanna’s Town for a few days.

“Connolly soon persuaded the sheriff to permit him to go to Pittsburg, and he was released upon his promise to return.

“A proclamation was issued to the people who were assembled at Connolly’s call, telling them of the injustice and impropriety of it, and that if the militia was, at this time, installed in Pittsburg, an Indian war would likely result. It is worthy of remark that this proclamation bears for its first signature the name of Alexander McKee, who was, during nearly the entire course of the War of the Revolution, one of the most bitter enemies the new government had.

“When Connolly was liberated he promised the sheriff to return.  He kept his promise, but in an unlooked for manner.  He went to Mr. Croghan’s neighborhood [just outside of Pittsburg], where he had lived before, and collected the militia to the number of about 80 persons, and with them returned, using the militia as a body guard and defying arrest.  He prevented the Court of Westmoreland from holding sessions and usurped the entire government of Pennsylvania in and about Pittsburg.

“Information of these proceedings to establish a new Virginia county was conveyed to Pennsylvania Governor John Penn, and a spirited correspondence took place between the two governors.

John Penn, Pennsylvania governor.

John Penn, Pennsylvania governor.

“Dunmore demanded the immediate dismissal of Arthur St. Clair from his official position.

“To this demand Governor Penn replied ‘Mr. St. Clair is a gentleman, who, for a long time, had the honor of serving his Majesty in the regulars with reputation, and in every station in life has preserved the character of a very honest, worthy man; and though perhaps I should not, without first expostulating with you on this subject, have directed him to take that step, yet you must excuse my not complying with your lordship’s requistion of stripping him, on this occasion, of his office and livelihood, which you will allow me to think is not only unreasonable, but somewhat dictatorial.’

“Dunmore admitted that the land once belonged to Pennsylvania, but asserted it was lost to that colony because she allowed the French to take possession of it, and that when Great Britain recaptured it, in the French and Indian War, the title was vested in the crown, and that, as Virginia was a Crown Colony, the title passed to that colony rather than to Pennsylvania, which was a proprietary government.

“Pennsylvania retorted that if the land once belonged to that colony it had never been lost to it, for Great Britain had not carried on war against Pennsylvania, but against France.  In any event Pennsylvania was willing to surrender a portion of the disputed territory contiguous to Pittsburg for the sake of peace.

“Dunmore in his reply said, ‘Your proposals, amounting in reality to nothing, could not possibly be complied with, and your resolution, with respect to Fort Pitt (the jurisdiction over which place I must tell you, at all events, will not be relinquished by this government, without his Majesty’s orders) puts an entire stop to further treaty and makes me sincerely lament that you have put it out of my power to contribute to re-establish the peace and harmony of both colonies, and to evince my good intentions as well towards the one as the other.’

“The news of the outbreak of hostilities in Massachusetts was received in Pittsburg in May 1775.  A Public meeting was called on the 10th of the same month to endorse the action of the Massachusetts men.

“John Connolly remained but a short time in Pittsburg after this event.  Virginia and Pennsylvania might quarrel about boundary lines and political control of the country, but the people were pretty well united on one subject, and that was the defense of their liberties.

Contested Colonial border area between Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Contested border area between Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“Surrounded by an array of patriotic Americans, [the staunch Tory] Connolly very clearly comprehended that his usefulness in Pittsburg was likely to soon terminate. He made up his mind to stand by the established government, and undertook to organize the people of that place in the British interest, but was unsuccessful, though he engaged a large body of his friends to support the constituted authorities.

“Connolly wrote to Lord Dunmore for instructions and found that the latter had been forced to leave his government.  Before leaving he directed Connolly to disband his troops and try to induce the Indians to join the cause of Great Britain.

“Connolly called his friends together, and after sounding them privately to ascertain who were likely to remain steadfast, a compact was entered into by which they agreed to assist him in restoring constitutional government, if he could obtain the necessary authority to raise men.  He now prepared to leave Pittsburg to seek Dunmore, who had been driven from the land and taken refuge on a vessel in the harbor at Norfolk, VA.”

John Connolly, a Tory of the revolution, by Clarence Munroe Burton, Davis Press, Worcester, MA, 1909

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