Hannas Town Reconstruction Recalls Frontier Events

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One of America’s most important historic sites – the first seat of British justice west of the Appalachian Mountains – has been brought to life through local, State and federal cooperation after being neglected for almost two centuries.

Founded in the early 1700’s with the erection of West­moreland County, Pennsylvania, Hannas Town had been all but forgotten after being burned by British and Indians in 1782 and being bypassed in a highway change three years later. Yet it was here that America’s western colonists first held courts of law; here was one of the first protests against English rule. And it was one of the hinge points which pre­vented Britain’s taking over the West during the Revolution.

The site is directly on the Forbes Road, cut in 1758 by Maj. Gen. John Forbes on his way to the “forks of the Ohio” – now Pittsburgh – to wrest control of the area from the French. Since buildings were scarce, courts were held in Robert Hanna’s tavern until the county seat was moved three miles southwest to New Town – now Greensburg – to be on a new road. The early site took its name from the tavern.

Some may at first wonder why Pittsburgh, a mere thirty miles west and in the same county at that time, had not been chosen for the seat of justice. But when Westmoreland County was formed on February 26, 1773, Fort Pitt was at the very edge of the frontier. Robert Hanna’s log tavern on the Forbes Road was more centrally located and according to many settlers, most convenient and most desired by the people. Besides (the game of politics is an old one), most of the county trustees lived in the area of Hannas Town and the law stated that courts would be held at the house of Hanna “till a Courthouse and Gaol” were built. As one of the justices said at that time, “a little management might prevent a courthouse and Gaol from being built for twenty years.” But fate had its way instead.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, claimed the area for Virginia, of which he was governor. And to bolster his allegation he provoked the Indians into uprisings known as Dunmore’s War. During this time a fort was constructed at Hannas Town to protect the people from such outrages. In fact, the settlers erected a chain of blockhouses in 1774 to defend against raids by both Indians and Virginia parti­sans. Arthur St. Clair, Westmoreland ‘s first prothonotary, was the principal Pennsylvania leader through this perilous time.

But soon Virginians and Pennsylvanians had to lay aside their differences, for even worse troubles had arisen. Join­ing hands with the other eleven colonies, they united in action against England, for the Revolution was soon to un­fold. The citizens of Hannas Town, many of whom were of Scotch-Irish descent and already with a gripe against the British Parliament, were among the first to rise up and assert American rights. Only four weeks after the battle of Lexington, these men and women gathered outside Hanna’s house of justice and in the presence of God and his forest creation – for there was not room enough for all to gather in the tavern.

On that memorable day, May 16, 1775, these pioneers drew up the Hannas Town Resolves in which they stated readiness to give their lives if necessary for the rights of the colonies. In their words they believed that “it has therefore become the indispensable duty of every Ameri­can, of every man who has any public virtue or love for his country, or any compassion for posterity, to resist and oppose by every means which God has put in his power the execution of this system; and that as for us we will be ready to oppose it with our lives and fortunes.” Two years later the Declaration of Independence was to echo a similar sentiment.

A battalion was formed in the county with Col. John Proctor as its leader, and adopted a crimson flag having the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” and depicting a serpent with thirteen rattles, representing the colonies, poised in a sym­bolic position ready to strike the Union Jack, in the upper right corner.

All through the Revolution Westmoreland supplied troops to aid Washington in the East and Greene in the South, as well as for border defense. The British and Indians (now their allies) pressed hard in an effort to force the settlers to restore their allegiance to the Crown, which would have left the new nation crowded into a narrow strip east of the mountains and blocked any chance of western expansion. But the West stood firm.

The Revolution was nearly over when Seneca Indians made their final attack on Hannas Town – one of the last border raids of that war. A heroine by the name of Peggy Shaw is remembered to this day for saving a small boy about to wander from the fort and being fatally shot in the action. A ballad was written in her honor. (And much of the early history of the village has been preserved through journals, records, novels, and an epic drama which is pro­duced annually at the site where it all happened.)

The raid of July 13, 1782, was unexpected and in heavy force. Although the town burned, the courthouse and fort were spared in the conflagration. Courts continued to be held at Robert Hanna’s house until 1787. (Two years prior to this time, two offenders, a settler and a Delaware Indian, had been hanged here. A gallows atop the hill overlooking the village represented the first execution by civil authority west of the Alleghenies.) The village had not been rebuilt after the fire. Following the removal of the courts it lapsed into disuse and finally became farm land.

Then in 1966 the Greater Greensburg Planning Commis­sion, together with the Westmoreland County Historical Society and the county commissioners, sought funds for the restoration of this site. Finally, after securing money under the Commonwealth’s Project 70, the property was acquired on September 23, 1969. Over 180 acres were purchased that year, and archeological digging began im­mediately – the same day the papers were signed. Excava­tions have been going on ever since with scores of people becoming involved-men, women, and children all striving to recapture a bit of our history and make it come alive with meaning.

Nearly one million artifacts have been uncovered over the years. These early treasures include: ceramics, glass, buttons, tableware, fragments of clay pipes, rings, lead used for pencils, straight pins, thimbles, combs, rusted nails and lead bullets, projectile points, gun flints, “chink­ing” from between logs of houses, bone, and coins.

Today as one travels east on a local highway that follows the old Forbes Road, the first landmark that comes in view is an obelisk rising high in the middle of a private cemetery-­serving also as a marker for Gallows Hill. Continuing down the hill the most outstanding structure that one sees is a reconstructed stockade built by volunteers in 1976 on the site of the early bastion.

Across from the fort is the log courthouse, reconstruc­ted in 1973 during the bicentennial of the county, and be­side it a windowless round-logged jail, fitting the descrip­tion of the ancient one which was detested by eighteenth-century criminals. It serves as a gift shop where early American reproductions and memorabilia can be purchased.

The site has also become a favorite stopping place for the annual Appalachian Wagon Train. Hundreds of covered wagons with horses and oxen straining to bring their caravan across the field where the fort stands form a circle for camping and bedding down for the night, bring­ing to mind how settlers lived and worked together for survival.

And in this same field each year appear increasingly large antique marts where the hurly burly of the crowd mingles with the voices of the past.

From May until October this historic site, now on the National Register, is open to the public from 1 to 4 P.M., Tuesday through Sunday. For a nominal fee guides in costumes of the period lead interesting tours through the courthouse and fort. On special occasions the tavern/ courthouse, through the Elizabeth Hanna Guild, presents candlelight frontier dinners and Christmas programs.

This is in no way the ending of the story of Hannas Town. Instead, it is a great new beginning.


Helene Smith is co-author with George Swetnam of A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania and a children’s book, Hannah’s Town. She lives in Murrys­ville, Westmoreland County.