Field trip to Fort Ligonier gives Leechburg students glimpse of frontier life
The seismic events that helped shape Western Pennsylvania as we know it now came to life for about 60 Leechburg Area High School ninth-graders.
The students got a taste of pre-Revolutionary War frontier life and a chance to see George Washington's writings as part of a field trip to Fort Ligonier.
The fort — which lasted from 1758 to 1766 — has been preserved at its original location at what is now the corner of U.S. Route 30 and state Route 711 in the quaint Westmoreland County community.
The visit featured a narrated museum tour, a French and Indian War re-enactor and a look at the sleeping quarters and supply huts that served some 6,000 British troops and also civilians.
But one of the highlights was a look at a brief, handwritten autobiography penned by the George Washington, the father of our country.
Washington's biographer, David Humphries, had Washington put his experiences on paper 30 years after his time at Fort Ligonier, according to Mary Manges, director of education at Fort Ligonier.
“Washington was a very private person, and burned many of his personal papers,” Manges says. “Humphries had agreed to destroy the papers, but he kept them, instead, much to our benefit.”
The museum also has saddle pistols given to Washington as a gift from Marquis de Lafayette and an oil portrait of the first president, depicting how he looked in 1758.
“It's a great experience and we were taught a lot,” says student Kasey Klapheke. “It was cool how they had the real artifacts and George Washington's own writings.”
On the grounds outside the museum, the underground garrison where gunpowder and other ammunition was stored has been preserved. “This was a supply depot and a base designed for offensive operations,” says Jeff Graham, a re-enactor dressed in the uniform of the times. “There was good visibility here and a meadow where livestock could graze.”
On to Fort Duquesne
During the tour, students learned that, after an attack by Native Americans who sided with the French was repelled in September 1758, commanders planned an attack on Fort Duquesne, a French stronghold at the confluence of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh, called Forks of the Ohio.
Because the weather can change from pleasant to harsh in November, commanders wanted to postpone the attack until spring. But when the troops stationed at Fort Ligonier captured a French Army deserter, the captive told the British that “the Indians had left Fort Duquesne, and there were only about 300 French troops on hand.”
The British attack plan suddenly changed from the spring to immediately, according to tour guides.
By Nov. 25, 1758, Brig. Gen. John Forbes had the French surrender Fort Duquesne, and Forbes renamed the site Fort Pitt, after British Secretary of State William Pitt.
Fort Ligonier was originally known as the Post at Loyalhanna, after the creek that flowed outside the grounds. Forbes renamed the site Fort Ligonier after Sir John Ligonier, Britain's Commander in Chief.
The EITC program
Leechburg's field trip was financed through a grant by the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.
The EITC is funded by businesses that pay toward the fund in lieu of taxes such as the corporate net income tax and the capital stock franchise tax.
Manges said the grants — which for Leechburg's tour paid for the students' $8 admission fee — are streamed through the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Scott Hooks, an 18-year Social Studies teacher at Leechburg, has taken students to Fort Ligonier for about a dozen years.
“It's a real community effort,” Hooks says. “We get help from the parents who serve as chaperones, and the school board, administration and the Leechburg Education Association has always been supportive.”
“I thought this was cool,” says student Dorian Paul. He says he enjoyed learning firsthand the activities George Washington and other famous soldiers were part of at the fort. “Some of the artifacts kept here amaze me,” he says.
Oct. 13 is the final day for the annual Fort Ligonier Days festival, a three-day event held throughout the town of Ligonier to commemorate the Battle of Fort Ligonier, a key engagement of the French and Indian War, fought Oct. 12, 1758. Artillery demonstrations will be at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., and battle demonstrations will be 2 and 4 p.m.
George Guido is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.